Causes in Christian History, From Stark’s “The Triumph of Christianity”
by Tom Gilson
by Rodney Stark.
I’m about one-third of my way through Rodney Stark’s 2012 book, The Triumph of Christianity. an historical survey of sociological causes and effects in Christian history.
Stark is an historical sociologist; and in this work he speaks with that voice, and that voice only. When he speaks of the Christian movement’s effects, that focused sociological approach works well: he’s well within his field. When he speaks of the movement’s causes it’s not so clear-cut. While it’s proper and commendable that he constrain himself to speaking from within his expertise, I find myself wishing he would acknowledge other causes outside his expertise might also be in operation.
Causes In Christian History: The Movement’s Rise and Growth
According to Rodney Stark…
Christianity was planted and grew in a religiously pluralistic Roman Empire—but not a very religious empire. Pagan temples abounded, but they had no congregations attached to them, and their patrons were occasional visitors, not members in the sense we think of religious adherents today. There were exceptions: Isis worship and Zoroastrianism developed congregations of followers, and of course Judaism, which at the time of Christ’s birth comprised as many as 10 percent of the empire’s population, was characterized by close-knit communities.
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Among the Jews: Judaism varied then as much as Christendom does today: the Hellenic Jews of the Diaspora, for example, held to their monotheism loosely. even naming their sons and daughters with the names of Greek and Roman gods. Still Judaism represented the ancient world’s most vibrant monotheism (Zoroastrianism was an also-ran), which served it well, for nothing matches an ethical monotheism, with its clarity of ideas and its promised eternal rewards, for its ability to attract lifelong committed followers.
Early Christianity spread primarily among Hellenized Jews, according to Stark, and the principal reason for this was its happy combination of an ethical monotheism with a relaxed (compared to traditional Judaism) ceremonial and religious legal structure. The movement grew at an average rate of 3 to 4 percent per decade, with ups and downs of course. Some of the downs were attributable to persecution; but then, so were some of the ups, for even their executioners were impressed with Christians’ strength and joy in dying for their beliefs. Many pagans began investigating into what it was that could induce such strength and joy, and many of them believed…