The Rise of Christianity
Author: Rodney Stark
THIS objective of Rodney Stark’s study is to answer the question which serves as the sub-title of his book: “How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.”
Stark, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, confesses that he is neither a New Testament scholar nor a historian. He is primarily a sociologist working with historical religious materials to analyse the rise of early Christianity.
“Acts 1:14-15 suggests that several months after the Crucifixion there were 120 Christians. Later, in Acts 4:4, a total of 5,000 believers is claimed. And, according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade there were ‘many thousands of Jews’ in Jerusalem who now believed.” It is suggested that the growth rate was about 3.5 per cent per year and by the time of Emperor Constantine in 350 the number of Christians rose to 34 million.
Stark feels that “not only was it the Jews of the diaspora (who) provided the initial basis for church growth during the first and early second centuries, but that Jews continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century and that Jewish Christianity was still significant in the fifth century”. Jews outside Palestine have been influenced by Greek culture and Christianity offered them cultural continuity as well.
In 165 C.E. an epidemic believed to be smallpox swept across the Roman Empire and a third of the population died when it lasted for 15 years. Then in 251 C.E. another epidemic said to be measles moved across the empire. Roman society was disrupted and demoralised by these catastrophes. Roman paganism and Greek philosophy were not able to cope with the questions that were raised. Christian values of social service and community solidarity resulted in a higher rate of survival within the Christian community.
Writing in 251, Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, commented that “Christians greeted the epidemic as merely ‘schooling and testing’. Thus, at a time when all other faiths were called to question, Christianity offered explanation and comfort. Even more important, Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action”.
Dionysius in his Easter letter gave a tribute to the Christian physicians and nurses for their courageous efforts in ministering to the victims of the epidemics. Many lost their lives while caring for the afflicted. Christians nursed the sick and the dying and even prepared the dead for proper burial instead of abandoning the people who were struggling and who succumbed to the disease.
The growth of Christianity was most rapid in the cities and sustained by the communities of the Jewish diaspora. Life in the urban Greco-Roman world was one of misery, chaos, fear and brutality. Christianity revitalised life in such cities with new norms of behaviour and new kinds of social relationships. To the homeless and impoverished the Christians gave charity and hope. To the newcomers and strangers the Christians provided relationships. To the orphans and widows the Christians called for a new sense of family. To the people divided by ethnic strife, Christianity offered solidarity.
The blood of the Christian martyrs was an important factor in the growth of the Christian movement. Faith in eternal life enabled Christians to face death without fear. Martyrs looked to death to receive their reward or compensation for their witness to their faith. Despite the delay of the return of Christ and the small number of followers, the leaders of the early movement died a martyr’s death in the face of Roman persecutions.
The Roman Empire had developed excessive paganism which included emperor worship. Different new gods were created in various parts of the empire. It was said that there were too many cults, too many mysteries, and too many philosophies of life for the people to choose. With so many temples, priests and religious festivals, it was too expensive to sustain paganism.
The author stated the sociological fact that “as societies become older, larger and more cosmopolitan, they will worship fewer gods of greater scope”. The move towards the worship of One God or monotheism took place. Christianity found the opportunity to expand under such conditions.
The Greco-Roman cities were centres of cultural and religious diversity. The Christian movement did not require its followers to get rid of their ethnic and cultural connections. It moderated their class differences – slave or free, rich or poor, all were brothers and sisters in Christ.
Christianity grew because it was “a mass movement; rooted in a highly committed rank and file, it had the advantage of the best of all marketing techniques: person-to-person influence”. It was through “the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers who invited their friends, relatives and neighbours to share the ‘good news.’ ”
The ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity is stated in Stark’s thesis: The central doctrine of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating and effective social relations and organisations. It was this approach that made Christianity a sweeping revitalisation movement in history.
After Christ’s crucifixion the followers were expecting His return within their lifetime. But this did not occur and it brought about a serious re-examination of their hopes. The faith and witness of the disciples and their sharing with others in both the Jewish and Gentile communities in the Greco-Roman world brought about a revitalisation of personal and community life. They responded to the problems of urban living in the pagan world.
The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore.
‘Christianity grew because it was “a mass movement; rooted in a highly committed rank and file, it had the advantage of the best of all marketing techniques: person-to-person influence”.’