Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rodney Stark's Discovering God - Part 8 - Send In The Christians

After addressing the arguments over the historical reliability of the Gospels in the first half of Chapter 7, Rodney Stark examines the spread of Christianity as a religion. Personally, I would have to say that this is the part of the book where Stark is at his best and strongest.

Stark begins with the apostle Paul. He lists "five major components to Paul's identity." First, Paul was raised as a highly commited Jew, to the point that he persecuted early Christians. Second, Paul spoke Greek and was immersed in Hellenic culture. Third, he likely came from a privileged background. Fourth, he was a Roman citizen. Lastly, he became a Christian.

While Paul is traditionally portrayed as focusing his missionary efforts on the Gentiles, Stark puts forth a convincing case that Paul's missionizing was really directed towards Diasporan Jews. As Stark puts it, "it is worthwhile to look more closely at where he went and with whom he associated with when he got there."

Stark proceeds to explain in a very convincing manner how Paul would have gone about trying to spread the Christian faith. "You have decided to lead a band of missionaries west from Jerusalem to spread the word. But where in the West? Who will receive you? The answer would have seemed obvious: you should go to your relatives, the Diasporan Jewish communities, for these are people to whom you can gain introductions and who are accustomed to visits by religious teachers from Jerusalem."

Furthermore, contrary to the stereotype of the lone street corner preacher bearing a sign reading "Repent! The End of the World is Near!", "Paul did not travel alone, but often took a retinue of as many as forty or fifty followers with him, sufficient to constitute an initial 'congregation' which made it possible to hold credible worship services immediately and to welcome and form bonds with newcomers." It was indeed a very clever strategy, which likely served to make the number of early Christians seem larger than they actually were. I am reminded of a tale from the Civil War about the Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, who obtained the surrender of a Union commander who had a numerically superior force. While Forrest was parlaying with the Union commander, Forrest's smaller force was partially obscured by some trees. Forrest had instructed his men, who had with them only one artillery piece, to march in a circle behind the trees, which created the illusion that he commanded a much larger force.

As discussed previously in Part 6, the Diasporan Jews "were ripe for conversion to a faith that allowed them to retain most of their religious capital...The only major innovation was to cease strict observance of the Law. It has often been noted how that eased conversion for Gentiles who could enter the new faith without being subject to such things as adult circumcision or encountering barriers against dining with their friends and relatives. But much too little has been made of the immense appeal this would have had for Hellenized Jews who were chafing under the Law's social limitations."

Even more interesting, Stark's analyses of quantitative data "found that [Paul's] missionizing had no independent effect on whether or not a city had a Christian congregation by the year 100." He continues, "Thus, it appears that Paul's missionizing role may have been considerably overplayed." Stark concludes that "Paul may have been far more important as a trainer, organizer, and motivator of missionaries than as an actual founder of congregations." Below is an example of what Paul's motivational speeches must have been like:

And remember, ABC, "Always Be Converting!"

Having established how early Christians went about spreading their faith, Stark next examines the growth of the new religion within the Roman Empire.

Again in revisionist mode, Stark challenges the assumption that Christianity grew rapidly. Popular convention has it that crowds of people would convert en masse after hearing a stirring sermon. But Stark makes the astute observation that "one sermon, no matter how dynamic, does not prompt the fundamental shift of identity essential to a religious conversion; even after being baptized there would have been a great deal of educating and socializing still to be done before any...could have been claimed as a Christian." He goes on to add "that sociological studies have found that doctrine plays a very secondary role in conversion, that people convert when their social ties to members of a religious group outweigh their ties to nonmembers."

Having made his case that religious founders spread their faith by first converting friends and family members, Stark presents a scenario in which the number of Christians in the year 40 CE numbers 1,000 people. With a growth rate of 3.4% each year, Stark shows that as late as the year 200 CE, the number of Christians would total not much more than 210,000 people, still less than 1% of the population of the Roman Empire. However, as someone once said, the most powerful force in the universe is the power of compound interest. Assuming the number of Christians continues to steadily increase by 3.4% per year, a mere 50 years later there would have been over 1,120,000 Christians in the empire. By the year 300 CE, the Christian population of the empire would have shot up to 6 million people, or approximately 10% of the imperial population. Following the official recognition of Christianity by Constantine, the Christian population grew to over 31 million people, over half of the population of the empire.

While these figures are approximations, Stark points to a number of findings to support his argument. Among them are studies showing the number of Christian names appearing in Egyptian documents and the increasing frequency of Christian epigraphs found on Roman gravestones. Inevitably, Stark notes, the growth rate "must have decelerated as the number of potential converts declined. Furthermore, not only is it impossible to convert more than 100 percent of a population, in this instance significant numbers of residents of the Empire never converted to Christianity. Many Jews did not; organized paganism lingered for centuries; and many people in rural areas never seem to have gone beyond merely adding Jesus to their pantheon of Gods."

And this leads to Stark's next interesting argument. In the present-day United States, fervent Christianity is generally seen as a phenomenon of the South or rural areas, whereas American cities tend to be more pluralistic and secular. However, in the Roman Empire, Christianity was an urban religion, and as time went on, paganism became equated with the rural hicks of the era. Indeed, the word pagan meant someone who was a peasant or rustic fellow.

It is a sensible argument, because when you think about it, if you want to grow a new religion, you have to seek converts in the cities. To paraphrase the famous remark of Willie Sutton, cities are where the people are. Stark estimates that by the year 250 CE, of the 450,000 residents of Rome, some 84,000 of them were Christians. Furthermore, writes Stark, "unlike pagans, Christians were well organized. They belonged to relatively small, intense congregations, and they may have had their own neighborhoods. They could easily be mobilized vis-a-vis local affairs, which greatly amplified their numbers. Thus the size and effectiveness of the Christian communities may well have been a factor in the persecution that fell upon them in the year 250 at the hands of Emperor Decius."

And therein lay the irony. By the time that Diocletian got around to vigorously persecuting Christians in the late 3rd century, the Christian population of the empire had achieved a critical mass that made it an exercise in futility to stamp the faith out. And for Stark, "what is perhaps more surprising is that it is not until Constantine that anyone recognized what powerful political support the Christians could supply." But the hour is late and that will be a topic for another post.

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