from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History

Sociologist Rodney Stark looks at the appeal of the Christian message itself, for example, how it brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with cruelty.



A Brief Reflection on Virtue

IN CONTRAST with times past, historians today are more than willing to discuss how social factors shaped religious doctrines. Unfortunately, at the same time they have become somewhat reluctant to discuss how doctrines may have shaped social factors. This shows up with particular frequency in the form of allergic reactions to arguments that attribute the rise of Christianity to superior theology. For some historians, this allergy reflects their having been too much influenced by out-of-date, and always absurd, Marxist claims that ideas are mere epiphenomena. But for others, their position seems to reflect an underlying discomfort with religious faith per se, and especially with all hints of "triumphalism." It is deemed bad taste nowadays to suggest that any religious doctrines are "better" than any others....

It is true, of course, that the Christian commitment of historians in earlier generations often did make the rise of Christianity seem to be the inevitable triumph of virtue via divine guidance. Indeed, as [L. Michael White] noted, ..."the term 'expansion' comes to be used . . . as a virtual synonym for 'triumph of the gospel message.'" But if these excesses prevented more thorough scholarship..., that is not a sufficient justification for dismissing theology as irrelevant. Indeed, in a number of earlier chapters it has been evident that doctrines often were of immense importance. Surely doctrine was central to nursing the sick during times of plague, to the rejection of abortion and infanticide, to fertility, and to organizational vigor. Therefore, as I conclude this study, I find it necessary to confront what appears to me to be the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity.

Let me state my thesis: Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.

I believe that it was the religion's particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity....


To anyone raised in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic culture, the pagan gods seem almost trivial. Each is but one of a host of gods and godlings of very limited scope, power, and concern. Moreover, they seem quite morally deficient. They do terrible things to one another, and sometimes they play ugly pranks on humans. But, for the most part, they appear to pay little attention to things "down below."

The simple phrase "For God so loved the world . . ." would have puzzled an educated pagan. And the notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.

From the pagan viewpoint, there was nothing new in the Jewish or Christian teachings that God makes behavioral demands upon humans--the gods have always demanded sacrifice and worship. Nor was there anything new in the idea that God will respond to human desires--that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. But, as I noted in chapter 4, the idea that God loves those who love him was entirely new.

Indeed, as E. A. Judge has noted in detail, classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions--defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice. Therefore "mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all," and humans must learn "to curb the impulse"; "the cry of the undeserving for mercy" must go "unanswered." Judge continued: "Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders."

This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues--that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to "all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christian community.

Recall Cyprian's instructions to his Carthaginian flock, quoted at length in chapter 4, that

there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well.... Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. (Quoted in Harnack 1908: 1:172-173)

This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.


In his fine recent work The Origins of Christian Morality, Wayne Meeks reminded us that when we are talking about "morality or ethics we are talking about people. Texts do not have an ethic; people do" (1993:4). It was only as Christian texts and teachings were acted out in daily life that Christianity was able to transform the human experience so as to mitigate misery.

Chief among these miseries was the cultural chaos produced by the crazy quilt of ethnic diversity and the blazing hatreds entailed thereby. In uniting its empire, Rome created economic and political unity at the cost of cultural chaos. Ramsay MacMullen has written of the immense "diversity of tongues, cults, traditions and levels of education" encompassed by the Roman Empire. But it must be recognized that Greco-Roman cities were microcosms of this cultural diversity. People of many cultures, speaking many languages, worshipping all manner of gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter.

In my judgment, a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnic ties. Yet, for this very reason, among Christians ethnicity tended to be submerged as new, more universalistic, and indeed cosmopolitan, norms and customs emerged. In this way Christianity first evaded and then overwhelmed the ethnic barrier that had prevented Judaism from serving as the basis for revitalization. Unlike the pagan gods, the God of Israel did indeed impose moral codes and responsibilities upon his people. But to embrace the Jewish God, one had also to don Jewish ethnicity.... Indeed, as I argued in chapter 3, many Hellenized Jews of the diaspora found Christianity so appealing precisely because it freed them from an ethnic identity with which they had become uncomfortable.

Christianity also prompted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family.... And... Christianity also greatly modulated class differences--more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.

But, perhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death. Consider the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua. Here we learn the details of the long ordeal and gruesome death suffered by this tiny band of resolute Christians as they were attacked by wild beasts in front of a delighted crowd assembled in the arena. But we also learn that had the Christians all given in to the demand to sacrifice to the emperor, and thereby been spared, someone else would have been thrown to the animals. After all, these were games held in honor of the birthday of the emperor's young son. And whenever there were games, people had to die. Dozens of them, sometimes hundreds.

Unlike the gladiators, who were often paid volunteers, those thrown to the wild animals were frequently condemned criminals, of whom it might be argued that they had earned their fates. But the issue here is not capital punishment, not even very cruel forms of capital punishment. The issue is spectacle-- or the throngs in the stadia, watching people torn and devoured by beasts or killed in armed combat was the ultimate spectator sport, worthy of a boy's birthday treat. It is difficult to comprehend the emotional life of such people.

In any event, Christians condemned both the cruelties and the spectators. Thou shalt not kill, as Tertullian (De Spectaculis) reminded his readers. And, as they gained ascendancy, Christians prohibited such "games." More important, Christians effectively promulgated a moral vision utterly incompatible with the casual cruelty of pagan custom.

Finally, what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward.

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published april 1998

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