Why Did Early Christianity Rise So Rapidly?

Why Did Early Christianity Rise So Rapidly? March 18, 2022


Why did early Christianity rise so rapidly?


New religions appear all the time, nowhere more than in the United States, but very few ever achieve prominence and permanence. Christianity is a rare and dramatic case of a faith that triumphed. The tale is told in Rodney Stark’s classic “The Rise of Christianity” with this descriptive subtitle in the 1997 paperback edition (still on sale): “How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”

Sociologist Stark is now retired as co-director of Baylor University’s esteemed Institute for Studies of Religion. The book treats its subject as a puzzle to be explained by objective social science scholarship and does not consider whether Christian teachings are  true.

Though we lack reliable census data, Stark’s best estimate was that only 7,530 Christians existed at the close of the apostolic era in A.D. 100 [which conflicts with Acts 2:41]. He said the total exceeded 1 million by 250 when systemic persecution by the Roman empire was reaching its peak. The Edict of Milan in 313 allowed the faith to exist without harassment, and as of 350 there were 33.9 million Christians. Stark figured that was a 56.5% majority of the population. Inevitably, by 380 this became the empire’s official creed.

What happened? Stark’s scenario drew upon more than 300 works plus his own original research, and made heavy use of economic market theory. Let’s skim some of what he concluded.

Stark thought Christianity’s key advantages included the spread of Greek-speaking Jews across the Greco-Roman world who provided a base to build upon, the failures of rival paganism, attractive charitable efforts (especially during ruinous epidemics), innovative respect for women, high birth rates, good organization, close fellowship, demanding and respected moral standards, the inspiring example of martyrs willing to die rather than renounce their faith, and positive doctrines that were attractive to new city dwellers coping with chaos and squalor.

Regarding Jews, the apostle Paul and other pioneer missionaries might start from a town’s synagogue but met heavy resistance. Keep in mind that many Gentiles were “God-fearers” involved with the Jewish community who believed in the one God but did not convert or fully observe ritual law. According to Stark, Jews influenced by Greek culture, less strict than those in the Holy Land, “provided the initial basis for church growth” in the 1st and early 2nd Centuries but then continued as “a significant source of Christian converts” till the 4th Century and into the 5th.

As for paganism, instead of the one God it had too many gods in a confusing pantheon of deities, plus variegated beliefs and practices, and was ill-equipped to establish a united, culture-forming religion. Worse, the pagan gods were fickle, sometimes immoral in behavior, and uninterested in humans’ plight though they might bestow favors — or not — if appeased properly.

That left spiritual terrain wide open for worship through a coherent  belief in a moral and caring God and a community that produced charities and nursing during epidemics that were even offered to pagans. Stark wrote, “Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another” and this operates “beyond the bonds of family and tribe.”

‘These were revolutionary ideas.”

Pagan priests deserted their cities in times of trouble. And paganism was funded by the state and wealthy donors whereas Christians built a stronger, popular base of supporters. And “simply put, pagan cults were not able to get people to do much of anything” while an “exclusive” church had more spiritual and social power, thus providing “the better bargain” in the spiritual marketplace.

Then there’s this. Rome had built a uniquely large and unified culture with reliable transportation networks around the Mediterranean, which aided expansion of the new creed. And despite persecution, the regime  “provided a greater level of religious freedom than was seen again until after the American Revolution.”

However we assess Catholicism’s current debate on whether to ordain women deacons, we know females provided important leadership and support for early house churches, and often married influential pagan men they lured into Christian conversion. That occurred because Christian teaching remarkably elevated women from virtual slave status to spiritual equality.

Stark devoted a major section to abortion, that employed extremely dangerous methods and typically was demanded by promiscuous males, and to the widespread practice of infanticide that got rid of female newborns. Like Jews before them, early Christians abhorred these practices and the automatic result was higher birth rates and thus church growth.

Though his book did not advocate Christian beliefs, research convinced Stark that “superior theology” was often “of immense importance” — indeed “the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity” — and chided fellow social scientists who downplayed or ignored its power. “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating and effective social relations and organizations” [the italics are Stark’s]. As a result, this rising religion became “among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history.”

Greco-Roman paganism  must have been befuddled by teachings that “God so loved the world,” that deities would “care how we treat one another” and that “God loves those who love him.” In a culture that viewed mercy as a character defect, the Gospel insisted “Christians may not please God unless they love one another” and love non-Christians as well.

The faith was “a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity,” taught that “slaves and nobles” were equal in the fellowship, and  brought “liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family.” In “a world saturated with capricious cruelty and vicarious love of death.” what “Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.”

Is that a formula for religious success in the 21st Century?

Browse Our Archives