Just finished Rodney Stark's new book, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became An Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperCollins, 2006). Stark centers the book around data he gathered from a variety of scattered sources that address the origin and nature of early Christian congregations in cities of the Roman Empire. Stark crunches the numbers and comes up with some surprising observations. In particular, he looks at the growth of Christianity and its relationship to other religious movements in the Empire: Gnosticism, the Marcionites, the Valentinians, and the Montanists. Isis, Mithras, and Constantine also make appearances. Mormonism even gets a cameo. Here are a few quick points from the book.
Conversion. Stark starts out by explaining that converts join through social networks, not by the mighty preaching of strangers. Converts actually pick up most of the doctrine later: "Once converts learn what the doctrines are, many decide (or learn) that the real reason they joined was because the doctrines were so convincing and utterly irresistable" (p. 12). Surprisingly, most converts aren't even interested in religion before joining a religious movement: "To convert someone, you must first become that person's close and trusted friend. But even your best friends will not convert if they already are highly committed to another faith" (p. 13). Sound familiar?
Cities. Stark applies this essentially sociological analysis to early Christianity, which quickly became an urban movement. Why? Because that's where the social networks of Diaspora Judaism led: to port cities and cities with Jewish congregations in place. Peasants in the countryside were just too conservative and too risk-averse to take a chance on something as revolutionary as a new religion. Especially a new monotheistic religion that would make them give up all their favorite nature gods (the ones that make the rains come and the crops grow). Let's hear it for those adventurous city folk.
Jewish Converts. Stark objects to the accepted notion that the Jewish role in Christianity faded quickly during the second century or even earlier. The correlation between Jewish congregations in the 31 cities in his sample and the presence or absence of Christian congregations in the same cities is too strong. Even Paul, "the apostle to the Gentiles," worked largely with the community of people clustered around the synagogues. There were something like five million Jews outside Palestine in the Roman Empire. This was a huge pool of potential converts. And Jews could retain the Old Testament, their scriptures, when they converted, whereas converting pagans had to give up their polytheistic gods.
Gnosticism. Stark objects to the overbroad definition of Gnosticism used by scholars like Pagels and Ehrman, calling it a "dubious category." [He's following Williams' Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1999) in his argument on this point.] There is nothing like actually reading several Gnostic texts to see what a strange and diverse set of doctrines fall under that label. Stark sees the Gnostic movement largely as a pagan creation, not a Jewish or Christian offshoot. But Stark thinks (based on his data and the analysis, which you'll have to read for yourself) that the influence and strength all of the heretical movements are overrated: "[C]ontrary to the wild claims made by members of the Jesus Seminar and by other media-consecrated experts concerning the lack of an early Christian consensus, the dissidents were mostly gadflies—even Marcion was easily turned away" (p. 180).
Stark's approach to religion is so different from most scholars writing on the subject that it is refreshing to read, especially for those from a social science background. So ... has anyone read Stark's Rise of Mormonism yet?