Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: The Triumph of Christianity – Rodney Stark [Vol. 4, #27]

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All this could make Stark seem like a crank, a writer of those alternative histories that take the thinnest thread of evidence and try to weave it into what amounts to a shoddy piece of work. But that’s not what this book is. Stark is a careful scholar. His assertions are invariably backed up with copious, well-documented evidence. What is perhaps more remarkable is the nuanced way in which Stark approaches this evidence. In addition to being a well-documented work, it is a methodologically sophisticated one. This is often belied by its easy, popular prose style, but one does not have to look far into the footnotes, or think deeply about the arguments, to realize that Stark is applying his well-known work in the study of religious growth in general to the very specific 2000 year history of the faith which shaped the Western world from top to bottom.

To find just one example of this kind of sophistication, we need only look at Stark’s account of the growth of Christianity in the earliest centuries after the death of Jesus. Although he doubts the validity of the biblical account recording 3000 conversions on the day of Pentecost (a doubt that will raise eyebrows among those who affirm the inerrancy of the New Testament scriptures), Stark still insists that, even if there were only about 1000 Christians by 40 AD (some seven to ten years after Pentecost), it would still be quite possible for Christians to comprise 52.9 percent of the population of the Roman world by 350 AD using the growth model seen among the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons today. This growth rate tracks with near precision the percentages of Christian names found in Egyptian documents, and Christian epigraphs found in the city of Rome during these same years. It is based on contemporary anthropological research, and statistical analysis (including advanced projections of the diffusion of believers throughout geographical areas). This is combined with archeological and textual support into an impressive and sophisticated scholarly package.

Yet think of the surprising implications. Constantine was not imposing a religion on an unwilling populace; he was simply leading from behind his own people and potentially solidifying his control of a large and changing empire. And the accounts of the spread of Christianity, far from being implausible and overstated, are in fact precisely in line with some of the models of religious growth seen today.

Because this is an ambitious work with such a large scope, it does occasionally miss subtle points. Stark’s analysis of the history of the Christian doctrine of the authority of scripture, and especially his somewhat misleading quote from John Calvin on the subject is an example of this. But to mention this is to come very close to nitpicking. By and large, Stark shies away from a close analysis of disputed texts, especially texts of scripture. The fact is that this is a thoroughly researched book, presenting the most plausible account of Christianity’s global triumph given the data available today.

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