Sunday, April 22, 2007

Stark: Early Christianity

Just read the whole thing.

The Forgotten Ways » Blog Archive » a double take on early christianity: an interview with rodney stark

One tradition you question is that Christianity was primarily a movement of the poor. Why?

RS: In the upper-class and senatorial families, and even the imperial family, there were many women who were Christians, even early on. In the 1920s we found a paving block dedicated to Erastus, whom Paul mentioned in his Letter to the Corinthians, and the block shows that Erastus was city treasurer. And there’s reason to believe that we have in the early Church a quite literate group. When you read the New Testament, for example, ask: Who are these people talking to? The language there is the language used by educated people.

You describe the everyday misery of the ancient world. Did Christianity change that?

RS: It made it a lot more bearable. The Church didn’t clean up the streets. Christians didn’t put in sewers. So you still had to live with a trench running down the middle of the road, in which you could find dead bodies decomposing. But what Christians did was take care of each other. Their apartments were as smoky as the pagan apartments, since neither had chimneys, and they were cold and wet and they stank. But Christians loved one another, and when they got sick they took care of each other. Someone brought you soup. You can do an enormous amount to relieve those miseries if you look after each other.

You also argue for steady growth by individual conversions rather than by mass conversions. Why?

RS: We don’t have a single documented case of mass conversion. Yes, there’s the passage in the Book of Acts, and I’m not one of these people who say, “Don’t trust the Bible.” But you’ve got to understand what people meant by numbers in those times. Numbers were rhetorical exercises. You’d say a million when you really meant a hundred. What you’re really saying is “lots.” In Acts, I think the numbers are meant to say, “Look, wonderful things are happening.” If the historical demographers are right, Jerusalem had about 25,000 people in it at the time. So if you start talking about eight or ten thousand converts, that’s a little bit out of scale.

What about forced conversions?

RS: There weren’t any in the time I’m talking about. Constantine didn’t cause the triumph of Christianity. He rode off it.

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