I know, I know. It’s already February 8 and I haven’t posted a single TfC Book Club post this month. At least not until today. So, I’d like to share a few thoughts on Part One of The Triumph of Christianity. I’m probably not going to be examining this book in the same depth that I did for Augustine’s Confessions. Instead, I’ll pick out some of the big ideas from the text and make a few comments. Hopefully you’ll find something that sparks your interest or prompts a thought/question. If you do, leave a comment and we’ll see what kind of discussion we can get going.
Since Christianity has been around for 2,000 years, there’s a lot to cover. In his introduction, Stark notes that this book is not “another general history Christianity. Many eras, topics, and prominent persons are skipped” (pg. 2). Instead, Stark has decided to select “important episodes and aspects of the Christian story through the centuries” and assess “them from new perspectives.” This wasn’t surprising to me. His newer work, Bearing False Witness, takes another look at Catholicism through the ages and notes that the traditional histories don’t always line up with the evidence. He seems to be in the business of opening the public’s eyes to mischaracterizations in Christian history.
It’s also worth noting – as I did in my review of Bearing False Witness – that “Rodney Stark is neither Catholic nor part of any Catholic university. He grew up as a Lutheran (he never describes his current religious beliefs) and teaches at one of the largest Southern Baptist Universities in the world.”
Stark’s introduction to The Triumph of Christianity basically outlines the book and notes a few of his working presumptions. It’s not really necessary to read but it’s so short, why not? Right?
Chapter One: The Religious Context
Stark opens chapter one up by noting, “On Christmas Eve, almost everywhere on earth the gods were thought to be many and undependable…The Jews in the West and the Zoroastrians in the East rejected these ideas about the gods, opting instead for a morally demanding monotheism” (pg.9).
The rest of this chapter is taken up with a description of the religious landscape in the first century – as well as an examination of how Rome dealt with its religious pluralism.
Romans Didn’t Go to Church
According to Stark, the primary reason Rome persecuted certain religious groups was because of their tendency to congregate. Traditional Roman religion didn’t involve congregations or regular meetings of any kind. There were festivals, temple sacrifices, etc. But nothing like the Jew’s Saturday Synagogue service. Or the Christian’s Sunday Church services.
You may be wondering, ‘Why was Rome so against congregations?’ Well, of 76 Roman emperors, only 19 died of natural causes. At least 42 were murdered. And what happens in congregations? Assassination conspiracies. So naturally, Roman emperors weren’t fans of groups of people meeting together – especially not regularly.
Rome didn’t only persecute Christians and Jews. They were equal-opportunity persecutors. The authorities viewed everyone who wanted to regularly congregate with suspicion. And they acted accordingly.
Be Careful with those Accusations
Another interesting thought Stark brings up is the fact that Rome accused all of these groups similarly. Rome cried immorality against anyone who went against the grain. Because of this we ought to be careful about condemning certain historical groups with accusations lodged at them by the Romans. Just because Livy said the cult of Bacchus was involved in “human sacrifice, rape, unrestricted sex, drunkeness,” etc. doesn’t mean they actually were (pg. 22). People threw the exact same accusations at the early Christians and Jews.
The Providence of God
Over all, this chapter reminded me of God’s providence. He may work slow at times but he always accomplishes his tasks. In his own time.
He had been preparing the world for centuries. One idea at a time. One event after another.
Stark sums it up well at the end of the chapter: “the geography of the spread of early Christianity through the empire closely followed the geography of the spread of temples devoted to Cybele and to Isis” (pg. 31). God is able to use any means necessary to accomplish his goals. Even paganism.
Chapter Two: Many Judiasms
In chapter two, Stark zeroes in on the specific religious situation in first-century Israel. Most people who have studied the Bible know that there were competing groups of Jews in Jesus’ day. However, they may not be aware of the breadth of that diversity.
For instance, “on Christmas Eve there were about nine million Jews living in the Roman Empire…about 90 percent of them living in the larger Roman cities west of Palestine.” In other words, most Jews in Jesus’ day were Hellenized. These were Jews who lived in Greek-speaking cities and considered themselves to be more cultured than Palestinian Jews. This distinction is important when reading the book of Acts where we see some interaction between the two groups (See Acts 6:1-6).
Beyond that, Stark describes the Sadducees (think Mainline Protestants involved in government), Pharisees (think evangelicals), Essenes (think Amish), Zealots (think Christian-nationalists), Sicarii (think abortion-clinic bombers), and Samaritans (I don’t have a good modern equivalent here. They were the descendants of mixed race Jew-Gentile marriages). He does an excellent job of describing these different groups and giving enough information to have a picture in your mind – both as you read this book and the Bible.
Israel’s religious landscape was just as pluralistic and complicated as our own. We ought to be careful about thinking in Jew vs. Christian terms. Things weren’t that simple.
Stark sums up the chapter by writing, “This was the Jewish world into which Jesus was born and raised, conducted his ministry, and was crucified. It was a society of monotheists dedicated to the importance of holy scripture. In addition to sustaining a remarkable number of scholars and teachers, it was also a world prolific in prophets and terrorists” (pg 45).
Stark’s opening chapters set the scene. They help us better understand the world Jesus and the disciples called home. But even more, they paint a picture of the environment which bore Christianity and saw it flourish.
I don’t know about you but I’m already looking forward to the next part of The Triumph of Christianity.
If you had a favorite quote or thought as you read, comment below and let us know what it was.
I can’t wait to hear what all of you are thinking about The Triumph of Christianity!
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