Book Review: Cities of God

Cover of cities of God by Rodney StarkHow did Christianity move from being a provincial movement in Palestine to the leading religion of the Roman Empire?

This is the question the historian Rodney Stark sets out to answer and along the way challenges a number of well-established myths.

  • Was the missionary activity of the apostles key to the growth of Christianity? No, not really.
  • Was Paul really just focused on the mission to the Gentiles? Nope.
  • How important were the eastern cults of Cybele and Isis to the success of Christianity? Very.
  • Did Christian emperors seek to violently destroy paganism? Ah, no.
  • Was early Christianity seriously threatened by Gnostic movements? No, no, no.

This was the first book I’ve read by Stark and I was interested by the methods Stark used to make his case. He’s a passionate believer that much of the work of historians can be proved or at least reliably demonstrated by quantifiable data. So by looking at the amount of temples to a particular God can tell you one way or other about the spread of that religion, the number of Christians or pagans appointed by emperors to high office can tell you if they really were bent on destroying paganism and so on.

In Cities of God Stark uses the 31 largest cities of the Roman empire to pose and test a series of hypotheses about the spread of Christianity, many confirming what we already know and others challenging long-held assumptions.

Stark takes the population of the Roman Empire to be around 60 million at the time of Christ and that Christianity grew around 3.4% every year for 350 years and so became the largest faith. This 3.4% growth starts from a very low base of just 1000 to 31 million in 350CE. Obviously, if you start with a larger base group (as I would) then the growth rate would have been slower.

His point, here is to quash the argument that the growth of Christianity is in itself, proof of the truth of Christianity. His basic argument that 3.4% yearly growth isn’t particularly miraculous. Although I think any number of treasury departments would disagree.

But how and why did Christianity grow? Well, this has a little to do with how you see conversion. Stark argues that most people move from one belief system to another closely related belief system and are persuaded by the people they know and work with. For example Mormonism is feeding off people with vague Christianity rather than seeing success among Hindus or Muslims. In the same way Christianity grew because it fed off two different but near belief systems – Judaism and the cults of Cybele and Isis.

Stark estimates that Jews made up around 10-15% of that figure (around 6-9 million). The diaspora was mostly clustered in cities around the Mediterranean and the growth of Christianity followed this pattern. Christianity because of its close proximity was able to grow significantly within the Jewish community, yet when the Jews came into conflict with the empire, Christians survived because it was sufficiently different.

Stark then argues that the cults of Cybele and Isis were sufficiently similar to Christianity in some key ways (they were nearly monotheistic, appealed to emotions and made claims on virtue) that the move from these cults to Christianity was sufficiently close as to be also be possible for many pagans.

One of the key points was that only the larger cities had a population large enough to successfully from which a new movement could build a following, which is also why the cities were also home to many heretical schools.

There are a number of lessons here are worthwhile for Christians living in post-Christian Europe. One is that by consistently helping people to share their faith with their friends and neighbours, a small but consistent growth can make a massive historical difference.

Too often as Christians we want to see the difference in my lifetime, in my generation but there’s absolutely no reason why that will happen or even should happen. In Sweden Christianity is fast becoming extinct yet with a 1000 ordinary Christians (and we have more than that) in a short few hundred years half the country could again be following the way of Christ.

Secondly, that cities are crucial if you’re looking to break new ground in a territory. Cities by virtue of their size and density allow the possibility of developing and sustaining growth.

Thirdly, in the days of the Romans, port cities were crucial in the spread of new practices and communities. There is no simple equivalent today but we are perhaps starting to see the movement of people in ways which are much more akin to those days when tens of thousands of people could freely move within an area that had a common language.

All in all, it seems fairly convincing and along the way, Stark entertainingly bashes the theories of historians like Edward Gibbon and the theological fancies of The Jesus Seminar exposing them for unsupported bias against Christianity. Stark often comes across as over-confident and bullish in presenting his theories. It also feels fragmented as the chapters do not particularly build on each other but are instead a single pillar on which rests a single fact – the triumph of Christianity.

*On a similar note Ian Paul recently reviewed another book by Stark, The Rise of Christianity which deals with similar themes.

*John Stevens also makes a similar point from Cities of God

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