Historians should count—literally.
So argues Stark (Social Sciences/Baylor Univ.), who sets out to provide an account of Christianity’s early rise through the use of data, not speculation. His own counting reveals that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon, propagated in a pattern that can be validated by statistics. Utilizing a variety of facts garnered largely by other researchers—collections of grave inscriptions, for example—the author relies on statistical analysis to prove or disprove various hypotheses. In many cases, his efforts simply prove what most people already assume, e.g., that Christianity was first successful in port cities. But this approach also provides several surprises. Pairing data with a fresh reading of scripture, Stark argues that early Christianity spread not so much within the gentile population as among the Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora. He views the early Christian church in relation to three other historical forms of faith: Greco-Roman paganism, quasi-monotheistic “eastern” religions and the heresies that most scholars today lump under the term “Gnosticism.” Stark argues that Christianity (and Judaism) possessed a variety of superior strengths in comparison to polytheistic religions. Cults of Isis and Cybele may have acted as forerunners for monotheism and paved the way for Christian conversions, but they were not in themselves capable of prompting full-scale monotheism. As for Gnosticism, the author dismisses modern attempts to reconstruct this movement and provides reasons for viewing it as a weak, disjointed batch of heretical schools, never a real threat to orthodoxy. Stark appears to be setting up a platform for future historians rather than trying to present a comprehensive study. This leaves readers asking for more—if nothing else, whetting the appetite for more statistically driven research.
An intriguing read.