With two thousand years between ourselves and the earliest followers of Jesus, we have a built-in problem in our efforts to understand their unique situation, and what they can say to us. We often approach the texts of Scripture with false or misguided presuppositions that utterly skew the questions we ask of the Bible, and the answers we find.
For example, there is the question of Paul’s assumed audience in his different letters to the burgeoning church communities in the Greco-Roman world. We will read them in a particular way if we assume that he was speaking to communities of Gentiles, or that these groups were primarily poor, or that they faced constant persecution. It has been the dominant assumption since at least the mid-nineteenth century that the early church was precisely those things: proletariat, gentile, and always persecuted.
Rodney Stark, however, disagrees. With his deft prose, and unique blend of encyclopedic learning and honest grit, this book will uproot many of your assumptions about the sociology of early Christianity, and will open you up to new ways of considering the struggles and victories of these early communities. Stark traces the development of the Jesus movement from its few rag-tag followers shortly after the ministry of Jesus, to the eve of Constantine’s conversion when, Stark argues, the church made up as much as 40% of the Roman Empire. The result is a masterpiece, and not surprisingly a bestseller.
All of Stark’s works are fascinating, and worth the read. In particular, I also recommend Discovering God, The Victory of Reason, and (if you want one book that summarizes most of his writing) The Triumph of Christianity. However, The Rise of Christianity is the best in my opinion.