“Stark” Differences Between Christians and Pagans in the Roman Empire

It is one thing to attend and lament, as is popular to do right now, the brute reality of Christian Empire, established and extending from Constantine through centuries of colonialism, but it is an altogether different enquiry to investigate the rise of Christianity amongst the ordinary, everyday people living in tumultuous 1st century Palestine.

How did a fledgling Jewish sect spill outward into nearly every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire, transforming the way people think and behave within only a few hundred years?

Cultural theory has a really hard time with this one.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity argues that the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world occurred within the locus of certain social developments. These different developments entailed prevalent opportunity for Christian witness and expansive conversion. In particular, Stark understands the catastrophic epidemics of 165 and 251 AD as providing the backdrop for Christians to provide a coherent, alternative account of why such catastrophe had occurred.

In addition, the Christian ethos of community care uniquely equipped adherents of the faith to better withstand such disasters, contributing to greater resiliency in surviving the disease. This, in turn, influenced a shift in the social landscape as pagans replaced their interpersonal bonds, decimated by increasing pagan mortality, with new attachments to Christian social networks, thus increasing the probability of conversion to the faith.

Stark also argues that the higher status of women in Christian subculture represents another factor in Christianity’s rise. As a result of greater domestic egalitarianism, social desirability of widowhood, a higher fertility rate and the prohibition of infanticide and abortion in Christian subculture, a significant difference in the male-female sex ratio developed wherein greater numbers of women contributed to a higher fertility rate and a rapidly growing Christian population.

Attending to the efficacy of Christian doctrine to bring about major numerical growth and social impact in the Greco-Roman world, Stark contends that Christian right practice represents the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity. The introduction of a merciful God exhorting people to deal in mercy with one another revolutionized 1st century human experience and offered a coherent ethic wherein ethnicity or social status could be disposed of, giving place to a new rule of love.[1]

How did the lifestyle and values of Christians in the first few centuries differ from the Greco-Roman culture around them? In what way were they actually similar?

The lifestyle and values of Christians living in the first few centuries are enigmatic yet defined. While the identity of Christians can be described by distinctive custom, practices and, in greater detail, ethic, they were also members of a shared Greco-Roman culture. In this way there was nothing eccentric about them. The paraphernalia of culture, represented by food, clothing and language among other aspects, was for the Christian and pagan quite similar.

In matters of major difference from their fellow pagans, Christians did not worship the Emperor and as a result saw their activity in various civic customs as minimal. It can be said that Christians’ loyalty was to the empire but their devotion was unto God.

Furthermore, it was God who Christians sought to imitate. In doing so, pagan, or more broadly, Roman values and practices such as infanticide, abortion, denigrated status of women and male sexual promiscuity were condemned and prohibited by Christians. For instance, Christians possessed a substantively different view of women than their pagan counterparts. Herein, Christian doctrine actively contributed to the better treatment of women in Greco-Roman society. In addition to injunctions to care for wives and widows, the Christian value of community care resulted in a higher degree of solidarity within Christian subculture. Such solidarity and ‘love for neighbour’ distinguished Christians from others and indeed as Stark argues, imbued them with affective resiliency in the face of epidemic disease.

Pfft…there goes the sociological neighborhood!

  [1] Rodney Stark, Chapter 4: “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion”, Chapter 5: “The Role of Women in Christian Growth”, and Chapter 10: “A Brief Reflection on Virtue” in The Rise of Christianity, pp. 73-128, 209-215.