The Early Christians Weren't All Martyrs and They Weren't All Poor, says a UW Sociologist Whose Book Sheds New Light on the Rise of the Christianity.


 by Julie Garner

As a cub reporter for the Oakland Tribune in 1959, Rodney Stark drew the fraternal organization beat. "I covered the Oddfellows and the Elks because I was the new guy," he recalls. One day, Stark got an announcement from a different kind of club-the Oakland Spacecraft Club. "A guy was going to tell about his trips on a flying saucer, to Mars and Venus and stuff. I went on my own time and wrote it up. The Sunday editor ran it as a front page feature."

Readers loved the story. Believers liked it because he reported the event fairly. Skeptics enjoyed what they viewed as the story's absurdity. From that day, Stark's beat expanded to cover East Bay subcultures-including religious cults and sects.

Though his reporting days are behind him, Stark has kept the religion "beat" as a professor of sociology at the UW. An eminent social scientist, his most recent book, The Rise of Christianity, makes compelling claims that many Christians may find surprising. Stark punctures the notion that early Christianity was a religion of the poor and that most first-century Christians lived on the margins of Roman society.

Both the popular and academic press were convinced. Newsweek called it "a fresh, blunt and highly persuasive account of how the West was won-for Jesus." Peer sociologists, in the journal Contemporary Sociology, hailed the book as a "masterpiece of historical sociology."

Stark's book is a departure. For several centuries, most historians and sociologists agreed that early Christianity was a religion of the dispossessed. Friedrich Engels wrote that "Christianity was originally a movement of poor people deprived of all rights." A popular college textbook by Yale historian Erwin Goodenough said of the early church, "Its converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lowest classes of society."

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Louvre, Paris, France. According to Church history, Sebastian was a Roman guard who was secretly a Christian. When the truth was discovered, the Roman Emperor demanded he be put to death by a troop of archers, but the saint miraculously survived the execution.

Stark feels Engels, Goodenough and others missed the boat. "I was reading a book by an Anglican bishop, John A.T. Robinson," he recalls. "He makes an interesting point. If you pay any attention to these fishermen who are among the apostles, you realize that they own the boats, and they don't always go out. We aren't talking about poor, uneducated guys who worked on boats.

"And throughout the New Testament, you can see that these people are not the down and out. The people that Paul refers to in his letters are people of position," he says. He added that Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire and wrote Greek at a time when literacy wasn't common. "It is now accepted by New Testament scholars that Jesus spoke Greek," he explains.

Members of the Roman imperial households were counted among the early Christians, says Stark, noting that this was particularly true of imperial women. "We know this. The fact that they had gravestones means that they weren't part of the down-and-outers. You didn't have to be rich (to be a Christian), but you didn't have to be part of the unwashed masses either."

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