Women are a key to the growth of Christianity, he notes, contradicting the prevalent opinion that early Christianity was a patriarchal religion. Stark says from its very beginning, women held positions of honor and authority. He believes there has been far too much reliance on a passage in 1 Corinthians, that reads: "The women should keep silences in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

Citing modern translations of the Bible that restore the original letters of Paul, Stark says there is "virtual consensus" among historians of the early church that women served as deacons and fellow workers, evangelists and teachers. Christian women enjoyed considerable status, Stark says, compared to their pagan counterparts.

He also points out that there was a dramatic shift in the ratio of men to women among early Christians. In the pagan world, because of the widespread practice among pagans of abortion and female infanticide, there were far more men than women. In the city of Rome, Stark says, the ratio was 131 men to 100 women. Because Christianity opposed abortion and infanticide, that ratio dramatically changed. This altered fertility patterns and meant higher birthrates for Christians.

Marriage was held in low esteem by pagan Roman men. As the birth rate of the Roman empire plummeted, that of Christians rose. And because there was a surplus of Christian women compared to large numbers of pagan men, the men would often convert after marriage to Christian women.

Stark also splashes cold water on the idea that the majority of early Christians suffered martyrdom. Few were thrown to the lions, he maintains.

"I reject claims that the state did perceive early Christianity in political terms. It is far from clear to me that Christianity could have survived a truly comprehensive effort by the state to root it out during its early days," he says.

The Romans thought the way to beat a religion was to behead the leaders and that was true, he says, for any pagan religion. That's because paganism and other cults were usually priest-heavy with a few rich donors. If the government wanted to eliminate a cult, they went after the clergy. "In Christianity, if you behead a bishop there would be 40 more guys waiting for the job. It was a rank and file mass movement, not a little priest movement," he explains.

If the Romans had viewed Christianity as a political threat, they would have acted without mercy to crush the fledgling cult, says Stark. However, as the movement was both misunderstood and full of middle-class people, the Romans tormented Christians, usually male bishops, only in a haphazard and occasional fashion.

"The truth is that the Roman government seems to have cared very little about the 'Christian menace,' " says Stark. Research indicates that only a tiny number were martyred, meaning hundreds not thousands of believers. For most Romans, in fact, conversion meant little risk of ending in the lion's jaws. Although becoming a Christian did mean a real commitment and change in way of life, it didn't mean choosing death by torture.

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