Quotes taken from Rodney Stark's "The Rise of Christianity", chapter 3, The Mission to the Jews: Why It Probably Succeeded


These are direct quotes from Rodney Starks book "The Rise of Christianity", chapter 3. Rodney Stark is a sociologist, not a historian, but he brings a fresh perspective to church history and how the early Church grew, from a sociologist's perspective. He uses historic evidence very carefully to back up his prognosis of early church growth patterns and that the early church was indeed heavily Jewish both ethnically and in worship practices.


"Granted, the received wisdom recognizes that Jews made up the bulk of very early converts, as phrases such as "Jewish Christianity" and "the Christian Synagogue" acknowledge. But it is generally assumed that this pattern ended abruptly in the wake of the revolt of 66-74, although some writers will accept a substantial role for Jewish conversion into the second century, regarding the Bar- Kokhba revolt as the "final straw" in Jewish-Christian sympathies.


Perhaps only a sociologist would be foolish enough to suggest that, contrary to the received wisdom, Jewish Christianity played a central role until much later in the rise of Christianity—that not only was it the Jews of the diaspora who provided the initial basis for church growth during the first and early second centuries, but that the Jews continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century and that Jewish Christianity was still significant in the fifth century." ["The Rise of Christianity", p.49, par. 2-3, Rodney Stark]


Next is a quote where Rodney gives a little social science which put the historic evidence in a new light. The bottom line of the social science here is "birds of a feather flock together."


"The second proposition is that People are more willing to adopt a new religion to the extent that it retains cultural continuity with conventional religion(s) with which they already are familiar…As Noch so aptly put it: "The receptivity of most people for that which is wholly new (if anything is) is small…" [ibid. p. 55, par 2&3]


And who did the apostle Paul evangelize to, Gentiles? Or was it to the Jews of the Diaspora, and the God-fearers within the same synagogues? If so, what religious customs of worship would have provided this continuity? It wouldn't be the Gentilized Christianity of today we're so familiar with. The continuity would have been found in early Nazarene Jewish Christianity. Stark further postulates:


"The principle of cultural continuity captures the human tendency to maximize—to get the most for the least cost. In the case of adopting a new religious outlook, cost can be measured in terms of how much of what one already knows and more or less accepts one must discard in order to make the shift. To the extent that potential converts can retain much of their original cultural heritage and merely add to it, cost is minimized (Stark and Bainbridge 1987)" [ibid. p.55, par. 4]


And here is an interesting modern proof of this principle. The Worldwide Church of God, prior to coming into a better understanding of the New Testament freedoms which allow for freedom of choice in "days of worship" (cf. Romans 14), they were a Sabbath/Holy Day observing Sabbatarian Church of God. They were a true reflection of the early Judeo-Christian Churches of God in their worship practices. Their members were spiritually brought up in these "Jewish" days of worship, including Levitical dietary practices. A few years after they accepted this New Testament understanding of freedom in the area of days of worship, they changed over to Sunday/Christmas/Easter observance for their days of worship. From the period between 1995 and 2005 they lost a very large number of their members, merely because the cost of accepting this new religion which went against their spiritual cultural background was far too great. Where that church had an estimated 150,000 members, it now numbers in the mere few thousands, whereas the two major splinter churches which broke off from them are healthy. I am not trying to slam any of these churches, just making a sociological observation that fits this "social law" Rodney Stark brings out here. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he said "Were you born a Jew? Remain a Jew. Were you born a Gentile? Remain a Gentile." Paul in no way meant that one should not accept Yeshua, Jesus, only that if your background was Jewish, be a part of Jewish-Christianity, not Gentile--don't go against your cultural-spiritual upbringing. Messianic Judeo-Christianity did not go against Jewish cultural upbringing, it only enhanced it. If Paul's major evangelism was within the Jewish synagogues of the Diaspora, then the Judeo-Christian churches he was founding observed Hebrew Old Testament Holy Days and Sabbath as days of worship. Where his converts were strictly Gentile (as a few were), he encouraged them to chose days of worship conducive to their cultural upbringing, as Romans 14 indicates.


"The third proposition is that Social movements grow much faster when they spread through preexisting social networks. [ibid. p. 55, par. 5]

"Movements can also recruit by spreading through preexisting social networks, as converts bring in their families and friends. This pattern has the potential for much faster growth than the one-by-one conversion of social isolates (Stark and Roberts 1982)." [ibid. p. 56, par. 2]

"The statistics on Christian growth developed in chapter 1 would seem to require that Christianity arose through preexisting networks. For that to have occurred requires converts to have come from communities united to the attachments." [ibid. p. 56, par. 3] And as we have just read in the Early Church History article this is attached to, the apostle Paul came from the Jewish community, and then came from the Nazarenes, which at the time were considered "a sect of Judaism" even by the Jews. That is clear evidence of attachment to two closely linked social networks. Rodney Stark is looking at this from a purely social standpoint, and not adding the powerful converting power of the Holy Spirit acting in these conversions. But he is not denying the work of the Holy Spirit either. He is merely showing that this work of the Spirit was being channeled through preexisting social networks, and that this path for conversions is powerful. The Jews understood Old Testament prophecies, they went to synagogue every Sabbath listing to them being read. The Messiah 1st and 2nd comings are mentioned in over 300 Old Testament prophecies. So having an apostle like Paul, trained under Gamaliel, now a Nazarene Jewish Christian evangelizing within the synagogue system in Asia Minor--within the Jewish social network at the highest level, the synagogue--produced heavy conversions that spread through that social network. The social science "evidence" of this is powerful, and in no way denies the work of the Holy Spirit. This all fits the background of the apostle Paul


The Situation of Hellenized Jews In The Diaspora


"It is important to keep in mind how greatly the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora outnumbered the Jews living in Palestine. Johnson (1976) suggests that there were a million in Palestine and four million outside, while Meeks (1983) places the population of the diaspora at five to six million. It is also worth noting that the Hellenized Jews were primarily urban—as were the early Christians outside Palestine (Meeks 1983). Finally, the Hellenized Jews were not an impoverished minority; they had been drawn out of Palestine over the centuries because of economic opportunities. By the first century, the large Jewish sections in major centers such as Alexandria were known for their wealth. As they built up wealthy and populous urban communities within the major centers of the empire, Jews had adjusted to life in the diaspora in ways that made them very marginal vis-à-vis the Judaism of Jerusalem. As early as the third century B.C.E their Hebrew had decayed to the point that the Torah had to be translated into Greek (Greenspoon 1989). In the process of translation not only Greek words, but Hellenic viewpoints, crept into the Septuagint." [ibid. p. 57, par 2]


"In any event, the Jews outside Palestine read, wrote, spoke, thought and worshipped in Greek. Of the inscriptions found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, fewer than 2 percent were in Hebrew or Aramaic, while 74 percent were in Greek and the remainder in Latin (Finegan 1992:325-326). Many Jews in the diaspora had taken Greek names, and they had incorporated much of the Greek enlightenment into their cultural views…Moreover, many Hellenized Jews had embraced some elements of pagan religious thought. In short, large numbers were no longer Jews in the ethnic sense and remained only partly so in the religious sense (Goldstein 1981; Frend 1984: Green 1985)." [ibid. p. 58, par. 1] This fits Oskar Skarsaune's research (see In the Shadow of the Temple). "But neither were they Greeks, for Judaism could not easily be separated from an ethnicity intrinsic to the Law. The Law set Jews apart fully in the first century as in the nineteenth and prevented them from full participation in civic life (Hengel 1975). In both eras the Jews were in the unstable and uncomfortable condition of social marginality. As Tcherikover put it, Hellenized Jews found it degrading to live among Greeks and embrace Greek culture and yet to remain "enclosed in a spiritual Ghetto and be reckoned among the ‘barbarians.'" He pointed to the urgent need for "a compromise, a synthesis, which would permit a Jew to remain a Jew" and still be able to claim full entry into "the elect society of the Greeks" (1958:81).

          Perhaps the "God-Fearers" can help reveal the difficulty that the Hellenized Jews had with the ethnic impositions of Judaism. Judaism had long attracted Gentile "fellow travelers," who found much intellectual satisfaction in the moral teachings and monotheism of the Jews, but who would not take the final step of fulfilling the Law. [i.e. circumcision, which could be a medically dangerous procedure for an adult male.] These people are referred to as God-Fearers. For Hellenized Jews who had social and intellectual problems with the Law, the God-Fearers could easily have been a very tempting model of an alternative, fully Greek Judaism—a Judaism that Rabbi Holdheim might have judged appropriate to the changed circumstances and conditions of life. But God-Fearers were not a movement. The Christians were.

          When the Apostalic Council decided not to require [Gentile] converts to observe the Law, they created a religion free of ethnicity. Tradition has it that the first fruit of this break with the Law was the rapid success of the mission to the Gentiles. But who would have been the first to hear of the break? Who would have had the greatest initial benefits from it? What group, in fact, best fulfills the sociological propositions outlined above?" [ibid. pp. 58-59, par. 3, 1-2, resp.]


The answer to that question is coming below. But he makes an important point here. God inspired the apostles in the council that took place in Acts 15 to de-ethnitize salvation. But how was this done when the Law was so central to salvation. God, in both the Old and New Testaments defines the New Covenant as this "I will write my law in their minds and upon their hearts" (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:6-13). The answer to this question is "the law of Christ". Christians have come to see that within the whole of the New Testament a parallel law to the Old Testament Law of God is defined. It is basically the same 10 Commandment Law of God with the 4th Commandment removed. In Romans 14 Paul more fully defines this change in the Law which de-ethnitizes the law, without removing it. How can this be done? Paul shows in Romans 14 that "days of worship" have become an optional choice for the believer. God never said the His law was done away with. Careful reading of the whole New Testament, along with the Bible definition for the new covenant will show that. But the requirement that man, on his own, keep the law of God has been changed to "I will write them, the laws of God, in their minds and upon their hearts." God has taken over the responsibility for the obedience of his born-again children. That doesn't mean they don't have a part to play in obedience too. But the gospel of salvation, through this de-ethnitizing of the Law has made it possible for the gospel of salvation to adapt itself to every ethnicity in the whole world, Greek, Roman, French, German, Russian, Indian, Malasian, Chinese, Korean, and the myriad cultures found in Africa, you name it. When Jesus returns, as Zechariah 12-13 shows, true Judaism and Christianity will merge, with the Old Testament Law of God becoming the Law of the land, the Law Jesus, the King of the world will rule the earth with. This de-ethnitizing of the Law of God is a temporary thing, only operative for the Church Age, from 31 or 32 AD to the 2nd coming of Christ.


Cultural Continuity


"Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to the Greeks…" And by "Christianity" he means the early Christianity of that time and era of the church, Nazarene Jewish Christianity which observed the Sabbath and Holy Days these Diaspora Jewish believers were so familiar with. "If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity [of that day, a Jewish Christianity] offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them. Indeed, Theissen described Pauline Christianity as "accommodated Judaism" (1982:124)." [ibid. p.59, par. 3] And as I have stated and proved before, this "Pauline Christianity" of that day was Jewish-Christianity in the area of Asia Minor, with the rare exceptions of maybe one or two totally Gentile Christian congregations, which may or may not have existed at that time. "Little need be said of the extent to which Christianity maintained cultural continuity with Judaism. Indeed, much of the New Testament is devoted to displaying how Christianity extends and fulfills the Old…But if we look at these "two cultural faces" of early Christianity, it seems clear that its greatest appeal would have been for those to whom each face mattered: the Jews of the diaspora." [ibid. p.59, par. 4]




"I now examine the implications of network growth for the mission to the Jews. Let us put ourselves in the position of the evangelists: here we are in Jerusalem in the year 50. The Apostolic Council has just met and decided that we should leave Palestine and go out and spread the glad tidings. Where should we go?...Put another way, who will welcome us? Who will listen? I suggest that the answer would have been obvious: we should go to the major commumities of Hellenized Jews (Roberts 1979)." [ibid. pp. 61-62, par. 3 & 1 resp.]

"In all the major centers of the empire were substantial settlements of diasporan Jews who were accustomed to receiving teachers from Jerusalem. Moreover, the missionaries were likely to have family and friendship connections within at least some of the diasporan communities. Indeed, Paul is a typical example, the missionaries were themselves Hellenized Jews.

In addition, the Hellenized Jews were the group best prepared to receive Christianity. We have already seen how Christianity appealed to both their Jewish and their Hellenic sides. It built a distinctly Hellenized component on Jewish foundations. But, unlike the Platonic conceptions of Philo, Christianity presented an exceedingly otherworldly faith, capable of generating strong commitment.

We also ought to note that diasporan Jews would be less dubious about a messiah come to Palestine—a part of the empire that many Gentiles would regard as backwater. Nor would the Jews have been so easily put off by the facts of the Crucifixion. Indeed, the cross was a symbol used to signify the Messiah in Hebrew manuscripts prior to the Crucifixion (Finegan 1992:348). In contrast, many Gentiles apparently had trouble with the notion of deity executed as a common criminal. The socially marginal Jews of the diaspora knew that Roman justice was often opportunistic, and they could also understand the machinations of the high priests in Jerusalem.

Finally, it seems reasonable to suppose that the escalating conflict between Rome and the various Jewish nationalist movements added to the burden of marginality experienced by Hellenized Jews. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, with Jewish nationalists plotting new revolts, multitudes of Hellenized Jews who no longer felt strong ethnic ties to Palestine must have been very tempted to step aside (Grant 1972; Downey 1962). [ibid. p. 62, par. 2-5; p. 63, par. 1] "These are the reasons that ought to have caused the first missionaries to concentrate on the Hellenized Jews. And virtually all New Testament historians agree that they did so, and were successful, but only in the beginning. These facts are agreed upon: (1) many of the converts mentioned in the New Testament can be identified as Hellenized Jews; (2) much of the New Testament assumes an audience familiar with the Septuagint (Frend 1984); (3) Christian missionaries frequently did their public teaching in synagogues of the diaspora—and may have continued to do so far into the second century (Grant 1972); (4) archeological evidence shows that the early Christian churches outside of Palestine were concentrated in the Jewish sections of cities—as Eric Meyers put it, "on opposite sides of the street, so to speak" (1988:76; see also Pearson 1986; White 1985, 1986)." [ibid. p. 63, par. 2]


Here is a very interesting quote from Rodney Stark about all of this.


"Here, an adequate cause to prefer the received over the sociological wisdom would be persuasive historical evidence that Jewish conversion did peter out by the second century and that Jewish Christianity was absorbed in a sea of Gentile converts" Now that is what he says all the other experts assume, interpreting the evidence along a traditional Gentile Christian interpretation of the facts, and not based on valid social science. Now here is what Rodney Stark says about that: "I find no compelling case in the sources that the mission to the Jews ended in this way…First of all, historians acknowledge that neither the "Jewish War" nor the Bar-Kokhba revolt had really serious direct impact on most Jewish communities in the diaspora. That is, these conflicts brought destruction and depopulation in Palestine, but their "significance for the diaspora communities was minimal" (Meeks and Wilken 1978:5). [ibid. p. 64, par. 1] Moreover, I think examination of the Marcion affair reveals that a very Jewish Christianity still was overwhelmingly dominant in the mid-second century. [ibid. p. 64, par. 2]


"Since "everyone" has known that Christian-Jewish connections were insignificant by the mid-second century, it is understandable that no one has drawn the obvious (to me) conclusions about the persistence well into the fifth century of "Judaizing" tendencies within Christianity. The facts are clear. In this period large numbers of Christians showed such an affinity for Jewish culture that it could be characterized as "a widespread Christian infatuation with Judaism" (Meeks and Wilken 1978:31). This is usually explained on the basis of lingering attractions of Judaism and renewed conversions to Judaism (Simon 1964; Wilken 1971, 1983). Perhaps so. But this is also exactly what one would expect to find in Christian communities containing many members of relatively recent Jewish ancestry, who retained ties of family and association with non-Christian Jews, and who therefore still retained a distinctly Jewish aspect to their Christianity. INDEED, IT IS QUITE UNCERTAIN JUST WHEN IT BECAME UNACCEPTABLE FOR CHRISTIANS TO OBSERVE THE LAW." [ibid. p. 66, par. 1, emphasis mine]

          "Put another way, what was at issue may not have been the Judaizing of Christianity, but that in many places a substantial Jewish Christianity persisted. And if this was the case, there is no reason to suppose that Jewish Christians had lost the ability to attract new converts from their networks of Hellenized families and friends. Hence, rather than seeing these affinities as signs of renewed conversion to Judaism, I suggest that a more plausible reading is to see them as signs that Jewish conversion to Christianity continued." [ibid. p. 66, par. 2]


4th and 5th Centuries--Assimilate or else


"For the moment, assume that Jewish conversion to Christianity was still a major factor in the fourth and early fifth centuries—major in the sense that a substantial rate of defection from Judaism to Christianity continued, even though this would by then have become a minor source of converts to the now-huge Christian population. Such an assumption allows us to make better sense of the anti-Jewish polemics of Christian figures such as John Chrysostom." [ibid. p. 66, par. 3] [so-called "Christian in my eyes] Rodney Stark continue the thought. "Postulate a world in which there are a great many Christians with Jewish friends and relatives and who, therefore, turn up at Jewish festivals and even in synagogues from time to time. Moreover, this has gone on for centuries. Now suppose you are a newly appointed bishop [from Rome, or under the authority of the powerful Greco-Roman church] who has been told that it is time to get serious about making a Christian world. How can you convince people that they ought to avoid even the appearance of dabbling in Judaism? By confronting them with the need to choose, not between Gentile and Jewish Christianity, but between Christianity and traditional, Orthodox Judaism—a Judaism whose adherents could be attacked as "Christ-killers" who consorted with demons (as Jewish Christianity could not). In this fashion Chrysostom could stress that it was time for Jewish-Christians to become assimilated, unhyphenated Christians. Seen this way, the increasingly emphatic attacks on Judaism in this later period reflect efforts to consolidate a diverse and splintered faith into a clearly catholic structure." [ibid. pp. 66-67, par. 3-4, and 1 resp.] And when he says "catholic" he's using the term to define "universal" Christianity. But the "church" Chrysostom belonged to was the Greco-Roman church which became the Roman Catholic Church, a church which later, basically brought about the slaughter of thousands and later millions of Jews, and also brought about the end of "Jewish-Christianity" in Asia Minor and wherever else it tried to move. This "Catholic" church, or "Universal" church in Rome would after 325AD confiscate all the church buildings and property of Jewish-Christians, especially in Asia Minor where they were the strongest in numbers. This "church" in its actions was acting very "unChristian", and in my opinion, wasn't really Christian, looking at the historic evidence of its actions, not words.


"It seems to me that MacLennan and Kraabel (1986) are correct to dismiss the role of the "God-Fearers" as go-betweens taking Christianity to the Jews of the diaspora. There were plenty of Jewish Christians, including Paul, filling that role. I think they are also correct that the extent of Jewish conversion to Christianity during the first two centuries was "higher than is usually assumed…Acts does not suggest that one would find the God-Fearers still lingering in the back of synagogues, but by early in the second century, at the latest, they would have long since moved into the churches." [ibid. p. 67, par. 2]


"What we ought to be looking for in the synagogues are signs of lingering connections with Christianity. MacLennan and Kraabel tell us that the archaeological evidence fails to show much Gentile presence around the Jewish settlements in the diaspora. But they also tell us that this is where the churches were! If they are correct that the people in these churches were not Gentiles, who could they have been other than Jewish Christians? And in fact, the weight of pertinent recent evidence seems to support this conclusion." [ibid. p. 68, par. 1, emphasis mine]


Recent Physical Evidence


"There is recent physical evidence (or what insiders sometimes call realia) suggesting that the Christian and Jewish communities remained closely linked--intertwined, even--until far later than is consistent with claims about the early and absolute break between church and synagogue. The realia are both archaeological and documentary.

Eric Meyers (1993, 1988) reported that a wealth of archaeological findings in Italy (especially Rome and Venosa) show that "Jewish and Christian burials reflect an interdependent and closely related community of Jews and Christians in which clear marks of demarcation were blurred until the third and fourth centuries C.E." (1988:73-74). Shifting to data from Palestine, Meyers noted excavations in Capernaum (on the shores of the Sea of Galilee) that reveal "a Jewish synagogue and a Jewish-Christian house church on opposite sides of the street…Following the strata and the structures, both communities apparently lived in harmony until the seventh century C.E." (1988:76)" [ibid. p. 68, par 2-3]




"Keep in mind, too, that there were far more than enough Jews in the diaspora to have provided the numbers needed to fulfill plausible growth curves well into the Christian era." [ibid. p. 69, par. 5] "Moreover, the diasporan Jews were in the right places to provide the needed supply of converts—in the cities, and especially in the cities of Asia Minor and North Africa. For it is here that we find not only the first churches, but, during the first four centuries, the most vigorous Christian communities.

I have tried to show what should have happened, why the mission to the Jews of the diaspora should have been a considerable long-run success. Although I reconfirm my respect for the gap between "should" and "did," I cautiously suggest that a very substantial conversion of the Jews actually did take place. Indeed, Ephraim Isaac recently reported that according to Ethiopian tradition, when Christianity first appeared there, "half of the population was Jewish and...most of them converted to Christianity" (1993:60)." [ibid. p. 70, par. 2]




"I finally read the classic two-volume work by Johannes Weiss ([1914] 1959). Midway in the second volume I discovered that Weiss also rejected the traditional view positing the failure of the mission to the Jews. Noting that portions of the New Testament suggest that "the mission to the Jews has been abandoned as completely hopeless," Weiss then devoted many pages of textual analysis to rejecting this claim (2:666-703). He asserted that the church "did not abandon its mission to the Jews," and suggested that serious dialogue and interaction continued well into the third century and probably later." [ibid. p. 70, par. 3] This discovery encouraged me to feel that I was on the right track, and discouraged me from imagining that I could ever finally master this enormous literature." [ibid. p. 71, par. 2]


Those are key quotes taken from Rodney Stark's "THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY", chapter 3, "The Mission to the Jews: Why It Probably Succeeded". Rodney Stark is a sociologist that dives into the historic and archaeological evidence with fresh insight. I highly recommend purchasing his book for yourself. His writing, as you can see, is far from dry, and adds a very fresh perspective to the way things probably were, regardless of what Orthodox Christianity has taught us for 1700 years. I found the book on http://www.amazon.com .