Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome
by Rodney Stark
Reviewed by John Halford
Were the centuries between Jesus’ crucifixion and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire a rather sinister time, in which the truth of the gospel was hijacked, and the true teachings of Jesus subverted in an evil conspiracy? Is “Christianity,” as we know it today, false, and the truth only preserved by small sects and cults on the fringe of the “mainstream” churches?
This is a subject that produces much emotion. In Cities of God, Rodney Stark has looked at it from a different perspective. Setting aside traditional ideas and pre-conceived notions, he asks, “what do the facts say happened?”
There is a surprising amount of detail surviving from that far-off time. Historians have access to this data, but tend to regard them as peripheral to their preconceived theses. Thus myths are generated — and persist.
Using the actual data, Stark has been able to piece together a remarkably detailed picture of the spread of Christianity in the ancient world. He shows that it spread mainly among the educated upper and middle classes, and focused mainly on port cities. Rather than being an obstacle, the pagan faiths of the Empire may actually have provided a fertile seedbed for the gospel, as people gradually abandoned the temples in response to the superior appeal of a monotheistic faith.
Without deemphasizing the contribution of the great missionaries like Paul, Stark shows that it was the example of ordinary Christians living out their faith in their communities that was the greatest factor in the growth of Christianity. (For anyone seriously interested in mission, the book is worth it for the first chapter alone.)
Ever since The Da Vinci Code, there has been tremendous interest in the writings and beliefs of the “alternative Christianities” that thrived in the early centuries. Is there anything to them? Have important truths and revelations been suppressed? Stark shows that these smaller sects and divisions of the early church were not the desperate attempts of the few “faithful” to preserve “the faith once delivered.” Rather they were attempts to paganize Christianity, and were correctly suppressed. Orthodoxy may not be perfect, but it has got things basically right.
This is a “myth busting,” but reassuring book. Stark lets the facts speak for themselves. His sometimes surprising hypotheses are undergirded with solid evidence. What emerges is a picture of steady but relentless growth, not dependent on missional “superstars,” but on the persistent ongoing faith of people whose examples steadily eroded the inferior beliefs of those around them.
Stark makes his scholarship easily accessible to the ordinary reader. Cities of God will give you a new insight into the lives of the first generations of Christians, with some important implications for we who are called to continue the work they began.
Cities of God, The real story of how Christianity became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, by Rodney Stark, Harper Collins, $24.95.