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  • Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity
  • Dietmar Neufeld
Leif E. Vaage , editor. Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. v, 324. $85.00

In the competitive environment of Christians, Jews, and pagans relating in the early Roman Empire, the rise and development of Christianity is herein chronicled. Twelve essays address the question of the degree to which, and 'in which manner(s), did each of these traditions, in its variant forms, emerge, survive, and sometimes achieve social dominance by contending – competing, collaborating, coexisting – with its neighbours, specifically in urban contexts of the early Roman Empire?' The book is divided into three parts: 'Rivalries?' 'Mission?' and 'Rise?'

Leif E. Vaage's 'Ancient Religious Rivalries and the Struggle for Success: Christians, Jews, and Others in the Early Roman Empire' offers a critical reflection on Edward Gibbon's notion of the 'superiority of Christianity's doctrine under the ruling providence of the great author,' Adolf Harnack's notion of 'mission and expansion,' and Arthur Darby Nock's 'conversion.' Each is found deficient. Part 1 explores the expansion of Christianity under the rubric of 'rivalries.' Philip A. Harland's 'The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context' examines religious rivalries in the context of the ongoing vitality of ancient civic life. Stephen G. Wilson's 'Rivalry and Defections' shows that the reasons for defection were complex: hostile pressure, career advancement, social advancements, social attachments, prior religious experience, and intellectual doubt. Rena Basser's 'Is the Pagan Fair Fairly Dangerous? Jewish–Pagan Relations in Antiquity' explores the reticence expressed by rabbis about involvement in pagan festivals – concerned because of the threat of idolatry – yet conceding some involvement because of economic exigency. Jack N. Lightstone, in 'My Rival, My Fellow: Conceptual and Methodological Prolegomena to Mapping Inter-Religious Relations in 2nd and 3rd Century CE Levantine Society Using the Evidence of Early Rabbinic Texts,' concludes that while there is evidence for religious rivalry there is also evidence for cooperation driven by pragmatic necessity.

Part 2 focuses on 'mission.' Terence L. Donaldson's 'The Field God Has Assigned: Geography and the Mission of Paul' concludes that while Paul was instrumental in the spread of Christianity, he was not driven by a sense of being a missionary. Steve Mason's 'The Contra Apionem in Social and Literary Context: An Invitation to Judean Philosophy' sets Josephus' Contra Apionem in its immediate social and literary milieu and concludes that its purpose is to encourage potential converts to Judaism. Roger Beck's 'On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for [End Page 217] the Propagation of the Mysteries' examines the Virunum – a bronze plaque containing a membership list of a Mithraeum – to conclude that it illustrates active recruitment into the Mysteries of Mithras in their mature phase.

Part 3 centres on the issue of the 'rise' of Christianity as articulated by Rodney Stark's 'The Rise of Christianity.' Stark proposes that the spread of early Christianity was due not to mass conversions or the persuasive power of its message but to recruiting members from Diaspora Jewish communities. Adele Reinhartz's 'Rodney Stark and "The Mission to the Jews,"' uses the Gospel of John to test Stark's approach and finds it problematic: it does not account for Samaritans and Greeks also coming to Jesus, it fails to distinguish the stages in community growth, and it fails to account for the Johannine community's expulsion from the synagogue that would have fractured social networks upon which Christian missionary activity was dependent. Steven C. Muir's 'Look How They Love One Another: Early Christian and Pagan Care for the Sick and Other Charity' refines Stark's notion that providing health care and other charities contributed to the expansion of Christianity. While Christian acts of charity were not as innovative as Stark holds them to be, they were nevertheless significant to the growth of Christianity. Beck's 'The Religious Market of the Roman Empire: Rodney Stark and Christianity's Pagan Competition' and Vaage's 'Why Christianity Succeeded (in) the Roman Empire' round out the volume. Beck points out that Stark's view of a dissipating paganism in...


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pp. 217-218
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