- Gender, Theory, and The Rise of Christianity: A Response to Rodney Stark
Scholarly attempts to account for the complex process that travels under the name of “the Christianization of the Roman Empire” have produced a rich and varied literature in the last century. 1 The extent to which women’s participation in the early Christian movement enabled that process has been an important subtopic of research, especially among feminist historians of late antiquity. 2 Worthy of special consideration [End Page 227] here is the extensive literature documenting women’s special attraction to particular forms of Christian belief and practice, those involving varying degrees of ascetic discipline. 3 It is within this broad framework that I have undertaken to engage the fifth chapter (“The Role of Women in Christian Growth”) of Rodney Stark’s recent book, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. [End Page 228]
This chapter is one piece of a larger mosaiclike argument in which Stark undertakes the very salutary task of accounting for the historical ascendancy of Christianity by making use of sociological theories and models. Stark’s earlier work has focussed primarily on contemporary religious movements, temporally and geographically remote from the worlds of the late ancient Mediterranean. His work to bring sociological theory to bear on this new material is particularly laudable since early Christianity has often been treated as qualitatively different from many other religious innovations that have emerged in different times and places. That special treatment can usually be traced back to some form of theological privileging or related queasiness. To attempt to explain the spread of Christianity through recourse to rational explanation rather than deus ex machina argumentation is a very worthy task indeed. And although this essay will express some rather substantive disagreements with Stark’s interpretations of the ancient evidence and renderings of the scholarly consensus on numerous points, it nevertheless shares considerable sympathy with the goal of providing a verifiable historical explanation for the eventual hegemony of Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean world. [End Page 229]
Questions of Method and Evidence
At the outset, some general questions about the assumptions that seem to underwrite Stark’s understanding of early Christianity and its broader cultural context need to be raised. There seems to be a tendency in the chapter (and perhaps the book as a whole) toward the generalizing use of monolithic interpretive categories: “Christianity,” “the Greco-Roman world,” “paganism,” “Judaism,” and so on, operate as uninterrogated and unitary categories. In his recent book on the cultural transformation that took place between the fourth and sixth centuries, historian Robert Markus has reminded us that “the image of a society neatly divided into ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ is the creation of late fourth-century Christians, and has been too readily taken at its face value by modern historians. . . . ‘Paganism’ . . . existed only in the minds, and, increasingly, the speech-habits, of Christians.” 4 And the category of “the Greco-Roman world” collapses considerable temporal and geographical differences, to say nothing of cultural and ethical ones.
“Christianity,” too, is in many ways a heuristic construction, especially in the early centuries of the movements that travelled under its name. Indeed, both “Judaism” and “Christianity” in antiquity have increasingly been rendered as plurals by historians of religion in an attempt to signal our expanded sense of variety in both of these traditions at this time. Moreover, the sharp distinctions that Stark invokes between “pagan” and “Christian” have been considerably blurred by historians in recent years.
In a similar vein, the category “women” simultaneously renders visible the historical specificity of sexual difference while obscuring a wide range of differences among women. (The unidentified sculpture reproduced on page 96 of Stark’s book is emblematic of the tendency to render any single image of a woman as a figure for “women in general.”) Which “Christianity” is it that afforded which Christian women a higher status than that of which of their non-Christian peers?
Of course, in order to see the big picture, one must sacrifice some level of detail. However, some level of specificity is required lest one be reduced to making absurd and patently false claims. What does it...