Even though well documented academic and specialized studies – nowadays easily accessible on the market – illustrating the contrary have substantially increased in number, the common vulgata that projects original Christianity as a pauperistic-revolutionary movement of the oppressed and reads its affirmation in history as the “poisoned fruit” of the merely political option of the Emperor Constantine (274-337) never ceases to attract followers. The latest book of the American sociologist of religion, Mr. Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at the University of Baylor in Texas, has finally been published in Italian by Lindau. Regarding what has been said above, this book offers a stirring yet ever serious global investigation into the birth, development and success of the early Church’s evangelization. Moving from a basis of historical fact it explores a considerable timeframe ranging from the first years immediately after the death of Christ (and ideally narrated in the Acts of the Apostles) all the way to the dawn of the V century, which witnessed the golden age of patristics, culminating in the works and teachings of the masters of the school of Antioch such as St. Epiphanies of Salamina (315-403) and St. John Chrysostom (345-407).
The statistical-quantitative approach preferred by Mr. Stark (by no means common in dominant literature) is what sustains the theses underlying the book’s structure: from the fact that “the early Christians came mostly from the upper classes” (pg. 16) insofar as they lived in the large cities (not in the countryside or on the outskirts of cities), and the language used by the early Christian writers was addressed “evidently to a scholarly and learned public” (pg. 17), to the fact – equally proven by various testimonials in our possession – of the constant appeal to the force of reason and its intrinsic capability that persuaded many intelligent and educated persons (in the learned class, but not only) to “choose” Christianity as the definitive Revelation of God to man. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the impressive and relatively swift ‘Christianization’ of the empire had been imposed by anyone; on the contrary, the determining motive for such a success is to be sought in the fact that the Christian faith did not just offer some sort of reasonable motivation for the hardship and suffering of life, or a more convincing rationale behind the unfathomable mystery of history and human life, but really rendered life less arduous and painful. As the Author says: “The crucial change that took place in the III century was the rapidly spreading awareness of a faith that freely gave powerful antidotes against the suffering of existence here and now!” (pg. 43), beginning from the primacy of unconditioned love for neighbor and the daily practice of the so-called ‘golden rule’ (cf. Lk 6:31; Mt 2:12), which gave rise to a vast and heretofore unseen network of social charity akin to a miniature welfare state in a civilization which, albeit admirable in other ways, had no idea of the public value of solidarity or receptivity towards the weakest members of society (whose lives, not by chance, were already deemed unworthy of being lived). In brief, having ascertained that due to its logical and deductive capacity Christianity appeared intellectually stimulating and more plausible to the upper classes of the empire than any other form of paganism, it must not be forgotten that other social classes such as the infirm, orphans, widows, the elderly, the poor and slaves were material and very concrete ‘beneficiaries’ of the voluntary assistance networks that expanded hand in hand with the proclamation of the Good News.
Mr. Stark’s statistics, however, delve even deeper. The author demonstrates how in little less than three centuries Christianity succeeded in becoming the most widespread religion in the thirty major cities of the Roman empire. How was that possible? Determining factors were the extent and regularity of travel and trade in the middle eastern region (that exposed the main ports of the Mediterranean to ongoing ‘contamination’ with the Christian missions that departed from Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria), and the relative influence of the Hellenistic culture in each major city. This fact was also evoked at Regensburg by Benedict XVI in his Lectio magistralis as a constituent and ever present feature of western culture in its most positive and dynamic meaning, which serves as the selfsame grounds for discussion about human rights and recognizes human dignity as a ‘universal principle’ – insofar as derived from human reason itself – and hence ‘non negotiable’. In fact, Mr. Stark argues: “Not only did the early Christians speak Greek, but early Christian writings were in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic […] In the first century many more were the Jews who spoke Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic” (pg. 101). St. Paul, quite evidently a key figure of this ‘missionary’ period of the early Church, was one of these persons: “a Hellenistic Jew who had been raised in an environment where Greek was the daily language” (pg. 101). If we add to this the fact that the fathers of the early Church wrote in Greek, as we know, and both the apostles and the early evangelists preached in Greek, “it is likely that even in Rome itself the Christian faith was handed on only in Greek until late in the II century” (pg. 101). Moreover, an additional and important link between Hellenism and Christianity that abounded with consequences is to be seen in the Jews of the diaspora (approximately 10% of the empire’s total population). Not by chance were these Jews the closest to the preaching of St. Paul and the most directly ‘interested’ in the proclamation of the Good News, which they saw – quite logically insofar as coming from the Law of Moses but already living the seeds of liberty sown by the Greek culture – as the ideal completion of the Old Testament (we can’t get into this in depth, but in all truth, and besides the fact that Christianity slowly began as a Jewish movement, this is where we are to find the most evident grounds and justification for the Jewish-Christian roots of the European continent). In historical terms this is why Christianity was better received in cities influenced by the Hellenic culture (Caesarea, Ephesus, Byzantium, Corinth), compared with those places were Hellenism remained in the background. The other parts of this book, equally brilliant and based on extensive documentation, shed light on the relationship between Christianity and the more ‘aggressive’ pagan cults like Mithraism, the challenge of Gnosticism (born not within the church, but self-qualified from the outset as a separate religion basically and radically alternative to Christianity), and the age of Constantine, which emerges as a much more pluralistic epoch than people imagine and was characterized by a government which enjoyed a sort of cross-cutting consensus unusual for those times (acknowledged by both pagan and Christian sources).