Chapter 3: The Mission to the Jews: Why it Probably Succeeded

Some historians believe that Christianity was not able to convert very many Jews. Stark believes otherwise, however, and thinks the evidence backs it up.

Evidence against Stark

Evidence that Jews did not convert to Christianity in large numbers:

  • There were still synagogues and Jewish communities present, so they must not have all become Christian.
    • Counterargument: There was a similar argument made by a couple of sociologists in the 1950s. They pointed out the existence of all the Little Italys and Little Polands, and concluded that the idea of an American melting pot was a myth; lots of Europeans did not assimilate. But in fact closer study showed that lots of Italians and Poles had assimilated, and the presence of a Little Italy or Little Poland only appeared to show that they had not assimilated. So the continued existence of synagogues and Jewish communities does not necessarily mean that Jews did not convert to Christianity in large numbers.
  • Jewish and Christian writings contain much bitterness about each other; they apparently couldn’t get along, which probably reflected the fact that not many Jews actually became Christians.

Jewish marginalization

In the 19th century Jews in most European nations were emancipated from their ghettos. Many Jews who left discovered that Judaism was not only a religion, but also an ethnicity, and that the ghettos were not just imposed by the outside nations, but were also necessary to be Jewish. Jews outside of ghettos had to shed their highly distinctive appearance, ease up on their dietary habits (there were no kosher butcheries outside), etc.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews became marginalized – no longer accepted as Jews (often having been excommunicated from Judaism and shunned by family), and not truly assimilated Gentiles either. Someone is marginalized when their membership in two groups poses a contradiction or cross pressure such that their status in each group is lowered by their membership in the other.

  • Proposition: People will attempt to escape or resolve a marginal position.
  • Some Jews in the 19th century tried to resolve their marginality by becoming Christians; others tried to become a new kind of Jew. This was the birth of Reform Judaism, which tried to divorce religion from ethnicity. It focused on theology and ethics instead of on custom and practice. They considered themselves a religious community but not a nation. Stark argues that Hellenized Jews were similarly marginalized at the time of the rise of Christianity, and that many would have reacted to Christianity then as they did to Reform Judaism in the 19th century.

Recall that new religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities. Also, it is sometimes assumed that recruits to a new religious movement are “seekers”, but in fact they are often just people who are not attached to any religion.

  • The great secularity of North American and European Jews in recent times is reflected in the extraordinary rates at which their children have been joining new religious movements (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

Proposition: 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.

  • Potential Mormon recruits are not asked to discard their Christian belief, only to build on it (accept a third Testament). The same is true of potential followers of Jesus, and of Mohammed, and of potential Moonies.
  • Disagreement: I think that Stark treads on thin ice here. As he argues that people join new religious movements in large numbers because it is familiar to them, his argument for an overrepresentation of the privileged is weakened. Recall that one major reason that fewer poor join new religious movements is that it takes money to change your lifestyle significantly. Also, he argues that the privileged are more educated, and the more educated are more likely to become discontented with their own religion and more receptive to recruitment to other religions. But if someone has grown discontented with her own religion because she has seen weaknesses exposed by science or philosophy, will she be interested in joining a new religious movement that is familiar and similar?

Proposition: Social movements grow much faster when they spread through preexisting social networks.

  • This is important because people usually do not seek a new faith. They encounter one through their ties to other people who already accept this faith.
  • In addition, religious movements grow when their members continue to form new relationships with outsiders.
  • Recruiting someone who is part of a large social network (friends and family) will be better for future growth than the recruitment of social isolates. The average Mormon recruit has been preceded by several friends and family members.

So Christianity probably had to work through preexisting social networks; converts need to have come from communities united by attachments.

  • This does not match with the image of proselytizers seeking out most converts along the streets and highways, or calling them forth from the crowds in the marketplaces.
  • Also, network growth requires that missionaries from a new faith already have, or easily can form, strong attachments to such networks.

Hellenized Jews in the Diaspora

Diaspora Jews outnumbered Palestinian Jews by a factor of four (or even five to six) to one. Also, Diaspora Jews were primarily urban (like early Christians outside Palestine), and were fairly wealthy. They had adopted lives that made them marginal vis-à-vis the Judaism of Jerusalem. Their Hebrew even deteriorated somewhat; Jews outside Palestine read, wrote, spoke, thought and worshiped in Greek. They were marginalized in much the same way as Jews were marginalized in Europe more recently. Many were Jewish in religion but not in culture. They were also not Greek; The Law set them apart.

The famous Apostolic Council decided not to force Christian converts to observe The Law. Although this usually is thought to have brought in many gentiles who were not interested in following the Law, Stark asks these questions: “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?” He thus suggests that the marginalized Diaspora Jews (Hellenized Jews) would be the most interested in abandoning their religion and joining the Christian religion, which was free of ethnicity.

Cultural Continuity

Christianity resolved the conflict faced by marginalized Jews. It retained their religious experience, for the most part, while also accommodating them to Greek culture.

  • The New Testament is somewhat different from the Old, but devotes itself to displaying how it is a fulfillment of the Old Testament.


When Christian missionaries were sent out of Palestine, they would likely have gone to groupings of Hellenized Jews first, since these people had a similar background. We know, in fact, that Paul did just this. Such groupings were used to receiving teachers from Jerusalem, and there were probably some family and friendship connections between these groupings and the Christian missionaries.

  • Note that Jews would be more willing to hear about a messiah from Palestine than would gentiles, who would think of Palestine as a backwater. Also, they would not have been put off so much by the facts of the Crucifixion: the cross was a symbol used to signify the Messiah in Hebrew manuscripts prior to the Crucifixion. Many gentiles seemed to have problems with the idea of a deity executed as a common criminal.

Almost all New Testament historians agree that many converts did come from the Diaspora Jews, but only in the beginning. They agree on these facts:

  • Many of the converts mentioned in the New Testament can be identified as Hellenized Jews.
  • Much of the New Testament assumes an audience familiar with the Septuagint.
  • Christian missionaries frequently did their public teaching in the synagogues of the diaspora – and may have continued to do so far into the second century.
  • Archeological evidence shows that the early Christian churches outside of Palestine were concentrated in the Jewish sections of cities.

If they agree on all this, why should they think that the social forces that initially allowed great recruitment from the Diaspora Jews would suddenly disappear? There is no evidence to believe that Christianity abandoned its Jewish connections all of a sudden (as Frend asserts it does between 145 and 170).


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