Posted by: aboutalbion | November 6, 2012

The sect and the cult

The sociologist, Rodney Stark, uses the concepts and definitions (in three posts last week) to explore the social class base of Christian origins.

He characterizes what we might know about the religious movement which had the figure of Jesus at its centre as “a sect movement within Judaism”. (p44)

By contrast, he characterizes what we might know about the religious movement which had the figure of Saul/Paul at its centre “as a cult movement within the context of the [Roman] empire”. (p45)  His evidence for this  latter judgement is that the ‘resurrection’ and other ideas “added far too much new culture to Judaism to be any longer an internal [Judaic] sect movement”. (p44)

The critical questions for historians follow on from these sociological observations.  Was the ‘sect’ transformed into the ‘cult’?  Or were the ‘sect’ and the ‘cult’ two independent movements which, after a time of competition, later merged in the way that economic enterprises do in a market place – or with even perhaps the larger (cult) taking over the smaller (sect)?

Stark cites the ambiguous evidence from the end of the process.  On the one hand, “the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem quickly labelled Christians as heretics” to be excluded. (p45)  On the other hand, “the complete break between church and synagogue took centuries”. (p44)

Stark reflects on the way that histories of Christian origins have been written over the past century or so, and he notes the clarification arising from the contribution of sociology.

He cites early twentieth writers who made “no distinction between cults and sects”, and who saw all “protest movements … as essentially proletarian”. (p34)  These writers concluded that (for example) Christianity’s “converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lowest classes of society”. (p29)  In Stark’s view, “E A Judge was perhaps the first major scholar of the present generation to raise a vigorous dissent”. (p30)  With approval he concludes that, following Judge, “a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes”. (p31)

Do this matter?  Stark answers in the affirmative.  “The fundamental thesis is simply put: If the early [‘Pauline’] church was like all the other cult movements for which good data exit, it was not a proletarian movement but was based on the more privileged classes.” (p33)

He argues that this is the value to history of sociological generalizations such as “Cult movements overrecruit persons of more privileged backgrounds”. (p46)

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity.  New York: HarperOne.]


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