This presentation surveys theoretical developments in ancient Mediterranean religion related to social history. It examines one phenomenon, the rise of Christianity, as a case study for detecting how the same commitments can lead like-minded researchers in opposing directions depending on the theories and methods they use. This topic was famously studied by sociologist Rodney Stark in his widely-cited The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (1997). In the past decade, classical scholars and social historians began to re-evaluate the same question (Harris 2005). This development took place at the same time that religious studies scholars, New Testament researchers, and scholars interested in Late Antique Christianity also became fascinated by the “cultural turn,” by which it was asserted that very little about the past was recoverable beyond the rhetoric and ideologies of surviving texts (Martin and Cox Miller 2005).
Unfortunately, these widely divergent methodologies and intellectual commitments have worked to obscure, rather than sharpen, one of the most important social historical topics of the Roman Empire.
In order to move forward, this presentation explores two main intellectual commitments which are currently in tension in the fields of history, classics, literature, and religious studies. These are: (1) the current religious studies direction of problematizing rigid social and cultural labels by drawing upon anthropological and sociological constructions of identity and boundaries; and (2) the earnest desire by social and cultural historians to re-construct plausible narratives of change over time. Although there are benefits to both approaches, this presentation shows that a heavy reliance on frameworks borrowed from one or the other has stymied investigation into an important political topic. The question of how the Roman Empire became a dedicated Christian state is one such central question which must be re-opened. Although many continue to follow the lead of important scholars such as Peter Brown, whose work presumes a growing widespread conversion to Christianity over the course of the fourth century (Brown 2012), new models suggest that the creation of a Christian state was not dependent on the overwhelming majority of the Empire’s citizens having a “come-to-Jesus” moment (Boin 2015). A greater attention to the social differences within Christian communities in Rome can thus suggest a different way of writing about how and why Christians succeeded in banning non-Christian practices throughout the Roman Empire.
My presentation suggests that, while theories and methods adapted from anthropological and sociological research are a necessary part of the discipline in ancient Mediterranean religion, they cannot be substituted for a rigorous, contextual social-historical analysis of documents and artifacts, all of which needed to put in the service of building new, plausible models to account for social change during the fourth century Roman Empire.