This final major section takes a step back from the Christian textual action and provides an explanation for the crucial shift from a law observant movement to the origins of non-observance which was eventually to become a distinctive feature of Christianity in relation to Judaism.
NB: on conversion in general I just repeat (i.e. cut and paste) my earlier general discussion of conversion from Sept.). It might be worth skipping a few paragraphs if familiar...
The most significant work done on conversion and Christian origins in terms of socio-historical is that of Rodney Stark who, building on his own work as a sociologist of modern religious movements, showed how Christianity spread rapidly, not unlike modern day Mormonism. This work has been developed by several NT scholars. It is crucial to note just how important this approach has been in the sociology of religion. The classic approach to conversion developed by Stark and Lofland in the 1960s has been vigorously critiqued but the one aspect that has only been enhanced right up to the present day has been conversion through pre-existing social networks and affective ties (friendship, work place etc.). Statistically, results of conversion are consistently over (frequently well over) 50% for conversion through a pre-existing social tie. Consequently, it is actually very, very difficult to convert people through conventional proselytising (even though the ‘missionary’ may express themselves in such a way) as people tend to be immersed in their social settings (family, friends, political groups and so on). Proselytising is hard, hard work and members require much encouragement. Anyhow, here’s a nice quotation from Lewis Rambo:
Kinship and friendship networks are fundamental to most conversions, just as they are influential in resistance and rejection…I would argue that relationships are important to most but not all conversions…Virtually every social scientific study of conversion stresses the importance of relationships
A famous example is Mormonism. Conversion to Mormonism was not successful when knocking on doors where pre-existing social ties were lacking. If I remember correctly the success rate of conversion was 1 convert for 1000 doors knocked. Yet when a Mormon friend or relative provided a home for contact the success rate was about 50%. Moreover, Mormon missionary literature knows exactly how to convert and it involves careful establishment of friendships. Another famous example is that of the study of the Buddhist movement Nichiren Shoshu by David Snow and Cynthia Phillips where this pattern was also clear. 82% of their sample was recruited though a pre-existing social tie. Even among the remaining 18% conversions required the development on social ties with a member or members. They even argue that conversion is unlikely without an affective bond.
These are well known examples often repeated in secondary literature but there are countless studies done supporting such claims (and not based just on religious groups), with conversion through social networks even going as high as 100% in some cases. Incidentally, some people have said to me that the results are always from the US and Europe. This is not true. There have various other studies done e.g. the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, political systems in agrarian contexts of SE Asia, and so on. These results are all echoed in social network theory which is also a useful approach for Christian origins and has been used (e.g. Duling).
Most significantly for the purposes of Christian origins, there are various examples from the ancient world, including Christianity and Judaism. Wayne Meeks famously highlighted the various social networks underlying the Pauline mission (families, household, work place etc.) and showed how contacts could easily be made in an urban centre (cf. Acts 16.13; 18.2-3). Philip Harland has also provided numerous examples of ancient social networks among households, workplaces, marketplaces, neighbourhoods and so on and how networks overlapped and how people could (and did) belong to different networks. Importantly for Christian origins there were gentiles attracted to Judaism in varying degrees (cf. Shaye Cohen) and I am not convinced Acts made up the idea of gentiles attracted to synagogues, irrespective of the historicity of the individual passages. There are also stories of conversion in early Jewish literature (e.g. Josephus) where there are pre-existing social networks paving the way for the conversion to Judaism.
End of cut and paste...
That is all well known enough. What I do is play around with this model and look at reasons for non-observance and differing levels of commitment. Sociologists can talk in language of verbal converts – i.e. those who have some degree of attachment but are not (yet) fully convinced – and total converts, i.e. those who are spiritually and intellectually convinced. Some of the reports of converts are very interesting in this respect, e.g. major figures in new religious movements recalling how once they were at one spiritually but found some of the intellectual dimensions hard to swallow. It is worth speculating for the moment that those interested in earliest Christianity when it was law observant would have found distinctive practices like avoidance of pork a bit odd, not to mention circumcision of males. Gentiles puzzled at such issues are documented. And let’s not forget that things like Sabbath observance are not normative in certain Christian contexts by the 50s (cf. Rom. 14.1-6).
There is also the important sociological issue of countervailing influences. E.g. married couples: when one of them goes and starts joining a new religious movement but the other is not so up for it. Some examples involve both partners attending with one looking very embarrassed to be there, sometimes leading to a decision either way. The competing influences of marriage and religion were certainly there in earliest Christianity: see 1 Cor. 7:12-16. And there are a whole host of other countervailing influences mentioned in sociological literature: culture, friends, competing ideologies, etc. etc.
As an important aside, it should be noted that sometimes the new religious movement actually strengthens some friendship bonds, and can lead to conversion of friends and family if you’re very lucky.
Now you might object that this material is not so relevant because new religious movements are getting converts to change from their old ways to new ones which would be the exact opposite of earliest Christianity as I see it (i.e. it changes into something very different from a law observant movement). But cultural influences are not one way, including the case of conversion. What I argue is that increasing gentiles and friends of friends of friends becoming attached to the Christian movement leads to the historically particular situation of a significant enough number of interested gentiles not so bothered about keeping all the commandments. And someone had to make a decision one way or another…
As it turns out discussions of cultural mixing, as it were, are common enough in the sociological and religious studies literature. There are numerous examples of missionaries taking on local practices to various degrees, whether it is accommodating inappropriate dancing or allowing ‘foreign practices’ like flying the flag or statues of the Virgin Mary (JT Sanders has a good discussion of this) or localised converts to Islam continuing to be active in local cults while simply proclaiming that there is one God and Mohammad is God’s prophet on another day. There are relevant examples of this from studies of politics in peasant societies, e.g. in certain radical political movements: not only is voting via what the local leaders says but policies start looking not-very-revolutionary the further away from the centre. The Communist Party of Indonesia looked very different in rural Indonesia than it did among the Indonesian intelligentsia.
These general kinds of issues were certainly present at the time of Christian origins. Paul has to deal with the issue of food sacrificed to idols and in different contexts gentile converts to Christianity had to be warned about the dangers of idolatry. I argue that there are problems with levels of observance the further away from the centre and the more gentiles are becoming involved.
A bulk of this section is dedicated to applying all this background material to conversion to networks in the ancient world in general and conversion to early Judaism and earliest Christianity in particular, including the important observation by Philip Harland of dual or multiple affiliations and all the countervailing influences they bring. There is a load of evidence for differing levels of commitment or countervailing among converts, whether they are slaves who are forced to convert to Christianity or Judaism or political rulers feeling massive pressure not to circumcise if interested in marrying a Jewish woman (or just adopt Jewish practices if already from a culture where circumcision is the norm). I also go through some familiar passages and apply this stuff, e.g. conversion of Izates, forced conversion of the Idumeans and the aftermath, and the general suspicions that gentiles aren’t always the best at keeping the commandments in the long run.
To cut a long story short, the implications of all this are that gentile friends of friends of friends who did not feel obliged to observe the food laws, Sabbath, or whatever and those men who were not prepared to be circumcised played a historically significant role in the emergence of Christianity. We also have potential situations where gentiles attracted to Christianity when it was law observant in its earliest years may have behaved perfectly law observant in one context but very differently in another (one of the reasons I avoid the term proselyte). When the number of non-observers of the law increased then this becomes a problem: what to do with this load of people…and it isn’t easy to dismiss them. The Jerusalem conference is one attempt to deal with the issue. In this context Paul’s theology becomes significant, at least in the long term. Paul’s view on justification by faith without works of the law are best seen, I would argue, as an intellectual reaction to/justification of a messy social problem. It was not an idea that came as a bolt from the intellectual or supernatural blue.
It should be clear that I doubt whether history of ideas can have this kind of explanatory force or causal strength to explain why the Jesus movement shifted from a law observant movement to non-observant Christianity within a period of c. 20-25 years. I am not discounting the significance of ideas – they are part of the socio-economic world and provide the options for historical actors. But explaining historical change or the rise of a new religious movement (or most things) with reference to ideas divorced from socio-economic context is a very difficult thing to do in terms of an explantory approach.