I am going to blog on my forthcoming book in chapter order but given the recent debates I thought it was worth giving a brief overview of conversion. The approaches I use are therefore based on sociological approaches that can explain social/historical change rather than the more typological models. The latter are interesting for various reasons but are not so useful for explaining change. As I said, I will blog on these features another date but I just wanted to justify briefly the reasons why I chose certain approaches to conversion over others.
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 convert to Judaism.
That is all pretty conventional (although people will endlessly debate specifics), even in NT studies, or at least among NT scholars who study such things. The above reasons are why I think the approach to conversion through pre-existing social networks is important. But that isn’t saying much new. I thought there needed to be several crucial points added in order to explain various other social and historical changes but that can wait for now…