The story of Christianity begins with a look at who the earliest converts were and what it was that drew them to this radically different belief system. Although Jesus and all the followers who knew him in life were Jews, the evidence about how many Jews actually followed him or his later disciples is somewhat contradictory. The Acts of the Apostles alludes to the number of believers reaching into the thousands and all of Jerusalem knowing of the miracles being performed by Peter and John. However; they could not have constituted a significant sect in Jerusalem. Jewish historian Josephus mentions four prominent sects in Jerusalem and the smallest group, the Essenes, were numbered at around 4000 (according to Philo of Alexandria). Since Josephus knew that the Christian sect existed the sect must have numbered much less than four thousand or he would have listed it among the prominent sects of Jerusalem instead of just a simple notation.
If fourth century church historian Eusebius is correct, whatever was left of the Jerusalem Christians fled prior to the Roman army surrounding Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and ended up in the city of Pella (near the Sea of Galilee). Again, no records of a large influx exists so it may very well have been just a few stragglers. The numbers may be irrelevant because the seeds for the decline of the Jerusalem church were already sewn approximately 20 years earlier.
The event that sealed the fate of the Jerusalem church was the Council of Jerusalem somewhere around AD 50. With Paul arguing for gentile inclusion and James (Jesus’ brother?) supporting the opposite view, Peter seems to have cast the deciding vote in the direction of the gentiles. After the stoning of Stephen, the Jesus followers were kicked out of Jerusalem. Little is heard from Jewish Christians after this point, although there must have been some remaining if they were to flee to Pella during the Jewish war 20 years later.
By the seventeenth chapter of Acts the whole world had heard of Paul and his followers. The Jerusalem church was being eclipsed by the larger Greek and Roman cities even though they were still attempting to assert their control with the claim that they were the people that knew the real Jesus. It appears early on that Paul was far more successful with his message directed to non-Jews than was the Jerusalem sect preaching directly to Jesus’ own religious bretheren.
The story of Christianity; however, is not about how or if the Jews accepted Jesus as a messiah figure. It is the story of how non-Jews accepted it. In fact; the spreading of the message to non-Jews most likely convinced the Jews of the day that this was not a religion for them. After all, they were the chosen people. Including everyone else made this point obsolete. When the Apostle Paul began preaching to gentiles, he was preaching to a crowd that knew little about the Hebrew scriptures but did know of the uniqueness of monotheistic judaism. In a sense Paul was working with a blank slate. He introduced them to the concept of messiah as he defined it. He did not have to justify why his description of his messiah did not match up to that being taught by the Jews.
Early second century Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote of questioning two slave women who were reportedly deaconesses in the local Christian church. If this is the case (and there is reason to doubt it) lower class women made up a good portion of the early church. It does appear, though, that by the end of the first century men ruled most of the churches.
For the Jews, the prophesied anointed one from the house of David who would unite all of Israel and win a great battle against its oppressor. In whatever way the early Christians painted Jesus, the first century Jews would have been hard pressed to recognize as the messiah a dead Roman criminal, resurrection or no resurrection. The message must have been a very tough sell to the Jews.
While the Jewish component of Christianity seems to have withered, the gentile component caught on. The primary reason for this was the message itself, which appealed, not to Roman plebs (citizens), but to the denizens that did not share all the privileges of the empire. The Jews did not buy Paul’s message and later events would show the Roman officials were not very receptive either but the message found appeal among those not enjoying all the entitlements afforded to Roman citizenry. This would have been especially true for women, who played a significant role in early Christianity, including providing many of the houses that the early followers met and communed within.
Paul was preaching the coming of a new world order. Christ was returning imminently and he would raise up all those who believed in him and bring justice to a world possessing very little. For the poor, women, the outcasted, and slaves hearing this message it must have been fantastic. Soon they would escape the coming judgement. Their masters and tormenters would be getting their just comeuppance. In an empire of 50-60 million with only about 5-7 million actually possessing the rights of citizenship the vast majority had the opportunity to see the world order reversed. Furthermore, Christianity was an exclusive sect that rapidly built an internal support system. A few pagans, even some with prominent positions, also found this appealing.
The rapid expansion of this message in the AD 40s and 50s is not that difficult to conceive. While Christianity required the pagans to give up on there numerous gods and worship only the Christ, this would not have been so tough considering how little the pagan gods had actually done for these people. Paul was teaching that the day of reckoning was close at hand plus he was providing something in addition to the apocalypse. He gave them a sense of exclusivity. He created a secret community for people that had none, complete with code words, secret clubhouses, and a belief that they knew something the rest of the world did not. Paul, in essence, created a community within a community; one that appealed to those not enjoying the benefits of the larger, official community.
One can almost imagine them, giddy with delight, meeting secretly to sing and rejoice and make fun of their social betters that would shortly regret following those ridiculous gods. This same attitude today can be seen amongst evangelical Christians whose opponents no longer worship pagan gods, but instead worship science and modernity. The “true Christians” know something the rest of the world does not, or so they believe.
Inside the underground catacombs that were under the outskirts of Rome, Christians met in relative safety. Symbols usch as the fish sign originated down here enabling Christians to identify each other. While the official language of Rome was Latin, most of the Christian writings were in Greek.
For the earliest of Christians no written gospels were necessary. Jesus’ life and teaching were secondary to the message that Paul taught, which was that Jesus had died, had been resurrected, and was returning shortly to gather up his believers. Because Paul had cut the ties with the laws of Judaism, becoming a believer was made much less complicated. In fact, distance from the Jewish laws was absolutely critical. A large portion of the early Christians were slaves and peasants. These people could not often choose not to work on a particular day. They could not choose what to eat and what not to eat. For many, their lives were not their own so practicing the complicated Jewish laws were not only difficult, in many cases it would have been impossible. (Circumcision would not have been very popular either). Paul got rid of these obstructions.
The way Paul disposed of the Jewish laws is crucial to understanding Christianity. Paul did not simply give Christians a pass, allowing them to follow the laws if they were so inclined but acknowledging that they were not crucial. Had he taken this approach Christians would have always felt themselves inferior to the Jews who kept the laws. Instead, Paul turned the tables. Following the Jewish laws was proof that one was not a true believer. Reliance on the Jewish laws meant one was not relying on the grace of Christ. Paul made the Christian beliefs superior to those of the Jews. In this atmosphere and among this audience it is easy to see how Paul’s message could spread in pagan Rome.
One of the more puzzling aspects of Christianity, a religion that claims to possess the truth, is the huge level of disunity among the believers. Some estimate that there are more than 30,000 different Christian denominations but this presents a somewhat exaggerated picture of the religion in total. The bulk of the varying denominations can be traced to about eight traditional origins: Latin Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran Protestantism, Calvinist Protestantism, Anglican, Pentecostalism, Restorationist, and liberal theologists. One way to view the differences is if they have murdered each other over doctrinal differences those differences must be significant enough to draw lines of distinction.
When asked to explain why there are so many variations of the Christian religion, apologists typically discuss the politics of the Roman Empire, the reformation and simple differences of opinion about doctrinal issues. Tracing the differences to political divisions seems to gloss over the heart of the divisions. A protestant fundamentalist explanation at least presents a definitive answer. The divergence of Christianity is the work of Satan who seeds confusion in order to conceal the truth.
At its core, Christianity has a message that a great many people find as appealing today as the earliest Christians. The disunity rests with the problem that both Jesus and his most prominent adherent, Paul taught a message of apocalyptic revolution that proved wrong. Rather than give up on the religion they found so appealing, they developed hundreds or thousands of explanations to explain this contradiction. Two thousand years of Christian doctrine has been about rationalizing the basic errors inherit in an apocalyptic foundation that didn’t get its apocalypse. This forms the bulk of Christian theology, namely a set of explanations for why everything did not work out properly in the beginning.
Roman Catholicism maintained its preeminence and its adherence to one single set of explanations for 1500 years thanks to its reliance on ignorance, illiteracy and intimidation. When this began to show cracks it became more rigid and dogmatic. As soon as the gates were opened by Martin Luther the varying explanations began to pour out. Within a very short time there were dozens, then hundreds of new sets of explanations. Very quickly Protestantism had to cope with the problem that Catholicism was well aware of for centuries. If everyone is allowed to interpret the Bible as one sees fit then everyone might come up with their own doctrine. In large part, this is what occurred.
Through all the divisions among Christianity; dating back to the first century and continuing forward to the present, two basic themes emerge. One is the Kingdom of God view which is best espoused by the Roman Catholic Church. The other is the apocalyptic Christ return view espoused prominently among the more fundamentalist segments of the Protestant faiths, and all of the “Left Behind” adherents.
As the Church in Rome began to stabilize as the dominant force in early Christianity the first concept that had to be jettisoned was the imminent second coming message that had galvanized the earliest followers. If everyone was simply waiting for Christ’s return there would be no reason to build a stable church.
Jettisoned by Catholicism, this ball was picked up by various Protestant communities who used it to gain membership in much the same fashion as the Apostle Paul used it to win early converts. It worked for Paul and it has been successful for many Protestant groups as well.
The variety and imaginative explanations for the errancy of the initial message is why Christianity has splintered into so many variations. It is man-made rationalization that has produced the diverse doctrines that make up denominational Christianity. The religion has stood up in the face of the errancy because at the core is the passion narrative. The depiction of Jesus’ last hours possesses such a power emotional component that it alone keeps the followers believing. The Christian religious perspectives are simply the various and differing means for explaining away all the falsity so the message of the passion can be preserved.