Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with over 2 billion followers globally. But how did this faith come to be? Who was the founder of Christianity?
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Christianity was founded by Jesus Christ, a Jewish preacher who lived in the 1st century CE in Roman Judea. His life, teachings, death, and resurrection lay the foundation for the Christian faith.
In this comprehensive guide, we will examine the origins of Christianity in detail – from the social and religious context that set the stage for a new faith, to the key figures and events that launched the Christian movement. We’ll explore things like:
The Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ
Jesus’s early life and ministry
Jesus was born around 4 BC in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-7). According to the Gospels, Jesus grew up in Nazareth and began his public ministry around the age of 30 when he was baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-23).
After his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the Judaean Desert where he was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus then began preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, teaching that people should repent and believe for the kingdom was near (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15).
He also called his first disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John (Matthew 4:18-22).
Jesus’s teachings and miracles
During his ministry, Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and taught extensively through parables about the kingdom of God. Some of Jesus’s most famous parables are the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23).
Jesus also performed many miracles like healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, and raising people from the dead. Some examples are healing a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), feeding 5,000 people (Matthew 14:13-21), walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33) and raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45).
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus performed many other signs not recorded but these were written “that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah”.
Opposition from religious authorities
As Jesus’s ministry grew, opposition arose from Jewish religious authorities who were angered by Jesus’s claims of divinity and teachings which challenged the Mosaic law. According to Mark 3:6, the Pharisees began to plot to kill Jesus.
They questioned his authority (Mark 11:27-33), set traps to catch him breaking religious laws (Luke 11:53-54), and eventually arrested him on charges of blasphemy for claiming he was the Son of God (Matthew 26:57-68).
This mounting opposition culminated in Jesus being brought before Pontius Pilate by the Sanhedrin to be crucified (Matthew 27:1-2, John 18:28-19:16).
The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
Jesus’s trial and crucifixion
Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, on charges of blasphemy. He was mocked and beaten and eventually brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.
Pilate did not find Jesus guilty of any crime, but bowed to the pressure of the crowd and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Jesus was brutally whipped and forced to carry his cross to Golgotha, where he was nailed to the cross between two thieves.
He suffered greatly on the cross, but forgave his persecutors before dying. His lifeless body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea.
The resurrection – foundation of Christian belief
On the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus’s tomb was found empty by some of his female followers. Over the next 40 days, Jesus appeared multiple times to his disciples and followers. His resurrection is the central fact of Christian history and the foundation of Christian belief.
The resurrection confirmed Jesus’s divinity and his victory over sin and death. It authenticated his teachings and the redemptive role he claimed. The fact that Jesus appeared bodily after his death contradicted the expectation that the Messiah was supposed to be a military and political leader.
But his resurrection vindicated Jesus’s messianic claims and paved the way for the rapid spread of Christianity after his ascension. The resurrection appearances of Jesus are recounted in the New Testament books and early Christian creeds.
Critical scholars continue to study and debate the historicity of the resurrection.
The Emergence of the Early Christian Church
Pentecost and the Holy Spirit
The early Christian church emerged following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A key event was the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples and enabled them to speak in many languages for evangelism (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
This empowered the disciples to spread the gospel message with boldness and conviction.
Initial spread and growth of church
In the first few decades after Jesus’ death, the church grew rapidly. The Acts of the Apostles records how the disciples started preaching in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and then more distant regions.
Key evangelists like Paul and Barnabas spread the faith across the Roman Empire (History.com). By the early 2nd century AD, Christian communities had been established in major cities like Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch.
Key leaders and evangelists in early church
Several leaders emerged who were instrumental in spreading Christianity and organizing the early church structure:
- The apostles Peter and Paul traveled extensively to preach the gospel and establish new church communities.
- James, the brother of Jesus, was an influential leader in the Jerusalem church.
- Barnabas mentored Paul and accompanied him on missionary trips before parting ways over a dispute.
- Other notable evangelists included Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple who worked with Paul.
These courageous leaders braved persecution and resistance to spread the Christian message. Their tireless efforts paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion of Europe and beyond.
Core Christian Doctrines and Scripture
Development of Christian theology
Christian theology has evolved over the past 2,000 years as theologians and church leaders have studied scripture and debated issues. In the first few centuries CE, early church fathers like Augustine and Athanasius formulated foundational doctrines about the nature of God and Jesus.
The early ecumenical councils produced seminal documents like the Nicene Creed that established orthodox beliefs. Over the centuries since, theologians have continued to build on these foundations.
Some key developments include the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, which questioned Catholic doctrines and traditions. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin established new Protestant theology and doctrine.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advent of biblical criticism and increased dialogue between denominations sparked new theological contemplation. Thinkers like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr made significant contributions.
Key contemporary issues include the role of women in ministry, faith and science questions, and interreligious dialogue.
Establishment of Biblical canon
The biblical canon refers to the set of texts considered authoritative scripture. Canon formation was a complex process that took place over several centuries. Many writings circulated in the early church, but church leaders wanted to define an official collection.
There was much debate over which books were divinely inspired and which might contain false teachings.
By the late 300s CE, the early church had essentially established the canon familiar to modern Christians. The definitive endorsements from church councils and leaders gave the 27 books of the New Testament special authority.
Today, Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain additional apocryphal books not found in Protestant Bibles. While details vary between denominations, core books like the four Gospels have long enjoyed universal acceptance among Christian groups.
Ongoing archeological discoveries provide fresh insight into the scriptural diversity of early Christianity. The 1945 discovery of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi opened new academic discussions over the criteria for canonicity.
While these rediscovered writings do not carry the authority of books like Romans or Genesis, they help scholars reconstruct early canon debate.
Christianity’s Separation from Judaism
Tensions over law observance
In the first century CE, Christianity emerged from Judaism as a new religion. There were several factors that contributed to the separation between Christianity and Judaism:
One major point of contention was the issue of following the Jewish law (Torah). The Torah contains 613 commandments that observant Jews are expected to follow. However, Jesus and his early followers preached a message that valued faith and love over strict observance of the law.
This created conflict with Jewish religious authorities who accused Jesus of undermining the Torah.
After Jesus’ death, the early Christian church debated whether non-Jewish converts needed to follow the Torah. The Apostle Paul argued forcefully that Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised or follow the full Mosaic Law.
This perspective ultimately won out, allowing Christianity to spread rapidly among non-Jews in the Roman Empire.
Formal split after destruction of temple
Tensions continued to grow between the Jesus movement and mainstream Judaism. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Judaism underwent significant changes. With the temple (the center of Jewish worship) gone, rabbis and sages emerging to lead Judaism as it adjusted to new realities.
At the same time, the Jesus movement, led by the followers of Jesus and later by Paul spread across the Roman Empire separate from the Jewish community. As Christianity distanced itself from Judaism, it adopted practices like Sunday worship rather than the Jewish Sabbath.
By the 2nd century CE, Christianity was generally considered a new and distinct religion.
Some key factors that contributed to the formal split:
- Christianity’s rapid growth among non-Jews diluted Jewish practices and identity.
- The destruction of the Second Temple marginalized temple priests and Levites who resisted Christian claims about Jesus.
- As Christianity spread to Greece and Rome, it adopted Greek and Roman thought and language, moving even further from Judaism.
- Leaders like Paul actively rejected circumcision and other requirements to remove barriers to converting non-Jews.
The break was gradual, but by the 4th century CE, Christianity and Judaism were firmly established as separate religions. The divide was deepened by hostility and resentment on both sides, as Christians and Jews each viewed the other as heretical.
As we have seen, Christianity originated in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in 1st century CE Judea. His followers initially operated within Judaism, but gradually spread their message to Gentiles and established themselves as a distinct religion.
Core Christian doctrines like incarnation and resurrection emerged early, and the Bible took shape over several centuries. Despite persecution, Christianity continued to grow throughout the Roman Empire. Today it remains the world’s predominant faith tradition.