The Origin of Christianity
In logic there is a maxim known as “the law of the excluded middle.” It asserts that a thing either is, or it is not. There is no “middle” ground. A line either is a straight line, or it is not a straight line. It cannot be partly straight and partly crooked. In such a case, the “partly crooked” portion would indicate that it is not altogether straight.
Let us apply “the law of the excluded middle” to Christianity: Christianity either is of divine origin, or it is not. If it is not of divine origin, then it is of human origin. If it is of human origin, then it is a false religion, because it claims to be of sacred design. On the other hand, if Christianity is of God—as it claims—there ought to be compelling evidence to buttress that affirmation.
When I speak of “Christianity” I am referring to the primitive Christian system as such existed in the first century and which, with diligent attention, may be replicated today (minus its miraculous elements). I am not speaking of the modern, digressive segments of the larger movement known as “Christendom.” With that understanding, one must acknowledge that the influence of the kingdom of Christ is seen—scattered around the globe—even in those movements that retain but a remnant of the Lord’s teaching.
In this brief discussion, we intend to focus on several factors which argue for the sacred origin of the religious system founded by Jesus Christ.
Factors Involved in the Commencement of Christianity
There are a number of traits that characterized primitive Christianity that demand an explanation if one is to identify its originating force. Let us consider some of these.
Christianity: A New Religion
The Christian movement was not a religious system that gradually evolved out of the cultural elements of antique society. It had a dramatic point of beginning. There are no traces of its roots in either Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece or Rome. Prior to the spring of
A.D. 30, Christianity did not exist. It had been in a state of intense preparation for the more than three years that spanned the ministries of John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth.
As a matter of fact, even though the Mosaic system was designed to prepare the way for the coming of Christianity (Galatians 3:24-25), the religion of Jesus was so strikingly different from the Hebrew regime, that it aroused the hostility of many Jews for the first forty years of its existence—until the Jewish economy fell to the Romans in
From the time of its commencement, however, Christianity was a significant religious force—not only in the Mediterranean world, but also in remote corners of the Roman Empire. Seemingly, it came from nowhere; and yet, very soon was everywhere. How did that happen?
A fundamental logical principle proclaims: “Every effect must have an adequate cause.” What is the cause behind the origin of the Christian religion? There must be some reasonable explanation for the abrupt genesis of this movement. If no satisfactory answer can be found in naturalism, one must look to a supernatural Cause as an explanation.
A Religious Explosion
For some reason—that scarcely can be explained on ordinary bases—the religion of Christ exploded on the landscape of first-century society. Jesus had only a handful of men (the apostles) who functioned as the leaders of his cause. From this tiny seed came the mighty Christian movement.
On the day of its birth the community of believers consisted of a minimum of three thousand persons (Acts 2:41). If the numeral three thousand constituted only those immersed that day, and not those disciples previously baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:5-6) and the Lord’s disciples (John 4:1-2), the total was significantly larger. Within a relatively short period of time, the number of saints was computed at five thousand adult men (Acts 4:4), not to mention the thousands of women who likewise were added to the body of believers.
It has been estimated that by the time Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:60), the Jerusalem church consisted of no fewer than twenty thousand souls (Kistemaker 1990, 148). This represented more than one-third of the estimated fifty-five thousand citizens in Jerusalem at that time (Jeremias 1969, 83).
Beyond that, the gospel rapidly spread from Palestine into Africa (Acts 8), Syria (Acts 9), Asia Minor (Acts 13ff), and finally into Europe (Acts 16ff). Paul, whose tireless travels spanned some twelve thousand miles, evangelized from Jerusalem to Rome—and perhaps as far as Spain (Romans 15:24,28).
Clement of Rome (ca.
A.D. 95) says that Paul reached “the boundary of the west” (1 Clement 5), which could be an allusion to Spain. Both Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.10.2) and Tertullian (Against Jews 7) confirm the presence of Christians in Spain in the second century
Christianity swept over the Roman Empire like a tidal wave. The New Testament pays tribute to this phenomenal growth. The Christians were charged with having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Their “sound went out into all the earth” (Romans 10:18); and was “bearing fruit” everywhere (Colossians 1:6).
Historian Will Durant (following the lead of Edward Gibbon) argued that by
A.D. 300, a quarter of the eastern segment of the empire was Christian, while about one twentieth of the western division was similarly identified (1944, 603). Those figures are now considered to be too conservative.
E.M. Blaiklock has noted that studies of the catacombs beneath the city of Rome (about six hundred miles of galleries) contain somewhere between 1.75 and 4 million “Christian” graves. He estimates that in the middle Empire at least twenty percent of Rome’s citizenry was made up of Christians—and at times the percentage was greater even. [Note: These tombs reflect an association with the Christian cause, though many of those buried doubtless had digressed from the pristine format.] The catacombs represent ten generations of believers (1970, 159). This would suggest that the city of Rome itself had somewhere between one hundred seventy-five to four hundred thousand Christians—each generation spanned! This is staggering.
The testimony of Tertullian (ca.
A.D. 160-220) is most dramatic:
Men proclaim that the state is beset with us. Every age, condition, and rank is coming over to us. We are only of yesterday, but already we fill the world (Apology 37.4).
Moreover, as we shall subsequently observe, this wildfire growth was achieved under the most adverse circumstances. Again, the question cries out for an answer: What was the cause to which this amazing growth may be attributed? What natural circumstances can account for this?
There is another powerful fact that may be mentioned briefly at this point. The initial impact of the gospel was within the Jewish community. The nucleus of the early church was Hebrew. As indicated above, many thousands of Jews converted to Christianity. It is an indisputable historical fact, however, that the Jews were strict monotheists. To them, there was but one deity. And yet, without controversy is the fact that Jesus made the claim of being divine (cf. John 5:18; 8:58; 10:30). Surely only the strongest sort of evidence would persuade a Jewish mind to acknowledge the humble Nazarene as “God” (cf. John 20:28).
An Unlikely Place of Origin
Consider the place from which Christianity took its rise. The movement was established in the city of Jerusalem in that rather obscure country called “Palestine” (the name ultimately derived from the “Philistine” tribe, but was applied as a title to Judaea in
A.D. 135 by the emperor Hadrian). Palestine hardly merited any attention in terms of a world force at the commencement of the first century. This tiny land was only about one hundred fifty miles from its northern border to its southern extremity. From Jaffa to Jericho, west to east, it is only about forty-five miles in width. The land encompassed about ten thousand square miles—smaller than the state of Massachusetts.
B.C. the Roman commander Pompey conquered Jerusalem and the Jews came under the invincible grip of Rome, “from which they were destined never to escape as an independent nation” (Dana 1937, 91). The Jews of the first century were a dangerous people. In
A.D. 49/50, Claudius Caesar expelled twenty thousand of them from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2).
The Jews had the disillusioned expectation of a “political messiah” who would overthrow the iron fist of Rome (cf. John 6:15) and reestablish an “Israel” reminiscent of David’s era. Bands of Hebrew cutthroats (called sicarii—Latin “daggermen”) roamed the land looking for Roman adversaries whom they could dispatch into eternity. In a word, Palestine was a smoldering explosive, ready to ignite at any time. Could any ordinary man, seeking to establish a purely spiritual regime (cf. John 18:36), possibly be successful in this volatile environment?
Our point is this: It was a most contentious time, and Canaan was a most unlikely place from which to produce the world’s most influential religion. How did, therefore, such a powerful force derive from such a humble and troubled background?
An Unlikely Leader
Jesus Christ, viewed as a leader from a purely humanistic vantage point, possessed none of those traits normally associated with the formation of armies or empires. He was not physically appealing. “He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him” (Isaiah 53:2, NASB). There is not a line about his physical appearance in the New Testament.
In William Manchester’s bestselling biography of General MacArthur titled, American Caesar—Douglas MacArthur, he referenced materials to the stately appearance of the famous commander on more than seventy pages (1978, 781). Apparently there was nothing in the physical deportment of Christ to merit undue attention.
In his famous speech on St. Helena, Napoleon exclaimed:
I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ, and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and any other religion the distance of infinity . . . Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires. But upon what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him (Monser 1961, 503,508).
Jesus had no wealth with which to launch a significant movement (Luke 9:58; 2 Corinthians 8:9). He was reared in one of the most despised communities of his country (see Matthew 2:23; John 1:46; 7:52). The query, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?,” was proverbial in Canaan.
Christ had no formal rabbinical training with which to mesmerize the multitudes (John 7:15). Even his own people had little regard for him (John 1:11; 7:5; 6:66). And yet, somehow, he changed the world forever. The following tribute is sometimes credited to Phillip Brooks, who wrote the hymn, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem.”
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman, He grew up in another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While He was dying, His executioners gambled for His garments, the only property He had on earth. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life (quoted in Kennedy and Newcomb 1994, 7-8).
Christian Intolerance: An Unpopular Concept
It was common ideology and practice in the Roman world to tolerate, and even accommodate, the philosophical notions and fleshly inclinations of the varying elements of society. The historian Edward Gibbon observed that in the world of the Caesars “most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions” (n.d., 383).
The Christians, however, did not “go with the flow.” Rather, with their strong monotheistic convictions they refused to participate in the pagan ritualism that saturated every pore of heathen culture. They flexed their spiritual muscles and would not bow to the pressures of paganism. They taught that redemptive truth was associated exclusively with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 4:11-12). Theirs was a “one Lord, one faith” system. A line was drawn in the sand which could not be compromised.
The popular religions of Roman society catered to the basest of human passions. Drunkenness and sexual indulgence were common—even as religious ritual! “Sacred” temples were virtual houses of prostitution.
For example, according to the ancient geographer, Strabo (8.6.20), in Corinth one thousand priestesses or slave girls of the Temple of Aphrodite were employed in religious harlotry, which was one of the city’s chief sources of revenue. In more modern times, many an Islamic army has been mustered under the promise of a sensual paradise adorned with dark-eyed beauties for those who were victims in battle.
But Christianity went against the grain of society, forbidding all sexual activity except that authorized within the bounds of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Paul’s first Corinthian letter emphasizes this repeatedly. How could Christianity challenge this licentious lifestyle and be so successful? The answer is clear: it had a power that cannot be explained in human terms!
Christianity: A Dangerous Proposition
Being a Christian was the most dangerous enterprise in the Roman world. Christianity was barely launched when persecution became a bloody reality. The book of Acts presents a somber picture of the violence which was inflicted upon the new believers. Peter and John were imprisoned (Acts 4:3; 5:18), Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:54ff), and James was killed (probably decapitated) with the sword (Acts 12:2). Some of the persecution Paul endured is vividly summarized in 2 Corinthians 11:24ff. Tertullian would later say that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the kingdom.”
A.D. 112, Pliny, governor of Bithynia, sent a letter to the emperor Trajan, inquiring as to how to deal with Christians. Therein he details his customary method:
I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death (10.16.3, as cited in Bettenson 1961, 7).
Tertullian noted that the Christians were not even afforded the benefit of a trial, as common criminals were (Apology 197.2).
The demanding question has to be this: Why would multiplied thousands suffer themselves to be so abused—stoned, decapitated, sewn into animal skins and thrown to wild beasts, crucified, burned alive, etc.? Was it all for a myth? Some religious hunch? That is an incredible conclusion.
Returning now to our original premise, that every effect must have an adequate cause, we press forward with this question. What possible natural explanation is there for the phenomena described above? No theory, grounded strictly in ordinary events, explains these circumstances.
What is reasonable is this: Those early believers had witnessed the miracles that Jesus and his apostles performed. Carefully examining the evidence, they knew that no person could work those “signs” unless empowered by God (John 3:1-2). Too, the Lord himself had been raised from the dead, and observed by many witnesses during that forty-day span between the time of his resurrection and his ascension back into heaven (Acts 1:1-3; 10:40-41; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). It was, therefore, on the basis of these well-established, historical facts that the Christian movement was born. Its amazing commencement and expansion was divinely orchestrated!
Christianity is anchored in real history. Its facts are checkable. One can embrace it with confidence, obediently surrender to it, and entertain all the blessings associated therewith.
- Bettenson, Henry. 1961. Documents of the Christian Church. London, England: Oxford University Press.
- Blaiklock, E. M. 1970. The Archaeology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Dana, H. E. 1937. The New Testament World. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Durant, Will. 1944. Caesar And Christ. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Gibbon, Edward. n.d. The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. New York, NY: Modern Library.
- Jeremias, Joachim. 1969. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. London, England: SCM Press.
- Kennedy, James and Jerry Newcomb. 1994. What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
- Kistemaker, Simon J. 1990. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Manchester, William. 1978. American Caesar—Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
- Monser, J. W. 1961. An Encyclopedia on the Evidences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.