Glenn Ahrens: (302) 761-3286
Many times I have heard discussions in Bible studies or sermons on the subject of who started Christianity, or how Christianity came about. We always hear about the conversion of the apostle Paul to Christianity on the road to Damascus. But like I have mentioned in previous blogs that is impossible. How can you convert to something that did not exist. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or Paul say he is rejecting Judaism and starting a new religion. In fact, the term “Christian” doesn’t appear at all in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which chronicle Jesus’ spiritual mission; and only later, three times in the rest of the New Testament. The first utterance of the word “Christian” occurred when Paul was preaching in Antioch more than a decade after the crucifixion.
But the word “Jew” appears 202 times in the New Testament, with 82 of those mentions in the Gospels. Many who believe that Jesus had in mind a new religion cite his pronouncement in Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” What we fail to recognize today is the word that we translate for church today was actually the Greek word “ecclesia” which literally translated just means assembly. In other words the term “church” referred to the assembly or the people not the building. Also, at the time of Jesus, there is no concept of a new religion. Do not forget that all of his followers were Jews and first century Jews were fanatically dedicated to Judaism. What Jesus was teaching was that he was the Messiah that they believed in, but, that had not come yet which met with allot of resistance, of course.
Further evidence that Jesus did not envision a new religion was that he didn’t claim one at his trial. Had he said he was no longer a Jew and had launched a new religion, the Sanhedrin wouldn’t have had jurisdiction over him. The Romans had given the Sanhedrin the authority to rule only over Jews. Even if the Sanhedrin had rejected Jesus’ denial of being Jewish, it would have set off a ferocious legal debate among the Jewish rabbis and scholars-a type of debate for which Jews were famous. But that didn’t happen.
In reference to the apostle Paul’s “conversion” he really was not converted but went from the standard Jewish faith to one that believed that the Messiah had come. If we remember that on the third visit to Jerusalem Paul was arrested after creating a disturbance at the Jerusalem Temple, where he incited a group of Asian Jews who attacked him for blasphemy (Acts 21:27-31). When he was brought before the Roman Governor, it was determined that the matter of blasphemy was strictly a Jewish affair and therefore should be adjudicated before the Sanhedrin. Fearful of his fate if he were judged by the Sanhedrin, Paul invoked his status as a Roman citizen and demanded that his case be heard before the emperor in Rome. His demand was granted (Acts 25:10-12), verifying the power and respect for Roman citizenship.
But if Paul believed that he had departed from Judaism and had launched the new religion of Christianity why didn’t he say so, with his life at stake? Why didn’t he say “I’m a Christian, not a Jew. I believe in Jesus Christ, who the Sanhedrin has rejected. As a Christian they have no Jurisdiction over me. You must release me.”
And surely, given his status as a Roman citizen, he would have been released. But he didn’t use that obvious defense. Only one explanation can account for Paul’s puzzling behavior: he believed he was a Jew proposing a valid revision that embraced Jesus as fulfilling the Jewish Messiah prophesy. In a sense he may have even felt more Jewish than the Sanhedrin in embracing the Messiah Jesus.
So, instead of freedom, Paul squanders five years at the peak of his ministry, which included imprisonment in Caesarea, a lengthy treacherous journey to Rome, and then house arrest in Rome and eventually death.
That leaves only one other possibility of a single person who could be responsible for the starting of Christianity, that would be Peter. God gives Peter a vision in Acts chapter 10. This vision would begin to break down the separation that existed between believing Jews and god-fearing Gentiles. Before the men sent by Cornelius arrive, Peter goes onto the housetop to pray and becomes hungry. As Peter prays, Scripture says he falls into a trance. It’s during this trance that Jehovah reveals a message to Peter through a vision – it’s a message that will completely shake Jewish perception of Gentiles and their coming to faith in Jehovah, God of Israel. During Peter’s vision a voice commands him to “rise, kill, and eat” the unclean animals within the great sheet. Peter is perplexed by the instruction he’s heard, to which he adamantly retorts “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice in the vision repeats the instruction, instructing Peter a total of three times. We should note: at no point does Peter transgress God’s written commandment (Leviticus 11) by eating the unclean animals. The meaning of this vision based on the context and the culture of the time Doesn’t Mean -“Rise, Kill, and Eat”. What it really means was to call no person or unclean. The purpose and meaning of Peter’s vision is quite plainly that Peter (and all Jews) should no longer believe that Gentiles coming to faith in the God of Israel are unclean (unacceptable by God) or common (unholy). The reality is that God has, in fact, accepted Gentiles coming to faith in Him without the need for them to undergo a man-made ritual conversion to become a legal Jew.
This idea of Gentiles being unclean (unacceptable) was so ingrained in Jewish thought, that Judaism of the day deemed it to be ‘unlawful’ (though God hadn’t) for a Jew to associate with or enter the house of a Gentile. This is why when Peter enters the house of Cornelius he says: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” (Acts 10:28)
It can’t be emphasized enough how significant the words are which Peter speaks following Cornelius’ invitation to share God’s message to all those Gentiles gathered. God had supernaturally orchestrated this unconscionably ‘unlawful’ gathering of Jewish church leaders and unclean Gentile God-fearers.
So as we can see none of them technically started Christianity. We might say it just happened. What they did do was to lay the groundwork and plant the seeds for Christianity to develop. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 A.D. the Jews no longer had a place to worship so a lot of them adopted the teachings of Christ because they no longer needed the temple, because Christ died for their sins, so there was no more animal sacrifice needed or a temple to do it in.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter below and never miss our increased social media presence, coming podcasts, book releases, seminars, and other events.