Christianity struggled to grow—until this skeptic became a believer
Published December 1, 2022
10 min read
After Jesus’ death in A.D. 33 , his early followers began slowly spreading out from Jerusalem to find sanctuary in places such as Cyrus, Phoenicia, Damascus, and Antioch. The authors of the New Testament, like St. Luke the Evangelist who is believed to have penned the book Acts of the Apostles around A.D. 80, tell the struggles believers and the early church faced in their nascent days. In Acts, Luke tells the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr to be gruesomely executed in A.D. 36. Luke claims that Stephen’s stoning prompted others to flee to avoid similar persecutions. What does the Bible tell us about the story of how this fragile faith was able to get started and grow into the most popular religion in the world, with 2.3 billion followers today?
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Acts of the Apostles tells the story of one man, Saul of Tarsus, who played a huge role in spreading early Christianity. He was a Roman citizen and a devout Jew. He was an unlikely advocate for this new faith. It tells how he witnessed Stephen’s murder and decided it was his solemn duty persecute Christians. He even went so far as drag Christian women and men to prison to punish them for their faith. He was granted permission by the Jerusalem high priest to pursue and arrest Christians fleeing persecution. A light from heaven flashed above him as he was traveling to Damascus in Syria. He fell to the ground, and he heard the voice from the resurrected Jesus asking him, “Saul! Why do you persecute my soul?” (Acts 9,4). From that moment, Saul (later known as Paul) dedicated himself to the Apostolic mission.
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Spreading the message
Among the places where early Christians fled for safety from persecution was Antioch, capital of Roman Syria. Paul, a newly converted apostle, spent a year preaching and establishing the first Christian Church. It was there that the term “Christians”–“followers of Christ”–was coined (Acts 11: 21).
It was also from Antioch that Paul embarked on three separate journeys, detailed in Acts, traveling over 10,000 miles between A.D. 46 and 57. It describes Paul’s trips to Turkey, Syria, Greece and Syria. He walked roads built by Romans to control the empire. He also endured uncomfortable passages on boats decks that were exposed to the elements. Along the way, he argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8), and performed “extraordinary miracles” (Acts 19: 11), such as curing the sick. He baptized Paulus Sergius, a Roman consul, in Cyprus. He spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and established churches throughout Rome, which featured confessions and liturgies.
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Resistance, arrest, and martyrdom
Everywhere he went, however, Paul also encountered Jewish followers, who called him a heretic. For preaching the gospel, he was subject to beatings, stoning, arrests and even death.
Acts tells of Paul’s distress at the overabundance of idols in Athens. He tried to reason and talk with the citizens. “As I walked about and looked at your objects, I found an altar with this inscription: To an unnamed god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship” (Acts 17: 23). He debated whether this “unknown God” was the biblical God, who is the creator of heavens and earth. Some sneered, but others said they wanted to hear more from Paul (Acts 17: 32). He converted each person by simply talking to them.
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Acts records that Paul was arrested several times by the Romans and imprisoned twice in Rome. The first time, between A.D. 60 and 62, he was arrested for causing a riot in a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He was allowed to live in the house where he converted his Roman guards.
The Romans arrested him again sometime between A.D. 62 and 67. He was taken to Tullianum, which is a maximum security prison. Paul is believed to have been killed shortly after. It is not clear when Paul died. The most common account says he was executed at the command of Nero, the Roman emperor. Nero blamed him for Rome’s burning.
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“The Triumph of Faith, or Christian Martyrs in the Time of Nero” was painted by French Impressionist Eugene Romain Thirion.
In addition to the Apostolic missionary work, other Christian movements were circulating around the Mediterranean, often conflicting with Paul’s interpretation of Jesus and his teachings. Gnosticism has been used by other Christian movements to confuse Biblical scholarship.
Some sects believed that deep meditation and immersion into the divine would eventually lead to a secret knowledge of God (or gnosis, in Greek). This idea was popular because it was consistent with the Greek philosophy that every human being carries a spark of God inside. This explains why Jesus spoke in parables for Gnostic Christians. True knowledge of God was a valuable and potentially dangerous secret that could only be revealed to those who were worthy. Some sects, like the Docetists believed that Jesus’ physical appearance was an illusion and that he had always been a divine being. Another sect, led by a wealthy individual named Marcion (ca A.D. 85-160), son of the bishop of Sinope (today’s Sinop in Turkey), believed that Christianity should be uncoupled from Jewish influence and be made into a more purely Gentile religion. The Ebionite sect maintained its Jewish roots by claiming that Jesus was a mere mortal.
The discovery of 13 ancient bound books near the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi in 1945 opened a fascinating window on the world of Gnostic Christians. Some sects claimed their apostolic authority from Mary Magdalene, based on the so-called Gospel of Mary, discovered in Cairo in 1896. Gnosticism often stressed the validity of individual revelation–of becoming an apostle in one’s own right–thus anticipating Protestantism by some 1,500 years.
Paul’s unique ways
Many other apostles and missionaries evangelized Christianity at the same time as Paul. Although biblical accounts don’t show Paul as anything more than an ambassador of Christ, he did have a unique strategy. He tried to baptize all people, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
The big question was whether Christ-followers should be expected to also become Jews. The answer was yes for the Jerusalem apostles. They believed that faith was inseparable with Jesus’ teachings as a Jewish Rabbi. Paul disagreed. Paul welcomed Gentiles who were attracted by Christianity, but not interested in Jewish customs.
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Paul was intelligent and controversial, pouring his experiences and thoughts into letters throughout his travels. Some believe he wrote so many letters to avoid being criticized by others. Whatever the reason, the letters sum up his views on Christianity and are what became the foundation of the Catholic Church. For example, in his Letter to Romans, he stated that faith in Christ overrides Jewish Law; that every community is a part of the “body” of Christ and should be governed with love; and that faith and trust in the Christian God hold the promise of eternal living. In all, he authored 13 epistles (seven of which are undisputedly his, six of which are disputed), making him the most prolific writer in the Bible. Fourteen of the 27 books in the New Testament are attributed to him (though scholars also differ on this number).
Through it all, Paul articulated Jesus’ “kingdom of God” message into an idea that the largely Gentile population could understand and accept and his ability to spread the message of primitive Christianity is truly extraordinary. The fledgling faith was established in Gentile lands and further afield by Paul’s three journeys described in Acts. The Greco-Roman world would not have known about the charismatic Nazareth rabbi’s redemptive program.
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Portions of this work have previously appeared in Jesus and the Origins of Christianity. Copyright (c) 2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out Jesus and the Origins of Christianity. Available wherever books and magazines are sold
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.