The Spread of Christianity

Christianity owes its initial dissemination to two men of vastly different backgrounds and personalities: Peter and Paul.

Peter

Peter's original name was Simon. He was a fisherman called to be a disciple of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He lived in Capernaum, where he and his brother Andrew were in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It appears that Peter was not a well-educated man; he was untrained in Mosaic Law and it's doubtful that he knew Greek.

The story of how Jesus named Peter was reported in Matthew 16:18:“And I say also unto thee. That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

From all accounts in the New Testament, Peter was a man of strong emotions. He is depicted as rash, hasty, capable of anger, often gentle, but firm. He professed love for Jesus and was capable of great loyalty. Peter is invariably mentioned first in lists of the disciples and designated as the spokesman for the group.

Given the information from the gospels, it's not surprising that Peter should emerge immediately after the death of Jesus as the leader of the earliest church. Peter dominated the community for nearly fifteen years following the Resurrection. It was he who raised his voice and preached at Pentecost, the day when the church came into being. It was he who served as an advocate for the apostles before the Jewish religious court in Jerusalem. It was he who led the others in extending the church, going first to the Samaritans then to the Mediterranean coast where he introduced Gentiles into the church. When he accepted Gentiles and baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ without requiring the men to be circumcised, he encountered opposition from Jewish Christians and others. It didn't take long after that for his leadership in Jerusalem to come to an end.

How Peter's leadership ended is shrouded in uncertainty. Evidence that he lived in Rome and claims that he founded the Church of Rome or that he served as its first bishop or Pope are in dispute. The date of his death is unknown, and archaeological investigations have not located Peter's tomb.

Paul

Paul, on the other hand, was the powerhouse who fueled the growth of Christianity. It is safe to say that it was due to Paul more than anyone else that Christianity grew from a small sect within Judaism to a world religion.

Paul was first and foremost an enigma. His original name was Saul of Tarsus. A Jew, he inherited Roman citizenship, perhaps granted by the Romans as a reward for mercenary service. This might explain why he had two names: He used his Jewish name, Saul, within the Jewish community and his Roman name, Paul, when speaking Greek.

He had a strict Jewish upbringing and received training as a rabbi in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. Like most rabbis, he supported himself with a manual trade; in his case, tent making. He obviously grew into a man of some sophistication.

Although it is fairly certain that he never met Jesus while in Jerusalem, he learned enough about him and his followers to regard the Christian movement as a threat to Pharisaic Judaism, of which he was an enthusiast. He had become a member of the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that promoted purity and fidelity to the Law of Moses.

Paul's first appearance on the historical Jewish-Christian landscape was as an oppressor of the members of the newly founded church. Serious persecutions of Christians started with converts in Jerusalem, and Saul was a fierce advocate of the regime of persecution. So eager was Saul to pursue, threaten, and slaughter Christians that he went to the high priest to request letters to the synagogues of Damascus so that if he discovered Christians, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he came near Damascus, it is written in Acts 9:

… suddenly there shined around about him a light from the heavens: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

Three years after his conversion, Paul went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James. At the meeting, they recognized Paul as an apostle together with the founders of the church. In Jerusalem, Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the inner courts of the temple, beyond the barrier excluding non-Jews. He was arrested, partly to save his life from the mob. As a citizen of Rome, he was able to avoid trial and appeal to Caesar. He was taken to Rome and kept under house arrest for two years. Paul was eventually convicted of the charges against him. No reliable account of his death exists.

His letters, which were collected for general circulation, have become a standard reference for Christian teaching. In addition, Saul of Tarsus is probably the first example in religious history of a sinner who was truly born again.

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