Spreading the Good News
The early Christian movement was marked by internal contention and disputes between the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, who focused on Temple worship and acted like a Jewish sect that emphasized charity and venerated Jesus as a martyred leader, and the Diaspora Jewish Christians who were wealthier, more cosmopolitan, and Greek-speaking. The Jerusalem Church was scattered with the destruction of Jerusalem in the first and second centuries. Although the earliest followers of Christ, now called the Palestinian Jesus Movement, were from the countryside, they took their message to Mediterranean urban centers like Damascus, where they attracted the attention of Saul of Tarsus. Originally a Pharisaic Jew of the Diaspora, Saul was aghast at the Christian challenge to Judaic teaching, and participated in the persecution of the earliest Christians, even joining in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. But as he rode to Damascus to search for Christians there, Saul was knocked from his horse in one of tHe most famous conversion experiences in history, as recounted in Acts 9: “. . . suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'”
The voice belonged to Jesus, and Saul was temporarily blinded. By the time he recovered his sight, he had embraced Jesus and begun to proclaim him in the synagogues as the Son of God. At some point, he became known as Paul, and had an overwhelming impact on the shaping of Christianity. Paul’s conversion was not only sudden but total: a Pharisee who had followed the Law strictly, he became a universalist who sought to do away with the Jewish Law and separative rituals such as circumcision. In this sense, he is often considered (favorably by some, pejoratively by others) the first Christian. Still others believe that Paul had been schooled in Zoroastrianism — “Pharisee” is linguistically related to Parsi and Farsi, referring to the Zoroastrian people and language — and that he is responsible for the Zoroastrian influence evident in Christianity, although not in the teachings of Jesus.
Pauline Christianity began in mostly urban households that included family, slaves, freedmen, tenants, and others associated with the head of the family. These household churches, many of which were the homes of women who figured prominently in early Christianity, probably had their inspiration in the Jewish practice of adapting private dwellings into synagogues. The house meetings involved spontaneous prophecy, the reading of letters from Paul or other Christian leaders, and speaking in tongues — a form of spirit possession in which people speak spontaneously in a language known only to them (still practiced in some Pentecostalist Christian sects.)
Paul discouraged the ecstatic practice of tongues because he found it divisive; he also opposed circumcision (as did Zoroastrians) and other rituals such as sabbath observance and kosher dietary laws that set Jews off from Gentiles. At the Council of Jerusalem in 49, various apostles and elders including Paul and his traveling companion Barnabas, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus met to debate the question of circumcision for Gentile Christians. After much argument, the Council agreed not to enforce circumcision but to demand compliance with certain Jewish laws about diet and sexual conduct. Paul, however, continued to press for a universal religion that would not exclude any potential converts on the basis of either circumcision or diet. The resulting inclusiveness may be one of the main reasons Christianity was able to convert the Roman Empire and Judaism was not. The ethical underpinnings of both religions are essentially similar; even though Jesus shifted the emphasis to a more mystical, present-oriented spirituality with his Kingdom of God, the Pauline church had already somewhat lost touch with that teaching, substituting the belief that Jesus was God incarnate, who died to redeem humanity from its sins. But Judaism was tied to its homeland and Temple, its tribal past of ritual animal sacrifice, dietary restrictions, and circumcision.
By this time, the name Christ was being applied to Jesus, from the Greek word christos, which means “ointment,” was the literal translation of the Hebrew word for messiah. Jesus Christ, the Anointed Savior who died for the forgiveness of sins, and who rose from the dead so we all might have eternal life, replaced the teacher of compassion and the inner kingdom of God. English scholar John Bowden expressed it this way: “The center of Jesus’ preaching is the kingdom of God; the center of Paul’s preaching is Christ crucified and risen. . . . In other words, the Jesus who has the message changes into the Christ who is the message.” The early Christians originally saw themselves as Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but later opposed themselves to all other Jews. Christianity also divided the Deity into a Trinity composed of Three Persons: God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Paul planted communities of Christians all around the Mediterranean area, and his Hellenized and universalized version of Christianity converted Rome and prevailed in the West.