I wish we knew how many people “started” Christianity. Before I reflect on this issue, let me say some things about definitions and terms, specifically the terms “Christianity” and “Christian.”
A lot of scholars object to using the term “Christianity” for the first followers of Jesus who came to believe that he got raised from the dead. Once they believed this, these scholars say, these people didn’t actually become “Christian.” They were still fully Jews, Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah. “Christianity,” in this opinion, is a later development when these believers in Jesus developed their own religion that was distinct from Judaism. Christianity doesn’t exist, in this view, until you have some kind of set of distinctive Christian beliefs and practices (such as baptism, eucharist, weekly meetings, and so on). And so often scholars will talk about the “Jesus Movement” during the early years and decades after Jesus’ death.
I see the force of this view, but I have to admit that for my part, I’ve never had qualms about calling the first believers in Jesus’ death and resurrection “Christians.” I completely, absolutely agree that these people did not have a separate and distinct religion (from other Jews) with established doctrines and rituals. But in my opinion – and it’s nothing more than an opinion since there is no “evidence” either to refute or confirm it – a “Christian” is someone who believes that Jesus is the messiah of God whose death and resurrection brought about salvation.
Yes, of course, these earliest believers were completely Jews and nothing else. And of course, they did not have developed doctrines, or distinct Scriptures, or unique rituals and so on – the things that make the trappings of an established “religion.”
But they were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Savior, and that made them different from all other Jews. Just as the “Pharisees” were different from other Jews; and the “Sadducees”; and the “Essenes”; and so on. The followers of Jesus became a distinctive kind of Jew. And so if we can label other kinds of Jews with names, we can label these followers of Jesus after his death as well. Eventually – much later – they would form a religion distinct from Judaism.
So I do see the problems with calling them by the name of a later distinct religion; but I also see that there is real continuity between these earlier followers and what later developed. One problem with refusing to call them Christians is what scholars who like sophisticated terms (i.e., most scholars) call “essentializing.” Essentializing is a four-letter word for many scholars. It means that one insists that a concept, or an entity, or a type of person can be reduced to its “essence” and that if something doesn’t have that essence, then it is not properly classified as a concept, entity, type of person, etc.
In the present case, the problem is that someone who refuses to call these earliest followers of Jesus “Christian” have in mind a fairly strict definition of “Christian” that has a certain “essence” to it: being a Christian means believing x, y, and z; and practicing x, y, and z; and behaving in the manner of x, y, and z, and if someone doesn’t believe, practice, and behave in these ways, s/he cannot, then, be a Christian. She/He is lacking the “true essence” of a Christian. And what is the true essence? The one the scholar has made up.
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