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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So it may seem that I too am “essentializing” when I say that the earliest Christians had to believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation. To that I would reply that yes, there *do* have to be limits to how we use terms. If I call my mother a Buddhist because she sits around and thinks a lot, most people would say that’s not good enough. But when coming up with the meaning of “Buddhist,” or “Jew,” or “Christian,” in order to avoid essentializing too much, it is best, in my opinion, to have a very, very broad and encompassing definition, rather than a very narrow, circumscribed one that requires you to check all the boxes in order to see if someone or something fits.

And so I have no qualms calling these followers of Jesus Christian.

But how many were there? I wish we knew. Obviously there was *someone* who first came to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In other words, someone had to be first. I very much doubt if 20 people all came to think that at the same moment. I think someone started it. Was it the disciple Peter? Mary Magdelene? Someone else?

Let me stress that simply thinking that Jesus was raised from the dead would not make a person Christian even by my (very) broad definition. Even by my definition, a person would have to think that Jesus’ return to life was a miracle of God *and* that it had something to do with God’s act of salvation. It could not, for example, just be a near-death experience, or a miracle that was great for Jesus himself but not relevant for anyone else. It would have to be a miracle that God had performed in order to bring salvation to others. Once someone believed that, by my definition, s/he had become a distinct kind of person (even if still a Jew), that is, a Christian.

My hunch is that the first person or persons who thought that Jesus was no longer dead did not, on the spot, immediately conclude that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation. How long did it take for someone to draw that conclusion? I’m afraid we have no idea. We simply don’t have the kinds of historical sources that we would need in order to say.

And so we now have several questions to ponder, which I plan to consider in the next post or so: Why did the first “Christians” come to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Who was the first to believe this? How long did it take to convince others? How was their belief spread? When did that belief come to be transformed into the Christian idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection had brought salvation?

These are key questions that, I would guess, most Christians have never puzzled much over, even though they are absolutely key to understanding how Christianity “started.” I will be puzzling over them here in your presence in the next few days.