History and Sources

Did Jesus “found” Christianity as a distinct religious tradition?

Jesus and the Buddha had this in common: they were both primarily teachers who offered what were judged to be nontraditional interpretations of already ancient traditions. Neither seems to have set out deliberately to “found” a new religious community, though they both gathered about themselves the nucleus of what would eventually become distinct institutional structures. As such, Jesus and the Buddha were foundational figures rather than founders. Leaders among their immediate communities inherited the task of working out the organizational details. A number of able leaders emerged from the early followers of Jesus—in particular Peter, one of the original twelve Apostles, and Paul, a Pharisee from Asia Minor who had experienced a dramatic change of religious orientation. They and other members of the first-generation followers of Jesus disagreed about precisely what traditional Jewish practices they should retain and how they should set about establishing their own distinct religious identity: Should Christians keep the Mosaic Law? How much of it? Did that include circumcision? Should they continue to go to the Temple in Jerusalem?

Leaders convened a council or conference in Jerusalem around the year 48 C.E. to work out the most vexing of these problems (Acts of the Apostles 15). A group of Pharisees among them insisted on imposing Jewish Law and custom intact, but the majority opted to retain only basic dietary, ritual, and ethical constraints. A majority resolved to preach the Gospel to non-Jews, arguing that the Hebrew scriptures enjoin such universality. The “founding” of Christianity was far less the result of a clear one-time decision than the gradual evolution of a set of views and practices that the leaders representing the various local communities judged consistent with their emerging identity.


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