History and Sources

When and where did Christianity begin?

People who professed themselves to be followers of Jesus were first called “Christianoi” in the Syrian town of Antioch perhaps twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. But as with other traditions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign a precise date to the origins of Christianity. Reasonably sound historical information, however, supports a number of general conclusions about the matter. Most of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who believed that this man from Galilee, a northern sector of the Roman province known as Palestine and administered by the Herodian dynasty of Jewish kings, fulfilled enough of the traditional criteria to be proclaimed Messiah or, to use the Greek equivalent, “Christ.”

Jesus seems to have formed a core community of supporters among Galileans and other Jews who, according to the Greek or New Testament, accepted his invitation to follow him on his itinerant mission to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God. During his lifetime, Jesus apparently sent out his seventy disciples, among whom were the twelve Apostles, to announce the Kingdom, to heal the sick, and to forgive sins. Jesus’ death around 30 C.E. was a severe blow to his followers’ sense of identity. But, reinvigorated by their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, they regrouped and organized themselves as a missionary movement, some preaching to Jews and some to Gentiles (non-Jews). They fanned out over much of the eastern Mediterranean basin, and within a generation after Jesus’ death, numerous small religious communities had begun to call themselves Christians. At first the Christians met in “house churches” under the local leadership of elders or “presbyters,” later to be called priests. Deacons and deaconesses served the needs of the local community, and the communities in a given region looked to the leadership of “overseers” (from the Greek episkopoi) or “bishops.”

Irish stained glass depiction of Jesus ascending into Heaven before Mary and the Apostles. Dublin, Ireland.


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