The first person to begin spreading the teachings of Christianity after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection was the Apostle Peter. Peter was one of Jesus’s 12 disciples and was considered the leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem.
Peter’s Role in the Early Christian Church
Peter, originally named Simon, was one of the first disciples called by Jesus Christ to follow him. Peter was a fisherman by trade before becoming a disciple of Jesus. He was present for many of the major events of Jesus’s ministry and was one of his closest confidants.
After Jesus’s crucifixion, Peter was among the first disciples to see the resurrected Christ. This reinforced Peter’s faith and helped prepare him for the important leadership role he would soon undertake in spreading Christianity after Jesus’s ascension into heaven.
In the early days after Christ’s ascension, Peter stood up and addressed the gathering of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem. His speech is recorded in Acts 2:14-36. Peter proclaimed the resurrection of Christ and called those present to repent and be baptized. This speech was the start of Peter’s ministry as he began publicly preaching the gospel message. Acts 2:41 records that 3,000 people were added to the church that day.
Peter went on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He performed miracles, healed people, and preached boldly despite opposition from the Jewish authorities. When early Christians were scattered from Jerusalem due to persecution, Peter traveled to spread the gospel to Jews and Samaritans in the surrounding regions.
Peter helped establish Christian communities beyond Jerusalem. The book of Acts records his involvement in outreach to places such as Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea. Peter introduced Gentiles into the early church, starting with a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Through Peter’s preaching, Cornelius and his household became some of the first recorded Gentile converts to Christianity.
In summary, Peter was the leading figure of the early church after Christ’s ascension. His public preaching and evangelism on the day of Pentecost commenced the spread of Christianity from its origins in Jerusalem out to the surrounding regions.
The Apostle Paul’s Missionary Journeys
Although Peter was the preeminent figure in the Jewish Christian community, the Apostle Paul played the most significant role in spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul, originally known as Saul of Tarsus, was an ardent persecutor of Christians until his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. After his conversion, Paul dedicated himself to preaching the gospel across the Mediterranean region on three extensive missionary journeys.
The First Missionary Journey
Paul’s first missionary journey began in Antioch around 48 AD. He traveled with Barnabas to spread the gospel to Cyprus and cities in modern-day Turkey such as Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This journey helped establish Christian communities in these regions and appointed leaders for the new churches.
The Second Missionary Journey
Paul undertook his second missionary trip around 51 AD. He traveled through Asia Minor and Greece, including Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. In Corinth, Paul spent 18 months preaching and teaching, spurring church growth. A notable convert on this journey was a woman named Lydia in Philippi, who became the first recorded European convert to Christianity.
The Third Missionary Journey
On his third journey starting around 53 AD, Paul revisited churches founded on previous trips in Asia Minor and Greece. Much of his time on this journey was spent in Ephesus where he preached regularly in the synagogue. Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus led many people to convert to Christianity and spawned unrest amongst artisans and traders whose livelihood depended onEphesian worship of the goddess Artemis.
The extensive travels of the Apostle Paul on these missionary journeys led to the establishment of Christian communities, churches, and beliefs throughout a wide geographical area. Historians view Paul’s journeys as pivotal to the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire.
Other Key Figures in the Early Spread of Christianity
While Peter and Paul are recognized as the most influential early Christian leaders, others also contributed to the initial spread of Christianity including:
John the Apostle
One of the Twelve Apostles, John was known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He possibly preached in Samaria with Peter before moving to Ephesus, where he oversaw churches in Asia Minor. John was believed to be the only Apostle who did not suffer martyrdom. He authored the Gospel of John, three New Testament epistles, and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.
James the Just
Jesus’ brother took over leadership of the Jerusalem church after Peter. Known as “James the Just,” he preached to Jews about the risen Christ and promoted adherence to Jewish law. The Book of Acts records his guidance of the Council of Jerusalem on Gentile converts. James likely penned the New Testament epistle bearing his name.
One of the first seven deacons appointed by the Apostles in Jerusalem, Stephen stirred controversy with his preaching about Jesus before the Sanhedrin. His stoning around 34 AD spurred a period of persecution against the early Christians, driving many from Jerusalem to preach in Judaea and Samaria.
Philip the Evangelist
Another of the initial seven deacons, Philip preached in Samaria where he performed miracles and baptized many converts, including Simon the Sorcerer. Philip was also directed by an angel to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch, whom he baptized. This event led to Christianity’s early spread to North Africa.
Women Followers of Christ
Certain women who followed Jesus played supportive roles in spreading early Christianity. This included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who financed and proclaimed the gospel. Other notable women were Priscilla, a leader along with her husband Aquila in Ephesus, and Phoebe, who delivered the Book of Romans to Rome on Paul’s behalf.
While the Apostles Peter and Paul spearheaded Christianity’s growth across the Roman Empire, these other early Christians also contributed in valuable ways to propagating the fledgling Christian faith. Their collective evangelistic efforts ensured the message of Christ took root across the ancient world.
Early Christian Persecution
In the first three centuries after Christ, the early Christians faced persecution from Jewish religious authorities and Roman imperial officials. This was due to the radical nature of the Christians’ beliefs and their refusal to participate in the pagan religious practices that permeated Greco-Roman society.
Instances of persecution against Christians recorded in the New Testament include:
– The stoning of Stephen (c. 34 AD)
– The execution of the Apostle James by King Herod Agrippa I (c. 44 AD)
– Imprisonment of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin (c. 49 AD)
– Pressure faced by Paul from Jewish crowds during his missionary journeys
– Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea and transport to Rome for trial
On a broader scale, the Roman Emperor Nero infamously used Christians as scapegoats following the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. He had Christians arrested, tortured, and executed in horrific public spectacles.
Later Roman Emperors sanctioned further anti-Christian policies. Trajan implemented a punitive policy against Christians around 112 AD if they refused to venerate the Roman gods. Sporadic and localized persecution occurred under Marcus Aurelius in the late 2nd century.
The most systematic empire-wide persecution transpired under Emperor Diocletian in 303-313 AD. There were church demolitions, scripture confiscations, imprisonment, forced sacrifices to Roman gods, torture, and execution of Christian clerics and laypersons alike.
Despite the waves of persecution, Christianity continued to spread steadily throughout the Roman Empire. And in 313 AD, Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, legally establishing religious tolerance for Christianity within the Roman Empire.
Christianity Reaching Beyond the Roman Empire
The Apostles and early Christians concentrated their evangelistic efforts within the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. Yet there is evidence that Christianity began reaching lands further east during the 1st century itself:
Armenia, located in western Asia, became the first country to officially adopt Christianity around 301 AD. But Christianity may have first reached there between 40-60 AD through the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus. The Armenian Orthodox church traces its roots back to these founding apostolic figures.
Parthia and Persia
The cities of Edessa and Nisibis, located in upper Mesopotamia, became early centers of eastern Christianity. The biblical Magi who visited the infant Jesus were said to have come from Parthian or Persian lands. An early Jewish Christian presence existed in these regions. By the 2nd century, Persia had an indigenous church structure.
A Christian community may have become established in southern India through the Apostle Thomas around 52 AD. Isolated communities of Syriac Christians in India trace their origins to this apostolic founding. The historic St. Thomas Mount and San Thome Church structures in Chennai bear testament to this early Christian tradition in India.
The kingdom of Najran in southern Arabia had a center of Arabian Christianity by the early 4th century, likely influenced by Christians traveling along trade routes. The Koran documents interactions between Prophet Muhammad and Arabian Christians during his lifetime.
So although concentrated within the Roman East, earliest Christianity slowly disseminated through merchant, missional and migratory channels into adjoining regions further east, from Armenia to Arabia.
The Apostle Peter spearheaded the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem immediately after Christ’s ascension. His impassioned preaching at Pentecost and subsequent ministry fueled the faith’s growth beyond its original Jewish following.
However, the Apostle Paul through his far-reaching missionary journeys was the driving force behind early Christianity’s expansion throughout the Roman Empire. He established numerous churches and Christian communities across the Mediterranean that ensured the endurance of the faith in the region.
While Peter and Paul were the most prominent leaders, other Apostles, early Christians, and women believers also contributed to Christianity’s initial propagation. Their collective evangelism amidst periodic Roman persecution led to Christianity being an established faith by the early 4th century.
Concurrently, traces of early Christian preaching reached lands further east of the Roman Empire through merchant and missional channels. Thus, the combined efforts of key figures such as Peter and Paul along with numerous other early Christians caused nascent Christianity to spread far from its small origins in Jerusalem within a few decades.