“The explosion of Christianity proves only that there were a lot of believers, and they were effective at spreading their religion. If that explosion proves the truth of Christianity, then the later explosion of Islam proves it as well.”
The origin of the Christian movement is a powerful pointer in the way of Jesus’ resurrection as a historical event. The resurrection, the basis of the early 1st century Christian proclamation, is what spawned the early Christian movement. But this is where things become very interesting. Jesus’ earliest followers were devout Jews. Being Jews they did not believe, nor comprehend, the possibility of a single individual being resurrected from the dead into a new immortal resurrection body in the middle of history. Their Jewish belief was that this was to happen at the general resurrection of the dead when God would take to judging mankind. Thus, for the early disciples, Paul, and James to all of a sudden begin proclaiming this very unJewish belief invites examination. Now, since it is they who begun proclaiming this it would be best for us to see what they say it was that convinced them to advocate this newly acquired unJewish belief. What do they say it was? According to their ubiquitous testimony it was the very resurrection itself.
But consider this next point from what we know of Jewish rebels around the time of Jesus. When a Jewish rebel (seen as a messianic figure by Jewish followers as one who would vindicate Israel from foreign rule as prophesied in the Old Testament), with a following, was crucified the followers either disbanded the cause and searched for another Jewish rebel to follow or, alternatively, they died alongside their leader because of fighting the Romans. Either way the movement died. As far as we know this happened to Theudas, Simon ben Giora, Athronges, Bar Kockbar, John of Gischala, and others. However, this is what should have happened to Jesus. Jesus should have been crucified and his movement obliterated. The disciples and earliest followers should have, judging from history, disbanded and gone looking elsewhere. This, at first, is very consistent with our best historical evidence. Our New Testament evidence informs us that Jesus’ earliest disciples where extremely close to demobilizing and thus evacuating from the Jesus movement subsequent to his crucifixion. Firstly, Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple, denies knowing Jesus because he was obviously scared that he would experience the same painful demise as did Jesus (Luke 22:54-57, Mark 14:69-70; Matthew 26:73-75; John 18:13-27). Moreover, Jesus’ own disciples, those who had spent years following him, went into hiding behind locked doors following the crucifixion (John 20:19), they were also afraid to publicly talk about Jesus (John 7:13), and during Jesus’ arrest they fled (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56). This is consistent with what we would expect to have happened.
However, quite remarkably, they all experience a radical transformation and a change of mind. Firstly, we find that the disciples begin proclaiming the risen Jesus within the book of Acts with the resurrection being their central message. Both of Jesus’ disciples Peter and John are imprisoned for this (Acts 4), and in Acts 5 we see that the disciples are arrested, imprisoned, and flogged. Acts 12 informs us about the martyrdom of James, the brother of John, and another imprisonment of Peter. Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6–8). James, Jesus’ brother, and the former enemy of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, go to their deaths proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Now, this is clearly significant in two ways. Firstly, it is wholly unlikely that such a radical transformation of so many Jewish men would have happened if Jesus had not been resurrected, and then subsequently convinced them of his resurrection. Secondly, the earliest Christians, being steeped in their Jewish backgrounds and milieu, end up proclaiming a totally unJewish concept of a resurrected individual amidst intense persecution and suffering. According to exegete Gary Habermas, “Virtually no one, friend or foe, believer or critic, denies that it was their convictions that they had seen the resurrected Jesus that caused the disciples’ radical transformations. They were willing to die specifically for their resurrection belief” (1).
So, unlike all the other crucified messiahs Jesus proves to be incredibly unique. When Jesus’ movement should have been exterminated an entire new one emerged. What do our earliest witnesses explain that it was? The resurrection. It is this that invited Professor N.T. Wright to conclude that “as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him” (2).
So, given what we’ve reviewed above, let’s try to draw in Luke’s challenge. Firstly, when he says that “The explosion of Christianity proves only that there were a lot of believers, and they were effective at spreading their religion” he is misdirected. The evidence we just reviewed focuses on the most primitive moments of early Christianity, namely, the experiences and beliefs of the very first eyewitnesses Paul, James, and the disciples themselves. That is where our emphasis must be placed: just hours, if not mere days, subsequent to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Thus, we shouldn’t disagree with Luke that Christians who came on the scene some time later in places like Ethiopia, Jordan, and Egypt, and subsequently in Rome, were effective in the spreading of their beliefs. We shouldn’t disagree that such can account for the rapid spread of early Christianity. But as I’ve shown that, as a challenge, entirely misses the point since that is not there where we are focusing.
Now, Luke then tries to compare this with Islam. Islam, I contend, is in an altogether different category in many obvious ways. The most primitive moments in Islamic history, as well as towards the end of Muhammad’s life, overflows with violence, intimidation, and bloodshed. In other words, the spread of early Islam is due to the subjugation and the waging of war on unbelievers. The Koran contains verse after verse commanding offensive warfare. Muhammad himself, having achieved political and military power as well as having amassed a large following, began years of raids and battles, and eventually conquered the city of Mecca. There he instituted Islam in place of the city’s polytheism. From then on, explains Professor of Judaism and Islam Reuven Firestone, “war against non-Muslims could be waged virtually at any time, without pretext, and in any place” (3). Rudolph Peters, Professor of Islamic Law, notes that it was the Muslim’s duty “to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people under its rule as possible” (4). Islam’s spread is therefore best explained through the use of the sword.
So, providing some context shows that Luke’s challenge is at best misinformed. Islam, at its earliest moments, grew because of war waged against unbelievers. Moreover, earliest Christianity begun because the earliest eyewitnesses experienced the resurrected Jesus. The two are hardly alike.
1. Habermas, G. The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.
2. Wright, N. 1993. The New Unimproved Jesus. p. 26.
3. Firestone, R. 1999. Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam. p. 50.
4. Peters, R. 1996. Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam. p. 3.