The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us?

The Origin of Christianity - What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us? -- The Colosseum in Rome

The Colosseum in Rome

“From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”

Ever wonder why Christianity developed the way it did? What elements within Christianity formed the basis for Western civilization? Why do we approach life the way we do? Then perhaps you may want to see the Public Broadcasting System’s (PBS) four DVD program: From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.

Of the various videos which exist about the early development of Christianity, this program is the most comprehensive and even-handed one available. Further, there is an award-winning PBS website which has hundreds of pages of support material.

The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us? -  Acropolis in Athens

Acropolis in Athens

The program focuses on what scholars have learned through exhaustive research about the life and times of early Christianity. Their approach is historical, not theological, with scholars from all over the U.S. discussing the first three centuries of Christianity. Also, many photos and videos from the Mediterranean countries support their discussions.

By combining the latest archaeological discoveries with New Testament scholarship and textual analysis, the program explores how a tiny band of followers created the foundation of the world’s largest religion. Moreover, the series is thoughtful, well-researched, and has so much information, it takes several viewings to grasp it all. PBS says:

“Drawing upon historical evidence, the series challenges familiar assumptions and conventional notions about Christian origins. Archaeological finds have yielded new understandings of Jesus’ class and social status; fresh interpretations have transformed earlier ideas about the identity of the early Christians and their communities.”

Scholars, who have unique insights, present the material. They are from distinguished schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Duke, among others. Twelve leading scholars take part including historians, archeologists and New Testament theologians.

Together, the scholars express a number of viewpoints. This makes the program devoid of an agenda, and only interested in presenting the evidence and the results of their work. In fact, most of the “experts” are not clergy. PBS says:

“Much of the emphasis of the DVD is upon the everyday people of the time and the historical and archeological data related to that period. As such it presents no new theological insights but does spark the biblical story to life and stimulate the reader’s imagination and understanding of the life and times of Jesus and the early Christian church.”

The Ancient Jewish and Roman cultures, and the coming of Jesus

The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us? -- Jerusalem

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem

In Part I, the program examines Jesus’ ministry and death in the context of the Jewish culture, and the realities of Roman rule. For example, one recent insight is that some scholars think Jesus had a more sophisticated background than many believe; he may have even spoken Greek.

Rome defined Jesus’ world on one side, and the great Temple in Jerusalem the other. Roman authorities, whose main concern was keeping the peace, most likely arrested and executed Jesus. Particularly during the crowded Passover celebration, they had little tolerance for anyone they thought disruptive. The program suggests the Jewish people at the time little noticed the death of Jesus.

Beginnings of the Jesus Movement

Part II traces the beginnings of the Jesus Movement before it became Christianity. And much of the program concerns the travels and teachings of the Apostle Paul, who had a profound impact on the theology and spread of the Jesus movement.

Parthenon on Acropolis - The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us?

Parthenon on Acropolis – Former Temple to Athena and Later Christian Church

Around 50 A.D., Paul, a Hellenized Jew, traveled away from the traditional centers of the Jesus Movement, and began to found new churches in Greco-Roman cities in the eastern Mediterranean, including Asia Minor and Greece. As a result, scholars think Paul’s letters to these small congregations are the earliest writings in the New Testament.

During this period, strong tensions between the Jews in Palestine and Rome ended in a disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome. The Romans crushed the revolt, and destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, the Jewish center of spiritual life, in 70 AD. The traumatic failure of this revolt affected the future for Jews and Christians.

Development of the Four Gospels of the New Testament

Part III covers the development of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which tell the story of the life of Jesus. The program indicates the Gospels were written between 70 to about 100 A.D., after the Jewish revolt, and reflect the experiences and circumstances of early Christians.

Statue of Four Evangelists - The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us?

The Four Evangelists

The scholars talk about the writing of the Gospels, present the essence of each Gospel, and compare them. Also, they look at the separate paths taken by Jews and Christians, and the political and social contexts where the Gospels were written. Finally, they conclude that the four Gospels do not all tell the same story of Jesus, because each one is responding to the needs of different groups within the early movement.

Contributors think Mark’s Gospel is the earliest record of Jesus’ life, and is one of the primary sources for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark seems focused on giving renewed meaning to Jesus’ Jewish followers after the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt, destroyed their temple, and repressed all political life. Also, the program offers new perspectives on this story.

Origins of Christianity Between 100 and 350 AD

Part IV tells about the challenges faced by the Christian movement after it became separate from Judaism. In particular, they were in competition with Paganism and its established practices within ancient societies. The various Pagan groups were prominence in Roman life, and Christianity challenged their basic tenets.

Arch of Emperor Constantine in Rome - The Origin of Christianity – What Can Historians and Archeologists Tell Us?

Arch of Emperor Constantine in Rome

Second, as the Christian movement grew throughout the Roman empire, Christian communities had heated debates about beliefs, approaches to worship, and even about the nature of Jesus himself. In support, Elaine Pagels of Princeton University draws on her own research into the Gnostic Gospels to uncover how early second-century Christianity was a complex mixture of competing and diverse beliefs.

Eventually, Constantine, the early fourth century Roman emperor, embraced Christianity as a means of strengthening the empire. So, from then on the history of the Christian Church changed direction. After that, the Roman government strongly influenced the leadership of the Church, and, in general, the church’s authority became aligned with the political power of the state.


After about three hundred years, the empire which sent Jesus to his death accepted Christianity as an official religion and worshipped him as divine. All in all, the history of Christianity’s first few centuries is a fascinating story. Additionally, this period laid the foundations of Christianity as an organized religion. Everyone can learn something new by watching this program. In addition, PBS’ award winning website includes an extensive compilation of interview extracts and essays.


For further information, see the PBS website: From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. Copies of the DVDs are available on Netflix and other rental sites.


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