Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to the apostle Peter, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." Based in part on this passage from scripture, the Roman Catholic Church has a strong tradition that Jesus founded the Church and appointed Peter as its first leader. The Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions, on the other hand, do not agree that Peter had any greater authority than Paul or the other apostles.
Although it is not entirely clear from the historian's perspective that Jesus intended to found a new religion, it is clear that a new religion was ultimately founded in Jesus' life and teachings. This would not have happened if his grieving followers had not become persuaded of the reality of Jesus' resurrection. Belief in the resurrection was central to the faith of the early Christians. The apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Jesus was executed around the year 30 C.E., and according to the Acts of the Apostles, the Pentecost happened seven weeks later. On that day, Peter preached the first "Christian" sermon (Acts 2). It was a simple sermon in which Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the awaited Messiah, and that the Jews were living through the last days before the "day of the Lord," when God would judge the world and it would come to an end. He called on his listeners to repent of their sins and be baptized as a sign of rebirth.
Thirty years later, Christian communities were found in most towns in the eastern Mediterranean, and as far west as Rome. This can be attributed to the dedicated efforts of Jesus' followers, who believed they were empowered by the Holy Spirit, to evangelize, or convert, people to belief in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, or Christ. The two most important and influential evangelists were Peter and Paul.
Peter is the key figure in Acts 1-12. He took the lead in the early days, healing and preaching. Although the first years of his ministry were concentrated in Jerusalem among the Jews, he is also said to have had an interest in the mission to Samaria. Peter shared leadership of the Jerusalem Christians with James, who was the head of the Church in Jerusalem. James is believed to have been the brother of Jesus.