They then gathered in Jerusalem on the festival of Shavuot (also called Pentecost), where a dramatic event took place. "Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them" (Acts 2:2-3). The disciples began to speak in multiple languages, and Jewish pilgrims from distant locations could understand them, each in their own language. One of Jesus' disciples, Peter, stood up and preached the first Christian sermon. This day is commemorated by many Christians as the Birthday of the Church.
The disciples began baptizing people, and their community of baptized Jews grew quickly. They continued to think of themselves as Jews and continued attending the temple, reading the Jewish scriptures, keeping the Sabbath, and adhering to Jewish dietary and religious practices. But other Jews, viewing them as a sect that worshipped a false messiah, persecuted them. Persecution forced the spread of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem to the country districts of Judea and Samaria.
The Book of Acts reports that the first Christian martyr was a deacon named Stephen, who was stoned to death for witnessing to Jesus as the Messiah. A Jew named Saul, a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Asia Minor, joined in the persecution of the Jewish Christians. However, Acts 9 reports that Saul had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do" (Acts 9:3-6).
Thereafter Saul, later known as Paul, became the great Christian missionary, energetically evangelizing around the Mediterranean, particularly among non-Jews. Paul is credited with extending the reach of the Christian message beyond the Jewish communities of Palestine, founding non-Jewish Christian communities in several important cities of the Roman Empire.
1. Describe the political instability at the time of Christianity's origin. Why was Jesus' identity as a Jew important?
2. Where does Christianity's account of Jesus' life originate? What key points within his life are stressed?
3. What was Pentecost? How did it mark the birth of the Christian Church?
4. Why did Jews persecute early Christians? Provide a famous example.