That Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah or Christ, is the founder of Christianity is held as an unquestionable assumption by many Christians is obvious, but careful scholarship requires that the assumption be qualified, if not refuted. A founder may be defined as a person who establishes, initiates, originates or lays the foundations of an idea, movement, group or institution . Identifying a founder of Christianity then will require one to determine with which person did the religion originate, who established it, who introduced it as an idea or movement, and who gave it its structure and organisation.
As we shall see, this task is not a clear-cut one. The origins of Christianity were fraught with much controversy, and its development into the organized religion and group of religious systems that we now call Christianity cannot be said to have been a smooth and linear one. This paper then explores the above question along three axes: Jesus as the founder of Christianity; Jesus as the originator of a Jewish Messianic sect that “posthumously” became Christianity; and the apostles as the founder of a Jewish sect that became Christianity through the interpretations and Christology of Paul.
According to The Columbia Encyclopaedia, the main teachings of Christianity are that "Jesus is the Son of God; that his life on earth, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven are proof of God's love for humanity and God's forgiveness of human sins; and that by faith in Jesus one may attain salvation and eternal life"3. It is indisputable that Christianity centres on the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus, without whom the religion wouldn't exist. He is the pre-eminent source, and the great 'rabbi', whose words and the Midrash4 thereof form the New Testament scriptures.
It is Jesus who gives the basis for the religion's creation in the forty days between His resurrection and ascension: "After his suffering he appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. He said to them 'you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'"5 Although Christianity begins in earnest after Jesus' ascension, he lays the foundations for it to be carried out in the above quote and in the Great Commission: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And [miraculous] signs will accompany those who believe".6 There are two things of note about this commission; the first is that it reiterates the disciples' missionary work during the lifetime of Jesus7, and the second is that it gives the disciples the power and authority to continue doing the miraculous work that Jesus had done in his lifetime.
The first time the gospel is preached after the resurrection is on the day of Pentecost, when, on receiving the promised Holy Spirit, Peter addresses the crowd gathered8. His sermon takes the following form: he recalls the Messianic prophecy in Joel and relates the story of Jesus' life, work, persecution and resurrection, using this to demonstrate that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."9 He closes with a rejoinder that indicates the basic tenet of 'The Way': "Repent and be baptised, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."10 'The Way' eventually becomes known as 'Christianity', after the appellation given to the disciples in Antioch11.
On the one hand, the above shows that to some extent, Jesus can be considered the founder of Christianity, since it originates and is grounded in him. On the other hand, it shows, as most definitions of Christianity claim, that the religion that bears his name is actually founded by his followers after his death12. In one sense, Christianity,