Christians - A Brief History

An alternate title for this page could be, “Why are there so many different denominations in Jerusalem where it all began?” The Website will sometimes used the Western term "denomination" although many of these groups prefer the word "Church" with a capital "C".

Acts and the early scattered churches

The Christian Church had its beginning in the events recorded in Acts on a day we call Pentecost. According to the biblical record there were people there from many countries and speaking different languages: (Acts 2:9-11). We can assume that some of them took the Word back to their home countries. The Bible then talks of the development of the Church in Jerusalem where the number of disciples increased. Acts says that a severe persecution began against the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the Word and starting communities which we would call churches. Specific places are mentioned including Samaria, Judea, Galilee, Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea, as well as places in Syria (today’s Lebanon) named Tyre and Sidon. 

Acts also says that followers of Jesus were scattered, and traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (where they were first called Christians). There is mention of people from Cyrene who proclaimed Jesus, and many other cities in the area whose names have not remained until today.  Athens, Ephesus, Malta and Rome are all mentioned.  One statement was even made “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Gentiles, heard the Word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10) to show the rapid spread of the Jesus movement. The report of Paul’s experience in Damascus demonstrates that there were Christians there already.

In the New Testament, according to Arland J. Hultgren in The Rise of Normative Christianity, Christian communities existed in Jerusalem, Samaria, Galilee, Caesarea, Lydda and Joppa with multiple local churches in Judea. The church in Tyre and Sidon of Syria (now Lebanon) is also grouped with these churches. Jerusalem was the center of these various communities and they thought of themselves as one Church. As the Church grew over a large area there was a need for organization and the Church was divided into Patriarchs. Beyond Jerusalem, the earliest Patriarchates were in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. 

They had some basic beliefs in common although as time went on different theological interpretations appeared in the Holy Land as well as in the scattered churches. Recent archeological excavations, such as the one at Nag Hamadi in Egypt, found non-canonical (not in our common Bible) books used as parts of the Bible in some particular Patriarchates. The variety of theological beliefs in these books and these Churches led to a search for what the real theological beliefs should be. 

Early Councils

Early councils to consolidate the Christian beliefs led to splits and today’s denominations.

Emperor Constantine, after establishing a new capital in Byzantium and naming it “Constantinople”, called the first ecumenical council in Nicea. A clause in the Nicean Creed, approved in 589, caused division. The state was divided into the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople (Churches known today as Orthodox) and the Western Roman Empire with a capital in Rome (known today as Catholic). Constantine thought that common beliefs would unite the State. (By then some Christians even found themselves totally outside the Roman Empire in the Church of the East.) 

A major split occurred in 451 at the council of Chalcedon when the nature of Christ was proclaimed and a group of Churches, which we call the Oriental Orthodox today, rejected the teaching of Chalcedon. There was also political maneuvering and persecution that entered into the split.

More significant was the divide between East and West in 1054. The Western churches were using Latin while the Eastern churches (inside the Roman Empire) used Greek. The Western churches considered the Pope in Rome to be the head of the Christian Church while the Eastern Churches believed he was one Patriarch among equals. The West required celibacy of its clergy while the Eastern Churches allowed some clergy to marry. There was also a disagreement about a clause entered into the Nicene Creed in 589. Only a few years after 1054, the Crusades began and included raids on the Eastern Orthodox by the Catholic Crusaders. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders placed more distance between East and West.  The split became irreversible. 

The Reformation

The Reformation was an event in the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) while the Orthodox Churches had their own history.  In 1794 missionaries arrived in Alaska from the Russian Orthodox Church bringing Christianity to the Western United States as the European Catholics broought Christianity to the East coast of the Americas. 

In the Reformation, another group of Churches was formed which we call “Protestant” today. Both religious conviction (such as Martin Luther’s writing against indulgences), and the economic situation at the time, led to this split. Many Protestant groups started missionary activity in the Middle East in the belief that the Orthodox Churches were in need of new life, but no new Protestant-related denominations were formed there.

At the same time, the Roman Catholics, engaged in successful missionary activities in the Orthodox Churches leading to new Orthodox Churches, often called Uniate Churches.  The Vatican recognizes these Eastern Catholic Churches with special rules which allow them to use Eastern liturgies and for the clergy to marry. 

Churches from the Syriac tradition and Eastern Asia.

As Christians, we are familiar with a variety of churches that have their Bible translations from the Greek and Latin versions of the Bible. We call them the Western Christians and they are the ones most familiar to American Christians. They are the Churches in Councils of Churches plus the Catholic Churches, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

There are other Churches that grew up in Asia, east of Jerusalem. Some were formed from groups declared heretics by the early councils. Others grew up with the Bible in the Syriac language, or translations of that version, and some are called Assyrian Orthodox.  Some are still called “heretical” today by the Western churches and the others are simply denied the title of “Christian” by Western Councils of Churches.  

Ecumenism today

In the 19th century, a movement known as "ecumenism" emerged, striving to get the Churches to work together and recognize each other’s strengths. Such efforts resulted in Councils of Churches and agreements to share the same meanings for Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Not all Churches joined in these efforts. The Middle East Council of Churches is made up of the most varied group of denominations and includes Protestant, Catholic and both strands of Orthodox Churches, although these are all from what is called the Western tradition. 

Returning to the question of “Why are there so many different denominations in Jerusalem?” A knowledgeable priest once said that Christians seek to go back to the Mother Church as children go back to mother. It is useful to look at the variety as “diversity” rather than “division”. Even the denominations which haven’t started new Churches in the Holy Land support various institutions as a way of making their own presence there.