You might think that the answer to this question is obvious: Jesus, but you’d be wrong. Jesus did not found a religion. He started a movement within Judaism that eventually led to his followers and their successors inventing Christianity.
Some commentators argue that Paul invented Christianity. Atheists and non-Christians use this fact to argue against the validity of Christianity. They argue that Paul essentially co-opted the movement, turning it into a kind of savior cult when in fact Jesus had intended it to be a purely Jewish movement.
You may even hear that all the evidence points to Jesus having been a revolt leader, intent on overthrowing Roman rule and setting up a Jewish state. This was the premise of a popular but poorly argued and poorly researched book called Zealot by Muslim scholar Reza Aslan. The thesis was first proposed about 200 years ago and occasionally resurfaces only to be debunked by the most basic scholarship.
Paul did not invent Christianity and neither did Jesus.
While Paul’s letters are dominant in the New Testament, and it is true that he never met Jesus in the flesh, there are many other voices in the New Testament. Moreover, there are a lot of voices in the Old Testament that point the way to a savior who will save not only Israel but all of humanity. Yet none of these point towards the founding of a “religion” in the way that, for example, the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy do or that the Koran does.
Pay attention to what I just wrote though. Many Christians will say “God doesn’t invent religions, people do,” but, if you believe in the events of Old Testament, from Exodus onward, God is dictating to the prophets His religion. This includes precise measurements for the tabernacle and later the temple, a sampling of law codes, exactly what the priests are to wear and do, rules for sacrifices and purification rituals, and so on. These books are very much like canon law is today. Yet, the books do not say that Moses came up with these ideas on his own. God dictated them.
This means that God does invent religions. For Christians, he invented exactly one: Judaism. That opens us up to the theological question: why did He not invent another one through Jesus? And what does that mean about the religion we now call Christianity?
This question perplexed early Christians too and they were forced to wrestle with the fact that God invented a religion but that the coming of his Son had made that religion’s practices optional.
That said, Jesus didn’t avoid dictating ritual. Jesus invented the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. This practice of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus in the ritual of bread and wine was abhorrent to the Jews. Baptism was optional for Jews but became mandatory for Christians thanks to Jesus.
If you want to point to any real inventor of Christianity it would be the various councils and votes that took place following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yet, these religions were indeed made by human beings. God did not send a prophet to dictate their practices and, at best, those who made these decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit.
This article isn’t going to get into the theology of why God stopped dictating religions, but instead address the question: if God didn’t found Christianity, who did?
The Book of Acts describes how this all got started. Pentecost, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, is considered the church’s birth, but at that time there was no religion other than Judaism.
You can see as you read through the book and as the apostles deal with various practical problems that the church’s structure begins to form. For example, there is the appointment of a replacement for Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus and killed himself. I always thought it was interesting that they felt this needed to be done but later in the church there was no mention of needing a council of exactly twelve to lead it. Then there is the appointment of the seven deacons to deal with food distribution so the apostles are free to teach, a structural addition that exists to this day in some denominations.
These original decisions only involved the believers in Jerusalem, but the movement quickly spread. The first council that occurs with believers from different parts of the Roman Empire occurs in the New Testament itself in which Paul travels to Jerusalem to meet with the leader of the Church, Jesus’ brother James.
The big question of the day which was threatening to tear the new movement apart (it had not separated from Judaism yet) was whether gentile converts had to become circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws. A second point was if they did not should the Jewish and Gentile converts be able to eat and congregate together. Paul argued that gentiles should not follow Jewish law and that if they were required to do so that would invalidate Jesus’ sacrifice, suggesting it was not enough and that the law was also needed for salvation. Likewise, Paul argued that gentiles and Jews should eat together being one in the body of Christ.
Before Paul got involved, however, Peter had already visited and baptized Cornelius, a gentile, following dreams that they had both separately had. Cornelius was a God-fearer, someone who accepts the Hebrew God as the one God but has not been circumcised and does not follow the Jewish customs. He then had to defend himself before the Jerusalem Church (Acts 11). This suggests that the movement to include gentiles didn’t need Paul to get it started.
Eventually, it was agreed (Acts 15) that the gentiles should not need to follow Jewish law. They are only asked to be sensitive to their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. This is important because it says that the leaders of the church made this decision together. Although Paul had pretty much gone off on his own, it is important to recognize that he did not take over the church and reinvent it in his own image. He looked to Jerusalem and the other leaders to bless what he was doing. And in fact, they commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go to the churches and carry a letter from them explaining their decision.
Now, it is clear that Paul had a strong personality and he was persuasive (and could probably convince people to agree to things just to get him to stop talking) but the leaders were not trying to humor Paul or just get him to go away. The council made this decision “unanimously” (Acts 15:25) based on the words of the Prophets (Amos 9:11-12).
This is also a good example of the centralized control that would become a feature of Christianity for centuries. Paul and Barnabas were to correct the teachings of unauthorized missionaries, suggesting that the Jerusalem church was taking authority for itself. Later Rome would do the same.
At the time of the Apostles, which is what the New Testament largely chronicles there were also no real church services other than those in the synagogues. The only rituals were Eucharist and Baptism as well as some prayers. The movement was still part of Judaism.
It also, of course, had no scriptures beyond the Old Testament. The New Testament would take hundreds of years to be formed by another council as various scrolls were passed around and copied by the early churches.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 called by Emperor Constantine established the New Testament. It is also where we began to see the codification of creeds, like the so-called Nicaean Creed (which didn’t reach its final form till a later council in 380), that explained in detail what “Christians” believe.
These decisions were made long after Paul had died. The Holy Trinity, which was a big topic for the Council of Nicaea, is only hinted at in Paul’s writings.
Jesus did establish some of the core vocabulary that later would become part of Christian worship. Jesus as Savior and Son of God are in the Gospels. (He usually called himself “Son of Man” however which is a nod to the prophecy in the book of Daniel.) This may have been more of a way of subverting the Roman authorities than a theological position because the Emperor referred to himself as Savior and Son of God. This was a way for Jesus to tell his followers not to look to worldly powers but only to him and through him God the Father for salvation.
Sunday became holy only after the resurrection of course. Before that, worship occurred on Saturday, the Sabbath, and probably was observed on that day for a long time after. Sunday worship probably started during the time of the apostles but was probably much more informal than today. There are hints of it in the NT (Rev. 1:10). Certainly by the 2nd century it was a regular occurrence and by the 4th century became mandatory for Christians.
The separation of Christianity as a religion from Judaism happened over a period of years. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 accelerated it, but Christians worshiped in synagogues for centuries. A major split, however, occurred after Nicaea when both Orthodox Christians and Rabbinic Jews rejected Jewish Christians as heretical. Even today, however, there are Jews who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The reality is that Jesus never commanded his followers to form a religion because he already had the one that God invented: Judaism. Moses had already done all the hard work of writing down that religion’s laws and rules. But he also expected that his message of the coming of God’s kingdom and salvation would include gentiles and the entire world, that it would grow “like a mustard seed.” This suggests that Jesus did not feel that the world needed a new religion since a religion is intended to set people apart from others by their practices. He wanted his disciples to set themselves apart by their repentance and faith.
He chose not to answer many of the questions that later councils would wrestle with because he had already told them that he would send them an advocate or comforter, the Holy Spirit, that would guide them. Like Judaism, Christianity is led by God himself.
Does this mean that every decision that Christian leaders have made is good and blessed by God? Certainly not. It is very clear from the Old Testament writings that the Jewish leaders frequently ignored God and his messengers and prefer to follow false prophets (Jeremiah and Ezekiel). The same is true in Christianity.
Likewise, Christianity as a religion is a human institution that attempts to carry out the will of God through Jesus Christ, but like all human institutions, including, as is well-documented in the Old Testament, the one God founded, it is subject to corruption.
The early followers of Jesus simply called their movement “The Way”. In other words, it is the only way one is to live, every day. There is no religion. There is only the Way, and each of us finds ourselves either on the Way or off it by the actions of our hearts regardless of whether we claim to be a member of or practice Christian “religion”.