While I was meditating about beginnings, my mind wandered to wondering about the early beginnings of Christianity. What was the character of the earliest evangelists? How did it get to the point of snowballing into a major world religion?
It's often hard to partition cynicism from skepticism, so at least some of the Christians I've openly chatted with likely have the impression that I think there was some grand conspiracy behind all of this; that the "Apostles" all knew that it this was a false religion from the start, and that they kicked off the new faith for selfish reasons. (That's a bit of a straw-man argument, but just for illustration.) The truth is that I do not have a strong sense of what happened exactly, but I am less inclined to favor a purely cynical theory.
I suspect that there was a real person named Jesus who attracted a subgroup of truly loyal followers who followed him around. Were there actually twelve of these loyalists? Were there less? Were there more? Who knows? But there is some certainty that there were loyal followers, because they had to be the ones to spread the word after their teacher was gone.
What exactly Jesus said and did is highly debatable, and worthy of a separate post itself, but he was at least impressive enough to captivate these followers. Yet the fact that there were not more loyalists suggests that Jesus' alleged miracles are unlikely to be entirely true, because I suspect that the embodiment of that kind of power combined with alleged divine authority and wisdom, combined with a message that the world would soon end, would have been difficult to resist, as John 6:68 phrases that sentiment so well:
Simon Peter answered [Jesus], "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." NIVThere were believers. What exactly they believed is also debatable, but we should not deny that these loyal followers, in part or in whole, believed some message that Jesus was preaching. If not, if it was just for the angle of selfish gain of power, respect, and/or wealth, these non-devoted followers could have easily plagiarized the story and wisdom once they learned it, and broken off on their own long before Jesus died.
So, to me, it is quite likely that the early evangelism was done by sincere believers. But the problem with many movements, especially those spread orally, is that they can morph and change easily over time. And as belief spread, new regional faith leaders would have to emerge. These leaders, being a factor removed from the original eyewitnesses, would naturally have less loyalty to the original message. They could add on interpretations or hearsay into the story. Some of them, with their faith weakened by time, could become corrupted by the respect and wealth which was so willingly offered by new believers, just as we see preachers today ensnared in the same situation.
I suspect that by the time the Gospel stories became fully similar to what we know them today, they had been shaped and altered by those who had never had direct access to Jesus. The original intents and messages had been tweaked or, in some cases, overwritten. The neat thing is that you can study some of this evolution within the Synoptic Gospels when you compare them side-by-side.
So my guess is that within a decade or so after the evangelism-sans-Jesus began, you had a rather diverse Christian faith. Some regional leaders were genuinely pious, trying to get the word out, while others had begun to drift due to the trappings of their appointed positions. Still other leaders who had more worldly knowledge of religions, or astrology, or numerology, or Gnosticism, would put their own spin on the meaning of the "messiah."
But whether or not the leaders had pure piety, they had motivation to be persuasive. The pious were dealing with an impending, imminent return of their Savior. The corrupt were figuring out how to better fill their pockets. And the mystics with their own take on the message were working to bring people into enlightenment of this new revelation.
Those are my thoughts. That and $5 may get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. :-) What do you think happened?