Why Christianity Happened (55+)

In the first century of the Common Era, Christians were a tiny minority in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, their beliefs either unknown or ridiculed. Three centuries later, over 50 million people were Christian, and emperors eagerly embraced a religion whose first followers had been Galilean peasants.

Was this transformation the inevitable result of Jesus’s teachings and actions? Or was it due to Paul’s charisma and persistence? Was the time ripe? Did Christianity offer a personal message of hope amid the chaos and decline of the Empire? Were pagans impressed by Christian ethics, communities, miracles and martyrdom? Why did Christianity win out over other contemporary movements like Gnosticism or Mithraism? We will analyze the ongoing debates that divide scholars still.

Note: Back by popular demand, in a revised version, from summer 2014.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Recognize the flaws in common explanations for the rise of Christianity
  • Evaluate the roles and impact of Jesus, Paul and Constantine
  • Appreciate the complexity of relations between Christians, Jews and pagans in these early centuries

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Origins

In what sense was Jesus the founder of Christianity? Was he even a Christian? Was the bridge between him and the religion attributed to him “independent of his activity,” as has been claimed? Christ’s death signaled failure to his followers, yet within a generation they rallied, believing his resurrection was the key to eternal life. How did a man executed as a criminal come to be worshipped, and what lay behind the earliest accounts of his death and resurrection?

Week 2: Paul

From Paul we have the earliest writings about Jesus and the person responsible, some claim, for turning the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. Was he the “apostle of love,” “the greatest of all missionaries,” or “the first… corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus,” who “hijacked” the Jesus movement, preaching intolerance and misogyny? We will look at the controversies surrounding him: his background and conversion, his views on women, his travels, and his relationship to Judaism and the Law.

Week 3: Jews and Christians, Christians and Christians

The Jesus Movement began as a Jewish sect but by the end of the first century Jews and Christians displayed mutual hostility. Why? Was the break inevitable? Was the anti-Judaism of early Christianity an example of a uniquely Christian intolerance? 

Week 4: Pagans and Christians

How did Christians fit within the Roman Empire’s religious pluralism? What were their relations with their neighbours and with the Roman authorities? Were they a perpetually hounded minority, driven underground by unremitting persecutions? And what rifts developed within their ranks?

Week 5: Conversion

From a few hundred members in 100 CE Christianity had grown to an estimated 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 by the year 300. How can we account for this? We’ll look at the pace, method and nature of conversion and the possible reasons for it: the Christian message of a personal, loving god and an afterlife; and the ethical teachings and practices (social inclusiveness, charity and health care) in Christian communities. 

Week 6: Constantine

The beginning of the 4th century saw the “Great Persecution” and then a remarkable turnabout as Christianity became at first tolerated, then favoured and, by the end of the century, the only legal religion of the Roman Empire. Why did this happen and what were the results? Finally, what can we conclude about why Christianity happened?

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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