This story takes place in three big steps. The first is centered on Jesus, His teachings and crucifixion.
Part One – Jesus
Politically speaking, the Jews and the Romans in the middle east had worked out a mutual living agreement. Basically the Jews would respect Roman Law — pay taxes, etc. — and the Romans would respect Jewish Law — let the Jews prosecute those who broke Jewish Law.
Both the Roman and the Jewish societies developed multiple levels of hierarchy and although we today use different terms for the roles, the manner of dividing up jurisdiction into multiple levels today is very similar to the Roman method.
That is, Romans had the Emperor and Senate in Rome who decided things at the highest level. But they didn’t try to handle local (outside of Rome) issues in any detail. Instead, the empire was divided into regions each having its own government. Pontius Pilate was one such individual and he had jurisdiction over the relatively small area of interest to this story.
The Jewish hierarchy, on the other hand, was organized around religious principles and spanned a much smaller geographical area. The Sanhedrin pretty much at the top of the Jewish hierarchy. It was somewhat like a local court or Senate in that each city had such a group. Each such group was composed of several members, commonly 23 but larger in some jurisdictions, and met on a daily basis (other than the Sabbath) to hear and decide local issues. It is the Sanhedrin that heard and then convicted Jesus but, because their powers were limited (by the Roman rulers), they had then to go to the Romans for the death sentence. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, was a group of normal individuals that shared a common school of thought, mostly on religious matters. They were, at times, in conflict with the Sadducees who maintained the Temples. And, as is probably obvious, the Pharisees would also be opposed to anyone else who differed from their beliefs.
Indeed, it would be the Pharisees who were the key players in fomenting the arrest of Jesus: what He was preaching was in direct opposition to the beliefs of the Pharisees. Worse, Jesus was getting a lot of traction — many Jews were listening to him and undoubtedly beginning to question, probably openly, the Pharisees and even the doctrines of Jewish law that the Sadducees followed in the running of the temples.
Jesus was becoming a real threat to their way of life.
People were listening, challenging the statements of the Pharisees and the practices of the Sadducees.
So the Jewish elders, provoked by the Pharisees and perhaps with the tacit or not so “tactic” support of the Sadducees, accused Jesus of making the false claim of being a king. They took him to the Sanhedrin (council) where He was, not surprisingly, convicted.
But a conviction alone would not be enough to silence Jesus. That much was clear. Even a prison sentence wouldn’t suffice — Jesus would undoubtedly continue preaching His message that was so threatening to the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Jewish way of life.
So, the Jewish leaders took Jesus to the Roman powers to secure the death penalty.
They started with Pontius Pilate, a “prefect” of Judaea. But Pontius Pilate said that, because Jesus was from Galilee, He was outside of his jurisdiction.
he sent the case to Herod.
At the trial where Herod presided, Jesus was almost completely silent and said little against the accusations of the (Jewish) leaders. But rather than deciding the issue — maybe Herod realized what a “hot potato” this was — Herod sent the case back to Pontius Pilate.
And so Pontius Pilate, at the end finally of his first full hearing of the case throws up his hands and basically says to the Jewish leaders he can find no fault in Jesus and nothing deserving of the death penalty. But after further conversations with the Jewish elders for which we can only imagine the content, Pontius Pilate sanctions the death penalty.
History says Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death.
And so, Jesus was crucified — a particularly vicious and degrading way of killing someone and intended, therefore, to demonstrate not only the guilt of the victim, but also the power of the state and its low opinion of the convicted.
Jesus was silenced and, by the manner in which He was executed, the state (Rome and Jewish parts in agreement) sent a very strong message about what they thought of what Jesus had been preaching.
The disciples, now in deep fear for their very lives, scatter and only slowly and secretly start coming back together. And as they do, they preach only in small groups, not in public, and only amongst friends who are, therefore, completely within the Jewish community.
Part Two – Paul
Jesus had stirred up quite a ruckus and had many enemies who, even after his crucifixion, were determined to quash His message. Paul was one such opponent who supported the efforts to round up and stop those heretical followers of Christ!
But, during a trip that Paul took, He was visited by an angel and given a task to perform, one that was quite different from what the disciples were doing. Specifically, Paul was to take Christ’s message to non-Jews.
That visitation completely reversed Paul’s thinking. Previously he had been opposed to Jesus and His teachings but, from then on, Paul would preach the message he had just opposed. He was a convert in the truest sense of the word.
But there was a key difference between what Paul was told to do and what Jesus had been doing.
According to Jewish belief, only Jews could get to Heaven. Jesus had preached His message solely to the Jews and for the purpose of telling them they did not have to conform to all of the Jewish “law” to get in, nor that following that “law” would guarantee their entry. Instead, Jesus said that it was enough to simply believe. The actions and practices dictated in the Jewish law were beside the point — the point was a person’s belief, not whether or not he conformed to the Jewish law.
(On this point, I’ve taken a slight divergence in a different essay to say that while faith is important, Jesus wasn’t saying you could sit around on a log your whole life and get into Heaven because you believed. My observation was that Jesus said conformance to Jewish law wasn’t the issue, faith was. But Jesus did not say you could do whatever you wished, nor did He say you could get to Heaven even if you did nothing your whole life. But, again, I’m diverging. Let’s get back to the story.)
Paul’s teaching on the other hand was to non-Jews, to the Gentiles. In telling his message, Paul might have said something like, “You don’t have to follow Jewish Law to get to Heaven. It is your belief that is important, not whether you eat ham or put dairy and meat on a single plate.”
Paul said you don’t have to be Jewish to get to Heaven whereas the disciples took that as a pre-condition.
Realizing that the core essential in his message was the same as what the disciples were teaching but that one part of his message was still in conflict, Paul went to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples. He hoped to convince them that their message were essentially the same.
And by this time, the disciples had gathered enough believers and no longer felt the need to stay under cover. Paul met with and convinced the disciples that he had, indeed, been visited by God’s angel and that he been given a legitimate dictate to carry Christ’s message to non-Jews.
The disciples were convinced and gave Paul the go-ahead — to teach those who were not Jews. The disciples on the other hand would continue to teach the Jews.
In that way, the “work” of getting The Word out was divided. The disciples remained in the middle east and taught in the Jewish community while Paul went out, traveled the Roman world, gained followers who traveled farther out still and carried the message to wider and wider audiences.
Part Three – The Christian Church
Over time and, with a very large world on which to draw for the making of converts, Paul and his followers were numerically and geographically far more successful — because they preached to the world — rather than the disciples who limited their audience to only Jews and only in the immediate area of the middle east.
As such, it was the followers of the Pauline doctrines that, over time, coalesced into the beginnings of the Christian church(es) we see today. And because Rome was the center of power in that part of the world, the Pauline-style church became centered there in what today is known as the Roman Catholic Church.
But as we all know, it would not remain the only “Christian” church.
One of the big splits occurred when a King wanted to do something the church would not allow. Specifically, King Henry VIII of England wanted a divorce but the Roman church had said, “No.” Not to be denied, Henry decreed with his power as the King of England that Rome was wrong and, therefore, that the Church of England (that would grant his divorce or its leaders put to death) was the “one true church.” Thus, the Church of England (Christian) church split away from Roman Catholic (Christian) Church.
And in time and through various circumstances, each of the so-called Christian churches we know today, from Baptist to Latter Day Saints, and from state-sponsored Lutherans in Sweden to Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors around the world, to small groups meeting in homes with no particular identifying label, all these would fork-off from some similar but now “you’ve got it wrong” other faction.
It’s worth noting that “Catholic” means “general” or “common” but, when it comes to the Christian church, there is none that can really claim to represent all.