After Jesus’ death in A.D. 33 , his early followers began slowly spreading out from Jerusalem to find sanctuary in places such as Cyrus, Phoenicia, Damascus, and Antioch. The authors of the New Testament, like St. Luke the Evangelist who is believed to have penned the book Acts of the Apostles around A.D. 80, tell the struggles believers and the early church faced in their nascent days. In Acts, Luke tells the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr to be gruesomely executed in A.D. 36. Stephen’s stoning, Luke says, prompted other followers to flee so as not to fall victim to similar persecutions. So, what does the Bible say about how this vulnerable faith got jumpstarted, eventually evolving into the world’s most populous religion with some 2.3 billion followers today?
Acts of the Apostles tells the story of one man, Saul of Tarsus, who played a huge role in spreading early Christianity. Devoutly Jewish and a Roman citizen, he was an unlikely proponent of this new faith. It describes how he witnessed the mob scene around Stephen’s death, and came to believe it was his solemn duty to persecute Christians, going so far as to drag Christian men and women to prison, punishing them to deny their faith. He obtained permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to pursue and arrest fleeing Christians. On his way to Damascus, Syria, however, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of the resurrected Jesus saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). From that moment on, Saul (later called Paul) devoted himself to the Apostolic mission.