By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Why does Christianity have 40,000 denominations today? The United States is home to 200 alone. A new Wondrium series looks for answers about the world’s largest faith.
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, boasting some 2.5 billion followers. The second largest religion is Islam with 2 billion followers. However, Islam has just two main branches: The Sunni, who constitute 87% of its worshipers; and the Shi’a, who make up the remaining 13%. Christianity has 40,000 denominations. Scholars point both to Jesus’s short tenure as a minister and to several other factors as reasons for the many denominations developing in Christianity.
How did Christianity come to have so many groups and factions? In his video series Searching for the Historical Jesus, Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Professor Emeritus at Fielding Graduate University, looks back to the life and times of one of history’s most famous prophets.
A Game of Messianic Telephone
Jesus’s tenure as prophet lasted just 18 months, which is far shorter than many other world religions’ prophets or founders. This brief time helps explain why there are so many interpretations of his teachings. Aside from that, why are there so many Christian denominations?
“For a full generation after his life on Earth, [Jesus’s] memory was kept alive by oral traditions, before they were committed to documents that have survived to this day, such as the Gospels,” Dr. Isbouts said. “That is one reason why even during the rise of Christianity, the traditional strand formulated by Paul of Tarsus—the idea of universal salvation through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—was challenged by other factions.”
Another source of contention among early Christians, which continues to this day, is the true nature of Jesus himself. According to Dr. Isbouts, the Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, or mashiach: an “iconic figure who would liberate his people from foreign occupation and restore a land ruled by the laws of God.”
1,200 Years of Splintering Faith
Meanwhile, Paul had found success traveling throughout the Mediterranean and converting many Gentiles who had never heard of a messiah. Due to this, Paul and other ministers similar to him shifted the focus of Jesus’s life to what Dr. Isbouts calls “the universal redemptive role of the son of God,” which caused more contention among the polytheistic Greeks and Romans.
“How could a man be a mortal human being and a god at the same time?” he asked. “That question proved irresistible to the Greek mind, which loved to debate a paradox such as this. From the 4th century onward, these debates ripped the early church apart and led to the splintering of Christianity, followed by the Great Schism of 1054 between East and West.
“And then, five centuries later, Europe itself was deeply divided when Martin Luther launched the Reformation.”
Colonial America saw similar divisions of belief. Quaker and Puritan sects comprised much of the population of the New England colonies, while the South retained many of the class distinctions of Great Britain’s Anglican society. The middle colonies were far more even-handed, owing to their mix of Irish, French, and German populations, many of whom were raised Catholic.
As Christ’s words spread around the world and humanity interpreted it in its own way, the number of Christian denominations seemed to grow almost as quickly as the number of Christians.
Searching for the Historical Jesus is now available to stream on Wondrium.