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Earliest Christianity was known as The Way
First decades of what became world’s largest religion began with focus on sharing and healing
One simple and common Greek word reveals a surprising amount about what it meant to be a part of the faith in the earliest days of Christianity.
The word is hodos, which refers in its literal sense to a road or journey. It is typically translated as “way,” and like that English word it can mean not only a transportation route but also a manner of doing or being something.
The Book of Acts, which provides an account of the early community of believers from about 30 to 60 CE uses hodos — typically translated as Way or The Way — to refer to the collective beliefs and practices of these early followers of Jesus. Although the word for church, ekklēsia, is used more often, that word had a more generic purpose and could refer to any assembly of people. Use of the Greek word for “Christianity,” Khristianismos, isn’t known until around the year 100 CE.
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Two words that aren’t used in Acts to refer to early Christianity were ioudaismos and threskeia, words usually translated as “religion.” (The latter is used once, in Acts 26:5, to refer to Judaism.) In other words, the writer of Actssaw early Christianity not so much as a religion but as a way of life.
In the King James Version and some other Bible translations, Acts refers to the early Christians as a “sect,” but that translation can misleading to modern readers. The Greek word translated that way, hairesis, is used in Biblical contexts to refer a subgroup within a larger group, particularly people who have chosen a school of thought. Hairesis is used in Acts only in 24:14 and 28:22 to refer to the early Christians; elsewhere in Acts it is used to refer to the Sadducees and Pharisees.
We don’t know how often the early Christian movement was referred to by outsiders as The Way, but in Acts it is the term of choice. It is first used in Acts 9:2, where Saul (later named Paul) was on the road to Damascus seeking people “of The Way, whether men or women, [that] he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
It’s not clear where the name for the movement came from. Candidates include Isaiah, who used the phrase “Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,” a saying used later to refer to John the Baptist; and Jesus himself, who, according to the Gospel of John, told the disciple Thomas: “You know where I go, and you know the way. ... I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Christianity started as movement within Judaism
In the first years of Christian history, there was little to characterize Jesus’ followers as a religious group separate from Judaism. The early Christians in and around Jerusalem sometimes worshiped in the Jewish temple until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. But even during the three decades covered in Acts, Christianity was changing dramatically: Paul, now known as the missionary to the Gentiles, was taking the teachings of Jesus far outside Jerusalem. The addition of non-Jews to this Jewish group created tensions, which were the main concern of the Council of Jerusalem, which met around 50 CE and is described in Acts 15.
So if Christianity wasn’t a religion as we often use the word today, what was it? Well, they did have religious rituals, such as the breaking of bread, a precursor to today’s Christian Communion or Eucharist. But as Acts 2 and 4 tell us, one of the notable features of the movement is that believers held their property in common and sold it, even including houses, to aid anyone in need. They were reported to be of one heart and mind, and “great grace was on them all.” We also are told that many people found miraculous healing as believers followed “The Way of the Lord.”
From what we can tell, living in The Way wasn’t so much a matter of believing the right doctrines as in belonging to the community, and very few of the rules that the Jews had lived with for centuries didn’t apply to the new believers.
As Acts comes to a close, Paul is speaking to a gathering of Jews in Rome, where he tells them that the Gentiles will listen to what he has to say. And as they do, Paul declares by quoting the prophet Isaiah, they will be healed. And that healing, rather than seeking proselytes for a new religion, was what Acts portrays Paul seeing as his divine calling.
This commentary on the Acts of the Apostles is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Also known as Acts of the Apostles.
According to tradition, the author of Acts (written anonymously) was Luke, a doctor and traveling companion of Paul who wrote in the second half of the first century. The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written together.
Because hairesis often referred to groups who differed from orthodoxy, it became the source of the English word “heresy.” The connotation of wrong belief is present in Acts 24:14.
Isaiah 28:27, quoting Isaiah 6:10.