Jesus, of course, was born and raised in Palestine. Like his apostles and earliest disciples, he was a Middle Eastern Jew. Christianity emerged from a Hebrew matrix, drawing on stories of prophets and patriarchs firmly set in the Middle East.
All Christians know this, as does anybody even slightly acquainted with the Christian story.
Yet we sometimes fail to understand the historical implications of Christianity’s Middle Eastern origins.
An Egyptian friend relates an anecdote that illustrates our point. He once surprised a European visitor to his country by identifying himself as a Christian. “Who converted your family?” the European tourist asked. “Was it the British, or the French?” “It was St. Mark,” he replied. “Who converted your family?”
Our European ancestors waited centuries, sometimes even a full millennium, to hear the message of Christianity. But Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Alexandria by about A.D. 49 — in other words, within two decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ — and his message took root among the huge Jewish community there and soon spread beyond it.
Today, both the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria claim him as their founder. And he likely was. The traditions of his early preaching in Egypt are very old, and had Egyptian Christians simply been inventing the story in rivalry with Rome, they probably would have chosen a more prominent figure, such as Peter, to be their founding father.
Christianity is, and has always been, a Middle Eastern religion. Although nowadays it’s prominently associated with Rome, Marburg, Canterbury and, for some of us, Salt Lake City, that hasn’t always been so. The rise and expansion of Islam have obscured the Christian faith’s deep roots in what we today term the Near or Middle East.