What conditions cause the teachings and claimed revelations of certain religious figures in the Abrahamic tradition—e.g. Jesus, Muhammad—to lead to the formation of entire new religions, whilst others—e.g. Joseph Smith, Marcion of Sinope—simply produce sects of existing religions?

Reading up on the development and splintering of Abrahamic religions, I've been trying to work out why some religious leaders' teachings catch on more than others, but there doesn't seem to be an obvious rule. Is it just luck and timing?

Starting with Judaism, with its written and oral myths about the creation of the universe and such.† Jewish thinkers debated these stories and came up with differing interpretations of their lessons, but all remained under the banner of 'Judaism'.

Then, a Jewish man called Yeshua comes along and does the same, teaches and preaches, and is executed. His followers continue to spread his teachings and, over the next hundred years, write down accounts of his life, eventually forming a Christianity that is distinct from Judaism despite sharing the same mythology, rather than a 'Christian Judaism/Abrahamism'.

Later, a Roman man called Marcion of Sinope teaches a form of Christianity that separates the God of the Old Testament from that of the New. Marcionism, however, never gets beyond being considered a sect of Christianity.

Later still, an Arab man called Muhammad claims to have received a divine revelation. Despite the polytheistic background of his pre-Islamic Arab culture, Muhammad's teachings begin with the mythology of Abrahamism and the gospel stories of Jesus. He adds to this his own teachings and this becomes the religion of Islam, rather than 'Muhammadean Christianity/Judaism/Abrahamism'.

Later still, an American man called Joseph Smith claims to have received a divine revelation. Beginning with the mythology of Abrahamism and the gospel stories of Jesus, he adds on some further teaching, and this becomes Mormonism, considered a sect of Christianity.

And a little later, an Indian man called Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claims to have received a divine revelation. He takes the teachings of Islam and adds to them, producing Ahmadiyya, considered a sect of Islam.

Why the inconsistency? It doesn't seem to be number of believers—compare Mormonism's 16m adherents to Judaism's 14–17m.

It doesn't seem to be the teacher's political impact either—Muhammad united the Arab tribes, conquered Mecca and so on, but Jesus never led more than his group of apostles in his lifetime.

Is it really just luck of the draw?

† Presumably assembled from various more ancient stories (c.f. Zoroastrianism, Babylonian myths, etc.), but that's not important here.

  • 7
    What makes Mormonism a "sect" instead of a "different religion"? This question seems more hinged upon highly debatable and historically inconsistent definitions, rather than actual historical differences. If you're asking instead about why each branch is perceived as a "sect" or "religion", then the answers are rooted in the individual circumstances/successes/failures of each branch.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 14 '18 at 11:02
  • 1
    Not sure that this can be answered by history. I suspect chance to be the dominant factor.
    – MCW
    Dec 14 '18 at 12:15
  • 4
    It might help to focus on a specific example, owing to the complexity of definitions in so many cases. Mormonism has been mentioned but for other examples Islam was considered a heretical Christian sect in medieval Europe (e.g. in Dante) and only gradually considered a religion. Baha'i is considered a heretical offshoot of Islam by Muslims but a distinct faith by its own practitioners. Early Christianity was viewed as a Jewish sect even by some followers. Explaining even one of those will take effort and detail.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 14 '18 at 12:17
  • 5
    A sect is any religious following with fewer adherents than that of your parents. Dec 14 '18 at 13:20
  • 2
    Re the different routes to success of Islam vs Christianity, it's basically marketing. Muhammed was selling his religion to desert tribes, which basically gave them a justification for pillaging their neighbors. The early Christians were selling to slaves, holding out a promise of a better life after death. And of course the Mormons had to (outwardly, anyway) change a lot of their theology after being occupied by the US Army. Being just a rather wierd bunch of Christians made it easier to coexist.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 14 '18 at 18:08

It seems to me that the answer is, in a word, politics. While it's true that Jesus himself was Jewish, Christianity really came into being later, among pagan Romans. For various reasons, it was politically expedient to set it as a new religion distinct from the Romans. Late still, it was politically astute to take a step away from Judaism.

Similarly, Mohammed was spreading Islam around pagans for whom monotheism was a new concept. It was politically useful to have a mythology to point to.

On the other hand, Mormons don't want to distance themselves from Christianity, so that the difference seems manageable for new converts.

Again, the big Christian schisms, like the protests of Martin Luther, can be seen as new religions. However, politically it would have been a bad idea at the time to completely deny the church, so Protestantism became a sect.

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