Christianity is a religion structured on the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth (c. 6 B.C.–c. 30 A.D.), also known as Jesus Christ. It was founded on the concepts of personal salvation (deliverance from sin) and eternal life for its followers. The Bible is its primary sacred text, and there are three main branches: Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Protestantism. Modern Christianity is further divided into an estimated twenty-two thousand different denominations, which are (a group within a faith that has its own system of organization). [Source: Encyclopedia.com]
The term Christianity also embraces the institutions, social and cultural patterns, and the beliefs and doctrines evolved by the historic community derived from the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth. In the widest sense of term, Christianity can refer to the forms of civilization which it created or influenced — many elements in modern, secular, Western civilization are still, in one way or another, called "Christian" or attributed to "Christianity." [Source: Geoffrey Wigoder, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]
When you think about it is quite remarkable that Jesus of Nazareth developed a following and that following gave birth to the huge movement of Christianity. As Huston Smith pointed out in The Religions of Man, Jesus was "a little-known Jewish carpenter who … was born in a stable, died at the age of thirty-three as a criminal rather than a hero, never traveled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshaled no army, and instead of producing books did his only writing in the sand." In death and through his Resurrection, Jesus proved to be an even more powerful figure than in life. In short period of time Jesus became known by a title derived from the Greek word christos, or "anointed one," with a meaning similar to "messiah." The form was shortened to Jesus Christ, and common use turned this title into his last name.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ;
Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex
Christianity, the World’s Largest Religion
As of 2020, Christianity has approximately 2.4 billion adherents according to the World Religion Database. This means that Christians make up about a third of the world's population, a position they the have held for at least the last 100 years. Christianity remains the dominant religion in the Western World, where 70 percent of the people there are Christians. The largest Christian denomination is the Roman Catholic Church, with 1.3 billion adherents, representing half of all Christians. [Source: Wikipedia, 2024]
A Pew Forum study in 2012 study estimated Christianity was the largest faith at 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population, with Roman Catholics making up 50 percent of that total, Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox at 12 percent. According to the Pew study, while two-thirds of Christians in 1910 were in Europe, they now are spread more widely throughout the world. [Source: AFP, December 20, 2011 =*=; Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012]
Early History of Christianity
Christian history begins with the life and death of Jesus Christ in the A.D. 1st century. The early Christian church formed after his death and was given a major boost when Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century. The great schism that divided Christianity into the Catholic and Orthodox churches took place in 1054.
Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:Christianity arose out of a close and yet conflicted relationship with Judaism. In about A.D 30. Roman authorities in Palestine, with the cooperation of Jewish leaders, executed Jesus on a charge of treason. Soon after, followers of Jesus reported having seen him alive. The earliest Christians had a deep sense of Jesus' living presence among them; a confidence that he was "Lord," in the sense of having triumphed over sin and death; and an expectation that he would soon return to reign on earth. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the "anointed one" sent to save Israel, and they found prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, renamed the Old Testament, pointing to Jesus. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]
Initially all of the central leaders of the Christian community, and probably the overriding number of followers as well, were Jews. Most regarded Christianity as a sect within Judaism rather than a separate religion. The New Testament highlights the leadership role of Simon, called Peter (the Rock) by Jesus, who seems to have been the acknowledged head of the original 12 apostles. James, called the "brother" of Jesus, guided the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem and adhered to Jewish traditions while maintaining faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
Saul of Tarsus, renamed Paul, followed a different path, and he was so influential that some historians regard him as a second founder. Paul received an excellent Greek education as well as training in Jewish law, which, together with his burning sense of mission, made him a bridge between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. Paul claimed to have had a vision of the resurrected Jesus while he was engaged in persecuting Christians. In time Paul became known as the "apostle to the Gentiles," and he undertook a monumental effort to establish new congregations of believers throughout the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
Characteristics of Christianity
Christians believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and follow the way of life inaugurated by him. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “More than other major religions, Christianity centers on a person. Muslims do not claim the sort of relationship to Muhammad that Christians claim with Jesus, and the same holds true for Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, and most forms of Buddhism with regard to their respective founders. The New Testament refers to the community of believers as "the body of Christ," which signifies an intimate bond between Jesus and the church. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]
Christianity inherited from its parent religion, Judaism, a monotheistic belief that there is only one true God, who is personal, the creator of all things, all-powerful, holy, loving, forgiving, and yet opposed to sin and evil. Christian monotheism, however, is fundamentally shaped by belief in Jesus. Christianity can be under-stood as a doctrine concerning Jesus, an experience of communion with Jesus, an ethic taught by Jesus, a community in relationship to Jesus, and a social institution emerging from the life and ministry of Jesus. Alongside the stress on Jesus is an experience of life in the Holy Spirit. From the earliest period Christians have worshiped God as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the doctrine of the Trinity encapsulates a distinctively Christian conception of God.
Christians believe: 1) that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament; 2) that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; 3) that God sent his Son to earth to save humanity from the consequences of its sins. 4) One of the most important concepts in Christianity is that of Jesus giving his life on the Cross (the Crucifixion) and rising from the dead on the third day (the Resurrection). 5) Christians believe that there is only one God, but that there are three elements to this one God: A) God the Father; BI) God the Son; and C). The Holy Spirit.
Christians worship in churches. Their spiritual leaders are called priests or ministers. The Christian holy book is the Bible, and consists of the Old and New Testaments. Christian holy days such as Easter and Christmas are important milestones in the Western secular calendar. [Source: BBC]
Life and Death of Jesus
The initial history of Christianity revolves around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, described as the son of God. The traditional story of Jesus begin with his nurturing in a stable in Bethlehem after his birth to Mary, a virgin who has been impregnated by God through the action of the Holy Spirit. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]
According to the BBC: “The story of Jesus' birth is told in the writings of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament of the Bible. His birth is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophecies in the Jewish Old Testament, which claimed that a Messiah would deliver the Jewish people from captivity. | ::|
“After the story of his birth, little is known about Jesus until he began his ministry at the age of about 30. He then spent three years teaching, healing and working miracles. He taught in parables - everyday stories which had divine messages for those who would hear it. He had twelve disciples whom he called to follow him and help him in his work. | ::|
“Jesus stated publicly that he spoke with the authority of God. This claim angered the religious authorities in Palestine and they handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities as a revolutionary. He was tried for heresy, condemned and put to death by means of crucifixion. | ::|
“On the Sunday following his execution, some of his women followers discovered that the tomb into which his body had been placed was empty. Jesus then appeared to them, alive, as the Jesus they had known prior to his death. His followers realised that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was seen by many of his disciples and followers over the next few days before, according to the Gospel accounts, he was taken up into heaven. | ::|
Paul and the Early Church
According to the BBC: “It has been suggested that the work of Jesus Christ and the impact of his death and resurrection would not have made any lasting impact on the world were it not for the missionary work of Paul. The account of Paul's conversion to Christianity is contained in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Before his conversion Paul had been known as Saul and had been violently opposed to the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and after his death, by his disciples. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]
“Saul experienced a dramatic conversion, known as the Damascus Road conversion, when he was temporarily blinded. He found himself filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching the Christian gospel. Paul's teaching centred on understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a central turning point in history. He understood the resurrection to signal the end of the need to live under Jewish law. Instead Paul taught of living in the Spirit in which the power of God was made to work through human flesh. | ::|
“Some of his letters to fledgling churches throughout the Roman Empire are contained in the New Testament and outline Paul's theology. He insisted that Gentiles had as much access to the faith as Jews and that freedom from the Law set everyone free. It was this teaching which was essential for the development and success of the early church which would otherwise have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect. |::|
According to the BBC: “Paul established Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, and beyond - even into Africa. However, in all cases, the church remained small and was persecuted, particularly under tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), under whom being a Christian was an illegal act, and Diocletian (284-305). Many Christian believers died for their faith and became martyrs for the church (Bishop Polycarp and St Alban amongst others). [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]
“When a Roman soldier, Constantine, won victory over his rival in battle to become the Roman emperor, he attributed his success to the Christian God and immediately proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine then needed to establish exactly what the Christian faith was and called the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD which formulated and codified the faith.| ::|
In an effort to provide a rational account for the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “As truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes?”
Formulating the Faith and the Great Schism
According to the BBC: “Over the next few centuries, there were debates and controversies about the precise interpretation of the faith, as ideas were formulated and discussed. The Council of Chalcedon held in 451 was the last council held whilst the Roman Empire was intact. It gave rise to the Nicene Creed which Christians still say today to affirm their belief in God, Christ and his church. When Rome fell in 476, it meant that Western and Eastern Christians were no longer under the same political rule and differences in belief and practice arose between them. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]
“The differences between Eastern and Western Christianity culminated in what has been called the Great Schism, in 1054, when the patriarchs of the Eastern and Western division (of Constantinople and Rome respectively) were unable to resolve their differences. The split led to the Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church. The Orthodox church does not recognise the authority of the Roman papacy and claims a Christian heritage in direct descent from the Christian church of Christ's believers.” |::|
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Christianity exists in a great variety of forms, and different Christian groups highlight different aspects. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians all stress in varying fashion the need for correct doctrine, while mystics, saints, Pietists, evangelicals, and Pentecostals speak in divergent ways of an immediate experience of God. Other Christians underscore the ethical imperatives of the faith, and still others are primarily concerned with the life of the community, its institutional forms, traditions, and self-government. Because of its 2,000-year history and global extension, Christianity has become astonishingly complex, and a predominant characteristic throughout history, especially evident today, is its cultural diversity. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]
About 48 percent of Christians are Catholics and 37 percent are Protestant, broadly defined to include Anglicans as well as independent and nondenominational churches. Orthodox Christians, which members of Greek and Russian Orthodox church,, make up 12 percent of Christians. People who belong to other traditions that view themselves as Christian (including Christian Scientists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) make up about 1 percent of the global Christian population. [Source: Pew Research Center, December 18, 2012; Pew Research Center, December 19, 2011]
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except religion pie graph, Pew Research Center
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated February 2024