HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
Christianity is one of the most significant religions in human history and is one of the most common religions today along with others, including: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Christianity is by far the largest religion in the world, holding the most members out of all the others with 2.4 billion believers. This means that nearly one third of the world’s total population is Christian. Also, it is a monotheistic religion, which means that it centers on the idea that the world was created by one god and not a series of gods. However, what is it about Christianity that makes it so popular? How did it become the organization and faith that it is today?
Christianity first emerged from Judaism in the Middle East in the mid-1st century. It began in the century after the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the religion is based around. In fact, Christianity is centered on the teachings and life of Christ. Our understanding of the life of Christ today comes from the accounts in the Gospels. These were written by four of the twelve disciples, which were the people who followed Jesus and helped to spread his teachings. These twelve disciples believed him to be what is referred to in Christian ideology as a Messiah, or the chosen prophet talked about in the Old Testament teachings. In the Gospel we learn that Jesus taught people during his life and built a considerable following among the poorest. As part of his teachings, Jesus taught his followers to reject sin and instead follow the code passed down in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount was a series of teachings on morals found in the Gospel of Matthew. The purpose of Jesus’s teachings was in preparation for Judgement Day when God was said to reward the righteous and condemn the sinners. These teachings and writings later were solidified into a book known today as the Holy Bible. Christ’s following caused anger among some people at the time and ultimately led to his death. The Romans, under pressure from local religious leaders, arrested him and crucified him around 30 CE.
Despite the death of Jesus, Christianity continued to spread throughout the world to many Jewish communities. This was helped in a significant way by a man named Paul the Apostle. He is credited with spreading the word of Christ during the 1st century and helped to establish several churches. He helped by sending letters to many governments at the time (within the Roman Empire) and preached to help convert people to Christianity. It is mainly due to Paul's teachings that Christianity is as big as it is today. He is the main author of 13 of the New Testament's 27 books. Paul's missionary teachings had him walk almost 10,000 miles throughout the Roman Empire over the course of 30 years. He talked often in places like Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and Athens. While these places prospered, and were wealthy, they were also home to many people that were poor and who suffered. The poor and destitute were the perfect audience for the teachings of Christian religion. This is mainly due to the more relaxed rules it had regarding the older, traditional Jewish laws. As well, Paul taught that it was necessary for followers of Christianity to themselves be messengers of the teachings of Jesus and spread the faith. This was an important factor in the early years of Christianity and remains significant still today. Paul also began teaching that Jesus would one day return for Judgement Day and that the only way to pass the judgment of God was to accept Jesus and his teachings. As such, the teachings of Christianity spread among many different groups of people and would later became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
However, the early history of Christianity in the Roman Empire was one of persecution. For instance, Christian scriptures tell about the persecution of Christian followers by Jewish communities and Roman authorities. For example, Christian’s faced persecution in 46 CE when the Roman Emperor Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome. This continued for a few more centuries until Roman Emperor Constantine I issued an edict of toleration in 313 CE. This formally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. At the time, Christianity only made up about 5% of the total Roman population but it grew steadily with official protection from the government and became popular throughout the Roman Empire. The next major event was the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The Council was called by Constantine I and led to the first agreed upon Christian doctrine. As a result, Christianity became the most popular religion in the Roman empire by the end of the 4th century. In fact, Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, when Emperor Theodosius I made it the Empire's official religion.
The Roman Catholic Church (Catholicism) developed out of early Christianity and established itself as the main religion in Europe and sections of the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. Also, the religion of Islam emerged in the Middle East at the beginning of the 7th century. Islam’s emergence is important for Christianity because the societies that embraced both religions would engage in conflict over the course of hundreds of years. For example, in the late 11th century the Christian kingdoms of Europe engage in war with the Islamic societies of the Middle East, in a series of conflicts known as the crusades. Beginning in 1095 CE, the crusades saw European knights and noblemen travel to the Middle East in an attempt to capture the Holy Land away from Muslim people that had controlled the region for the previous centuries. The term crusade means ‘cross’. Therefore, the Europeans that became crusaders viewed themselves as ‘taking up the cross’. In fact, many of the crusaders wore crosses on their clothing and armor as they made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The Renaissance in Europe began in the 14th century and it had a profound impact on Christianity at the time. A major feature of the Renaissance was the introduction of Renaissance Humanism. In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch used ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. This was a major challenge to the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
The Protest Reformation began at the start of the 16th century. Historians consider it have started with the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. Martin Luther (who lived from 1483 to 1546) was a German professor and monk. In his work ‘Ninety-five These’, Luther challenged several different teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. For instance, he argued against the notion that salvation was gained through good deeds and instead suggested that it could be attained simply through belief in Jesus Christ. As well, he argued that the scriptures themselves were the only true form of teachings and any other directives from the Catholic Church were not necessarily in line with Christianity. Furthermore, he translated the Bible into his native language of German which allowed many more people to access it and understand it for themselves. These ideas resonated with many Europeans as their worldview had been altered due to the development of humanism and the overall Renaissance. Ultimately, his ideas clashed with those of the Catholic Church and then Pope Leo X. In fact, he was excommunicated form the Church and was forced into hiding. Regardless, his actions inspired others to further the cause of reforming the Church, including: John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. As a result, the Protest Reformation took hold and a major divide occurred in Christianity. Those that remained focus on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome were Catholics while those that practiced Christianity in a different church that did not follow the authority of the Pope were Protestants. It became known as the Protest Reformation due to the former's ‘protesting’ for change within the Church.
In more modern times, Christianity has continued to spread around the world. For example, European explorers during the Age of Exploration took missionaries with them on voyages to Africa, the Americas and Asia. This resulted in a worldwide spread of Christian believers that continues to this day. As stated previously, there are currently 2.4 billion Christians on the planet, meaning that about one third of all people identify themselves as Christian. This makes it the largest religion on the planet today. Of the 2.4 billion total Christians in the world, approximately 1.1 billion of them are Catholic, with another 800 million identifying as Protestant. There is another 300 million or so that are other forms of Christianity such as Orthodox.