4.5 Christianity


Jesus Christ (c. BCE – c. 30 CE), also called Jesus son of Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Galilee or simply “Christ,” was a Jewish religious leader who became a central figure in Christianity, regarded by most Christian branches as God himself. He is also considered an important prophet in Muslim tradition and the precursor of Prophet Muhammad.

Christ was not originally Jesus’ name. It was customary among ancient Jews to have only one name and add either the father’s name or the name of their place of origin. This is why during his life; Jesus was called sometimes Jesus of Nazareth and other times Jesus son of Joseph, which is supported by Christian sources (Luke 4.22; John 1.45; 6.42; Acts 10.38). The word, Christ, is not a name but a title derived for the Greek word christos , a term analogous to the Hebrew expression Meshiah, “ The anointed one. ” Many Jews hoped that the former glory of Israel would be restored by a newly anointed son of King David, and they used the Messiah title to refer to this restorer. Early Christian literature sometimes combined the name of Jesus and his title using them together as Jesus’ name: Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. The reason for this is that the early followers of Jesus’ teachings believed he was the Messiah. (39)


The life of Jesus began in north and central Palestine, a region between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and the Eastern Mediterranean in the west. This region was under Roman control since the 1st century BCE, initially as a tributary kingdom. The Roman campaigns, coupled with internal revolts and the incursion of the Parthians, made the region very unstable and chaotic up until 37 BCE, when Herod the Great (c.73 BCE – 4 BCE) became king. The region gradually gained political stability and became prosperous. Although Jewish in religion, Herod was a vassal king who served the interests of the Roman Empire.

After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, the Romans intervened again in order to split up the Herodian kingdom between three of Herod the Great’s sons.

  • Galilee in the north and Perea in the southeast were entrusted to Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE – c. 39 CE), whose reign (4 BCE – 39 CE) covered the entire life of Jesus.
  • Philip the Tetrarch was appointed ruler over northern Transjordania .
  • Herod Archelaus was made ruler of Samaria Judea , and Idumea , and he exercised his power with tyranny and brutality; some of these abuses are recorded in the gospel of Matthew (2.20–23). The combination of killings, revolts, and social turbulence in Archelaus’ realm was too much for the patience of Roman authorities: in 6 CE theEmperor Augustus deposed and exiled Archelaus, sending him to Gaul, and his domain became the Roman Province of Iudaea in 6 CE (sometime spelled Judea , not to be confused with Judea proper, the region between Samaria and Idumea). Thus, Iudaea was under direct Roman administration and rulers directly appointed by the Roman Emperor governed the Province.

None of the gospels shows much interest in dating accurately the birth of Jesus, and there are no references to the Roman dating system, or to any other dating systems used in the Bible. Matthew simply states that Jesus’ birth occurred “in the days of Herod the king [ Herod the Great ].” The exact year for Jesus’ birth is not known for certain, but there is enough ground to believe that he could not have been born any later than 4 BCE. Moreover, though this is the latest he could have been born, it could well be an earlier date, even as early as 17 BCE according to some scholars.

Figure 4.5

Map of the First Century Judaea Province

Map of Iudaea Province in the First Century
Figure 7-1: Map of the First Century Iudaea Province by Robert W. Funk is licensed under CC-BY 3.0.


Like the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and many other great teachers of Antiquity, Jesus left no written records. To say that he never wrote anything is to contradict the gospel of John (8.7) where we read that Jesus wrote something in the sand with his finger, but after more than two millennia, we can safely assume that these lines, whatever they were, are long gone. Details about his life survived in early Christian oral tradition for many decades until the slow process of committing them to writing started.

The earliest Christian records mentioning the life of Jesus are the letters ascribed to Saint Paul, many of which are actually of uncertain authorship. Some of these letters date back to approximately 65 CE, maybe a few years earlier. The details in these letters do not offer details of the life of Jesus outside the Last Supper and his execution.

The Gospels

We also have the gospels. The word ” gospel ” means ‘ good news ‘ (from Old English) and refers to the accounts of the life of Jesus. Many different gospels have come down to us but only a group of four are accepted by Christian tradition to be inspired by God.

This group is known as the ” canonical gospels ” and includes the gospels according to Matthew Mark Luke , and John .

The remaining gospels are known as ” apocryphal ” or ” non-canonical gospels ” and are not considered to be divinely inspired. Three of the four canonical gospels are labelled as ” synoptic gospels ” (Matthew, Mark and Luke), because their content presents many similarities. John, however, presents a very different picture of events.

The earliest of the four canonical gospels is believed to be Mark, written probably around 65–70 CE. Its content is not arranged chronologically, but according to subjects, such as miracle stories, parables, pronouncement stories, etc. The only segment arranged chronologically is the Passion narrative (14.1–16.8). The two later synoptic gospels are Matthew, written around 85-90 CE, and Luke, about 90–100 CE. It is widely believed that the authors of these two gospels used Mark as their main source. In addition to Mark, there is a hypothetical source of the teaching of Jesus used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, which is known as the “Q” source (from the German word Quelle, “ source ”). (39)

Life of Jesus

Jesus was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and brought up in Nazareth, Galilee. He was named Jesus (Yeshu’a in Aramaic, Yehoshua or Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Roman) and was conceived between the engagement and marriage of his parents whose names were Mary (Miriam in Hebrew and Mariam in Aramaic) and Joseph (Yossef in Hebrew, Yosep in Aramaic).

In Matthew 13.55 it is said that his father was a carpenter, and Mark 6.3 says that this was also Jesus’ profession. It was a common practice during that time that sons would follow their father’s occupation, so it would be safe to believe that Jesus was a carpenter. Although not certain, it is probable that Jesus’ education included a detailed study of the Hebrew Scriptures, a very common practice among the devout poor in Israel. (39)

Jesus’ Public Ministry

His public ministry began after being baptized by John the Baptist . According to the gospel of Luke, this was when Jesus was about 30 years of age. According to Mark (11.27–33), Jesus saw John the Baptist as an authority and possibly a source of inspiration. It seems that he performed baptisms parallel to John the Baptist (John 3.22). After the arrest of John the Baptist (Mark 1.14), Jesus began a new kind of ministry, spreading the message of the kingdom of God approaching and stressing the importance of repentance by the people of Israel.

Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus’ teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.

Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time.

  • Like the Pharisees, Jesus’ teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures.
  • Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important. Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love:

Figure 4.6

The Sermon on the Mountain


Castelnau-d'Estrétefonds. St. Martin Church - The Sermon on the Mountain by Arsène Robert (1830-1895) Prix de Rome - third of the five monumental paintings of the choir. The Sermon on the Mount is a biblical scene from the New Testament. The painting is strongly inspired by a painting from the cycle of the life of Saint Jacques, painted around 1760 by Charles Joseph Natoire, for the church of Saint-Jacques-de-Villegoudou in Castres (81).
The Sermon on the Mountain by Arsène Robert is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12.28-31; Matthew 22.35-40 and Luke 10.25-28).

The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practiced exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus. (39)

Jesus’ prophetic preaching (the coming of God’s kingly rule) and his wisdom teaching (the command of love) are never explicitly linked to one another. This gap has been subject to endless discussions and interpretations in many traditions. A possible interpretation is that only the coming of God’s kingdom makes it possible for people to love God in complete obedience and to love their neighbors, including enemies. This is, however, a matter of speculation. (39)

Jesus’ Arrest and Condemnation to Death

At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem, Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47-53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony.

A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice. (39)

The Apostle Paul

Paul was a follower of Jesus Christ who famously converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus after persecuting the very followers of the community that he joined. However, as we will see, Paul is better described as one of the founders of the religion rather than a convert to it. Scholars attribute seven books of the New Testament to Paul; he was an influential teacher and a missionary to much of Asia Minor and present-day Greece.

In the last century, scholars have come to appreciate Paul as the actual founder of the religious movement that would become Christianity. Paul was a Diaspora Jew, a member of the party of the Pharisees, who experienced a revelation of the resurrected Jesus. After this experience, he traveled widely throughout the eastern Roman Empire, spreading the “good news” that Jesus would soon return from heaven and usher in the reign of God (“the kingdom”). Paul was not establishing a new religion; he believed that his generation was the last before the end time when this age would be transformed. However, as time passed and Jesus did not return, the second century Church Fathers turned to Paul’s writings to validate what would ultimately be the creation of Christian dogma. Thus, Paul could be viewed as the founder of Christianity as a separate religion apart from Judaism.

Paul’s Letters and the Law of Moses

In the New Testament, we have fourteen letters traditionally assigned to Paul, but the scholarly consensus now holds that of the fourteen, seven were actually written by Paul:

  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • Philemon
  • Philippians
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians
  • Romans

The others were most likely written by a disciple of Paul’s, using his name to carry authority. We understand these letters to be circumstantial, meaning they were never intended as systematic theology or as treatises on Christianity. In other words, the letters are responses to particular problems and circumstances as they arose in the various communities. They were not written as universal dictates to serve as Christian ideology but only came to have importance and significance over time.

Paul was a Pharisee, and claims that when it came to “the Law,” he was more zealous and knew more about the law than anyone else. For the most part in his Letters, the Law at issue was the Law of Moses. He was of the tribe of Benjamin (and thus Luke could use the prior name Saul, a quite famous Benjaminite name; name changes often go with a change of viewpoint in terms of a new person — Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc.).

Paul has also become the most famous convert in history. Being struck blind on the road to Damascus has become a metaphor for sudden enlightenment and conversion.

In Galatians , Paul said he received a vision of the resurrected Jesus, who commissioned him to be the Apostle to the gentiles. This was crucial for Paul in terms of his authority. Everyone knew that he was never one of the inner circle, so a directive straight from Jesus was the way in which Paul argued that he had as much authority as the earlier Apostles. This is also crucially important in unraveling Paul’s views of the Law of Moses when it comes to his recruitment area, and something that should always be borne in mind when trying to analyze his views.

Paul’s job, as he saw it, was to bring “ the good news ” to the gentiles. Almost everything he writes about the Law pertains to this. The Law of Moses was never understood to be applied to the gentiles in Israelite tradition, so gentiles need not be subject to circumcision, dietary laws, or Sabbath regulations. These three are the focus, as they are physical rituals that keep communities separated, and Paul sought to breakdown barriers between communities.

Another phase of Paul’s became the basis of centuries of commentary, culminating in Martin Luther’s separation from the Church of Rome. Paul claimed that gentiles are saved by faith alone, and not by works of the Law.

We cannot confirm where or how Paul died. Paul’s letter to the Romans is most likely one of his last surviving works in which he told his audience that he was going to Jerusalem for a visit and then would come to Rome to see them (with plans to continue on to Spain). Luke told the story of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, where he (as a Roman citizen) had the right of appeal to the Emperor in Rome. The Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, continuing his preaching. It is only in later, second-century, narratives that we find legendary material of Paul’s trial in Rome (with alleged letters between Paul and the Stoic philosopher, Seneca). After conviction, he was beheaded and his body buried outside the walls of the city, on the road to Ostia, so that his grave would not become a shrine. Years later, this site would become the current basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s, Outside-the-Walls , and the Vatican has always claimed that his body rests in a sarcophagus within the church. (40)

The Growth and Spread of Early Christianity

Members of the Early Christian movement often became political targets and scapegoats for the social ills and political tensions of specific rulers and turbulent periods during the first three centuries, CE; however, this persecution was sporadic and rarely Empire-wide. (41)

Figure 4.7

The Early Days of Christianity

A map from 1922 showing the spread of Christianity in the first century A.D.
The Early Days of Christianity by Frederick C. Grant resides in the Public Domain.

Persecution of Christians

The first recorded official persecution of Christians on behalf of the Roman Empire was in 64 CE, when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. According to Church tradition, it was during the reign of Nero that Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. However, modern historians debate whether the Roman government distinguished between Christians and Jews prior to Nerva’s modification of the Fiscus Judaicus in 96, from which point practicing Jews paid the tax and Christians did not.

The Diocletianic or Great Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, which lasted from 302–311 CE. In 303, the emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts rescinding the legal rights of Christians and demanding that they comply with traditional Roman religious practices.

Later edicts targeted the clergy and ordered all inhabitants to sacrifice to the Roman gods (a policy known as universal sacrifice). The persecution varied in intensity across the empire—it was weakest in Gaul and Britain, where only the first edict was applied, and strongest in the Eastern provinces.

During the Great Persecution, Diocletian ordered Christian buildings and the homes of Christians torn down, and their sacred books collected and burned during the Great Persecution. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators. The Great Persecution officially ended in April of 311, when Galerius, senior emperor of the Tetrarchy, issued an edict of toleration which granted Christians the right to practice their religion, though it did not restore any property to them. Constantine, Caesar in the western empire, and Licinius, Caesar in the east, also were signatories to the edict of toleration. (42)

Edict of Milan

In 313, Constantine and Licinius announced in the Edict of Milan “ that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best, ” thereby granting tolerance to all religions, including Christianity.

The Edict of Milan went a step further than the earlier Edict of Toleration by Galerius in 311, and returned confiscated Church property. This edict made the empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship; it neither made the traditional religions illegal, nor made Christianity the state religion (as did the later Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE). The Edict of Milan did, however, raise the stock of Christianity within the empire, and it reaffirmed the importance of religious worship to the welfare of the state. (42)

The Nicene Creed

In 325 CE Constantine invited clerics from across the empire to a conference at Nicaea where he made a plea for unity. (54)Under the supervision of Emperor Constantine I, the Nicene Creed (325 CE) was composed by an ecumenical council , which was and is accepted as authoritative by most Christian groups, but not by the Eastern Orthodox Church (at least, the second version in 381 CE is rejected for adding in the Filioque Clause—”And the Son”).

The Nicene Creed describes the pre-existence of Jesus Christ, his role in the future judgment of humanity, how Jesus is “homoousis” — of the same substance with God, how and why the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped as part of the holy family, discusses the requirement of baptism, and minimizes the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, interestingly. (41)

The Athanasian Creed

Although there are others, the Athanasian Creed (328 CE) also proved important in pushing back against the heresies of the day, namely Docetism and Arianism (41)

  • Docetism held that Jesus’ humanity was merely an illusion, thus denying the incarnation (Deity becoming human).
  • Arianism held that Jesus, while not merely mortal, was not eternally divine and was, therefore, of lesser status than the Father. (44)

Christianity: State Religion of Roman Empire

By the 5th century CE, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, leading to a dramatic change in how the faith played out in greater society. This caused a shift in Christianity from private to public worship; from a distinctly Jewish character to one more aligned with the Gentiles; from an individual matter to more of a community affair; from a seeker-driven faith to an exclusively chosen body of believers; from a looser, more informal structure to that of distinct strata of operation and authority; and from gender empowering to more specific gender-specific limitations. Additionally, Christian leaders had to figure out how Christianity integrated with Roman law and government, dealt with barbarian peoples, and still maintained the essence of Jesus’ teachings and missions for his followers. (41)

Christianity in the Early Middle Ages

With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the papacy became a political player, first visible in Pope Leo’s diplomatic dealings with Huns and Vandals. The church also entered into a long period of missionary activity and expansion among the various tribes. Catholicism spread among the Germanic peoples, the Celtic and Slavic peoples, the Hungarians, and the Baltic peoples. Christianity has been an important part of the shaping of Western civilization, at least since the 4 th century. (43)

Around 500, St. Benedict set out his Monastic Rule , establishing a system of regulations for the foundation and running of monasteries. Monasticism became a powerful force throughout Europe, and gave rise to many early centers of learning, most famously in Ireland, Scotland and Gaul, contributing to the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9 th century.

Figure 4.8

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the Monks of his Order

A painting of St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order.
St. Benedict delivering his rule to the Monks of his Order resides in the Public Domain.


In the 7 th century Muslims conquered Syria (including Jerusalem), North Africa and Spain. Part of the Muslims’ success was due to the exhaustion of the Byzantine Empire in its decades long conflict with Persia. Beginning in the 8 th century, with the rise of Carolingian leaders, the papacy began to find greater political support in the Frankish Kingdom.

The Middle Ages brought about major changes within the church. Pope Gregory the Great dramatically reformed ecclesiastical structure and administration. In the early 8 th century, iconoclasm—the destruction of religious icons—became a divisive issue, when it was sponsored by the Byzantine emperors. The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787) finally pronounced in favor of icons. In the early 10 th century, Western Christian monasticism was further rejuvenated through the leadership of the great Benedictine Monastery of Cluny. (43)

Christianity in the High and Late Middle Ages

In the west, from the 11th century onward, older cathedral schools developed into universities (see University of Oxford, University of Paris, and University of Bologna). The traditional medieval universities — evolved from Catholic and Protestant church schools — then established specialized academic structures for properly educating greater numbers of students as professionals. Prior to the establishment of universities, European higher education took place for hundreds of years in Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools, in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6 th century AD.

Accompanying the rise of the “new towns” throughout Europe, mendicant orders were founded, bringing the consecrated religious life out of the monastery and into the new urban setting. The two principal mendicant movements were theFranciscans and the Dominicans founded by St. Francis and St. Dominic respectively. Both orders made significant contributions to the development of the great universities of Europe. Another new order was the Cistercians , whose large isolated monasteries spearheaded the settlement of former wilderness areas. In this period, church building and ecclesiastical architecture reached new heights, culminating in the orders of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the building of the great European cathedrals.

The Crusades

From 1095 under the pontificate of Urban II, the Crusades were launched. These were a series of military campaigns in the Holy Land and elsewhere, initiated in response to pleas from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I for aid against Turkish expansion. The Crusades ultimately failed to stifle Islamic aggression and even contributed to Christian enmity with the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

Over a period stretching from the 7 th to the 13 th century, the Christian Church underwent gradual alienation. This resulted in the Great Schism in 1054, dividing the Church into the so-called Latin or Western Christian branch, the Roman Catholic Church , and an Eastern, largely Greek, branch, the Orthodox Church .

These two churches disagree on a number of administrative, liturgical, and doctrinal issues, most notably papal primacy of jurisdiction. The Second Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439) attempted to reunite the churches, but in both cases the Eastern Orthodox refused to implement the decisions and the two principal churches remain in schism to the present day. However, the Roman Catholic Church has achieved union with various smaller eastern churches.

Beginning around 1184, following the crusade against the Cathar heresy, various institutions, broadly referred to as the Inquisition , were established with the aim of suppressing heresy and securing religious and doctrinal unity within Christianity through conversion and prosecution. (43)

Protestant Reformation and Counter – Reformation

In the early 16th century, movements were begun by two theologians, Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli , who aimed to reform the Church; these reformers are distinguished from previous ones in that they considered the root of corruptions to be doctrinal (rather than simply a matter of moral weakness or lack of ecclesiastical discipline) and thus they aimed to change contemporary doctrines to accord with what they perceived to be the “true gospel.”

The Protestant Reformation

The beginning of the Protestant Reformation is generally identified with Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theseson the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Early protest was against corruptions such as simony, episcopal vacancies, and the sale of indulgences. The Protestant position, however, would come to incorporate doctrinal changes, such as sola scriptura —”scripture alone”—and sola fide —”faith alone.”

The three most important traditions to emerge directly from the Protestant Reformation were the Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist, Presbyterian, etc.), and Anglican traditions, though the latter group identifies as both “Reformed” and “Catholic,” and some subgroups reject the classification as “Protestant.”

John Calvin was a French cleric and doctor of law turned Protestant reformer. He belonged to the second generation of the Reformation, publishing his theological tome, the Institutes of the Christian Religion , in 1536 (later revised), and establishing himself as a leader of the Reformed church in Geneva, which became an “unofficial capital” of Reformed Christianity in the second half of the 16th century.

Calvin’s theology is best known for his doctrine of (double) predestination , which held that God had, from all eternity, providentially foreordained who would be saved ( the elect ) and likewise who would be damned ( the reprobate ). Predestination was not the dominant idea in Calvin’s works, but it would seemingly become so for many of his Reformed successors.

The English Reformation

Unlike other reform movements, the English Reformation began by royal influence. Henry VIII considered himself a thoroughly Catholic King, and in 1521 he defended the papacy against Luther in a book he commissioned entitled, The Defense of the Seven Sacraments, for which Pope Leo X awarded him the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith). However, the king came into conflict with the papacy when he wished to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, for which he needed papal sanction. Catherine, among many other noble relations, was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, the papacy’s most significant secular supporter. The ensuing dispute eventually leads to a break from Rome and the declaration of the King of England as head of the English Church. What emerged was a state church that considered itself both “Reformed” and “Catholic” but not “Roman” (and hesitated from the title “Protestant”), and other “unofficial” more radical movements such as the Puritans.

The Counter Reformation

The Protestant Reformation spread almost entirely within the confines of Northern Europe, but did not take hold in certain northern areas such as Ireland and parts of Germany.

The Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation is known as the Counter Reformation , or Catholic Reformation , which resulted in a reassertion of traditional doctrines and the emergence of new religious orders aimed at both moral reform and new missionary activity. The Counter Reformation reconverted approximately 33% of Northern Europe to Catholicism and initiated missions in South and Central America, Africa, Asia, and even China and Japan. Protestant expansion outside of Europe occurred on a smaller scale through colonization of North America and areas of Africa.

Catholic missions was carried to new places beginning with the new Age of Discovery , and the Roman Catholic Church established a number of Missions in the Americas and other colonies in order to spread Christianity in the New World and to convert the indigenous peoples.

At the same time, missionaries, such as Francis Xavier, as well as other Jesuits, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans were moving into Asia and the Far East. The Portuguese sent missions into Africa. While some of these missions were associated with imperialism and oppression, others (notably Matteo Ricci’s Jesuit mission to China) were relatively peaceful and focused on integration rather than cultural imperialism.

English Puritans in the New World

The most famous colonization by Protestants in the New World was that of English Puritans in North America. Unlike the Spanish or French, the English colonists made surprisingly little effort to evangelize the native peoples. The Puritans, or Pilgrims, left England so that they could live in an area with Puritanism established as the exclusive civic religion. Though they had left England because of the suppression of their religious practice, most Puritans had thereafter originally settled in the Low Countries but found the licentiousness there, where the state hesitated from enforcing religious practice, as unacceptable, and thus they set out for the New World and the hopes of a Puritan utopia. (44)

The Great Awakenings

Colored print of a man preaching to a large group of men and women at Hartford, Connecticut, seated separately by gender on benches. In the background and on the side are tents with women seated in their openings. Eight men are seated on the platform behind the preacher. The tents are labeled with initials with the exception of one that says "4St". Two verses from the Bible appear below the image on each side of the title.
Figure 7-5: Tent Revival during the Second Great Awakening by Kelloggs & Comstock resides in the Public Domain.


The First Great Awakening was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants in the American colonies c. 1730–1740, emphasizing the traditional Reformed virtues of Godly preaching, rudimentary liturgy, and a deep sense of personal guilt and redemption by Christ Jesus. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom saw it as part of a “great international Protestant upheaval” that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival, and Methodism in England. It centered on reviving the spirituality of established congregations, and mostly affected Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist churches, while also spreading within the slave population.

The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s), unlike the first, focused on the unchurched and sought to instill in them a deep sense of personal salvation as experienced in revival meetings. It also sparked the beginnings of groups such as the Mormons, the Restoration Movement and the Holiness movement.

The Third Great Awakening began from 1857 and was most notable for taking the movement throughout the world, especially in English speaking countries. The final group to emerge from the “great awakenings” in North America was Pentecostalism, which had its roots in the Methodist, Wesleyan, and Holiness movements, and began in 1906 on Azusa Street, in Los Angeles. Pentecostalism would later lead to the Charismatic movement. (44)

“The Church”

On 11 October 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church . The council was “pastoral” in nature, emphasizing and clarifying already defined dogma, revising liturgical practices, and providing guidance for articulating traditional Church teachings in contemporary times. The council is perhaps best known for its instructions that the Mass may be celebrated in the vernacular, as well as in Latin.

Over the last century, a number of moves have also been made to reconcile the schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Although progress has been made, concerns over papal primacy and the independence of the smaller Orthodox churches have blocked a final resolution of the schism.

Ecumenical movements within Protestantism have focused on determining a list of doctrines and practices essential to being Christian and thus extending to all groups which fulfil these basic criteria a (more or less) co-equal status, with perhaps one’s own group still retaining a ” first among equal ” standing. This process involved a redefinition of the idea of “the Church ” from traditional theology. This ecclesiology , known as denominationalism , contends that each group (which fulfils the essential criteria of ” being Christian “) is a sub-group of a greater “Christian Church,” itself a purely abstract concept with no direct representation, i.e., no group, or “denomination,” claims to be “the Church.” This ecclesiology is at variance with other groups that indeed consider themselves to be “the Church.” The ” essential criteria ” generally consist of belief in the Trinity, belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to have forgiveness and eternal life, and that He died and rose again bodily. (44)

Christian Theology

The central tenet of Christianity is the belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah (Christ). Christians believe that Jesus, as the Messiah, was anointed by God as savior of humanity, and hold that Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The Christian concept of the Messiah differs significantly from the contemporary Jewish concept.

The core Christian belief is: through belief in and acceptance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, sinful humans can be reconciled to God and thereby are offered salvation and the promise of eternal life.

While there have been many theological disputes over the nature of Jesus over the earliest centuries of Christian history, Christians generally believe that Jesus is God incarnate and ” true God and true man ” (or both fully divine and fully human). Jesus, having become fully human, suffered the pains and temptations of a mortal man, but did not sin. As fully God, he rose to life again. According to the Bible, ” God raised him from the dead, ” he ascended to heaven, is ” seated at the right hand of the Father ” and will ultimately return [Acts 1:9–11] to fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy, such as the Resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment and final establishment of the Kingdom of God.

According to the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary. Little of Jesus’ childhood is recorded in the canonical Gospels, however infancy Gospels were popular in antiquity. In comparison, his adulthood, especially the week before his death, is well documented in the Gospels contained within the New Testament. The Biblical accounts of Jesus’ ministry include: his baptism, miracles, preaching, teaching, and deeds.

Death and Resurrection of Jesus

Christians consider the resurrection of Jesus to be the cornerstone of their faith (see 1 Corinthians 15) and the most important event in human history. Among Christian beliefs, the death and resurrection of Jesus are two core events on which much of Christian doctrine and theology is based. According to the New Testament Jesus was crucified, died a physical death, was buried within a tomb, and rose from the dead three days later [Jn. 19:30 31] and [Mk. 16:1, 16]. The New Testament mentions several resurrection appearances of Jesus on different occasions to his twelve apostles and disciples, including “more than five hundred brethren at once,” [1Cor. 15:6] before Jesus’ Ascension to heaven. Jesus’ death and resurrection are commemorated by Christians in all worship services, with special emphasis during Holy Week, which includes Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are usually considered the most important events in Christian theology, partly because they demonstrate that Jesus has power over life and death and therefore has the authority and power to give people eternal life.

Christian churches accept and teach the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus with very few exceptions. Some modern scholars use the belief of Jesus’ followers in the resurrection as a point of departure for establishing the continuity of the historical Jesus and the proclamation of the early church. Some liberal Christians do not accept a literal bodily resurrection, seeing the story as richly symbolic and spiritually nourishing myth. Arguments over death and resurrection claims occur at many religious debates and interfaith dialogues. Paul the Apostle, an early Christian convert and missionary, wrote, ” If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless. ” [1Cor. 15:14]


Paul of Tarsus, like Jews and Roman pagans of his time, believed that sacrifice can bring about new kinship ties, purity, and eternal life. For Paul the necessary sacrifice was the death of Jesus: Gentiles who are ” Christ’s ” are, like Israel, descendants of Abraham and ” heirs according to the promise ” [Gal. 3:29]. The God who raised Jesus from the dead would also give new life to the ” mortal bodies ” of Gentile Christians, who had become with Israel the ” children of God ” and were therefore no longer ” in the flesh ” [Rom. 8:9,11,16].

Modern Christian churches tend to be much more concerned with how humanity can be saved from a universal condition of sin and death than the question of how both Jews and Gentiles can be in God’s family. According to both Catholic and Protestant doctrine, salvation comes by Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation does not occur without faithfulness on the part of Christians; converts must live in accordance with principles of love and ordinarily must be baptized. Martin Luther taught that baptism was necessary for salvation, but modern Lutherans and other Protestants tend to teach that salvation is a gift that comes to an individual by God’s grace, sometimes defined as ” unmerited favor ” even apart from baptism.

Christians differ in their views on the extent to which individuals’ salvation is pre-ordained by God. Reformed theology places distinctive emphasis on grace by teaching that individuals are completely incapable of self-redemption, but that sanctifying grace is irresistible. In contrast Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Arminian Protestants believe that the exercise of ” free will ” is necessary to have faith in Jesus.


Trinity refers to the teaching that the one God comprises three distinct, eternally co-existing persons: the Father , the Son(incarnate in Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit . Together, these three persons are sometimes called the Godhead, although there is no single term in use in Scripture to denote the unified Godhead. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, an early statement of Christian belief, ” the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God “. They are distinct from another: the Father has no source, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father . Though distinct, the three persons cannot be divided from one another in being or in operation.

The Trinity is an essential doctrine of mainstream Christianity. ” Father, Son and Holy Spirit ” represents both the immanence and transcendence of God. God is believed to be infinite and God’s presence may be perceived through the actions of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. (43)


The cross , which is today one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world, was used as a Christian symbol from the earliest times. Tertullian, in his book De Corona , tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross. Although the cross was known to the early Christians, the crucifix did not appear in use until the 5th century.

Among the symbols employed by the primitive Christians, that of the fish seems to have ranked first in importance. From monumental sources, such as tombs it is known that the symbolic fish was familiar to Christians from the earliest times. The fish was depicted as a Christian symbol in the first decades of the 2nd century. (43)


Christianity, like other religions, has adherents whose beliefs and biblical interpretations vary. Christianity regards the Biblical canon, the Old Testament and New Testament, as the inspired word of God.

The traditional view of inspiration is that God worked through human authors so that, what they produced was what God wished to communicate. Some believe that divine inspiration makes our present Bibles “inerrant.” Others claim inerrancy for the Bible in its original manuscripts, though none of those are extant. Still others maintain that only a particular translation is inerrant, such as the King James Version. Another view closely related is Biblical infallibility or Limited inerrancy, which affirms that the Bible is free of error as a guide to salvation, but may include errors on matters such as history, geography, or science.

The Books of the Bible, considered to be inspired, among Judaism, and the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches vary, thus each define the canon differently, although there is substantial overlap. These variations are a reflection of the range of traditions and councils that have convened on the subject.

The Catholic and Orthodox canons, in addition to the Tanakh, also include the Deuterocanonical Books, as part of the Old Testament.

These Books appear in the Septuagint, but are regarded by Protestants to be apocryphal. However, they are considered to be important historical documents, which help to inform the understanding of words, grammar and syntax used in the historical period of their conception.

Some versions of the Bible include a separate Apocrypha section between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The New Testament, originally written in Koine Greek, contains 27 books, which are agreed upon by all churches. (43)


The end of things, whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, or the end of the world, broadly speaking is Christian eschatology — the study of the destiny of humans as it is revealed in the Bible.

The major issues in Christian eschatology are the Tribulation, death and the afterlife, the Rapture, the Second Coming of Jesus, Resurrection of the Dead, Heaven and Hell, Millennialism, the Last Judgment, the end of the world, and the New Heavens and New Earth.

Christians believe that the second coming of Christ will occur at the end of time after a period of severe persecution (theGreat Tribulation ). All who have died will be resurrected bodily from the dead for the Last Judgment. Jesus will fully establish the Kingdom of God in fulfillment of scriptural prophecies.

Death and Afterlife

Most Christians believe that human beings experience divine judgment and are rewarded either with eternal life or eternal damnation. This includes the general judgement at the resurrection of the dead as well as the belief (held by Roman Catholics, Orthodox and most Protestants) in a judgment particular to the individual soul upon physical death.

In Roman Catholicism, those who die in a state of grace, i.e., without any mortal sin separating them from God, but are still imperfectly purified from the effects of sin, undergo purification through the intermediate state of purgatory to achieve the holiness necessary for entrance into God’s presence. Those who have attained this goal are called saints (Latin sanctus , “holy”).

Some Christian groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists, hold to mortalism , the belief that the human soul is not naturally immortal, and is unconscious during the intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. These Christians also hold to Annihilationism , the belief that subsequent to the final judgement, the wicked will cease to exist rather than suffer everlasting torment. Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to a similar view. (43)

Rituals and Rites

Liturgical Calendar

Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Christians, and traditional Protestant communities frame worship around a liturgical calendar. This includes holy days, such as solemnities , which commemorate an event in the life of Jesus or the saints, periods of fasting such as Lent , and other pious events, such as memoria or lesser festivals commemorating saints.

Christian groups that do not follow a liturgical tradition often retain certain celebrations, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. A few churches make no use of a liturgical calendar.


A collage showing the seven sacraments of the Christian church: Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, Eucharist, Penance, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick.
Figure 7-6: The Seven Sacraments by Jobas is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.


In Christian belief and practice, a sacrament is a rite, instituted by Christ that mediates grace, constituting a sacred mystery. The term is derived from the Latin word sacramentum , which was used to translate the Greek word for “mystery.” Views concerning both “what rites are sacramental,” and “what it means for an act to be a sacrament” vary among Christian denominations and traditions.

The most conventional functional definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ. The two most widely accepted sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist (or Holy Communion), however, the majority of Christians also recognize five additional sacraments: Confirmation(Chrismation in the Orthodox tradition), Holy Orders, Confession, Anointing of the Sick , and Matrimony . Taken together, these are the Seven Sacraments , as recognized by churches in the High Church tradition—notably Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Independent Catholic, Old Catholic, most Anglicans, and some Lutherans. Most other denominations and traditions typically affirm only Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments, while some Protestant groups, such as the Quakers, reject sacramental theology. Most Protestant Christian denominations that believe these rites do not communicate grace prefer to call them ordinances.


A drawing of Jesus Christ being baptized in the Jordan river.
Figure 7-7: Christ Baptised in Jordan by Charles Taylor resides in the Public Domain.


Baptism is the ritual act, with the use of water, by which a person is admitted to membership of the Church. Beliefs on baptism vary among denominations.

Firstly, differences occur on whether the act has any spiritual significance . Some churches hold to the doctrine ofBaptismal Regeneration , which affirms that baptism creates or strengthens a person’s faith, and is intimately linked to salvation. This view is held by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as Lutherans and Anglicans, while others simply acknowledge it as a purely symbolic act, an external public declaration of the inward change which has taken place in the person.

Secondly, there are differences of opinion on the methodology of the act . These methods being: Baptism by Immersion; if immersion is total, Baptism by Submersion; and Baptism by Affusion (pouring), and Baptism by Aspersion (sprinkling). Those who hold the first view may also adhere to the tradition of Infant Baptism.


Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount displays a distinct lack of interest in the external aspects of prayer. A concern with the techniques of prayer is condemned as ‘pagan,’ and instead a simple trust in God’s fatherly goodness is encouraged [Mat. 6:5–15]. Elsewhere in the New Testament this same freedom of access to God is also emphasized [Phil. 4:6] and [Jam. 5:13–19]. This confident position should be understood in light of Christian belief in the unique relationship between the believer and Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In subsequent Christian traditions, certain physical gestures are emphasized, including medieval gestures, such as genuflection or making the sign of the cross. Kneeling, bowing and prostrations are often practiced in more traditional branches of Christianity. Frequently in Western Christianity the hands are placed palms together and forward as in the feudal commendation ceremony. At other times the older orant posture may be used, with palms up and elbows in.

Intercessory Prayer

Intercessory prayer is prayer offered for the benefit of other people. There are many intercessory prayers recorded in the Bible, including prayers of the Apostle Peter on behalf of sick persons [Acts 9:40] and by prophets of the Old Testament in favor of other people [1Ki 17:19–22]. In the New Testament book of James no distinction is made between the intercessory prayer offered by ordinary believers and the prominent Old Testament prophet Elijah [Jam 5:16–18]. The effectiveness of prayer in Christianity derives from the power of God rather than the status of the one praying.

The ancient church, in both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, developed a tradition of asking for the intercession of (deceased) saints, and this remains the practice of most Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Anglican churches. Churches of the Protestant Reformation however rejected prayer to the saints, largely on the basis of the sole mediatorship of Christ. The reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, admitted that he had offered prayers to the saints until his reading of the Bible convinced him that this was idolatrous. (43)

“Christianity” by Dr. Kathryn Weinland is adapted from “Christianity” in World Religions by Lumen Learning as published by Florida State College at Jacksonville, licensed CC BY except where otherwise noted.

Licensing and attribution information updated by Kathy Essmiller, 3.16.23. Please contact kathy.essmiller@okstate.edu with corrections or suggestions.

(39) — Jesus Christ by Cristian Violatti published in Ancient History Encyclopedia is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 .

(40) — Paul the Apostle by Rebecca Denova published in Ancient History Encyclopedia is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 .

(41) — Christianity by John S. Knox published in Ancient History Encyclopedia is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 .

(42) — Christianity and the Late Roman Empire by Lumen from Boundless World History is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0 .

(43) — Christianity by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 .

(44) — History of Christianity by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 .


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

4.5 Christianity Copyright © 2023 by Kathryn Weinland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book