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History of Christianity

This article outlines the history of Christianity and provides links to relevant topics.


Roots of Christianity

The Jewish background

Christianity emerged as one of the many sects of Judaism that existed in the first century of the Common Era. Christianity brought from Judaism its scriptures (the Old Testament), its way of thinking and fundamental doctrines such as monotheism, and the belief in a moshiach (Hebrew term usually rendered messiah in English); this term is more commonly known as Christ (Christos in Greek). However, the Christian claim of exclusivity, that only its understanding of "Jewish" teaching is valid, led to an early rift between Christianity and first with the temple priesthood, and later with rabbinic Judaism.

The common Jewish picture of the messiah, both ancient and modern, is a national one—the deliverer of Israel—and differes significantly from the Christian understanding of the term. Christianity believes in a different kind of messiah, in which God himself came into history in the flesh as Jesus (the Incarnation), and became the deliverer of both Israel and of all mankind. Christians and Jews have disagreed about the nature of the messiah from the time Christianity was born until now, often relying on different interpretations of various passages from the Old Testament (or Tanakh).

Christianity also continued many of the patterns found in Judaism at that time, such as adapting the form of synagogue worship to church parishes, prayer, use of sacred scriptures, a priesthood, a religious calendar in which certain events and/or beliefs are specifically commemorated on certain days each year, use of music in hymns and prayer, and ascetic disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving. Christians initially adopted the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures (the Septuagint) as their own Bible, and later also canonized the books of the New Testament.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth

The earliest emergence of Christianity

In little over 300 years, Christianity grew from the personal practice of a minority of Jews to the dominant religion of the Mediterranean world. It also gained important extensions to the east and south of the Mediterranean. This section will examine those first 300 years.

  • The Apologists
    • Justin Martyr, convert from Greek philosophy
    • Irenaeus of Lyons, bishop of Lyons, categorized heresies in order to refute them
    • Clement of Rome, 3rd/4th bishop of Rome, whose homilies and writings were sometimes considered canon

Early controversies

Disputes of doctrine began early on. The newly-organised church organised councils to sort matters out. Councils representing the entire church were called ecumenical councils. Some groups were rejected as heretics.

Competing religions

Christianity was not the only religion seeking and finding converts in the 1st century. Modern historians of the Roman world often discern interest in what they tend to call mystery religions or mystery cults beginning in the last century of the Roman Republic and increasing during the centuries of the Roman Empire. Roman authors themselves, such as Livy, tell of the importation of "foreign gods" during times of stress in the Roman state. Judaism, too, was receiving converts and in some cases actively evangelising. The New Testament reflects a class of people referred to as 'believers in God' who are thought to be Gentile converts, perhaps those who had not submitted to circumcision; Philo of Alexandria makes explicit the duty of Jews to welcome converts.

Second and third centuries

In the second century conventionally educated converts began to produce two kinds of writings that help us understand the developing shapes of Christianity - works aimed at a broad audience of educated non-Christians and works aimed at those who considered themselves inside the Church. The writing for non-Christians is usually called apologetic in the same sense that the speech given by Socrates in his defense before the Athenian assembly is called his Apology - the word in Greek meant "speech for the defense" rather than the modern more limited denotation of "statement expressing regret". The Apologists, as these authors are sometimes known, made a presentation for the educated classes of the beliefs of Christians, often coupled with an attack on the beliefs and practices of the pagans. Other writings had the purpose of instructing and admonishing fellow Christians.

  • Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons and saint)
  • Tertullian (became a schismatic in about 207 and became a Montanist)
  • Marcion (leader of a gnostic group, considered by the Roman Catholic church to have been the most dangerous enemy they have ever had)
  • Clement of Alexandria (bishop of Alexandria and saint)
  • Origen (catechist and scholar, but some of his teachings were condemned in 588)
  • The pagan revival of the third century

During this period church government began to take on a hierarchial form that matched the Roman government. Infant baptism was introduced. Due to the changes, in 251 the non-catholic churches of the time declared non-fellowship with the Catholic Church and began rebaptizing. This led name Ana Baptists and eventually Anabaptist.

Fourth century

Development of the canon of scripture

Christianity legalized in the Roman Empire

Fourth-century pagan revival by Rome

Orthodox Christianity opposed by Byzantine emperors

Christianity becomes a state religion

The Christological controversies

The Christological controversies include examinations of questions like the following. Was Christ divine, human, a created angelic being, or beyond simple classification into one category? Did Christ's miracles actually change physical reality or were they merely symbolic? Did Christ's body actually arise from the dead or was the resurrected Christ a supernatural being not limited to a physical frame?

Fifth century

The conversion of the Mediterranean world

Developing Christianity outside the Mediterranean world

Christianity was not restricted to the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands; at the time of Jesus a large proportion of the Jewish population lived in Mesopotamia outside the Roman Empire, especially in the city of Babylon, where much of the Talmud was developed.

(Also known as Syro Malabar Christian s or Nasrani) established in India possibly as early as 52 and certainly before 325.

  • Ethiopian Orthodoxy
  • Christianity in the Sassanian Empire
  • Christianity in Bosnia
  • Christianity comes to the British Isles
    • Christianity comes to Ireland (traditionally dated 432) and the evolution of Celtic Christianity
    • Irish missionaries and the spread of Christianity to Britain and Northern Europe
    • The establishment of papal authority in Ireland after the Great Schism
  • Nestorian Christians travel the Silk Road to establish a community in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang'an, building the Daqin Pagoda in 640

Development of the Papacy

The rise of Islam


Spread of Christianity to central and eastern Europe

Church and state in the Medieval west

Schisms between East and West

  • Great Schism
    • This was a long time in developing; key issues were the role of the Pope in Rome, and the filioque clause
    • The "official" schism in 1054 was the excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, followed by his excommunication of the pope's representative.
    • The personal excommunications were mutually rescinded by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 1960s, although the schism is not at all healed.

The Great Schism was between "Roman Catholicism" and "Eastern Orthodoxy". Both place great weight on apostolic succession, and historically both are descended from the early church. Each contends that it more correctly maintains the tradition of the early church and that the other has deviated. Roman Catholic Christians often prefer to refer to themselves simply as "catholic" which means "universal", and maintain that they are also orthodox. Eastern Orthodox Christians often prefer to refer to themselves simply as "orthodox", which means "right worship", and also call themselves catholic. Initially, the schism was primarily between East and West, but today both have congregations all over the world. They are still often referred to in those terms for historical reasons.

The later Middle Ages

Early America

  • Conquistadors
  • Santerķa, a fusion of Catholicism with traditional west African religious traditions originally among slaves

The Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation

Protestantism and the Rise of Denominationalism

Discusses the rise of the major denominations after the Reformation, and the challenges faced by Catholicism.
Lots missing here.

19th century

  • Catholic Resurgence in Romantic Europe
  • Anglo-Catholic or Oxford Movement in the Church of England
  • Missionaries and Colonialism

The Second Great Awakening and Restorationism

Anti-clericalism and atheistic communism

In many revolutionary movements the church was associated with the established repressive regimes. Thus, for example, after the French Revolution and the Mexican Revolution there was a distinct anti-clerical tone in those countries that exists to this day. On a more extreme level, Karl Marx condemned religion as the "opium of the people" [1] and the Marxist-Leninist governments of the twentieth century were generally atheistic; of these, only Albania officially declared itself to be an atheistic state. All of these Marxist governments repressed the exercise of religion in varying degrees.

20th Century and beyond

Christianity in the 20th century was characterised by accelerating fragmentation. The century saw the rise of both liberal and conservative splinter groups, as well as a general secularisation of Western society. The Roman Catholic Church instituted many reforms in order to modernise. Missionaries also made inroads in the Far East, establishing further followings in China, Taiwan, and Japan. At the same time, persecution in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union brought many Eastern Orthodox Christians to Western Europe and the United States, leading to greatly increased contact between Western and Eastern Christianity.

The persecution of Christians today has its own entry.


  • Creationist backlash to Darwinism, reaction to the critical method of Biblical interpretation.


The rise of evangelical churches

  • In the United States, there has been a marked rise in evangelical churches and a corresponding decline of mainstream Protestant denominations. There has also been a polarization of the Anglican Communion worldwide chiefly because of actions taken by some Anglicans and Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada.
Evangelism in the 10/40 Window
  • Evangelicals defined and prioritized efforts to reach the "unreached" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to focus on countries roughly between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude.

The spread of secularism

In Europe there has been a general move away from religious observance and belief in Christian teachings and a move towards secularism. For example the Gallup International Millennium Survey[2] showed that only about one sixth of Europeans attend regular religious services, less than half gave God "high importance", and only about 40% believe in a "personal God". Nevertheless the large majority considered that they "belong" to a religious denomination.

In North America, South America and Australia, the other three continents where Christianity is the dominant professed religion, religious observance is much higher than in Europe.

See also

Timeline of Christianity

External links

The following links give an overview of the history of Christianity:

  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Christianity in History
  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Church as an Institution

Last updated: 02-07-2005 12:47:27
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55