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History of Christianity

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

Table of contents

Roots of Christianity

The Jewish background

Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century of the common era. Christianity brought from Judaism its scriptures (the Old Testament) and fundamental doctrines such as monotheism, and the belief in a moshiach (Hebrew term for messiah); this term is more commonly known as Christ (Christos in Greek). The modern Jewish picture of the messiah is a national one - the deliverer of Israel, and has significant differences from how Christians understand the term. Christianity has a different form of the messiah, in which God himself came in the flesh as Jesus, and became the deliverer of both Israel and of all mankind. Christians and Jews have disagreed about which of them has the truer conception of messiah from the time Christianity was born until now, often relying on different interpretations of various passages from the Old Testament or Tanach.

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

The Life of Jesus of Nazareth

The earliest emergence of Christianity

Starting with the events recorded in the Gospels and Acts, Christianity grew from the personal practice of a minority of Jews, to the dominant religious group of the Mediterranean world in little over 300 years. It also gained important extensions to the east and south of the Mediterranean. This section will examine those first 300 years.

  • The Earliest Church: Jerusalem
  • The Gentile Church
  • House Churches

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.

  • Mithraism - to distinguish from Mithra, who may be a separate thing inside Persian religions. It's complicated, like all the rest of this.
  • Mandaeanism - the group in which Mani is reputed to have been brought up
  • Manichaeism - the group that came from Mani
  • Isis and Serapis[?]
  • Sabazios[?]

Second and third centuries In the third 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.

Fourth century

Development of the canon of scripture

Christianity legalized in the Roman Empire

Fourth-century pagan revival by Rome

The Christology controversies

Christianity becomes a state religion

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.

  • Ethiopian Orthodoxy
  • Christianity in the Sassanian Empire
  • Thomas Christians (Malabar Christians?) in India
  • Christianity comes to the British Isles
    • Christianity comes to Ireland 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

Development of the Papacy

The rise of Islam

Spread of Christianity to central and eastern Europe

Church & 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.
    • These excommunications were mutually rescinded by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 1960s, although the schism is not yet completely 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 maintains that it most perfectly maintains the tradition of the early church, and that the other has deviated from that tradition at least slightly. 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
  • Santeria, a fusion of Catholicism with traditional west African religious traditions originally among slaves

The Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation[?]


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

The Earliest Controversies Resurface in New Forms

The Restoration Movement[?]

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] (http://www.baylor.edu/~Scott_Moore/texts/Marx_Opium) and the Marxist-Leninist states of the twentieth century were officially atheistic.

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 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 free evangelical churches

  • And the corresponding decline of mainstream Protestant denominations. Maybe this is too U.S.-centric? Also, its impact on worldwide Christianity remains to be seen, but the polarization of the Anglican Communion is, IMHO, worthy of mention. At least, I've been tracking it at http://anglican.swiki.net/ because I find it interesting. <>< tbc

Evangelism in the 10/40 Window

  • How evangelicals defined and prioritized efforts to reach the "unreached" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, focusing on countries roughly between 10 and 40 degrees north lattitude.

The Spread of Secularism

In Europe there has been a general move away from religious observation and belief in Christian teachings and a move towards secularism. For example the Gallup International Millennium Survey[2] (http://www.gallup-international.com/survey15.htm) 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 and South America, the other two continents where Christianity is the dominant professed religion, religious observation is much higher than in Europe.

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