History of Christianity

The history of Christianity, starting in the 1st century and continuing on to present day, is incredibly long and complex. From its inception at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, to the Protestant Revolution (which caused to the faith to be split into many of the denominations of Christianity we know today), to the modern era, Christianity has grown from its origins as a subset of Judaism to the most popular religion on Earth.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament is a collection of religious writings by ancient Israelites that compose the first section or part of Christian theology. The Old Testament is a Christian term, despite the fact that the writings are used in another faith, Judaism, for the fact that they are referred to as the 'Old' Testament (juxtaposed with the New Testament). Between different subdivisions of Christianity, however, the writings and teachings derived from the Old Testament can vary quite drastically.

The religious writings of the Old Testament can be divided into several smaller sections, called Books, which cover the writings of different Christian prophets and historians.

The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy cover the stories of Genesis, which refer to everything from the creation of man in the Garden of Eden, all the way to the death of Moses. The Torah, a Jewish religious text, is also composed of these books. Very few scholars believe the five books remain genuine to their original writings in the Persian period (538-332 BC). It is likely the authors and translators that produced the books as we know them today were composed of the theologians who controlled the Second Temple at the time of translation (516 BCE-70 CE).

Following those are the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These four books cover the period of time from the Conquest of Canaan to the Siege of Jerusalem circa 587 BC, though scholars agree that the books were written later, around 6th century BC, during the Babylonian exile. The books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the book of the Minor Prophets were written between the 8th and 6th centuries. The Books of Job and Book of Proverbs can be traced back to between the 5th century BC and 1st century BC.

The New Testament

The New Testament comprises the second part of the major theological documents of Christianity, and is considered a sacred scripture alongside the Old Testament. The New Testament accompanied the spread of Christianity through the world, serves as a source document for Christian theology, and has affected drastic influence and change on philosophy, politics, literature art and music.

The New Testament is an anthology of Christian works, written in Greek, and at different times by the Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, the anthology consists of 27 books in total: A collection of epistles, Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospels act as narratives of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The epistles were written in the form of letters, extolling the doctrine and theology of Christianity, and were authored by many different people. The Act of Apostles is a collection of the narratives of ministries of the 12 Apostles, created early in the church. The Book of Revelation acts as a prophecy, containing information and prophetic symbology about the end of time and the return of Jesus Christ.

Early Christianity

This period of Early Christianity is generally defined as portion of time between the origin of Christianity as a sect of Judaism, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This period began in the early 1st century AD during the time when Jesus of Nazareth preached to the people. During his time preaching, according to Christian theology, Jesus of Nazareth taught others using proverbs and allegory, healed the sick and preformed miracles, including but not limited to curing lepers and returning eyesight to the blind.

Jesus of Nazareth was eventually arrested, tried by the Roman official Pontius Pilate and his court, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Christian religious texts state that after three days, the body of Jesus was resurrected.

The Exhortation to the Apostles by James Tissot (1886-1894)

Shortly after the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the 12 Apostles began to spread the news of the death and resurrection themselves. This period in Early Christian history is generally referred to as the Apostolic Age.

During the beginning of the Apostolic Age, Christianity had yet to become more than an off-shoot of Judaism but within a decade of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the 12 Apostles had spread the Good News from Cyprus, to Crete, to Thessalonica, to Corinth. As Christianity continued to spread through Roman territory the messages of Jesus of Nazareth were adopted by people who were not Jewish and did not follow the Torah, the Laws of the Jewish faith.

Jewish followers of Jesus and new followers who did not obey 'Jewish Law' argued over several practices in the Jewish faith, including circumcision. Things came to a head c. 85 in at the Council of Jamnia, when those who claimed the Messiah had already come (specifically those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth had been the Messiah) were openly condemned. Many Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries after the dispute but over time, the attendance of Christians at the synagogue began to dwindle.

The Roman Empire

Some Early Christians and Jewish Christians also faced condemnation, judgment and possible execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Judaism had only been acknowledged as a separate religion under the protection of Roman law in the late 1st century, and all those who wished to practice Judaism were required to pay a steep tax.

As Christianity continued to separate itself ideologically from Judaism it created some serious problems. C. 98 the Roman Emperor Nerva announced that Christians were not required to pay the same tax that was demanded of the Jewish citizens of the empire. This declaration essentially made official the difference between practitioners of Judaism and practitioners of Christianity, and allowed for the persecution of Christians who refused to worship the Gods of the Romans, andwere no longer part of a legally-protected religion.

Until 313, for a period of nearly three centuries, Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire, albeit the severity of said persecution depended more upon the local culture and authorities. By about the mid-2nd century, mob violence, assaults, robberies and stonings inflicted upon Christians were not uncommon. Provincial governors had to do little more than state that an individual was a suspected Christian before they were granted the rights to hold a trial within their province. The Roman Empire did very little to set a standard for these cases, so the outcome generally fell upon the whims of the governors themselves, as they heard the case, decided the verdict and passed the sentence they deemed fit.

As a result, the punishments and acquittals of Christians were drastically different from place-to-place. The most common outcome of these trials was that the suspected Christian was given a chance to either deny or renounce their faith. Once the individual in question either denied the practice of Christianity or swore to leave the faith, they were made to give sacrifice to the Roman Gods and swear fealty to the Emperor. Persistence in practicing Christianity or refusal to denounce the religion would end in execution, and by extension, martyrdom. Not all governors and Roman officials were so strict, however. A handful of governors refused to bring Christians to trial or outright acquitted them.

Though the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, the majority of people that were brought to trial were not executed, as Roman governors were charged with keeping the peace in their area and excessive executions may have led to rioting. Moreover, in many cases, the persecution of Christians was driven more by financial need, as the tributes paid to the Roman Gods were an important source of capital for the Roman Empire. It was not until 313, when Constantine I became the Roman Emperor, that Christianity would become a sanctioned religion. It was in the latter part of the 4th century that Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Middle Ages

The Christian church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, became a tremendous and influential political presence soon after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages also marked the beginning of several centuries of religious expansion and missionary work, bringing Christianity to the Slavic, Baltic, Germanic and Celtic peoples.

Circa 500, St. Benedict established a set of regulations and practices to develop and maintain monasteries, also known as Monastic Rule or Monasticism. Monasteries allowed people to renounce worldly needs and ideals in order to seclude themselves and reflect on their faith. Over time, monasteries became ideal places to collect and study all kinds of information and eventually became hubs of knowledge and education. By the 11th century, many old cathedral schools had been converted to universities, like the University of Paris and University of Oxford, though students at these universities were only educated as physicians, lawyers, civil servants and clerics.

It was during the Middle Ages that some of the most violent religious battles, wars and mass killings of non-Christians were perpetrated as well. These drastic actions were taken primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its constituents during the Crusades.

The Battle of Antioch by Gustave Dore

In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the first in what would become a long series of military campaigns throughout the Holy Land, called the Crusades. The first campaign, specifically called the People's Crusade, was launched in response to a request for aid from Alexios I, the Emperor of Byzantine, in order to quash Turkish expansion into the Byzantine Empire. In addition to giving aid to Alexios I, the church claimed that the Crusades were enacted in order to restore Christian access to the Holy City of Jerusalem, and its surrounding area.

In order to gather soldiers and volunteers to join the People's Crusade, Pope Urban II promised plenary indulgences, or remission and forgiveness of a temporal punishment gained through sin, to approximately 20,000 people. The Crusading army marched toward the Holy Land after Easter in 1096, upon reaching the Byzantine Empire the army was sent a warning by Alexios I to wait for the additional armies of the Western nobles. Instead, the army proceeded further into the territory and was ambushed by the Turks. The army of 20,000 was slaughtered. After the ambush, only 3,000 of the Crusaders had survived, prompting Christian outrage that sparked what can be called the First Crusade.

The armies of both Italy and France set off on the First Crusade in late 1096, only a few months after the People's Crusade that Pope Urban II had begun. The combined armies of various nobles reached a staggering 100,000 people (including non-combatants) and were split into four separate parts to make their way to Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire. Upon arriving at the capitol, the nobles of the crusading armies pledged to Alexios I that territories that had been taken by the Turks would be restored to him. After that, the army made its way to the city of Antioch, a city held by Muslims.

From October 1097 to June 1098, the Crusaders laid siege to the city. After months, the Crusaders were finally able to enter Antioch, and slaughtered everyone inside. A relief army was sent in response to the Crusaders' attack but was also defeated by the crusading army. A relief army sent in response to the attack was also defeated by the crusading army. The city was then secured by a noble, Bohemond, and his men. Bohemond chose to retain control of Antioch however, rather than return the territory to Alexios I as promised. What remained of the original crusading armies then moved south to capture Jerusalem. On July 15th, 1099 the Crusaders entered the city, massacring the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants (many of them civilians), pillaged mosques and completely ransacked the city.

The Second Crusade was a short one. The armies of France and South Germany, led by the kings Louis VII and Conrad III marched toward Jerusalem. Over the next couple years, however, the armies failed to win major victories or claim territory. By 1150 both kings returned to their countries with very little to show for the endeavor. In 1187, Muslims were able to unite under the leadership of Saladin. As a tremendous, single state, Saladin easily led his army to victory after victory, and eventually retook the Holy City of Jerusalem on September 29th 1187. The Crusaders and the Muslim armies arranged terms of surrender, and on October 2nd, 1187 Saladin finally entered the city himself.

The news of Saladin's victory came as a shock to many. In fact, Pope Urban III was startled so badly that he actually died of a heart attack on October 19th, 1187. Ten days later, the newly named Pope Gregory VIII issued a proposal to form a Third Crusade to retake Jerusalem. This time, King Philip II of France, King Richard I of England, and Emperor Frederick I Barossa of Germany answered the call to action. Emperor Frederick died en route to the Holy City, unfortunately, and only the armies of Philip II and Richard I successfully arrived in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the French and English armies found themselves constantly embroiled in political strife. Philip II returned to France when the infighting became too much, but he left the majority of his army with Richard I. Richard I and his combined armies then marched along the Mediterranean, retaking the cities of Jaffa and Acre. The Crusaders finally came within sight of the Holy City but a supply problem crippled the army's ability to take the city. Instead, Richard I formed a Treaty with Saladin that allowed unarmed Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem while it remained under Muslim control.

The Fourth Crusade, started in 1202, was fueled primarily by the political drive and ambitions of Philip of Swabia, the German king and Doge Enrico Dandolo. Philip of Swabia's marriage to Irene of Byzantium linked him to Alexios IV Angelos, the exiled heir to the Byzantine throne. Were Alexios to be restored to the throne, Philip would benefit greatly. Dandolo, for his part, believed that a new crusade would increase what land belonged to Venice. When Pope Innocent III called for the recruitment of Crusaders, it quickly became obvious that the Crusaders did not have enough funding to pay for the provisions and fleets they required from the Venetians. Rather than turn the Crusaders away, however, Dandolo and Philip of Swabia agreed that so long as the Crusaders shared any loot that they obtained during the Crusade and Alexios was restored as Emperor of Byzantine that would be sufficient payment. The Crusaders immediately seized the Christian city of Zara as collateral for the Crusade. Pope Innocent III was shocked and disgusted by this turn of events and outright excommunicated the Crusaders from the church. The Fourth Crusade continued, regardless.

The crusading army sailed down the Dardanelles successfully attacked Constantinople via its sea walls. An unexpected coup led to the death of Alexios IV Angelos and the failure of one of the key goals for the Crusade. In light of this conflict, the crusading army was forced to retreat and recuperate. In April 1204, the Crusaders laid siege to Constantinople again, this time obliterating the city and its defenses. Crusaders destroyed churches and buildings, pillaged what could be found and butchered citizens in the streets. The army then divided up what remained of the Byzantine Empire amongst their constituents, turning the land into Venetian colonies and Latin fiefs.

In 1215, just over a decade since Pope Innocent III had excommunicated the individuals who had participated in the Fourth Crusade, he declared that the Fifth Crusade would commence in 1217. Crusaders arrived from Glanders, Frisisa, Germany, Hungary and several additional countries. This crusading army, together with John of Brienne the King of Jerusalem, formed an attack on the city of Damietta in Egypt. The armies entered and claimed the city in November of 1219. Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil rallied Egyptian forces, however, prevented further gains in Egypt and eventually forced the surrender of the crusading army. The city of Damietta was returned to Egypt and the contending armies formed an eight-year truce.

Despite being excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX, Emperor Frederick II initiated the Sixth Crusade in 1228. Frederick set sail with a small army in June of that year and arrived in Egypt. Emperor Frederick II did not engage in any battles while travelling, and instead formed a treaty with Al-Kamil the ruler of Egypt. The treaty that the two arranged granted Christians rule over the majority of the city of Jerusalem, along with a strip of land from Acre to the Holy City. Muslims were allowed to maintain control over their holy places in Jerusalem, however. In turn, Frederick promised to protect Al-Kamil from all potential enemies, even if they were Christian.

The Sixth Crusade ended in 1229 and in the following years, until 1272, three more crusades were enacted by King Louis IX of France and others, over Jerusalem and Damietta. Smaller, more politically motivated Crusades occurred intermittently over the course of the 14th century.

The Protestant Reformation & Counter Reformation

The Protestant Reformation marked another key change in Christianity, this time through the creation of new denominations of the faith. Martin Luther, a German professor of theology and a monk, is said to have sparked the Reformation in 1517 when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses onto the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. The document, as implied, included ninety-five objections to and condemnations of the rituals, doctrines and papal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1529, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther from the Roman Catholic Church.

In response to demand for reform, Pope Paul III and a commission of cardinals called the Council of Trent initiated the Counter Reformation. During the Counter Reformation, the church converted many Northern Europeans to Catholicism, and sent some of the first Christian missionaries to Central America, South America, Africa and many parts of Asia.

Though the Protestant Reformation is commonly said to have begun with Martin Luther's theses, it might be more accurate to consider the Ninety-Five Theses as the "straw that broke the camel's back". The general public's trust in the Catholic Church had already waned over the years due to a handful of issues, including the Western (or Papal) Schism, the church's inability to help those with the Black Plague, and the introduction of the printing press, which help spread the core principles of the Reformation throughout Europe.

The Western Schism lasted for forty years, from 1378 to 1418, and began with the death of Pope Gregory XI. Pope Gregory's death erupted into conflict when several men either claimed to be, or were elected to be the next Pope at once. It was not until 1414 that the (claimed) Pisan Pope John XXII organized a council to determine the proper successor to the Papacy, as agreed to by himself, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. In 1415 John XXII and Gregory XII stepped down (Benedict XIII was excommunicated) and ceded the Papacy to the newly elected Pope Martin V.

Martin Luther was not the only reformer of note, however. The scholar Ulrich Zwingli and theologian John Calvin also contributed to the Protestant Reformation's widespread reception and relative success. In the Swiss Confederation, Zwingli wrote a piece similar to the Ninety-Five Theses, entitled Sixty-Seven Conclusions. In 1529, The German Prince Philip of Hesse arranged for a meeting called between Luther and Zwingli, believing that they could help form a strong and united Protestant church. The two theologians were unable to reach an agreement in the Christian ideologies of consubstantiation and transubstantiation, however. Luther became furious at their disagreement, going so far as to carve "Hoc Est Corpus Meum" (This is my body) into the table. The failed meeting has since been dubbed the Colloquy of Marburg.

John Calvin, for his part, helped establish a basic Protestant doctrine across many of the countries in Europe, including Scotland and Hungary as well as Germany and Switzerland (where Luther and Zwingli began their respective parts of the Reformation). Martin Luther and John Calvin's contribution to the Protestant Reformation also resulted in the formation of the Christian denominations of Lutheranism and Calvinism, respectively, and contributed to the formation of many other denominations like Anglicanism.

The Roman Catholic Church's Counter Reformation began in 1545, and focused on four key ideas: Papal structure, political influence, spiritual teachings and religious orders. The council reviewed Protestant demands for a re-structuring of the basic tenants of the Roman Catholic faith and rejected them, choosing to reaffirm its doctrines and sacramental systems. The council also reaffirmed the veneration of saints, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, pilgrimages and the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.

The Council of Trent did make some small changes, however. The Pope and cardinals observed a lack of education amongst many rural priests and clergy members; it was decided that priests were to be given better education in Catholic theology and practices. The Council of Trent also put in motion an attempt to improve the administration of the church--changing practices that allowed individuals to be appointed bishops for political reasons and reducing instances of 'absenteeism', a term describing bishops who lived in Rome, or in estates, rather than in the dioceses that they presided over.

New religious orders were set in place in order to help check the spread of heresy, and to help restore interest in the regeneration of the Roman Catholic clergy. Each order was named, and became responsible for a certain facet (or facets) of the Counter Reformation. The order of the Ursulines focused on the education of girls and young women in the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits were sent to work in rural communities and parishes, in order to re-educate local priests. The Franciscan order was made responsible for the care of the sick and the poor. Members of orders both in Europe and in portions of the New World also became missionaries, travelling and converting new people to Catholicism.

Immaculate Conception

During this season of conversions abroad, and the immigration of many European Christians to new colonies in America, the Catholic Church solidified a number of doctrines. One notable contribution to Catholic creed occurred in 1854, when Pope Pius IX announced that the belief in Immaculate Conception was to be regarded as fundamental to the Catholic faith.

Immaculate Conception refers to the idea that Mary was exempt from original sin, and was herself conceived entirely sinless, because she would one day be mother to Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christians did not accept this claim, believing sinlessness to have been a characteristic that is uniquely Christ's. However, Catholics are staunch supporters of Immaculate Conception, and offer celebrations and feasts on December 8th. Many Catholic nations even allow for a public holiday in honor of their belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception.

For a more detailed article, please visit our dedicated page about Immaculate Conception.