--Huston Smith, The World's Religions
|Fast Facts: Christianity|
|Main Location(s)||Europe, North and South America, Africa|
|Name Means||followers of Christ (Greek christos, Messiah)|
|Date Founded||c. 30 CE|
|Place Founded||Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan)|
|Founder(s)||Jesus, Peter, Paul|
|Sects/Branches||Roman Catholic; Eastern Orthodox; Protestant|
|Practices||Prayer, Bible study, baptism, Eucharist (Communion), church on Sundays, numerous holidays.|
|Holidays||Easter, Christmas, saints' days (some denominations)|
|Texts||Bible (Hebrew Bible + New Testament)|
|Symbols||Cross, dove, anchor, fish, alpha/omega, chi rho|
With over 2 billion adherents worldwide, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It has dominated western culture for centuries and remains the majority religion of Europe and the Americas.
Christian beliefs center on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher and healer who lived in first-century Palestine. The primary source of information about the life of Jesus are the Gospels, which were written sometime between 20 and 100 years after his death and became the first four books of the New Testament. The Gospels describe a three-year teaching and healing ministry during which Jesus attracted 12 close disciples and other followers who believed him to be the Messiah (Christos).
Jesus' teachings focused on the themes of the kingdom of God, love of God and love of neighbor. Along with some of his teachings, his growing popularity with the masses was seen as dangerous by Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government, leading to his execution by crucifixion. Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead three days later, and in so doing made it possible for those who believe to be forgiven of sin and attain eternal life. Much of Christian belief and practice centers on the resurrection of Christ.
The sacred text of Christianity is the Christian Bible, which consists of the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) and the New Testament. The New Testament contains 27 books: four gospels (narratives of Jesus' life), one account of the apostles' ministry after Jesus' death, letters from church leaders (the earliest of which predate the Gospels), and an apocalyptic book. Some denominations also recognize the Apocrypha, a group of books written between the Old and New Testaments.
Nearly all Christians regard the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative, but views differ as to the nature and extent of its authority. Some hold it to be completely without error in all matters it addresses, while others stress its accuracy only in religious matters and allow for errors or limitations in other areas due to its human authorship.
Christianity has divided into three major branches. Roman Catholicism represents the continuation of the organized church in the West as it developed over the centuries, and is headed by the Pope. It separated from the Eastern church in 1054, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope excommunicated each other. Eastern Orthodoxy (which includes the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and several others) differs from Catholicism in its refusal of allegiance to the Pope, its emphasis on the use of icons in worship, and the date it celebrates Easter. Other cultural, political, and religious differences exist as well.
Protestantism arose in Europe in the 16th century. Protestants do not acknowledge the authority of the Pope, reject many traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church, and emphasize the importance of reading the Bible and the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Protestantism encompasses numerous denominations, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and the Amish.
Christian practices vary by denomination, but common elements include a Sunday worship service, private and communal prayer, study and reading of the Scriptures, and participation in the rites of baptism and communion. Distinctive Catholic practices include recognition of seven sacraments, devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, and veneration of relics and sacred sites associated with holy figures. Eastern Orthodoxy holds many practices in common with Catholicism, but is especially distinguished by the central role of icons.
There are many Christian holidays, but the most important has always been Easter, a spring holiday that celebrates Christ's resurrection from the dead. The 40 days prior to Easter are the Lenten season, a time of fasting and repentance. Another holiday that has become important is Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus on December 25 (January 6 in Orthodox Churches). Saints' days are also important. Some of these, such as St. Patrick's Day and St. Valentine's Day, have come to play a prominent role in popular American culture.
Table of Contents
- Walls, Andrew, “Christianity.” Hinnells, John R. (ed.), The Penguin Handbook of the World's Living Religions (Penguin Books),pp. 57-163.
- Linda Woodhead, Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014).
- Lewis, C.S., C. S. Lewis Signature Classics: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and The Great Divorce (Boxed Set) .
- Wagner, Richard, Christianity for Dummies .
- Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, USA, 1996).
- McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
- Fredriksen, Paula, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ (Yale University Press, 2000).