Christianity Overview

March 17, 2004 · updated December 14, 2023

“From the majestic pontifical High Mass in St. Peter's to the quiet simplicity of a Quaker meeting, from the intellectual sophistication of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the moving simplicity of spirituals such as "Lord, I want to be a Christian," from St. Paul's in London, the parish Church of Great Britain, to Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta... all this is Christianity.”

Huston Smith, The World's Religions
Cathedral Towers with Rainbow
A rainbow arches over the towers of Durham Cathedral, as seen from Prebends Bridge to the south. Durham, England. Holly Hayes
Fast Facts on Christianity
Adherents 2.2 billion
Adherents Called Christians
Name Means followers of Christ (Greek christos, Messiah)
Main Location(s) Europe, North and South America, Africa
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.

Origins of Christianity

Christian beliefs center on the life and identity of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher and healer who lived in the Middle East in the first century. The primary sources of information about Jesus are the Gospels, which were written between 20 and 100 years after his death and became the first four books of the New Testament. These books describe a three-year teaching and healing ministry during which he attracted 12 close disciples and many other followers. Some of these believed him to be the Messiah (Christos in Greek).

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.

Christian Sacred Texts

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.

Christian Denominations

In its 2,000 years of history, 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, emphasize the importance of reading the Bible, and focus on faith over rituals. Protestantism encompasses numerous denominations, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and the Amish.

Anglicanism is sometimes viewed as a "middle way" between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Christian Practices

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, veneration of relics, and sacred sites associated with holy figures. Eastern Orthodoxy has many practices in common with Catholicism, but is especially distinguished by the central role of icons.

Christian Holidays

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 to Christians and much of the western world is Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus. It is celebrated on December 25 in western churches and January 6 in Orthodox Churches.

Saints' days are also celebrated by many denominations. Some of these, such as St. Patrick's Day and St. Valentine's Day, have come to play a prominent role in popular culture.

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