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A brief history

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Because of the diversity of religious belief among Christians, one cannot write about the history or current status of the religion in a way that is acceptable to all faith groups. Where Christian groups differ, we follow the historical record. The following overview is probably agreeable to most Christians. 

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About Yeshua (Jesus):

Christians follow the teachings of, and about, Yeshua of Nazareth, commonly referred to as Jesus Christ. (Jesus is the Greek form of  Yeshua which is normally translated as Joshua; Christ is Greek for "the Messiah" or the "anointed one.") Yeshua was a Jewish itinerant preacher who was born probably between 7 and 4 BCE, probably in the Fall. He was executed by the Roman occupying authorities in Palestine, perhaps on a Friday, in the spring of the year 30 CE (e.g. 0030-APR-7). Estimates of the year range over about a five year interval from the late 20s to the early 30s. Most Christians regard him as the son of God. They further believe that he is God, the second person in the Trinity. (The Trinity within Christianity consists of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three separate persons, all eternal, all omnipresent, all omnipotent, all omnibeneficient, who form a single, unified deity.) Most Christians believe that Jesus co-existed with God before the creation of the world, was born of a virgin, was bodily resurrected about a day and a half after his death, and later ascended to Heaven. Most conservative Protestants believe that Hell awaits anyone who has not repented of their sins and trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Muslims believe that Jesus was never executed on the cross. An error was made by the Roman executioners and another person was substituted for Jesus.

Many progressive Christians generally believe that the miracles of Jesus' virgin conception, walking on water, resurrection, ascension to Heaven are religious myths -- stories of immense spiritual value, but of events that never happened.

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Church history:

After Yeshua's death, his followers formed the Jewish Christian movement, centered in Jerusalem. One of Yeshua's followers, Simon Peter, may have headed the group. James, who is variously viewed as either Yeshua's brother, cousin, or friend, took over leadership later. They regarded themselves as a reform movement within Judaism; they continued to sacrifice at the temple, circumcise their male children, follow Jewish kosher food laws, etc. They viewed Jesus as a human prophet, not a deity or part of the Trinity.

Saul of Tarsus, originally a persecutor of the Jewish Christians, reported having a vision of the risen Christ, circa 34 CE while on the road to Damascus. Adopting the new name of Paul, he became the greatest theologian of the early Christian movement. His writings, along with those of the author(s) of the Gospel of John, provided much of the theological foundation for what has been called Pauline Christianity, a movement that he spread throughout the northern and eastern Mediterranean basin. Paul's ministry, which started circa 37 CE, was directed mainly to Gentiles -- non-Jews.

A third competing belief system was Gnostic Christianity. They taught that Jesus was a spirit being sent by God to impart knowledge to humans so that they could escape the miseries of life on earth. They regarded the Yahweh of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) to be an inferior, short tempered, and vicious creator deity who performed many genocides, and other evil acts. 

In addition to Gnostic, Jewish, and and Pauline Christianity, there were many other versions of Christianity being taught. Often, there would be a number of conflicting Christianities being propagated within a single city. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Army in 70 CE, the Jewish Christian movement was largely dissipated. This left Pauline and Gnostic Christianity as the dominant groups. Gentiles within the movement took over control of the former movement.

The Roman Empire recognized Pauline Christianity as a valid religion in 313 CE. Circa 387 CE, it became the official religion of the Empire. Church authority became concentrated among the five bishops or patriarchs located in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Gnostic Christianity was severely persecuted, both by the Roman Empire and the Pauline Christian churches. It was almost exterminated, but is experiencing rapid growth today.

With the expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East during the seventh century CE, power became concentrated in Constantinople and Rome. These two Christian centers gradually grew apart in belief and practice. In 1054 CE, a split was formalized between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; their leaders excommunicated each other. The split remains in effect today. Efforts are being made to heal the division. However, they are making little progress.

Various schisms including the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to a fragmentation within the western church and to a series of religious wars that caused the death of up to 30% of the population of some European countries. The Protestant movement has since splintered into what is now many groups of denominations, and tens of thousands of individual denominations.

Today, about 33% of the world's population -- in excess of 2 billion people -- regard themselves as Christian. This percentage has not changed significantly in many decades. About half are Roman Catholic. Christians are gradually being expelled from the Middle East. Membership has seriously declined in most of Europe. Ireland and Spain were once the most Catholic countries in Europe; they are now largely secular. Christianity is in a state if slow decline in North America, due to the rise in secularism and of minority religions. The religion is experiencing an expansion in South America and Africa.

The history of Christianity is covered in greater detail elsewhere.

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Site navigation: Home page > Christianity >  Introduction > here

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Copyright © 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-MAR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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