Christianity is practiced by about 2.4 billion people worldwide, making it the world's largest religion. It began about 2000 years ago in the land of Judea in what is today Jerusalem, Israel. Christians believe in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the Messiah or savior for all of humanity. Jesus' teachings focused on love, forgiveness, peace, and hope.
Christianity first began around the year 0 CE with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, which was called the City of David. Today, Bethlehem is a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Jesus lived and taught in Nazareth and the surrounding areas in Galilee, in today's Israel. Jesus was crucified and died in Jerusalem. These sites continue to be the holiest sites for Christians for the last two thousand years. Since Jesus' time, Christianity has spread to every corner of the globe and today has about 2.4 billion followers, about 30% of the world's population. Christians believe in one God, whom they believe to be the creator of Heaven and Earth. The core tenets of the religion revolve around the birth, life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus Christ as the son of God who was sent down to offer salvation to humanity.
Around 6 BCE - 0 CE, the lands of Judea and Galilee in modern day Israel were ruled by the vast Roman Empire, which spanned three continents from Europe to North Africa to the Middle East. Caesar Augustus was emperor and Israel was under the control of King Herod and, later, his sons. The Jewish people resented Roman rule for its brutality and oppression. They were awaiting a savior or Messiah that would deliver them from persecution and restore the kingdom of David. The stories about the life of Jesus were written by his followers a few decades after his death, around 50-150 CE. They make up the New Testament in the Christian Bible. The four main accounts of his life or Gospels, meaning "good news", were written by Jesus' disciples or followers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
These Gospels tell the story of a young woman named Mary, who was living in the small town of Nazareth when she was visited by an angel one evening. It was the Archangel Gabriel, the same angel written about in the Jewish Bible who appeared to Abraham, the father of Judaism. The angel Gabriel said to Mary, "Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, thou shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call him Jesus." (Luke 1:30-31). This came as a shock to Mary, who was betrothed to a man named Joseph but was not married yet. She accepted that God wanted her to be the mother of this very special child and told the angel that she agreed as a faithful servant of God. She was soon found to be with child. At first Joseph was angry and shocked, but he, too, was visited by the Angel in a dream and believed that Mary had conceived the child by the Holy Spirit.
At the time, Rome was forcing the citizens in its territories to go to the town of their birth for the purposes of gathering a census to aid its ability to collect taxes. Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem where Joseph was from. It was a long and arduous journey and Mary was far along in her pregnancy. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the town was so full of people for the census that there was nowhere for them to stay. All of the inns turned the poor couple away. Finally, a kind inn-keeper told Joseph and Mary that they could stay in his stable with the animals. That night, Mary went into labor and the baby Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph wrapped their little newborn up in swaddling clothes, or warm blankets. Since they had no cradle, they placed Jesus in a manger, or feeding trough, filled with straw. It is important to Jesus' followers that his birth was not one of great luxury, but rather that it was a humble birth, as Jesus represented not powerful and wealthy kings but all of humanity.
The story goes on to say that shepherds nearby on the hills outside Bethlehem noticed an unusually bright star in the sky at the time of Jesus' birth. An angel appeared to the shepherds telling them that a baby had been born in Bethlehem who would be the Messiah. It is also written that in a land far away to the east, three wise men who studied the stars saw the same bright star in the sky that they had never seen before. They believed it could mean that a great new ruler had been born. They followed the star to Bethlehem where they met baby Jesus, bowing down to worship Him and honoring Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The story of Jesus' birth is celebrated as one of the highest holidays for Christians. It is called Christmas and occurs on December 25th every year. Christmas is seen as a celebration of God's love for humanity and the world. Celebrations include exchanging presents, giving to charity, decorating Christmas trees, attending church services, and feasting with family. Santa Claus, a.k.a. Father Christmas or St. Nick, is a popular legend who is said to bring gifts on Christmas Eve to well-behaved children, though he is not a core figure in Christianity.
According to the Bible, Mary and Joseph initially fled to Egypt with their child to escape the persecution of King Herod. They later returned to Nazareth where they raised Jesus in their Jewish faith. Joseph was a carpenter and he taught his trade to his son. Jesus also displayed great wisdom and religious knowledge from a young age discussing difficult topics in depth with the rabbis and impressing them with his insights.
At the time of Jesus' birth, Mary's cousin Elizabeth had also given birth to a son. She named him John. It was considered a miracle because Elizabeth was so old and was unable to have children. Elizabeth and her husband Zacariah believed that John was a gift from God. John became "John the Baptist" and is considered a prophet. When Jesus was 30 years old, John the Baptist baptized him in the Jordan River. John believed that Jesus was the savior or Messiah that the prophecies had foretold and preached this to his followers.
Jesus retreated to the wilderness for 40 days to reflect and pray and when he returned he began teaching what he said were God's words about love, forgiveness, and mercy. He traveled all over Galilee preaching in synagogues as well as in the streets and countryside to all who would listen. Jesus is said to have had many followers among which were 12 main disciples, also called the apostles, who traveled with him faithfully. They were called Simon Peter (or Peter), Andrew, James, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Simon, Thaddeus, James, and Judas.
Jesus surprised people at the time by making a point of befriending the poor, the vulnerable, and the sick, as well as the outcasts of society. Jesus is said to have performed miracles such as turning water into wine, multiplying fish and bread to feed 5,000 people, raising a man named Lazarus from the dead, walking on water, curing the blind, and healing the sick. These miracles helped his followers believe that he was indeed sent by God. He told his followers that the most important things in life were loving God and loving your neighbor. He taught the importance of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Jesus preached that in Heaven, "the last shall be first" meaning that it was not how wealthy or powerful you were that mattered but, instead, your love of God and others. In Matthew 19:24 of the Bible, Jesus is said to have exclaimed "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." He instructed his followers to help the poor and the needy rather than hoarding wealth for themselves. Jesus said "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
His teachings were a direct challenge to the power structure at the time. Jesus and his followers believed that He was the Messiah, the son of God, and that His life was a fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies. At the time, being called the "son of God" was something that was attributed to powerful Roman emperors, not a poor Jewish man from Nazareth. Thus, the Romans felt threatened by his increasing influence. However, Jesus did not seek political power. He is quoted as saying "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what belongs to God." Despite this, he was in imminent danger.
The Bible describes that Jesus knew that he would be killed by his enemies and that it was part of God's plan. As those in power conspired against him, he is said to have had a final meal at the Jewish celebration of Passover with his disciples in Jerusalem. This meal is referred to as the Last Supper. At this dinner, Jesus told his disciples that one among them would betray him. Jesus' disciples did not believe it. He also told them that the wine and bread that they would eat and drink would symbolically become his body and blood so that through this ritual, they could have everlasting life. This is why during Christian church services or mass, wine and bread is given ceremonially to all. It is called the eucharist or communion.
After the meal was over, Jesus left his disciples to pray. While he was gone, one of his disciples, Judas, succumbed to temptation and told Roman guards where Jesus was. Jesus was arrested and found guilty of attempting to incite rebellion against the Roman empire or claiming to be "King of the Jews". Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, ordered him to be executed by crucifixion. This was a barbarous form of torture and execution used by Romans at the time. It involved nailing a person to a cross and leaving them to suffer and die. According to the Gospels, Jesus was tortured and forced to drag his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to a hill called Golgotha, meaning the "Place of a Skull". There, Jesus was crucified along with two thieves. He died after suffering for six hours. It is said that Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." The day that Jesus was crucified and died is honored by Christians on Good Friday every year, the Friday before Easter. It is observed by Christians with fasting and prayer. It is called Good Friday because Christians believe that through Jesus' great sacrifice, he fulfilled God's promise and all of humanity was offered salvation, a life after death in Heaven. In the Bible it says, "For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son."- John 3:16.
After Jesus died, he was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb carved out of a large rock. The entrance to the tomb was covered by a huge boulder. On the third day, the Gospels say Jesus rose from the dead which is called the Resurrection. Women believed to be Jesus' closest disciples, Mary Magdalene and his mother Mary, arrived at the tomb early in the morning to find the large boulder moved aside and the tomb empty. After his resurrection, Jesus visited his disciples so that they might witness that he did indeed come back to life. Jesus appeared to his disciples and encouraged them to spread the good news of his teachings. On the 40th day after his resurrection, it is said that Jesus ascended into heaven to join God.
Easter is the day Christians celebrate Jesus Christ's resurrection. Christians believe that Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity, taking the punishment for the sins of mankind and in doing so, offering salvation. Christians celebrate Easter every year by attending Church services and having a feast with family. Painting "Easter Eggs" is common and eggs, chicks, and bunnies are popular Easter symbols of life and rebirth. The legendary (but not religious) character the Easter Bunny leaves sweets and treats for children to find in an "egg hunt". Easter is a day of celebration and hope and is considered the highest holiday in Christianity.
Jesus' faithful followers began to spread his teachings and were called Christians for following Christ. According to the Bible, 50 days after Jesus' death and resurrection was the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon Jesus' followers in Jerusalem in fulfillment of a prophecy. This is said to have been the creation of the first church. Jesus' disciples spread the "good news" from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East and in the first 100 years after Jesus' life, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire. However, their message was not always well received. In fact most early followers of Jesus faced deadly persecution. One of Jesus' followers, Paul, made it his mission to spread Jesus' teachings. It is said that he traveled 10,000 miles by foot preaching, building churches, and spreading Jesus' message. He taught that Jesus was the Son of God and that everyone who believed in Jesus could have salvation. He angered Jewish leaders who considered this blasphemy. Paul also angered the Romans who put him in jail and executed him by beheading around 65 CE. Paul's letters to his followers are included in the New Testament in the Bible.
The ancient Romans saw these early Christians as a threat to their political authority. Christians would not worship the traditional Roman gods and they would also not worship the Roman emperor as a god, which was customary. The teachings of Jesus were at odds with the Roman values of violent conquest, wealth, and power. In fact, when the city of Rome burned in a great fire in 64 CE, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. He made the practice of Christianity illegal and Christians were tortured, imprisoned, and killed. However, many refused to give up on their faith. Because Christianity taught that those who believed would have life after death in heaven, it gave people who were enslaved or in impoverished circumstances hope. The religion continued to spread and by 300 CE, there were about 5 million Christians throughout the Roman Empire.
A turning point occurred in 313 when Roman Emperor Constantine granted Christians religious freedom and by 395, under the reign of Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became Rome's official religion. The Pope was the head of the Church and was seated in Rome. Today, the current Pope Francis II still resides in Rome, Italy in Vatican City. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, a split became apparent in some of the beliefs and practices of the eastern Christian church and the western resulting in a formal split in 1054 CE. This split created the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, who do not recognize the Pope as its head.
The church split further during the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, publicly criticized the Pope and the Catholic church. This protest resulted in Protestantism, a branch of the church with many different denominations today.
The main branches of today's Christian church are Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. Within Protestantism, there are many different denominations including Baptist, Episcopalian, Evangelist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Christian Reform/Dutch Reform, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Christian Science, Quaker, and Seventh-Day Adventist. The many branches of Christianity may have very different traditions and practices, however, each faith remains focused on the life and teachings of Jesus. Priests or ministers are the spiritual leaders within Christianity. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, only men can be priests. Women can be nuns. In many Protestant churches, however, women can serve as priests or ministers.
The core tenets of Christianity include:
The most important holidays within Christianity are Christmas and Easter, which celebrate the birth and the resurrection of Jesus. The season of Advent is typically 4 weeks prior to Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming” and it is a season of preparation for "the coming of the Lord". It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, and ends on Christmas Eve, December 24th. The focus of the season is the anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and includes themes of the hope of eternal life and longing for peace and justice. An Advent wreath symbolizes these four weeks and has 4 candles, one lit on each Sunday leading up to Christmas. The candles symbolize: hope, love, joy, and peace.
Lent is the season before Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts 40 days until Easter Sunday representing the 40 days in which Jesus spent in the desert fasting, reflecting, and praying. During, Lent Christians are encouraged to pray, fast, and give or "almsgiving". Fasting can be in the form of refraining from certain foods like meat on Fridays or in giving up something such as food, drink, or a bad habit. Almsgiving can be taking up a social cause, giving of time or money to those in need. Christians often reflect on their sins and make goals to improve.
While Christianity may have started with a small group of followers, since the time of Jesus, his teachings have spread throughout the globe and the religion continues to be a vital part of billions of people's lives around the world.