Chapter Overview

Christianity has the most followers of any religion in the world. Based on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it has developed into many different sects with differing interpretations of Jesus and his message. The Christian Bible has been interpreted in many ways, from divinely inspired word of God to various text-critical readings. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, and many forms of Protestant Christianity exemplify varying interpretations of Jesus’ message, varying forms of institutional structure and leadership, and varying approaches to social issues. 

The goals of the chapter are:

1. To examine what can be said about the life and teachings of Jesus

2. To chart the evolution of Christianity as it spread throughout the world and developed complex theologies and liturgies

3. To explore the many different forms of Christianity

4. To examine some key issues in contemporary Christianity

The Christian Bible

Christian churches use Bibles which contain the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, and in some cases the Apocrypha, and Deuterocanonical books. Hermeneutics is the field of theological study which seeks to interpret scripture. Some Christian thinkers have stressed literal meanings of the texts; others have emphasized allegorical meanings. In medieval times, a fourfold approach to interpretation included literal readings, allegorical readings, moral readings, and heavenly readings. In eighteenth century Western Europe, critical historical study of the Bible began, and many Christians now accept this approach, which uses the literary method of addressing historical context, intended audience, and desired effect. 

Outside the Bible, there are but a few shreds of evidence for the life of Jesus. Christian belief about the life of Jesus is largely derived from biblical texts, especially the first four books of the New Testament called the gospels (good news). The gospels are based on oral transmission of stories and discourses. Thought to be pseudonymous, the gospels are named after Jesus’s followers Matthew and John, and Paul’s companions Mark and Luke. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the synoptic (seen together) gospels, since they present similar views of Jesus. The gospel of Luke seems to have been written for a Gentile rather than Jewish audience. The gospel of John emphasizes Jesus as the eternal son of God, and may reflect Greek influences. In addition to the four gospels included in the New Testament, other gospels circulated in the early Christian church as well. 

The life and teachings of Jesus

The gospels do not provide a single chronology of Jesus’s life, nor do they provide much information about what happened before he began his ministry. 


The Christian doctrine of incarnation teaches that Jesus is the divine Son of God who was conceived and born as a human being. Christian monks may have miscalculated in figuring time in relationship to Jesus’s life; most historians now believe that Jesus was born a few years before the beginning of the Common Era. Christian tradition states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, thereby fulfilling the rabbinic interpretation of prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Some scholars believe that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. According to the gospels, Jesus’s mother Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph was a carpenter from Bethlehem. 


The gospels have little to say about Jesus’ childhood; according to Luke, at twelve, Jesus astounded the rabbis at the Temple in Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Torah. The gospels describe the ministry of John the Baptist, who cited Isaiah’s prophecies of the Kingdom of God to come and baptized people in the Jordan River. Apocalyptic expectations were high at the time. All four gospels report that at about the age of thirty, Jesus came to John to be baptized. Jesus’ baptism is interpreted in different ways; after the baptism, he retreated to the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by Satan. 


After his wilderness retreat, Jesus began to attract disciples such as Simon, Andrew, James, and John. He taught them that to follow him meant leaving one’s possessions and attachments behind, and emphasized the importance of spiritual rather than material wealth. Jesus performed many miracles as part of his ministry, which Christians have interpreted in many different ways. 

In contrast to the patriarchal society of his time, Jesus taught people of all classes and welcomed women as disciples. Jesus preached a challenging ethic that required loving not only one’s neighbors, but also one’s enemies. Indeed Jesus taught that the two great commandments of Judaism were to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The Beatitudes are a famous set of statements in which Jesus promises blessings for the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and spreading the gospel. Jesus commonly taught using parables which used familiar situations to make a spiritual point. 

In an era of high messianic expectations, Jesus is reported in the gospels as having made many references to the Kingdom of God, sometimes suggesting that the kingdom was expected in the future, sometimes suggesting that it had already arrived.


Challenges to the authorities

A local leader appointed by the Romans feared that Jesus might be one of the Zealots who were planning an uprising against the Romans. As Jesus gathered more disciples, some members of other groups, such as the Pharisees (shapers of rabbinic Judaism) and Sadducees (temple priests and upper class), grew suspicious of him. Jesus seems to have challenged some of the evolving interpretations of Mosaic law. Some modern scholars believe that apparent anti-Jewish sentiments in the New Testament date to the time after Jesus’s death when rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were competing for followers.

Jesus is also said to have challenged the commercial enterprises at the Temple of Jerusalem. The gospels record that Jesus appropriated to himself Second Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, and his followers understood him to be the Christ (“anointed one”) or Messiah. 

The gospels also report that three disciples witnessed the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbed a mountain and Moses and Elijah appeared. Jewish apocalyptic tradition believed that Elijah and Moses would appear at the end of the world; their presence linked Jewish prophecy to the claim that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah.

Jesus taught that John the Baptist was Elijah come again. John the Baptist had been killed by the authorities, and Jesus predicted that he too would meet a similar fate. Foreshadowing the Crucifixion, he said he would offer his own flesh and blood for humanity, marking a new covenant in which his blood would be shed for the forgiveness of sins.


Jesus returned to Jerusalem at Passover, riding on a donkey. He warned his disciples that the end was near, and at a Passover meal gave instructions for a ceremony using bread and wine to continue communion with him. He predicted that one of his disciples would betray him, and indeed Judas had already done so. According to the gospel of Mark, after praying at Gethsemane, Jesus said “it is all over,” and was led away for questioning. 

The four gospels all include “passion narratives” which relate Jesus’s sufferings during his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. A crown of thorns on his head, Jesus was marched to Golgotha and put on the cross. He called out, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me,” the first line of Psalm 22.

Jesus’s death is believed to have occurred sometime between 27 and 33 CE. The disciple Joseph wrapped Jesus’s body in a shroud, and placed it in a guarded tomb.

Resurrection and Ascension

The following Sunday, some of Jesus’s female followers went to prepare his body for burial, but they found the tomb empty. Angels appeared and informed them that Jesus had risen from the dead. The women brought male disciples who also witnessed the empty tomb. Christ then appeared to a number of his disciples to dispel their doubts about the Resurrection; accounts of these appearances differ in the gospels. Some scholars have argued that there is some truth to the resurrection story because having women, who had little status in the patriarchal society of their time, as first witnesses would not have been an effective way to make the case for the resurrection. 

Two of the gospels report that after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers to encourage them to carry the gospel worldwide, and then ascended into heaven. The Ascension is an article of faith for Christians whether it is understood metaphorically or literally. 

The early Church

Although Jesus’s early followers were persecuted, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire late in 380 CE. 

From persecution to empire

New Testament books following the gospels (Acts, presumably written by the author of Luke, and the letters to early Christians apparently written by the apostle or missionary Paul) describe the earliest years of the development of Christianity. Acts describes the Pentecost, a meeting at which disciples were filled with the spirit of God and spoke in different languages. The Pharisee Saul had a meeting with the risen Christ, became known as Paul, and began promoting the Christian message. He told Jews that Jesus had been the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Jews and Christians debated the importance given to Jesus, and there was also debate about whether the Christian message was universal. Paul sought to convert Gentiles as well as Jews; he argued that non-Jewish males should not be required to practice circumcision. Salvation was to come through faith in Christ’s grace rather than following traditional law. Even Abraham was justified (accepted by God in spite of sin) due to his faith in God, not his circumcision.

Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, but many Christians were persecuted for rejecting the beliefs and practices of the Empire. Martyrdom and asceticism were embraced. Christianity’s fortunes took a turn for the better when the emperor Constantine ordered tolerance of the faith, and then was himself baptized in the late fourth century. Within another century, Christianity was the dominant religion throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Evolving organization and theology

Christianity developed an organizational structure; there were early conflicts over theology. Movements such as Gnosticism(mystical perception of knowledge) were deemed heretical, and Gnostic gospels were not included in the New Testament canon. Paul was a central figure in defining mainstream Christianity with his interpretation of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul valued agape—self-giving, altruistic love—above all. The cross became a symbol of suffering service.

The early hope for the coming of God’s kingdom waned over time, the notion shifting to the indefinite future. Belief in the Second Coming of Christ remains an article of faith for some Christians. 

According to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the transcendent God the Father became immanent in the person of Jesus, the Son, and Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to his followers. Thus there are three persons within one divinity. 

The early Church also expanded on Jesus’s teachings through many creeds or professions of faith, used in religious instruction and baptism. Creeds defined who Jesus was, and his relationship to God. The Nicene Creed (381 CE) remains important. The 451 Council of Chalcedon clarified ongoing debates in Christology (attempts to define Jesus’s nature and his relationship to God) by asserting that Jesus is of a perfectly divine nature as well as a perfectly human nature.

Early monasticism

Through the fourth century CE, the Christian monasticism of the desert fathers and mothers was largely unregulated; soon, however, group monasteries were organized with rules and supervision.

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split apart in 1054.

The history of the Orthodox Church

There were eastern (imperial seat in Constantinople) and western sections (imperial seat at Rome) of the Roman Empire. Language, culture, and religious differences began to divide the two sections. In the West, religious power was increasingly concentrated in the Roman pope, while the East was organized into sees. The East rejected the Roman pope’s claim to universal authority, and there was a doctrinal dispute over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (East) or the Father and the Son (West). The disagreements culminated in the 1054 mutual excommunication of the eastern and western factions. Also at issue were celibacy for priests (not required in the east except for bishops) and whether eucharistic bread should be leavened or unleavened. The division was further deepened when the crusades brought attacks against the East by Christians from the West.

The Russian Orthodox Church

From the tenth century onward, Russian Orthodox Christianity was linked to Russian national history, but repressed by the twentieth century Soviet government. Church properties were seized and in the early 1920s, and many Christians were imprisoned or killed. Despite persistent attempts to destroy the Church, it survived, and in the late 1980s the Soviet government allowed churches to reopen. The Russian Orthodox Church currently has very powerful influence on Russian government policy. Some Orthodox Christians continue to worship in secret rather than be influenced by state registration requirements.

Russian monastics developed kenoticism, loving and world-directed monastic work.

The Orthodox world today

Each of the fifteen self-governing Orthodox Churches has its own leader known as a patriarch, metropolitan, or bishop. In the United States, some Orthodox Churches maintain ties with their home patriarchate, while others have affiliated with the Orthodox Church in America. 

Distinctive features of Orthodox spirituality

The Orthodox Churches have generally tried to preserve the pattern of early Christianity. Synods—councils of officials—decide on any changes that affect all churches. While women may play roles in local church affairs, they may not be ordained as priests or serve in hierarchical capacities.

Orthodox Christians honor the Bible and the writings of saints of the Church such as the Philokalia, a collection of texts on the contemplative life for monastics and laypeople. Repetition of the Jesus prayer is a central practice. Humans may approach God directly.

Icons—stylized paintings of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—are venerated. Some are understood to have the power to heal illness. In an Orthodox Church, major icons are kept on an iconostasis. Orthodox services include choir performances.

Medieval Roman Catholicism

Although most of the Roman Empire fell to non-Christian invaders from the sixth to the tenth centuries, England slowly converted to Christianity along with most of central and western Europe. With the decentralization of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church became the major unifying force in Europe. 

Papal power

Early in the second century CE specific males (who had to have wives and children) began serving as clergy and bishops in different regions. Some women served as deacons ministering to other women. The Bishop of Rome eventually became known as the pope. Pope Leo I argued in the fifth century CE that all popes were apostolic successors to Peter. The Roman Emperor issued an edict that all Christians must recognize the authority of the Bishop of Rome. 

The process of conversion was often gradual, with saints’ relics replacing the images of earlier gods and goddesses.

The papacy began to wield secular as well as spiritual power; beginning in the eighth century, feudal kings sought the papacy’s approval as a form of divine sanction of their rule. Those who disagreed with the Church faced the threat of excommunication, which meant exclusion from participation in the sacraments. In the late eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII asserted that popes were divinely appointed, subject to the rule of no human. In an era of warring feudal kingdoms, many looked to the Church as an orderly power.

The ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition was established in 1229 to investigate and suppress heresy. Some of those found guilty were tortured and burned. In the fourteenth century, the popes left Rome for Avignon, France, but eventually were persuaded to return to Rome. But some popes seemed more devoted to worldly than spiritual affairs, sometimes torturing their own cardinals. 

Intellectual revival and monasticism

Christian spirituality thrived in universities and monastic orders. Some monks and nuns led cloistered lives, while some orders such as the Dominicans primarily worked as teachers. German and Flemish women who took private vows of chastity and simplicity were known as the beguines. 

Medieval mysticism

The thirteenth century Italian , St. Francis of Assisi, emphasized the concepts of love and poverty. In the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich had visions of Christ and conversed with him. Such saintly individuals were especially important in an era in which not all members of the clergy were focused on spiritual life.

The Protestant Reformation

In the late fifteenth century, some Christians began to compare early Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church version of Christianity. The selling of indulgences (remission of the punishment of sin by clergy in exchange for payment or services), the sale of relics, and other commercial enterprises disillusioned some. 

Martin Luther struggled with some Church teachings, such as the idea that one could purchase freedom from Purgatory(intermediate place of purifying suffering for those who weren’t sufficiently stainless to enter heaven). Luther also concluded that Paul’s and Augustine’s teachings could be interpreted to mean that God offers salvation through Jesus to sinners in spite of their sins. Thus salvation, he concluded, came through God’s grace and was received through repentant faith, rather than the good works and created graces prescribed by the Church. In 1517, Luther brought his ideas forth for discussion by posting his theses on the door of the church. In 1520, he was excommunicated. Some German princes supported Luther.

Luther also argued for a priesthood of all believers rather than the Church officials having spiritual power over laypeople. He accepted only two sacraments (sacred rites): baptism and the Eucharist

The Swiss priest Zwingli also broke with Church, rejecting practices not mentioned in the Bible. He also rejected the Church teaching that Jesus’s body and blood are mysteriously present in the consecrated wine and bread of communion. 

The work of such reformers attracted other Christians; it led to the creation of a new branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. Because it advocated freedom of scriptural interpretation, many organized groups of congregations or denominations developed under the umbrella of Protestantism. 

In the sixteenth century, John Calvin built upon the theory of salvation by faith alone and argued that salvation comes only through God’s grace; human actions are of no eternal significance. Humans could recognize three signs of being saved: profession of faith, living an upright life, and participation in the sacraments. Calvinism became the state religion of Scotland.

The Church of England also broke away from Rome. Now known as Anglicanism, it retains some Roman Catholic rituals but also shares characteristics of Protestantism. Among its thirty-seven autonomous churches is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Methodism is an offshoot of the Church of England which emphasizes personal holiness and methodical devotions.

Lutheranism grew out of Martin Luther’s reformation of the German church; it maintains a strong emphasis on liturgy and sacraments. 

European political entities chose specific forms of Christianity as their official religions as the Protestant Reformation spread. Spain, France, and Italy remained Roman Catholic. 

Two major Reformed Churches developing from Calvinism were the Scottish movement Presbyterianism (congregations governed by presbyters) and Congregationalism (emphasizes independence of local churches and the priesthood of all members). Unitarianism rejects the teachings of original sin, the trinity, and the divinity of Jesus in favor of simple theism and imitation of Jesus.

Some Protestant groups, outlawed by the Church of England, immigrated to the United States. Sometimes called “Free churches,” they include the Baptists (members are baptized as conscious adult believers rather than as infants) and the Quakers (worship without liturgy or minister; hope that God will speak through any of their members).

Other Protestant groups originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States. Evangelical churches emphasize salvation by personal faith in Jesus, personal conversion, the centrality of the Bible, and preaching over ritual. Seventh Day Adventists believe the Second Coming of Christ is near, and regard the Bible as a guide to practice in anticipation of Christ’s return. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe other Christian churches developed false doctrines from the second century onwards.

Various Protestant missionary groups took their forms of Christianity to Africa and Asia, where new denominations have evolved, and South America, where Protestant groups are gaining strength in areas that had traditionally been Roman Catholic since the days of Spanish conquest. 

Protestantism is quite diverse but most denominations share the belief that individual conscience and reason are guides to understanding scripture, that salvation comes from God’s grace through repentance and faith, and emphasize the individual’s direct relationship to God. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Church tradition and pronouncements of faith are authoritative, that salvation comes through faith and good works, and that the Church mediates between God and the faithful. Protestant ministers may marry, while Catholic priests must remain celibate. Protestants have redefined the Roman Catholic and Orthodox concepts of the sacraments.

The Roman Catholic Reformation

Even before Luther’s efforts, calls for reform were being made within the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the Catholic Reformation, which brought about moral reform among the clergy, tightening of church administration, and affirmation of the pope as earthly vicar of God and Jesus. The Council of Trent emphasized that its positions were authoritative truths or dogmas. According to the doctrine of original sin, all humans are morally defective, having inherited a sinful nature from their ancestors. The Council also reaffirmed transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine used in communion mysteriously transform into the body and blood of Christ.

New monastic orders such as the Jesuits began; Roman Catholicism was carried to the western hemisphere and the Philippines. 

The impact of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment emphasis on reason challenged biblical miracles and revelations. New scientific discoveries challenged traditional accounts of creation. Some tried to reconcile faith and modern knowledge, while others focused on the conflict between faith and science. Fundamentalism began as a reaction to the secularization of mainstream Protestantism, but later grew into a powerful political and social force which encourages withdrawal from the negative influence of the modern world. In 1911, fundamentalists reiterated what they considered the fundamentals of Christian faith: inerrancy of the Bible, Christ’s literal virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the second coming. In contrast, modernists sought more symbolic interpretations of church teaching.

Protestantism as a whole developed a strong missionary spirit, and joined Roman Catholicism in its effort to spread Christianity along with colonialism. In Protestantism, the “social gospel” movement sought the abolition of slavery and other social ills. Many women were involved in such efforts. Liberal Protestant theologians analyzed the Bible as literature.

The Second Vatican Council

A nineteenth century council of Roman Catholic hierarchs had reasserted the doctrine of papal infallibility—when the pope speaks from the seat of his authority (ex cathedra) on matters of faith and morals, he cannot err. 

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican Two”). Changes arising from this council included translating the liturgy of the mass into local languages from Latin, incorporating more music into services, and encouraging more active participation from the laity.

The Second Vatican Council also endorsed greater ecumenism, seeking rapprochement among the different branches of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church noted that the Holy Spirit is active in all Christian churches, and acknowledged Judaism, Islam, and other world religions. In the late twentieth century, the Vatican began to reverse the direction taken by Vatican II to a certain extent.

Central beliefs in contemporary Christianity

Most Christians would probably agree on a few basic motifs: the divine Sonship of Jesus, Jesus as the savior of the world sent by God to redeem people of their sins, his death, a substitutionary sacrifice, and the sinful character of humanity. Jesus is Savior and human being. Jesus is most associated with the virtue of love, and is a model of sinlessness. 

Sacred practices

The primary practice of Christians is imitation of the model by which Jesus led his life. 

Worship services and sacraments

Churches are the typical location of Christian worship. Public worship or liturgy usually follows a set pattern. The central rites of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, and matrimony. The sacraments are understood to communicate the mystery of Christ to worshipers.

Protestant churches accept only baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments, and have a less mystical understanding of their significance.

For most forms of Christianity the central sacrament is the Eucharist (Holy Communion, mass, Lord’s Supper). Bread and wine are received as the body and blood of Christ (interpretations of what precisely this involves vary), a communion with Christ. 

Traditionally, Catholics were taught to confess their sins to a priest before taking communion in the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. Orthodox Christians are to spend several days in contrition and fasting before taking communion.

Church services for most Christians involve readings from the Old and New Testaments, the singing of hymns, and may also include a creedal statement and money offerings. The priest or minister may give a sermon or homily.

A recent innovation in both Catholic and Protestant churches is the “sharing of the peace” when congregants hug or shake hands with those near them, saying “The Peace of Christ be with you” and replying, “and also with you.”

The sacrament of baptism may involve full immersion in water or more commonly sprinkling sanctified water on the head. Though baptism is usually performed on infants, some groups such as the Baptists argue that there is no biblical basis for this practice and therefore reserve it for adults.

In Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the ceremony of confirmation marks young people’s personal commitment to Christian life.

Some Christians observe special days of fasting. 

The liturgical year

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