followers of Christ (Greek christos, Messiah)
Southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan)
c. 30 CE
Jesus, Peter, Paul
Roman Catholic; Eastern Orthodox; Protestant
Prayer, Bible study, baptism, Eucharist (Communion), church on Sundays, numerous holidays.
Easter, Christmas, saints’ days
Bible (Hebrew Bible + New Testament)
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 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.
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 historical organized church as it developed over the centuries, and is headed by the Pope. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism separated 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 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 denominational groups, including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Evangelicals.
Christian practices vary by denomination, but common elements include a Sunday worship service, private and corporate 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 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.
The most important Christian holiday is Easter, a spring holiday that celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Easter is immediately preceded by Holy Week, which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. The 40 days prior to Easter form 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.