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Origins of Christianity

The History of Christianity. Christianity originated in the first century AD. According to Acts 11:19 and 11:26 in the Christian New Testament, Jesus' followers were first called Christians by non-Christians in the city of Antioch, where they had fled and settled after early persecutions in Judea. After Jesus' death, early Christian doctrine was taught by Paul of Tarsus and the other apostles.

Jesus, a descendant of Judah, is reported to have declared himself to be the long awaited Messiah (John 8:23-24, John 14:11), but was rejected as an apostate by the people generally considered to be the Jewish authorities (Matthew 26:63-64). He was condemned of blasphemy and executed by the Romans around AD 30. The formal charge cited in his execution was leading a rebellion (Luke 23:1-5): he was called the "King of the Jews" by Pilate (John 19:19-22, see Luke 16:8) on the titulus crucis or statement of the charge hung over the condemned on the cross.

The Gospels indicate that the Roman charge was actually an attempt to appease the Jewish authorities, although some scholars argue that it was an ordinary Roman trial of a rebel. According to Christians, the Old Testament predicted the death and humiliation of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. Examples include the book of Isaiah that alludes to the slapping (Matthew 26:67-68, Isaiah 52:14-15, Isaiah 50:6, Mark 14:65, Luke 23:63-64), whipping (Isaiah 53:5, John 19:1, Matthew 27:26) and general humiliation that is centred around the given references.

Jesus' apostles were the main witnesses of his life and teaching, although some of the early traditions of the church name numerous disciples (as many as 70 including James Adelphos, Mark, Luke, Mary Magdalene, etc) who also followed Jesus in his travels and witnessed his miracles and teachings. After his crucifixion, his apostles and other followers claimed that Jesus rose from the dead, and set out to preach the new message. The original apostles are believed by some Christians to have written some of the New Testament's Gospels and Epistles.

Many of the New Testament's twenty-seven books were written by Paul of Tarsus. Twelve Epistles name him as writer, and some traditions also credit him as the writer of the book of Hebrews. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are stated as having been written by Luke, whom many believe to have been under Paul's direct influence. Acts cites Paul as a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a leading figure amongst the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 5:34-40) and a noteworthy authority in his own right (Acts 28:16-22) considering that the Jews of Rome sought his opinion on Christianity. Paul was the principal missionary of the Christian message to the Gentile world.

Early Church

The story goes that an early Christian, upon meeting another person, might draw an arc in the earth, and if the other person shared the faith, he would draw another arc completing this ichthys, a symbol of Christianity.Christianity spread rapidly over the first three centuries aided by the relative internal peace and good roads of the Roman Empire:
  • via Egypt into North Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia
  • via Mesopotamia to Persia, Inner Asia and India
  • via Greece and Rome to Europe
There were two main communities of Christians, the Jewish Christians and the Hellenistic Christians. Jewish Christians were those Jews and Gentile converts who stuck closely to the Judaic beliefs including male circumcision, dietry restrictions and the concept of purity. Hellenistic Christians were those who were more influenced by the Greek-speaking world and believed that the central message of Christianity could be re-presented in ways more appropriate for Gentiles. Both these groups contributed to the New Testament and both contained within them a wide spectrum of beliefs (see J. Dunn 1977 Unity and Diversity in the New Testament).

The first great writer of Christianity, Tertullian, sums this up in a rhetorical address to a Roman governor with the fact that, as for the Christians of Carthage that just yesterday were few in number, now they "have filled every place among you— cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods" (Apologeticus written at Carthage, ca 197)

Over the course of the first few centuries after Christ, Classically trained theologians and philosophers such as Origen and Augustine developed Christian Theology, which some argue was a synthesis of Hellenic and Early Christian thought.

During this period of first organization the Christian church had to deal mainly with occasional, but sometimes severe persecutions. The life of the martyr, who would rather die than renounce his faith, became the highest virtue. The canonical books of the New Testament were agreed, early translations appeared, and a church hierarchy emerged: the Bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome assumed the title Patriarch.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I was converted in 312 and with his Edict of Milan (313) he ended the persecution of Christians. Persecution was briefly revived during the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363) who tried to restore paganism to the empire; Christianity was later made the officially favored religion in about 382 by Emperor Theodotius. Similar events took place in neighbouring Georgia and Armenia. But in Persia, which was at constant war with Rome, the Christians struggled under the oppresive Sassanids, who tried to revive the Zoroastrian religion.

In the Persian empire, at the synod of Seleucia in 410, the bishop of Seleucia was pronounced Catholic and replaced the Patriarch of Antioch as the highest authority of the Assyrian Church of the East. Soon after, during the Nestorian Schism, this church broke all ties with the West. It would be the dominant church of Asia for more than a millennium, with bishopries as far away as India, Java, and China.

Emergence of national Churches

The question of Jesus's divinity was central to early Christians. A wide range of early writers, including Justin Martyr and Tertullian testify to belief that Jesus was God, or that he was second only to God the Father. At the same time, various groups arose that denied this teaching. The situation came to a head with the teaching of Arius, who brought large numbers of bishops and faithful to his belief that Jesus was a created being. The issue was settled by vote at the First Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine I, where the teaching later championed by Athanasius was enshrined as dogma. Arianism continued to exist in the empire for several decades, and among the Germanic tribes for almost two centuries, after the decision of the council.

This was only the first of several ecumenical councils for resolving doctrinal issues. These councils sought to unify Christianity by agreeing on the tradition they had inherited, and was supported by the Byzantine Emperors in order to promote unity in the Byzantine Empire. Some of the theological terminology of these councils may have been misunderstood by those Orthodox whose main language was Syriac, Armenian, or Coptic. As a result differences in later theological constructs lead these national branches of the church to break away from the rest forming Oriental Churches sometimes called the Monophysites.

By the second millennium, Christianity had spread to most of the Western world. For the most part it had remained fairly unified in its fundamental beliefs with major theological differences being hashed out in council. But as the millennium approached, certain major differences in theology and practice became increasingly troublesome. The Great Schism of 1054 split the Church into Western and Eastern churches: the Western church gradually consolidated into the Roman Catholic Church under the central authority of Rome (see Catholicism), while the Eastern church adopted the name "Orthodox" to emphasize their commitment to preserving the traditions of the church and resistance to change. This Eastern Church refused to be consolidated under a single bishop, as this was completely alien to the structure the church had hitherto enjoyed. The Eastern Church recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the "First among equals" of the numerous bishops in charge of its autocephalous churches (see Eastern Orthodoxy).

In the European Reformation of the 1500s, Protestants and numerous similar churches arose in objection to perceived abuses of growing Papal authority and to perceived doctrinal error and novelty in Rome. Key questions in the Reformation controversy are summed up in five famous 'solas': Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone - does the church's authority derive solely from correctly interpreting the Scriptures, or does it have a separate authority?), Sola Fide (Faith alone - is a man saved through faith in Christ alone, or do the Church, good works and the sacraments contribute?), Sola Gratia (Grace alone - is a man's salvation purely and exclusively due to God's unmerited grace, or do individual works make a contribution?), Solus Christus (Christ alone - is Jesus the only mediator between man and God, or does the Church and its priests play a part?) and Soli Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone - does 100% of the glory for man's salvation belong to God, or are the Church and its priests eligible for a part?). The Reformation sparked a vigorous struggle for the hearts and minds of Europeans. Disputes between Catholics and Protestants sparked persecution and were caught up in various wars, both civil and foreign.

Catholicism and Protestantism arrived in North America (and later Australasia) with European settlement. Lacking any central authority in either Rome or national governments, Protestants worshipped in hundreds, and later thousands, of independent denominations. Protestantism was taken to South America and Africa by European colonists, especially in the 16th to 19th centuries. Orthodoxy first arrived in North America via Russian settlers in the Alaskan region in the 18th century; they came to North America from Europe in much greater numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (see also Restorationism)

In the 19th and 20th centuries many Christian-oriented nations, especially in Western Europe, became more secular as science and technology captured the imagination of the people. Most communist states were governed by avowed atheists, though only Albania was officially atheistic. Adherents to Fundamentalist Christianity, particularly in the United States, also perceived threats from new theories about the age of the Earth and the evolution of life.

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