A History Christianity
Edited By: Robert A. Guisepi
On a late afternoon, in about the yearAD 30, two men were walking from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. Their conversation centered on notable events that had occurred the previous week. As they journeyed, they were joined by a stranger who seemed ignorant of these events. Surprised, they asked him: "Are you the only person staying in Jerusalem not to know what has happened there in the last few days?" So they explained to him about a certain Jesus of Nazareth, "a prophet powerful in speech and action before God and the whole people. Our chief priests and rulers handed him over [to the Roman authorities] to be sentenced to death, and [they] crucified him. But we were hoping that he was the man to liberate Israel." Even more amazing, they went on to say, were reports from some women who visited his tomb that he was alive again, raised from the dead.
Suddenly the stranger spoke: "How dull-witted you two are! And how slow to believe all that the prophets said. Was not the messiah bound to suffer thus before entering upon his glory?" Then he went on to clarify from the Hebrew scriptures all the passages that referred to himself. For the stranger was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom the two had been speaking.
Based on the life, death, and coming to life again of this man Jesus--also called the Christ--there has developed the world's largest religion, Christianity. It claims more than one billion members in all parts of the world. In the late 20th century, it is divided into hundreds of groups, or denominations, the largest of which are the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and innumerable Protestant churches.
Expectation and Reality
The two men on the road to Emmaus were not disinterested bystanders. They were followers (called disciples, or learners) of Jesus who had known him for at least three years. During this period they had listened to all he said and had witnessed his amazing actions, such as healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and even bringing individuals back to life. They had become convinced that he was "the one who was to redeem Israel."
Israel wanted and expected redemption. This small Jewish nation, located in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, had for centuries looked forward to a time when their God would, through some decisive action, free it from outside domination and establish it as the preeminent nation in the world. One way he might do this was by sending a messiah (Christos in Greek) who would deliver them from their enemies and become their king. The word messiah means "the lord's anointed," someone God has set aside for a specific task.
Christians believe that Jesus, from the small town of Nazareth in Galilee, was that messiah. They also believe that what he accomplished far exceeded the expectations of Israel. The Jews looked for a messiah exclusively for themselves, though his power would be such as to draw other nations to a belief in their God. Christians believe that Jesus, as God's agent, accomplished something that was intended to benefit the whole world directly without being tied to the fate of any single nation. His work is to be considered inclusive of everyone in all times and places.
The Man and the Message
With all the differences in beliefs in the many denominations of Christianity, it is impossible to set out one list of teachings that apply to all Christians everywhere. The reason for this is fairly simple. Jesus, along with his life and work, are for Christians objects of faith; and the objects of faith are thought of by different people in different ways and differently in various periods of history. No one has ever succeeded in distilling an "essence of Christianity." But the early followers of Jesus came the closest in their assertion that "Jesus is lord." By this they seemed to mean that he was more than a man. He was also, in some incomprehensible way, God. And by his ministry, death, and resurrection he had accomplished a universal salvation available to all who believe in him.
What Jesus said and did can be gleaned from the first four books of the Bible's New Testament. These books--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are not biographies; they are called Gospels, a word that means "good news," because they are his followers' written testimonies of what his life was all about.
The Gospels depict a man who was thoroughly imbued with the whole tradition of Israel's religion from the time of Abraham onward.
From what Jesus said and did, his followers came to believe that God was perhaps acting through him in a very special way. Very possibly he was the one long awaited who would inaugurate God's kingdom on Earth. It was reasonable that they should think this, for they too were Israelites; and they saw in his words and deeds what portended to be the dawning of a new age. What dashed their hopes was his ignoble death, for crucifixion was a punishment reserved for criminals. Then came the great surprise: He was raised from the dead and appeared to them again over a period of 40 days. This stunning event required a complete reassessment of what Jesus was all about.
It is this reassessment that forms the basis for the writings of the New Testament. The Gospels themselves are part of it, but it is more strikingly conveyed by the other 23 books, all written by his followers over the subsequent decades after he had left them.
For he had left them. How and where to could only be explained as his returning to the God who had sent him. But he did not leave them forever: He promised that he would one day return, and he gave them a mission to perform--to carry the message about his life and work to the whole world.
The Assembly of Believers: the Church
First, a word about terminology. The small group of Jesus' followers that gathered in Jerusalem after his departure did not call themselves anything. The word Christian came into use years later and was at first a derogatory term applied by outsiders. When the books of the New Testament were written, the word used to name the believers was simply assembly. The Greek word is ecclesia and denotes any assembly of people, though it often had political connotations. Much later, probably in the 3rd or 4th century, the word church came into use to denote the specific kind of assembly that the believers composed. The term church is also of Greek origin, from the word kuriakon, meaning "belonging to the lord." It is now the most common term applied to groups of Christians as well as to the totality of the world's Christian membership. The word is also frequently applied to denominations, a usage now so common as to be unavoidable. Denominations are, however, institutional arrangements based on specific viewpoints and traditional practices. They exist as a result of long historical development, doctrinal diversity, and geographical separation.
During the first decades of the church's existence, there were four significant accomplishments: The assembly of believers separated themselves from the religion of Israel; they formulated an extensive assessment of what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant; new congregations of believers were founded in all parts of the Roman Empire; and the believers improvised organizational arrangements and forms of worship that were to remain influential.
Separation from Israel. The early Christians were all Jews. They remained in Jerusalem and partook of the religious observances in the Temple. They differed from their fellow Jews only in that they believed that the Messiah had come. Had they remained quiet about their conviction, they might well have remained a sect within Judaism. However, they insisted on preaching to all who would listen that the Jesus whom the Jewish authorities had persecuted was the one Israel had long awaited. This preaching aroused great hostility on the part of religious leaders, and the early Christians were persecuted.
Yet these Christians had no thought of venturing beyond the confines of Israel with their message. It was only with the appearance of a man named Saul of Tarsus that the assembly of believers enlarged its horizons to include the whole known world. Saul, a strict Jew, was a persecutor of the church. He was nevertheless converted, and, after changing his name to Paul, began what is called the mission to the gentiles. (The word gentile is simply a cover-all term for all non-Jewish peoples.) It was this man who, more than any other, pulled the church out from temple and synagogue and set it apart as a separate institution.
But the separation was, for Paul, more than a physical one. It was also doctrinal. Christians, he asserted, did not have to become Jews. They were not subject to all the rites, rituals, and laws of Israel's religion. This, perhaps more than any other factor, aroused the intense hostility of the Jews and led to a definitive separation of the two camps.
Assessment. The books of the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul, contain the early church's testimonies about who Jesus was and what his life meant. The first issue that had to be settled was whether Jesus was for Israel only. The answer, already noted, was no. That he was for Israel in some sense was undoubtedly true, because he is presented as the one who had fulfilled every prophecy and promise in Israel's scriptures (called by Christians the Old Testament). The first verse of the Book of Hebrews states: "When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets. But in this, the final age, he has spoken to us in the Son whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he created all orders of existence." In this verse, and in many other places, the New Testament makes clear that Jesus was the full and final revelation from God for all people.
This represented a whole new way of thinking about God. Somehow this Jesus was one with the creator. This notion is abhorrent to both Judaism and Islam, which are strictly monotheistic religions for whom God is one and cannot be divided. But the Christians had to deal with this problem, and from what they believed about Jesus they could come to no other conclusion. They claimed it to be true, even though they could not understand or explain it. They simply believed it and stated it in their early confession: Jesus is lord.
How could this man have achieved such status? The writers of the New Testament answer: by his death and resurrection. But how could these events, occurring as they did in a remote part of the Roman Empire, have a universal significance? Paul himself admitted that the notion was scandalous; it was offensive to Israel because the Jews could never conceive of their messiah being put to death; and it was likely to appear as plain nonsense to gentiles who had no knowledge of Israel's beliefs. Yet it was stated as true by all early Christians. They believed that Jesus, by his death, had paid a universal penalty for all human unbelief and disobedience toward God. They further asserted that the resurrection was the first act by which God was restoring the whole creation. Creation was, in the words of some modern Christians, being "born again," being reconstituted and remade after God's original intention. This was the message the earliest Christians took, first to Israel, then to the rest of the world.
Mission to the gentiles. Paul and his associates took this message to most of the urban centers of the Mediterranean world. By the end of the 1st century there were strong congregations in Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch, Corinth, Thessalonica, and even at Rome, the capital of the empire. Jerusalem, the mother church, was dispersed when the Roman legions destroyed the city in AD 70 during a Jewish uprising.
Organization and worship. It is unlikely that the early Christians intended to devise structures that would endure for centuries. But any institution, to operate successfully, must organize itself. Of first importance in the church were the apostles, those who had been with Jesus during his lifetime. To their number Paul was later added. They were the living and authoritative voices that could be appealed to on all questions of belief . To assist them, deacons, or attendants, were appointed to help in preaching and in the everyday operation of the congregations. Later, there developed other leaders called elders (in Greek, presbyteroi, from which the modern Presbyterian denomination gets its name) and leaders called episkopoi (literally meaning "overseers"--the word episcopal is derived from it--normally translated as bishops).
The early church had no clergy; it had people who performed specific functions--leading worship, preaching, collecting offerings, and feeding and clothing the poor among them. But as centuries passed, the three functions of bishop, elder (priest), and deacon became arranged in a hierarchy. The bishop became the overseer for a city or region. He was, as well, the authoritative person in matters of doctrine. In time these functionaries came to be set apart from the rest of the membership by a process called ordination--suggesting that they were a special order within the church. One of the problems that troubles modern denominations is the relation between these ordained offices and the regular members of the denomination, called the laity. Some denominations have attempted to erase the distinction, while others have held rather rigidly to the traditional forms.
In its worship life, Christianity borrowed greatly from Jewish forms. Christians used prayers, sang psalms, read from the scriptures (the Old Testament) and from some of Paul's letters, and listened to someone expound the scripture passages for the day. The day was Sunday, to commemorate the resurrection, which had taken place on the first day of the week.
In addition, Christians used two rites that had been commanded of them by Jesus himself. These rites, often called sacraments, or holy acts, were baptism and the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist, meaning "thanksgiving"). Baptism, an immersion in water to represent the washing away of sin, was the initiating rite by which one became a member of the church. The Lord's Supper was originally a community meal, followed by the receiving of bread and wine. This meal was a remembrance of Jesus' last meal with his disciples before he died. Today these rites are so variously defined by the many denominations that no single interpretation of them is possible.
God's Presence in the Church
Before Jesus left his disciples, he promised them that they would not be alone and helpless in the world. He said that after he was gone he would send them a helper, a teacher, a comforter to sustain them and aid in carrying out the church's mission. He called this helper the Holy Spirit. It would be the Holy Spirit's purpose to "guide them into all truth" and to bring to remembrance all that Jesus had said and done. The books of the New Testament are vivid in their conviction that this spirit was indeed living and working through the first Christians. They were spared neither pain, persecution, nor death; but they were convinced that God's spirit was sustaining them in all their endeavors.
The faith that the Holy Spirit was working among them again forced the early Christians to broaden their understanding of God. They concluded that he had revealed himself as the creator of all things, as Jesus the redeemer, and lastly as the spirit that sustained and preserved the church. To explain this impenetrable mystery, early Christian thinkers devised the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine was never an explanation of God. All it could do was set forth the firm belief that, for Christians, God was somehow at the same time one and three.
Life of Discipleship
Essentially Jesus commended to his followers the same type of life he led: selfless obedience to the will of God. He called himself a servant and said that they were to be servants as well. They were to fear nothing, not even death. He summed up what their basic attitude was to be by saying, "You shall love the Lord your God above all things and your neighbor as yourself." They were to do good to all people and to carry the message concerning him everywhere. Above all, they were not to be just people who believed certain doctrines. Their obedience was to be an active participation in the life of the world.
Paul summed up the characteristics of the individual Christian by saying: "Put on the garments that suit God's chosen people . . . compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Be forbearing with one another, and forgiving. The nature of the individual Christian's obedience and quality of life was generally left to private judgment within these parameters. Christians over the centuries have found a great variety of ways to express their individual faithfulness.
A Short History
The history of Christianity is filled with conflict, controversy, and division. It also has countless instances of brilliant creativity in worship, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature. And in all ages churches have sought to carry out the mission entrusted to them by Jesus. Within this article only a very brief summary of the history can be given.
Early period to AD 380. Christianity became established in nearly all parts of the Roman Empire and in the Middle East during the first two centuries. As it continued to grow and expand, it became the object of persecution by the Roman authorities. The severest persecutions came during the reigns of the emperors Domitian (AD 96), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-251), and Valerian (253-260). Worst of all was the attempt by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305) to extinguish Christianity altogether. But in 313 Constantine the Great issued an edict of toleration for all religions. In 380, Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Middle Ages. Although the church was empire-wide, two cities came to be more influential than others in guiding its affairs: Rome and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Many theological disputes arose in the centuries after Constantine, and these were usually settled by councils. The Roman church, headed by its bishop, the pope, gradually diverged in both belief and practice from the church at Constantinople, headed by its patriarch. The Roman church became dominant in Western Europe, while the church at Constantinople dominated the East. In 1054 the two churches broke off relations with each other.
Modern period. Early in the 16th century a split occurred in the Roman church. Since that time the church in the West has been divided primarily between the Roman Catholic and Protestant segments. The term Protestantism has come to refer to nearly any denomination that is not affiliated with either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox branches. Among the older Protestant denominations are the Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, and Baptist.
In the 20th century there have been attempts to revitalize and reunify the church. The World Council of Churches, founded in 1948, is an organization made up of most denominations except for the Roman Catholic. In the 1960s the Roman Church, in its Second Vatican Council, strove for spiritual renewal and modernization. Thus, after many centuries, most of the denominations that make up the worldwide church are in contact with one another. Many are involved in cooperative projects, and others have undertaken actual merger negotiations. The Roman and Orthodox churches resumed contact in 1965.
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