A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
The history of Christianity unfolds organically through time. It is commonly understood to begin with Jesus, who was born two thousand years ago. However, because Jesus was Jewish, some date Christianity’s roots much further back, to the beginnings of Judaism. To illustrate the vast sweep of historical development, this section proceeds in four parts. First, it addresses the roots of Christianity in the first through the third centuries C.E. (“Common Era,” dating from the time of Jesus’ birth); second, it describes Christianity’s development through the Middle Ages; third, it explores the Protestant Reformations in the 1600s and their continuing influence today; fourth, focusing on the United States, it summarizes several aspects of American Protestantism.
The Beginnings of Christianity (1-300 C.E.)
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism during the first century C.E. At this time, the Jewish rabbi now known as Jesus of Nazareth undertook a public teaching ministry in which he preached about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. As reported in the Christian Scriptures (commonly known among Christians as the New Testament), Jesus assembled a core group of twelve Jewish disciples, along with many other followers. Together they ministered to the poor and outcast in present-day Israel and Palestine. Around the year 33 C.E., Jesus was arrested and executed by the Roman governor. However, Jesus’ followers claimed that he rose from the dead; they came to believe that he was the Son of God and that his death and resurrection saved them from their sins. As their conviction grew, they named Jesus the “Christ”— meaning Messiah or Anointed One—according to the prophecies of the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly known among Christians as the Old Testament). This is the origin of the name “Jesus Christ” and led to Jesus’ followers being called “Christians.”
After Jesus’ death, “Christians” became identified as a particular sect within Judaism. These Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in their Hebrew Scriptures, whose coming they had long anticipated. However, as time went on, the majority of Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and their differences with “Christian” Jews increased. Further, many non-Jewish people did come to believe in Jesus. In this way, “Christianity” gradually became a religious movement distinct from Judaism, as it is practiced today.
Over several generations, Christians compiled their collective memories of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in various documents. Best known among these today are the four narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that now appear in the Christian Scriptures, the “Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. During these early years, many letters were also circulated among Christian communities about their belief in Jesus as the Messiah and the way Christians should live and worship. The letters of the apostle Paul and a few other authors were eventually included in the Christian Scriptures along with the four Gospels. Christians debated for centuries over which documents to include in their scriptures; the first known list of the twenty-seven documents now accepted as the Christian Scriptures did not appear until the year 367 CE, and it may have taken even longer before Christians universally accepted this list.
From : THE BOISI CENTER PAPERS ON RELIGION IN THE UNITED STATES