Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (c.5BCE-30CE). Jesus is therefore highly important to Christians who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and of a woman named Mary. (Known as “the Virgin Mary” as Christians believe her, to have conceived Jesus without having sexual relations with a man.)
Jesus lived in what is now Israel, but was then Palestine. At that time Palestine was under Roman control.
At the age of 30 Jesus collected around him 12 followers (disciples) and travelled throughout Palestine preaching to and helping and healing those in need.
Over the next 3 years (until his death) Jesus became increasingly popular with the ordinary people.
He used stories with a religious and moral meaning (called parables) as a way of making people think about how they should live. He is also said to have performed miracles (miracles are events that break the laws of nature.)
Jesus was a Jew but much of what he said differed from the Jewish religious teaching of that time. This worried the Jewish authorities.
They were particularly worried that many people considered him to be the Messiah (the person that, Jews believed, God would send to free them from their enemies.)
They therefore accused Jesus of blasphemy (showing disrespect for God.). Jesus was arrested and taken before the Jewish religious court (the Sanhedrin.) He was found guilty, as he refused to deny that he was the Son of God. The sentence was death.
Although Jesus had been sentenced the decision, whether or not to actually execute him, was Pontius Pilate’s. He was the Roman governor in charge of the area. Pilate’s main concern was political not religious. He was worried that Jesus was a threat to the authority of Rome. He therefore gave the order to execute Jesus. Jesus died by crucifixion. He was nailed to a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.
Jesus was buried in a rock tomb. On the third day, after his death, the tomb was found empty and Jesus was seen alive. He had risen from the dead.
This event is the resurrection. It is Jesus’ most important miracle and is central to Christian belief.
Over the next days Jesus’ disciples and others saw him a number of times. 40 days after the resurrection he finally left them and ascended (went up) to heaven (God’s kingdom.) Without Jesus the disciples were afraid.
They too feared arrest by the Romans. Before he left Jesus had promised to send them the power to guide them, as he had guided them when alive.
This promise was kept. The disciples were hiding together, during the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit, is described as appearing amongst them. The Holy Spirit removed their fear and gave them the power to teach and heal as Jesus had done. They were able to speak in tongues (i.e. in the different languages of the many people who had gathered for the Jewish Feast.) On that day alone 3,000 people were said to have become Christians. (Acts Chapter 2 Verse 41) This moment marks the birth of the Christian Church.
The development of Christianity
From then on Christianity spread beyond Palestine. The people present at the Jewish Feast returned to their homes and told others what they had seen and heard. Also the disciples themselves began to travel and preach about Jesus. Later other Christians, such as Paul, did much to spread Christianity. He had persecuted Christians but later became one himself after he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He made three missionary journeys, around the eastern Mediterranean, between about 45 and 58 CE.
One very important reason for the growth of Christianity was the decision to include non-Jews. Until then Jews and gentiles (non- Jews) had little to do with each other. By including gentiles Christianity opened itself up to a wider group of people. This step also meant that it broke away from Judaism, out of which it had grown.
The taking of this decision is reported in Acts Chapter 15 Verses1-19. As it was such a major step it was the subject of a lot of discussion.
The growth of Christianity was not quick or easy. For 200 years after Jesus’ death Christians were persecuted (treated very badly). However martyrdoms (when Christians were killed because they refused to give up their beliefs) helped Christianity to grow. People were so impressed by the strength of the faith of these martyrs that they wanted to know more about it. Christianity only became a legal religion in the Roman Empire in 313CE and it took until nearly the end of that century before it became the Empire’s official religion.
Christianity did not develop in one consistent form and the history and organisation of the Church available.
From early on one of Christianity’s aims was to spread the news about Jesus. Missionaries are people who do this. Missionaries brought Christianity to Britain. A number of missionaries were sent out to countries beyond Europe in the 16th & 17th centuries, but it was in the 19th century that most missionary activity occurred. The result is that there are now Christians all over the world.