Basic history of Christianity
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What is Christianity? The simple answer is that different churches — and even different individual Christians — disagree. Almost all of them agree that Christians are followers of Jesus Christ — but beyond that they can not agree on such simple matters as how many books there are in "the" Bible, or what exactly the Ten Commandments are. And this is important because if you get basic facts wrong about a given denomination/subreligion (of which there are dozens) you are going to probably be taken about as seriously as a creationist at a scientific conference.
Books in the Bible:
- Protestants have 66
- Roman Catholics have 73
- Eastern Orthodox have up to 78
- Outliers vary even if you ignore such things as the Book of Mormon
Fortunately there are two ways of understanding where given Christians are coming from. The first is historical: most churches formed in response to specific events that still define them. The second is theological. To understand theologians, imagine a group of nerds of the sort who will argue for years on end about which would win in a battle between an Imperial Star Destroyer and
the Enterprise a Borg cube. Then imagine that for them this is a question that is literally more than a matter of life and death (whereas it only seems that way with nerd disputes). And then that the argument has been going on for hundreds of years. Those are theologians.
Which means that for all the (deserved) comments about sophisticated theology, there is almost nothing you can say about Christianity that serious people haven't argued through long ago, frequently (as for example with theodicy) with no satisfactory answers.
A basic history of mainstream Christianity
Note that this is a very basic set of highlights — to go into depth would take entire books. It only deals with more mainstream churches and then only superficially in an attempt to keep the length manageable.
The beginning — Jesus of Nazareth and Saul of Tarsus
In the beginning was probably a man named Jesus of Nazareth (who would have been called
Brian Yeshua in his day), a wandering preacher in Galilee. (Even though the evidence for his existence is scant at best, most Christians will treat claims that he didn't exist as trolling.) He was probably born in Nazareth (the story about Bethlehem was almost certainly a fabrication invented to fulfill a prophecy), and was born at some time around the year 1 CE (conflicting, mutually exclusive accounts make it impossible to determine when exactly).
He lived as a rabble-rousing apocalyptic preacher until the Roman colonial authorities executed him for the crime of sedition alongside two other rabble-rousers (probably bandit chieftains rather than thieves). The accounts of the trial under Pontius Pilate and before the Sanhedrin are almost certainly fabrications — they do not match what is known about the people concerned or how the Sanhedrin worked. His death was unremarkable and indeed unremarked on by anyone writing at the time.[note 1]
The first person to actually write about Jesus, Paul of Tarsus (St. Paul), admitted to never having met him. Paul's version of Christianity is sufficiently different from that which has been ascribed to Jesus (as outlined in the Gospels, themselves unreliable sources as to what Jesus actually preached) that there are regular rebuttals of the idea that St. Paul founded Christianity. Indeed the central thesis of Reza Aslan's Zealot is that the Jesus that Paul preached about was more or less a fabrication. What is certainly true is that Paul did his best to convert non-Jews to follow Jesus — a program out of step with most rival sects of Early Christianity, which concerned themselves solely with winning converts among the Jews. Paul's ideas generally won out, and over the next few hundred years Christianity spread out. However, even in his own time Paul noted that there were people "corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" by "another Jesus, whom we have not preached," "another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted", which suggests that there were already multiple forms of proto-Christianity among the Gentiles that were spreading independently of one another. By c. 180 CE this fragmentation had become so bad that Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies, a 5-book, 168-chapter work detailing the many deviations from the "true" faith.
Constantine the Great and the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE); the establishment of Orthodoxy
Constantine the Great (272-337) was very ambitious — he had to be to become Roman Emperor (306-337). And, possibly because of his mother, Saint Helena of Constantinople, and possibly because of opportunism, he was sympathetic to Christianity. And he also liked power. So he gave the various churches a chance to sell out: support him, and raise him to the status of equal-to-apostles, and he'd stop the persecution of them, and indeed offer to prefer them within his Empire. Which they did (the whole thing wasn't quite as nakedly mercenary as that, of course).
There was one other condition — the Christian Churches had to sort out what they actually believed, which they did at the Council of Nicaea (325) — in the process
nailing down establishing a lot about the doctrine of the Trinity, and throwing Arius and the idea that the Son wasn't equal to the Father out of the Church — and exiling him. (On a ghoulish side note, Arius died (336) by shitting out his bowels the day before he was due to be reconciled with the Church. Cholera, divine judgement, or propaganda? You decide!)
The Orthodox Churches' (including the Roman Catholic Church) claim on The Truth is based on how old they are — or, as they call it, Holy Tradition. (This would make the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches pretty important in history and tradition — unless one's idea of west-Asian desert monotheist Christianity reflects a degree of Eurocentrism.) In the Roman Catholic Church, Magisterial infallibility on matters of morals and ethics is actually a whole lot more important than the much more famous 19th-century doctrine of Papal infallibility, which the Vatican has only ever invoked a handful of times.
The Council of Nicea established the Nicene Creed, which lays down the Trinity, Salvation, Judgement, and Heaven — and a majority of individual Churches have accepted this as a baseline ever since. An update at the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE also added the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of the dead — both commonly understood as a basis for European Christianity. The books of the Bible were settled in the West by 405 CE, but not all the Orthodox churches agree - let alone various Churches of the East. There was, however, a lot of discussion about which texts to include.
Theodosius II (402-450 CE) and Marcian (450-457 CE)
Despite the Council of Nicea, Christianity continued to fragment despite the efforts of Eastern Emperors Theodosius II and his successor Marcian. "Heretical" churches such as Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syica, Armenian Apostolic, and Malankara appeared and many would survive into modern times. But as volatile as the conflict between these various churches and the Roman Catholic Church was, they were nothing compared to what was to come.
The Great Schism and the separation of the Roman Catholic Church (1054 CE)
The Greek East and Latin West slowly drifted apart in terms of theology but things came to a head when in 1053 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I Cerularius, retaliated regarding the closure or forced conformity to Latin practices of southern Italian-Greek churches by ordering the closure of all Latin churches in Constantinople. The Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) then sent a papal legate to Constantinople in 1054 to refuse Cerularius the title of "Ecumenical Patriarch" and demanded that Cerularius recognize the Pope's claim to be the head of all the churches. The result was about what one would have expected, with the Patriarchs telling him to fuck off. He told them to fuck off right back. The Crusades that started in 1095 only deepened the division, and the misadventure of the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) where the Latin West looted and conquered Constantinople certainly didn't help relations. Even though there have been many Ecumenical Councils since 1095, only some Greek Orthodox churches (perhaps three of them) participated and there is no formal recognition. If this wasn't enough the Greek Orthodox Bible has books not normally in the Roman Catholic Bible: a different 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees; 4 Maccabees, and Prayer of Manasseh.
When dealing with the Roman Catholic Church it is worth remembering that statements by specific Popes are generally as authoritative as anything else that's said in a press conference. Useful and interesting perhaps, but no more important than that; they know that they've had some pretty terrible Popes. Official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — something that makes working out what Roman Catholicism teaches much easier than the nailing-jelly-to-the-wall of most other churches.
Western Schism (1378 to 1417 CE)
The Western Schism was a relatively brief time where there were two (and later three) Popes at the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This schism was more political than theological but the names of the various antipopes were reused which can cause some confusion. For example, Pope Benedict XIII is a name used by both an antipope and a later Pope.
Martin Luther and the 95 Theses (1517 CE)
The Catholic Church at this time was corrupt. Showtime's The Borgias shows an extremely bowdlerised version, and even Borgia: Fear And Faith is simplified and bowdlerised. Martin Luther's complaints might have taken 95 theses, but can be boiled down into three points.
- You can't buy your way into Heaven, so stop selling indulgences.
- Especially stop raking money off the poor, since they can't afford it.
- The Pope does not need a palace. Especially not one like that.
It is snarky, but accurate, to call the Vatican a Palace of Sin, the sin in question being Simony or the selling of indulgences (or worse, especially in the days of Pope Leo X). Martin Luther was at first a moderate and generally believed in an idealised version of the Roman Catholic Church, but developed a more divergent position as his disillusionment grew and his theological positions became less orthodox.
Luther himself (and from him most of Protestant Christianity) had a doctrine of sola fide: Salvation By Faith Alone. This was intended as a reaction to the Roman Catholic notion of Salvation By Works — where the works in question involved giving money to the Roman Catholic Church, among other things. If you were actually saved you would help people as an outward sign of this. It has, however, frequently been corrupted.
Martin Luther also threw seven books out of the Old Testament for not being in the Hebrew version of the Old Testament; these are currently known as the Deuterocanon. So you can tell a Catholic Bible from a Protestant one by the presence of books like Tobit, Judith, and two books of Wisdom. He also tried to throw out the Epistles Hebrews, Jude, and James, and the Book of Revelation for disagreeing with Protestant doctrines; this wasn't accepted.
John Calvin and TULIP/Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches (1541 CE)
If Martin Luther was at the more moderate end of the reformation (initially at least), John Calvin… wasn't. Churches under his banner tend to follow doctrines summarised in the English-speaking world as the acronym TULIP, outlined below in their more benevolent versions. TULIP, as a doctrinal basis, is very easy to pervert — in particular the doctrine of Total Depravity.
- Total Depravity — The Fall left mankind fundamentally incapable of doing good on their own merits. Left to their own devices, nobody would willingly turn to God.
- Unconditional Election — Who is saved is God's choice alone, and only He knows for sure who shall be saved. Man's total depravity means nobody "deserves" to be saved, hence the "unconditional" part.
- Limited Atonement — Salvation is for the elect alone; the rest will persist in their sins and subsequently be damned for them.
- Irresistible Grace — God can reach out and help anyone, in spite of their innate preference for sin and refusal to choose salvation voluntarily.
- Perseverance of the Saints — Those who were ordained to be saved cannot lose their salvation. Apostasy is merely a sign that the apostate was never truly saved.
Arminianism is somewhat similar to Calvinism, but different in a few key points (namely on the role of free will in salvation and the method in which grace works). Calvinists consider Arminianism to be heretical for suggesting that people can be saved by their own works in addition to God's grace, while Arminians claim that Calvinism denies the existence of free will. Unsurprisingly, the two sects have had a history of mutual hostility towards one another.
Baptist (c. 1600 CE)
Baptists are a grouping of Protestant churches that have a belief in common: that of Believers' Baptism rather than infant baptism (or paedobaptism as they call it). As such they place an emphasis on all members genuinely committing themselves at a personal level — but it's a loose grouping with different Baptist churches saying different things only really agreeing on the core of the Nicene Creed and that individuals should choose baptism. The largest group of Baptists are the Southern Baptist Convention.
Southern Baptist (1845 CE)
There never has been a Church founded with a worse reason than the Southern Baptist Convention; it was founded in the early 19th century as an offshoot of the Baptists that did not oppose slave owning or say that slave owners shouldn't represent them. Its doctrines, for this reason, tend to first emphasise and then corrupt the doctrine of Salvation By Faith Alone; if you treat works as important you need to do things to help those you are oppressing. This was never going to happen when the church was specifically set up to prevent people from feeling guilty. To give it its due, despite a monstrously racist past, it has repented, and a previous President of the Southern Baptist Convention (Fred Luter) is African American.
Westboro Baptist (1955 CE)
Westboro Baptist Church is a group that is not related to any other Baptist Church except through its name; it is more closely related to the extreme forms of Calvinism known as Hyper-Calvinism. Confusing Westboro and its group of homophobic trolls with other Baptist churches only annoys people. Christians, and especially Baptists, find them even more annoying than the rest of us.
Anglican/Episcopalian (1534 CE)
The Church of England was founded because Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage and the Pope wouldn't let him. As that is possibly the silliest reason in history to create an entirely new branch of the Church (except that at the time one of the monarch's most important responsibilities was to sire a male heir to the throne), the Anglican Communion has seldom known quite what it is. There are 39 Articles of Faith, but priests are only called on to affirm them and in most pews most people won't have heard of them. It is probably the theologically broadest church, united by the idea that whatever we believe we're currently better together. They range from Anglo-Catholics who commonly agree with the Roman Catholic Church about almost everything to a mix of Conservative Evangelicals and Charismatic Evangelicals.
Methodists (1739 or 1784 CE)
The Methodists were a movement within the Church of England, founded by John Wesley, an Evangelical Anglican with Arminian principles (opposing the predestination of John Calvin). In 1739 Wesley founded the Methodist Association within the Church of England, and almost immediately managed to make them unpopular by ignoring parish boundaries and denouncing corrupt priests while doing what he believed as an Anglican priest he ought to. The separation with the Church of England didn't come until 1784 when Wesley finally got fed up of there being no Episcopalian Bishop in the United States to ordain priests and started ordaining priests himself. As such the Methodist church has almost the breadth of the Church of England (and many are straight Calvinists these days).
The "removal" of the Apocrypha
In 1826, the National Bible Society of Scotland petitioned the British and Foreign Bible Society not to print the Apocrypha. Since then even some reprints of the King James Bible do not contain these books. The books are
- 1 Esdras (Vulgate 3 Esdras)
- 2 Esdras (Vulgate 4 Esdras)
- Judith ("Judeth" in Geneva)
- Rest of Esther (Vulgate Esther 10:4 – 16:24)
- Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach)
- Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy ("Jeremiah" in Geneva) (all part of Vulgate Baruch)
- Song of the Three Children (Vulgate Daniel 3:24–90)
- Story of Susanna (Vulgate Daniel 13)
- The Idol Bel and the Dragon (Vulgate Daniel 14)
- Prayer of Manasses (Daniel)
- 1 Maccabees
- 2 Maccabees
The Salvation Army (1865 CE)
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was an Evangelical Methodist Minister in the Holiness tradition (i.e. no dancing, no drinking). He organised people to go into the worst of the slums and minister to the worst off they could find, frequently bringing a brass band with them. It does a lot of charity work, running shelters, but has a regrettable record of homophobia. It also contributed heavily to union-busting activities against the Industrial Workers of the World, leading IWW musicians such as Haywire Mac to call it the "Starvation Army". Normally a church with only 1.5 million members would not be included in this list, but due to their charity work they have a disproportionate reputation and influence.
Fundamentalist (1860 CE)
Fundamentalism was an approach to take Christianity right back to what it considered the basics.
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles and the Creation account in Genesis
- The Virgin Birth of Christ
- The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
- The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross
Of course, the fact that they disagree on how to interpret the Bible undermines the idea of inerrancy. And there are many, many problems with Biblical literalism. Self-described Fundamentalists ("Fundie" is often used as a snarl world) tend to be Evangelical in outlook, believing in converting people to their practice and conservative in praxis.
Pentecostal (c. 1900 CE)
The Pentecostal Church was formed in the midst of Evangelical revivals, frequently Fundamentalist or Holiness, and Pentecostals tend to be Charismatic Evangelicals, having much more interesting church services with things like glossolalia and in years past the Toronto Blessing. Beliefs are similar to Fundamentalist Christians, but the services are more interesting.
Some well-known groups are frequently claimed not to be Christian by others. Many of them revere Jesus but also acknowledge later figures as prophets or divinities, which is frowned upon by mainstream Christianity. Others deny the Trinity and hence give Jesus a different or lower status than in mainstream Trinitarian Christianity. And some are just weird.
Gnostics (c. 200 CE)
The Gnostics were early Christian conspiracy theorists who claimed that the true teachings of Jesus weren't those handed down via the Bible, but another, secret set.
Manichaeism was founded by the Persian religious leader Mani (216-274 or 277), who was raised as a Gnostic and decided he must be a manifestation of the Christian Holy Spirit. He pulled in influences from other religions, and Manicheans revered Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, and Mani as prophets. Manichaeism has a strongly dualistic worldview derived from Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism, with God good but not omnipotent up against the Devil who is responsible for the world being a crock of shit. It was very popular in the Middle East and central Asia from the third to seventh centuries until the rise of Islam, and is now extinct except as a synonym for a worldview that divides everything into good and evil. Orthodox Christians like Eusebius (4th century) were very upset by his heresies, saying
that madman Manes, (Mani is of Persian or Semitic origin) as he was called, well agreeing with his name, for his demoniacal heresy, armed himself by the perversion of his reason, and at the instruction of Satan, to the destruction of many. He was a barbarian in his life, both in speech and conduct, but in his nature as one possessed and insane. Accordingly, he attempted to form himself into a Christ, and then also proclaimed himself to be the very paraclete and the Holy Spirit, and with all this was greatly puffed up with his madness. Then, as if he were Christ, he selected twelve disciples, the partners of his new religion, and after patching together false and ungodly doctrines, collected from a thousand heresies long since extinct, he swept them off like a deadly poison, from Persia, upon this part of the world.
Christianity more or less decided that it was Trinitarian at the Council of Nicea. Unitarians don't believe in the Trinity (the clue is in the name). And the running joke is that Unitarian singing is terrible because they are all reading a line ahead to see if they agree with the verse. In 1961, US Unitarians merged with Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, Universalist meaning they also don't believe in the doctrine of Hell, and nowadays the UUA accepts people of any belief or no belief.
A number of other groups are unitarian without being as wishy-washy as the UUs. Socinianism, whose offshoots include Christadelphianism and English Unitarianism, held that Jesus did not exist before he was conceived in Mary, thus denying he was on the same level as God; coming from anabaptist tradition, Socinians also held a limited view of God's omniscience and rejected original sin. Some branches of Pentecostalism are often regarded as "Unitarian", particularly those which support full-immersion baptism or Jesus-only baptism; these "Oneness" Pentecostals believe Jesus and God are one and the same, and some consider that the Trinity is a Popish conspiracy. They obviously have very little in common with Unitarian Universalists.
Quaker (UK or Hicksite) (1647 CE)
There are numerous strands of Quakerism, but when someone from the UK talks about them they mean either the British branch, of which the nearest equivalent in America are the Hicksites. Quakers are explicitly non-Creedal, meaning that it is impossible to say what you need to believe to be a Quaker. In World War II, British Quakers, because they were non-creedal, started taking in people from other religions who had nowhere else to go, and many Friends Meetings have people with a wide range of beliefs including atheists, Jews, and even the odd Wiccan. Unprogrammed Quaker services are held as silent meditation until people feel moved to speak and "gather" the meeting on a topic, and Quakers also have their own holy book, Quaker Faith and Practice, which is possibly the only widely shared holy book to be routinely updated with reflections and what people have learned; the latest edition was published in 2015.
The United States has more than twenty separate Quaker books called Faith and Practice: one Book of Discipline for each Yearly Meeting.
Jehovah's Witnesses claim to be Christians and to follow the teachings of Jesus, but there is doubt over their status because they don't believe in the Trinity, and have highly distinctive traditions and rites (no Christmas, their own Bible translation...).
Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints
The Mormons apparently had their holy book handed to Joseph Smith on gold plates in the early 19th century, and their beliefs are very unorthodox by Christian standards.
- Early Christian Schisms I-V Extra History — an abbreviated view of the early issues in Christianity on YouTube
- See the Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ page for more detail.
- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, ISBN-10: 1908906294
- Who Founded Christianity — Jesus or Paul by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham
- Did St. Paul Invent Christianity? Catholic Answers
- 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 (53 to 57 CE)
- Against Heresies, newadvent.org.
- Making Light's excellent summary, 13 September 2013.
- The Ezra (1 Esdras) in Roman Catholic and Protestant bibles is called Ezra (2 Esdras) in the Greek Orthodox bible.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Ex Urbe's description of the two shows
- Luther's treatment of the Disputed New Testament books
- "Manichaeism", Oxford Classical Dictionary, Jul 2015, DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.3914
- See the Wikipedia article on Manichaeism.
- See the Wikipedia article on Socinianism.
- See the Wikipedia article on Oneness Pentecostalism.
- See the Wikipedia article on Baptism in the name of Jesus.
- Quaker Faith and Practice 5th edition, 2015
- See the Wikipedia article on Book of Discipline (Quaker).
- A closer look at Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the U.S., Pew Research, 2016
- Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Christians?, Jehovah’s Witnesses website, accessed Sept 24, 2020