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Describe the origins of Christianity and its central features

Focus Question: What were the central features of Christianity?

external image Christianity_Anno2_38.jpg

Topics on the Page

Origins of Christianity
Major Branches of Christianity
Christian Philosophers
Old and New Testaments
Christians in the Roman Empire
  • Perpetua
  • Spread of Christianity

Multimedia.pngIntroductory Video on the Origins of Christianity

timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimeline of Early Christianity by PBS

The Rise of three Faiths by Jeff Sheler. Photograph by James Stanfield (May require subscription)

map-ancient-rome-2.jpgClick here for an interactive map on the history of Christianity

World_map_pol_2005_v02.svg.pngGo to AP World History Key Concept 2.1 for more on the development religious traditions during this time period, including:
  • Egyptian religion
  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • Confucianism
  • Daoism

The Origins of Christianity

From History-World.org, "The Origins of Christianity" edited by Robert A. Guisepi of History World International:

'In the initial decades of the Roman Empire, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, a new religion, Christianity, emerged. Much of the impetus for this new religion rested in issues in the Jewish religion, including a long-standing belief in the coming of a Messiah and rigidities that had developed in the Jewish priesthood. Whether or not Christianity was created by God, as Christians believe, the early stages of the religion focused on cleansing the Jewish religion of stiff rituals and haughty leaders. It had little at first to do with Roman culture. Christianity arose in a remote province and appealed particularly to the poorer classes. It is not easy, as a result, to fit Christianity neatly into the patterns of Roman history: It was deliberately separate, and only gradually had wider impact."

The Last Supper
The Last Supper

A picture of Jesus Christ.

Nazareth, Israel

Multimedia.pngExplore the life and death of Jesus and the rise of Christianity in Frontline's video, From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.

From Jesus to Christ - The First Christians - contains different links to read about aspects of the topics.

Jesus Was Born Earlier Than Thought, Claims Pope Benedict (2012)

multicultural.pngExplore early Christian art from Rome at the British Museum's site.

For more information on Christianity, see Christianity: Background, Basic Beliefs, and Sacred Texts.

John Green's Crash Course on the origins of Christianity explains how it was influenced by Judaism and peoples' thoughts about Jesus being the Messiah. Jesus fit the description of the Messiah, as someone that would be put down for his beliefs during a time of trouble. This video also talks about how Christianity was able to become a world religion because it was available for non-Jews. Paul's influence in spreading Christianity is also mentioned (17).


Monotheism is the belief in only one god.
  • Although Akhenaton of Egypt is an example of the earliest known monotheist (14th Century BCE) it did not become the norm until the advent and rise of Christianity.
  • Monotheism is a word coined in comparatively modern times to designate belief in the one supreme God, the Creator and Lord of the world, the eternal Spirit, All-powerful, All-wise, and All-good, the Rewarder of good and the Punisher of evil, the Source of our happiness and perfection.
  • The word comes from two Greek words: monos meaning one and theos meaning god. Monotheism is one of the most influential attempts to establish God’s uniqueness.
  • Monotheism is the view that God created the world such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. From the perspective of monotheism, God oversees and intervenes in human events, holy being, and a beneficent.

For more information on the origins of monotheism and the philosophical arguments regarding it, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Monotheism

Christian timeline.png
Christianity started off as a uniform religion, but split over time and in recent centuries has become vastly diverse.

Christian Philosophers

As in the modern day the emphasis of certain Christian ideas and interpretations varied. Throughout the Late Classical and Medieval Ages many men and women devoted themselves to interpreting and living the life of a "True Christian. Some were deemed heretical and ostracized from the Church and in the most serious cases killed, but many more were adopted shifting the understanding (doctrine) of Christianity.

Early Church
St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Jerome
St. Ambrose
Pope Gregory I

Peter Abelard
Anselm of Canterbury
St. Thomas Aquinas

The Belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s Son Who Redeemed Humans From Sin

See the First Council of Nicaea.

Multimedia.pngFor a wonderful lecture, watch Michael Heiser. (This lecture is six hours long)

The image to the right is one of first bearded images of Christ. Earlier Christian art in Rome portrayed Jesus most often as the Good Shepherd, disguised as Orpheus, young, beardless and in a short tunic. During the 4th century Jesus was beginning to be depicted as a man of identifiably Jewish appearance, with a full beard and long hair, a style not usually worn by Romans. The symbols on either side are Alpha and Omega signifying "I am the beginning and the end".
Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla. Bust of Christ
Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla. Bust of Christ

Christians believe that Jesus’ dying on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice for humanity. They believe that he died to save the world from sin because he was the son of God in human form.
  1. Peter said Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Matthew 16:16.
  2. Only God can open the mind of a person to believe that Jesus is the son of God. Matthew 16:17; John 6:44.
  3. Jesus builds his church with people who believe Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Matthew 16:16-18.

The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word “Christos”. Christos means the Anointed one or the Messiah. The word Christ is sometimes used as a name for Jesus. At other times Christ is used to describe the Messiah or Savior.

You can read more about how Jesus came to be revered and subsequently martyred as he sacrificed himself here.

multicultural.pngClick here to read an article from The Washington Post about what Jesus looked like.

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew that said he had a vision in which he had received the blessing of God after being baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus condemned religious hypocrites and provided a new interpretation of Mosaic law. He spread his message to crowds along with his twelve disciples. Jesus's followers believed he was the Messiah that would begin the kingdom of God on Earth. Go to this article on the history of Christianity that talks about Jesus's resurrection and other aspects of early Christianity (15).

The Concept of Salvation.

Salvation generally means liberation from straitened circumstances or from other evils, and of a translation into a state of freedom and security (1 Samuel 11:13; 14:45; 2 Samuel 23:10; 2 Kings 13:17).
  • At times salvation expressed God's help against Israel's enemies. At other times, it expressed the Divine blessing bestowed on the produce of the soil (Isaiah 45:8). As sin is the greatest evil and the root and source of all evil, Sacred Scripture uses salvation mainly in the sense of liberation of the human race or individual man from sin and its consequences, most importantly the souls final resting place (either heaven or hell).
  • Initial salvation: a person’s conversion and retention of their sins.
  • Progressive salvation: the journey of a believer between life and death. It is the only path that leads to eternal life (Roman 6:20-23).
  • Final salvation: final salvation refers to the event of God saving his people at the final judgment, the great divide between sheep and goats, wherein sheep are identified by their work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and accepted on the ground of their union with Christ, the righteous substitute.

During Medieval times, salvation became a huge component of the spread and obsession with Christianity and 'being a good Christian'.
  • This is how monasteries became so prevalent and wealthy. People who had sinned would pay monks to pray for them, as monks were believed to have a stronger connection with God than the average person.
  • Because so many people were paying the monks, monasteries became decadent and full of riches, also leading to corruption in the Church in years to come.
Monasterio dos Jeronimos in Lisbon, Portugal
Monasterio dos Jeronimos in Lisbon, Portugal

  • Lavish monasteries, such as this Monasterio dos Jeronimos in Lisbon, Portugal, were the product of donations made by Christians looking for salvation and forgiveness of sins.
  • During the same time as the monasteries were being established, convents were also being used to make young children into religious persons (oblates). Boys would go to monasteries to live, and girls would be sent to convents, or nunneries. It was believed that if you were part of a convent or monastery, your salvation would be far easier to attain as your life would be dedicated to good deeds (in theory).

womens history.jpgRead more about women's role in this time period here.
  • Important women in early Christianity
    • Mary, mother of Jesus
    • Mary Magdalene, companion of Jesus, depicted throughout history many ways from symbol of redemption and forgiveness to tool to emphasize male domination and female subordination
    • Other women in Early Christianity, PBS article

Belief in the Old and New Testament

Christ Carrying Cross
Christ Carrying Cross

Old Testament: the belief that all versions and translations of the Hebrew Bible and is the first major part of the Bible used by Christians. It is usually divided by Judaism into the categories of law: Torah; prophecy: Neviim; and writings: Kethuvim (history, poetry, wisdom books); as denoted by the acronym Tanakh.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a class at Yale on the Old Testament.

New Testament: sometimes called the Greek Testament or Greek Scriptures, and sometimes also New Covenant – which is the literal translation of the original Greek – is the name given to the final portion of the Christian Bible, written after the Old Testament. The original texts were written in Koine Greek by various authors after c. 45 AD and before c. 140 AD. Its books were gradually collected into a single volume over a period of several centuries. The New Testament is a central element of Christianity, and has played a major role in shaping modern Western culture.

The Old Testament describes the sacrificial system God gave the Israelites to temporarily cover their sins. The New Testament clarifies that this system alluded to the sacrifice of Christ through whom alone salvation is found (Acts 4:12; Hebrews 10:4-10). The Old Testament saw paradise lost; the New Testament shows how paradise was regained for mankind through the second Adam (Christ) and how it will one day be restored. The Old Testament declares that man was separated from God through sin (Genesis chapter 3), and the New Testament declares that man can now be restored in his relationship to God (Romans chapters 3–6). The Old Testament predicted the Messiah's life. The Gospels primarily record Jesus' life, and the Epistles interpret His life and how we are to respond to all He has done.

Multimedia.png Differing Beliefs
As a religion that developed from different aspects of other religions, and in different regions, the beliefs of Christians sometimes differed greatly. To find out more about the Christians and their schism, check out this wonderful YouTube series!

multicultural.pngThe Gospel of Judas
The Bible is essentially a collection of essays, called Gospels, and the essays that made it into the familiar book, are not the only ones that existed. This essay, the Gospel of Judas, is an example of how the decision of which to include and which to exclude changed the final religion.

"The Gospel of Judas gives a different view of the relationship between Jesus and Judas, offering new insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Unlike the accounts in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in which Judas is portrayed as a reviled traitor, this newly discovered Gospel portrays Judas as acting at Jesus' request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities." See the full story here!

To read more about the gospels that didn't make the final cut go here!

NOVA's Origins of the Written Bible

Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul

St. Paul
St. Paul

Saint Paul: with an emphasis on Christianity as a universal religion, Paul argued that the Law was utterly worthless in gaining salvation relied on the Greek and Roman legal concept of the spirit and the letter of the law. His goal was the expansion of the central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth throughout the Roman world. Saint Paul's full philosophy can be found here.

Jesus: narrowly conceived the religion as a religion of the Jews that strongly focuses on women and the social status of women. Jesus heralded the coming of a new age where all people would live as God's children, simply stated: "Treat others as you would wish to be treated." Jesus favored humility and acts of kindness, and though he did accept that he was called the Messiah, he stayed humble even while being crucified on the cross.

List of all Sermons given by Jesus in the Bible.

See The Life and Teachings of Jesus by Preston Thomas for more information on Jesus's life and teachings.

Multimedia.pngClick here for an animated short video about Jesus.

Paul's teaching were largely centered around understanding that the resurrection of Jesus called for the end of following Jewish law. Paul was incredibly influential in spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. He said that Jews and non-Jews were equally able to follow Jesus's teaching, which allowed Christianity to spread as its own religion and not just another sect of Judaism. Go to the BBC's article on the basics of Christian history to learn more about Paul and the development of Christianity (16).

The Relationship Between Early Christians and the Roman Empire.

The antagonism that developed between Christianity (as well as Judaism) and Rome stem from the conflicts between orthopraxy and orthodoxy which plagued Judeo-Chistanty from its first interactions with Rome.
  • Roman religion concerned itself primary with "correct actions" (orthopraxy) while Judeo-Christianity held that "correct thought or belief" (orthodoxy) was more important than actions. One of the few requirements of the Roman state religion was a yearly oath to the Emperor of Rome which many Jews and Christens refused believing it equated to worshiping a false idol.
  • The problem was exacerbated further by the misunderstanding of orthodox religions by the orthoprax Romans. The Romans only valued the action of the sacrifice to the Emperor caring little about what the person actually believed, in essence, on could disagree with the entire ceremony as long as it was preformed.
  • This created an environment of relative tolerance in the Roman Empire for a number of differing beliefs. Many Jews and Christians, however, were unable to separate actions and beliefs and therefore were unable to perform the ceremony. For this the punishment was death, usually a public execution in an amphitheater such as the Colosseum, as was common for any capital offense.

  • Click here for an article from PBS on Early Christians in the Roman Empire.

  • Click here to read about Christianity and the Roman Empire on BBC

Mosaic of St. Perpetua, Porec, Croatia
Mosaic of St. Perpetua, Porec, Croatia

womens history.jpgPerpetua

For an example of Early Christian Martyrdom see the Passion of Saint Perpetua and Felicity.
  • Perpetua was one of the very early Christian Martyrs, and her diary is regarded as the earliest and first document by a Christian woman.
  • She documented her experience in a prison diary that survives to us today. She sacrifices herself, denouncing her father who tries to save her from death, to stay true to her religion and her beliefs. She was proud to go into the arena to her certain death, proud to die for the cause. This dedication was a major reason for the propagation of the religion.
    • See video with timeline, maps, graphics, and diary excerpts
    • You can read more about her here!
    • Episode from children's cartoon series about Perpetua and Felicitas that also highlights relationship with Romans (with Spanish subtitles)

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was not enforced until the reign of Nero (c. 64-68). Later, public opinion turned and the public began began to support the Christians and condemned the government's actions. This helped Christianity gain popularity and it became more widespread. Persecution of Christians ended with the Edict of Milan. This article explains the impact of persecution against Christians (18).

How the Religion Spread

Christianity as a religion had several distinct factors which contributed to its rapid success. Traditional historical discourse used to describe it as something which almost happened miraculously, by virtue of it being the true faith, especially in contrast to what would become known as 'paganism', or the beliefs of the Romans. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, these factors were:
  • Treatment of Women
    • Women were more likely to convert initially.
    • Infanticide, contraception, and abortion, significant causes of female mortality, were all forbidden.
    • Higher rates of nubile or virgin women, which attracted more men to the religion.
    • Christian women converted their husbands and their children, of which they had many.
  • Virtues of Love & Charity Towards the Poor and Sick
    • During the epidemics which wreaked havoc on the Roman empire in the centuries following Christ's death. Christians remained in cities and tended to the dying, while pagans fled.
    • Those who survived had greater immunities to diseases, leading to greater survival rates for Christians.
    • Because they remained and helped one another, the bonds they developed were much stronger.
    • Because they helped the dying, they developed strong bonds with pagans as well, leading to more conversions.
  • Martyrdom
    • Dying as a martyr was a rational choice; Christianity preached that dying for one's faith would lead to salvation and everlasting paradise, and so death was treated not as something to fear but something to go to willingly.
    • Those who witnessed Christian martyrdom gained a much greater respect for them and their faith, also increasing conversions.
      • Read more about the martyrs, including Perpetua here!

Because it was a persecuted religion, it's survival relied on the bonds of community. One for all, and all for one, this tenet, this phenomenon of placing such a high value on community bonds, and thus caring for the sick and the poor, providing a security net, made Christianity an appealing religion to many of the dispossessed, and was able to gain momentum.

These tenets of Christianity, among others, were essential to its initial success.
  • Christianity responded to a world filled with disasters, epidemics, and turmoil better than Roman paganism could manage. As a result, the faith was picked up by many Roman citizens, including the wealthy and aristocratic.
  • Its biggest shift occurred in 313 when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which declared toleration of all religions, as well as the return of confiscated Christian properties.

//**Read about the Edict of Milan.**//

timeline2_rus.svg.pngWatch this interactive timeline on how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire (19).

Go to Religion and Faith from Human Rights Watch for information on the changes to attitudes of homosexuality as a result of Christian efforts.
  • At no point in the Bible does Jesus mention or condemn homosexuality
  • Visit this page for an extensive analysis of history and commentary on LGBTQ+ identities in various sacred texts, including the Bible.

book.pngFor more primary sources see A.D. Lee's Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook and Noel Lenski's
The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine.

Visit PBS's site for a short multiple choice quiz on Early Christianity


  1. Bernard, David K. (1998). Christina Monotheism. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from The pentecostal home page Web site: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pentecostal/One-Ch1.htm
  2. Answers Corporation, (2007). Answers.com. Retrieved March 21, 2007, from Answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/monotheism
  3. Sunday school resource.com, (2002). Peter confessed Jesus is the Messiah. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from Sunday school resource.com Web site: http://www.sundayschoolresources.com/btpetersconfession.htm
  4. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., (2007). Jesus. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus
  5. Theopedia, (2006, Oct). Salvation. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from Theopedia Web site: http://www.theopedia.com/Salvation
  6. Maas, A.J. (2007). Salvation. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from New Advant Web site: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13407a.htm
  7. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., (2007). Old Testament. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/old testament
  8. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., (2007). New Testament. Retrieved February 14, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/new
  9. Hines, Richard (1996). Early Christian. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Christians Web site: http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/CHRIST/PAUL.HTM
  10. Chew, Robin (1995). Jesus of Nazareth. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Lucidcafe Web site: http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/95dec/jesus.html
  11. Heaton, Chris (2005). Christianity. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from UNRV History Web site: http://www.unrv.com/culture/christianity.php
  12. Robinson, B.A. (2005, May, 28). History of Christianity. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from Religious Tolerance Web site: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_hise.htm
  13. http://www.gotquestions.org/difference-old-new-testaments.html
  14. Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Princeton University Press 1996.
http://www.lifeofchrist.com/teachings/sermons/default.asp http://history-world.org/origins_of_christianity.htm
15. http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history
16. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/history_1.shtml
17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG55ErfdaeY
18. http://www.religionfacts.com/persecution-of-early-church
19. https://www.eduplace.com/kids/socsci/ca/books/bkf3/imaps/AC_14_463_christianity/AC_14_463_christianity.html

New Sources:
The Origins of Christianity (2006). Retrieved 2 August 2011 from World History Project's site: http://history-world.org/origins_of_christianity.htm. BROKEN
From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (2011). Retrieved 2 August 2011 from WGBH Educational Foundation's site:
The Life and Teachings of Jesus. Retrieved 2 August 2011 from: http://www.lifeandteachingsofjesus.org/.
British Museum--Room 70: Roman Empire. Retrieved 2 August 2011 from the British Museum's site:
Christianity: Background, Basic Beliefs, and Sacred Texts (2002). Retrieved 2 August 2011 from United Religion Initiative's site:
http://www.uri.org/kids/world_chri_basi.htm. BROKEN

Images obtained from Wikimedia Commons.