Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Emergence and Spread of Christianity

At around the time of 33CE, a young carpenter by the name of Jesus, began a ministry which would change the world forever. He was 30 years old when he started, and preached for a period of approximately three years, principally to the Jewish nation. The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John relate many stories, parables, words of wisdom and miracles that allegedly took place during his ministry, but it is his death that marks the greatest significance of Christianity and perhaps made his words and teachings even greater than could possibly have been imagined.

Betrayed by his own people , Jesus was crucified with consequences being that the Jewish nation lost its right as God’s chosen people. This meant the word was now opened up to the outside world (or gentiles as the New Testament describes). Claiming resurrection by his followers, they also began preaching that he was the Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christos (Christ, meaning messiah in Greek).

Soon after, the commission shown in Matt 28:19 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” was a direction for the disciples and followers of Christ to preach his word throughout the world. And so Christianity as a religion was born.

The early path the Christian faith took can be seen throughout the New Testament. It was largely moved along by the newly converted apostle Paul who set about spreading its message throughout the Roman Empire . Being a Roman citizen, he had relatively easy passage throughout the Empire and took several missionary trips throughout it. Indeed, it was through Paul that the message was established and put within context of what is known as the Old Testament. Without Paul’s early influence, perhaps Christianity would not be where it is now.

His endeavors were not without opposition and he, along with many other early Christians were heavily persecuted. Responsible for writing many of the letters that would eventually make up a large portion of what would become the New Testament, his explanations of Christ’s teachings were generally very well thought out and logical. This would no doubt have helped its establishment from the start.

However, from the early days of Christianity to the late fourth century, Christians would be greatly attacked and persecuted for their beliefs. Indeed, when Nero set fire to Rome, he originally blamed it on the Christians . This period also saw the sacking of Jerusalem with the second temple (Herod’s) destroyed, it saw the four gospel accounts written along with Paul’s and other follower’s writings, the Bible as we know it today was slowly pulled together and agreed upon, and it also saw the emergence of the Roman Catholic Church.

Eventually, the persecution of the Christians subsided with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converting to Christianity around 312CE. Constantine would have a great role to play in the new direction Christianity would take.

In 325CE, the first great Christian Council formed. This famous Council of Nicaea established doctrine to attempt to set straight a variety of issues that had confused and perplexed many of the time . Possibly the greatest of these was the introduction of the concept of the trinity which claims God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are each the same person, yet different. Although this concept does not appear in the Bible at all, it has by and large been accepted by the Christian world and explained away as “a mystery of God”. Perhaps this was introduced to help other cultures better accept the Christian teaching as many cultures of the time came from polytheistic backgrounds. Christianity, which can claim its roots in Judaism, was essentially monotheistic. There would have been plenty of religious competition that Christianity would have had to overcome in order to establish itself.

So, with the help of the Roman Empire that stretched from the borders of Scotland throughout central and southern Europe, to northern Africa and as far west as the Fertile Crescent and Asia Minor, Christianity had managed to survive its early trials and become a major player of the ancient world.

By the end of the fifth century, the Roman Empire had ended and Visigoths had sacked Rome and taken Spain, the Franks had taken Gaul and Britain too was having its own invasions from Anglo Saxons, Vikings and the like, and much of Europe was plunged into what is known as the Dark Ages. And so as the Roman Empire subsided, so the rise of the Roman Catholic Church increased in power and influence.

Catholicism (meaning one church) was still the principle formation of Christianity, and during these Dark Ages, was kept alive by monks who continued to hand write the Bible in Latin. No doubt this will have kept the religion ticking over until these times were over.

For the next few hundred years, most of the populous could not read and so their only contact with the teachings of the Bible were by the spoken word only. They would therefore have received interpretation only by the priest or person conducting the sermon, and so less able to form their own opinion or belief.

Within this time, Crusades to the Holy Land of Jerusalem were made in order to rid the land of Islam control. The major crusades took place over a period of three hundred years or so, with other minor ones occurring up to Napoleon’s time. The end result was the same. Christian forces failed to regain control over the Holy Land. One has to wonder whether this Holy Land was ever actually significant, because surely if the Christian god deemed it important enough, he surely would have allowed the Crusaders to have captured it. What is significant is that the relationship between Muslim and Christian was severely damaged, and to this day many problems between the two abound.

In 1517 came the start of a major split within the Catholic Church. Unhappy with doctrines, rituals and other elements of what the church was turning into, a Christian reform movement known as the Protestant Reformation was led by a man called Martin Luther. These reformers created new churches and Martin Luther published a document called the Ninety Five Theses designed to reject the validity of the many indulgencies that were taking place within the church. For example, instead of the populous coming to have their sins heard and pardoned, certain priests were actually selling these pardons. This contradicts what the Bible teaches, and so Martin Luther and his followers came out in protest and the Ninety Five Theses became the catalyst for this reformation.

The reformation would start a series of wars throughout Europe, but once settled down, basically much of northern Europe moved towards the Protestant movement, while southern Europe remained Catholic.
From this point on, Christianity was forging down two paths, and thereafter, there developed many smaller denominations off shooting from the Protestant reform, such as the Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecosts and so on and so forth.

It continued to spread all over the world, as the age of exploration expanded into new lands such as Africa, the Americas, Australia, and the Far East. So too did the word of God and eventually to the present we can assuredly say that most of the world has heard this message, as commanded in Matt 28:19, that it should be preached to all the world.

Today, Christianity remains very strong with approximately a third of the world’s population claiming to be Christian of some kind. It is interesting to note that in many of the western first world countries that Christianity does not directly form government. The United Kingdom can claim its Head of State (the Queen) to also be head of the Church of England. But many countries such as the United States and France have taken steps in their respective histories to separate its government from Christianity. France did this forcefully in its revolution, eliminating both royalty and the church from power, and to this day, despite it being seen as a Catholic country, its separateness goes as far as not even teaching religious education at schools to its youth.

In its two thousand year history, it can be seen that Christianity has taken both a physical and spiritual route that has transformed many lives, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. Unfortunately its message has often been corrupted, manipulated and interpreted in ways often for the advantage of those in power.

There are so many different doctrines and offshoots of Christianity and it is fascinating to see how one message has been interpreted in so many different ways. From Catholicism to Protestantism and the many, varied offshoots of that; to the newer sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses along with others who have tried to get back to the root source of the Bible to seek its original message; it is certainly a minefield in itself to know what the true form of Christianity is. Indeed, in John 18:38, when Pilate asked Christ “What is truth?” it is quite interesting to note that no answer to that question has been actually recorded.

Grade A 

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