In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 3. Christianity

How an ancient Jewish sect laid the foundations of a global faith

In this new series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the focus is on Christianity.

Christianity in 60 seconds

Christianity is based on the beliefs and teachings laid out in the Bible. The first part, the Old Testament, describes the creation of the world and the history of the Israelites. The first five books, which include the Ten Commandments, are the central scripture of Judaism, in which they are known as the Torah.

The New Testament recounts the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the son of God. The first four books, known as the Gospels, tell the story of his miraculous birth from the Virgin Mary, his ministry and miracles, and his death by crucifixion.

The latter portion of the New Testament details the efforts of Jesus’s apostles - notably Paul - to spread his message, and ends with an apocalyptic book of prophecy, called Revelation.

Most Christians fall under one of three main Churches - Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. These differ in rituals, religious practices and interpretations of the Bible, but share a common belief in an all-knowing, all-loving God, who came to Earth in the form of Jesus Christ to enlighten and redeem humanity.

How did it develop?

Initially seen as a sect within Judaism, Christianity spread to gentile communities in the years following Jesus’s death, shedding many Jewish practices and emerging as a separate faith.

In the late first century, alarmed by the rise of the new movement, Emperor Nero launched a brutal crackdown, arresting, torturing and executing Christians in Rome. But although life was dangerous for early converts, “the spread of Christianity was made a lot easier by the efficiency of the Roman Empire”, says the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

By AD313, when Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, the Gospel had already reached imperial provinces in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. 

The now-Christian Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, and without its unifying force, Western and Eastern Christians began to drift apart. In 1054, these differences came to a head in the Great Schism, dividing Christianity into two Churches - Roman Catholic in the West, and Orthodox in the East, each with their own pope, liturgy and rituals.

The second major schism in Christian history occurred in the 16th century in Europe, with the emergence of Protestantism.

The Protestants’ complaints against the Church were summarised in German theologian Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which he is said to have nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Chief among their demands was a recognition of the individual’s personal relationship with God, and a reduced role for priests, rites and rituals, which they saw as getting in the way of true faith.

Protestantism spread across Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, a period known as the Reformation, and has evolved over the centuries to include denominations as diverse as Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and Amish.

And as European powers began colonising large swathes of Africa and the New World, they brought Christianity with them. In 2011, the Washington B.C.-based Pew Research Center estimated that Europeans now account for only one in four Christians globally.

How did it change the world?

“Many historians regard the spread and adoption of Christianity throughout the world as one of the most successful spiritual missions in human history,” says History.com

With an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, it is the world’s largest religion, and as such has influenced countless leaders and acted as a major factor in “legitimating social systems and values”, both for good and bad, says Encyclopaedia Britannica

Throughout history, the Bible has been used to justify racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice, and at its worst, the Church has actively acted “in collusion with tribalistic nationalisms (e.g., the ‘German Christians” and Nazism’)”, the encyclopaedia notes.

However, the site adds, “when the Christian community has held to its teachings... it has opposed such social systems and values”.

Indeed, “in a sense, the impact of religion outside the faith has been more significant than the spreading of the faith itself”, British broadcaster and peer Melvyn Bragg told The Daily Telegraph in 2011. He argued that the King James Bible was “crucial” in bringing about everything from Western democracy to the civil rights movement.

For instance, “in 19th century Britain, women like Octavia Hill were empowered by the Bible to clear slum areas, to help people. They moved from doing good works to advocating social change and into politics,” Bragg added.

For many commenators, the impact of the religion is best summed up in the thought first expressed by US theologian H. Richard Niebuhr more than 60 years ago in his book Christ and Culture: “the many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilisation… is as confused as it is many-sided”.

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