Christianity is an Abrahamic religion that arose in the Middle East in the first century CE, around the time of Jesus Christ. It began as a sect of Jewish people yearning for a better deal as they lived under Roman rule in [[Palestine]].
The early Christians were mainly members of the Jewish lower classes – dispossessed farmers, formerly enslaved people, poor artisans, peddlers and beggars. Around this time, there were numerous popular rebellions against Roman rule, generally each with charismatic leaders who used religious lingo to proclaim themselves “messiah”, in the Jewish tradition. They called for redistribution of wealth in the here and now, not in the afterlife – a message that resonated strongly with the urban poor.
After Jesus’ death, “roving apostles” went out to other parts of the Roman Empire to spread the “good news”. They did so firstly to the Jewish minorities in various other cities of the Empire, and from there the message spread to the poor in those cities generally. There were broadly two traditions being promoted at this time: one which continued to cast Christ’s teachings as a liberatory ideology interested in the redistribution of wealth, and then the teachings of St Paul (as he became known), who was decidedly more conservative, and instead emphasised compliance with authorities in the here and now and the promise of good things in the afterlife. St Paul was also more interested in making Christianity a “universal”, rather than a Jewish, ideology. It’s his school that ultimately won out, of course.
By the fourth century, Christianity had become a powerful force in the Roman Empire. In 312 CE, Emperor Constantine himself converted, and Christianity became the state religion. The church became increasingly wealthy, bureaucratised, and far removed from the urban poor who had once been the driving force of the religion. Once established, the church then went out and crushed dissident Christian sects who disagreed with its teachings.
Over the decline of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages that followed, Christianity’s teachings changed. There came to be a belief in a “natural order” of things, that some people were destined to be poor and that was just how things should be. This came to form the church’s justification for feudalism. Tithes were introduced in the sixth century, paid for by serfs’ labour. The idea of “charity” changed from referring to mutual aid, to referring to a process by which the rich could buy their way out of guilt for their exploitation of the masses. The Catholic Church opposed the abolition of slavery in Europe, and itself owned large numbers of slaves. That same Catholic Church also became Europe’s single largest landowner, owning a third of the land there. They were fabulously wealthy, and became thoroughly integrated with the nobility that ruled over Europe; high-ranking church positions were reserved for noblemen, for example.
Protestantism, around the time of the Renaissance, can be seen as a realignment of Christianity to make it conform better to the needs of the continent’s emerging capitalists; for example, by abolishing all those feast days. People also talk about “Protestant work ethic” for a reason, and that reason is that Protestants have historically tended to fetishise “hard work” and austerity.
Into modern times, there have still been some groups of Christians who’ve sought to take up the liberatory, redistributory cause of the earliest Christians. One such movement, particularly influential in Latin America in the 20th century, is liberation theology. But these are, clearly, a minority of modern-day Christians worldwide.
Branches of Christianity
Even in the early days of Christianity, there were numerous different strands of thought. The religion began as a sect of Jewish people who believed in an imminent apocalypse. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE saw early Christianity really begin to diverge from Judaism, and while “mainstream Christianity” split decisively from Judaism as it attracted more and more adherents in the Roman Empire who had not previously been Jewish, there remained a sect within Judaism which believed in the message of Christ until about the fifth century CE. Another early sect of Christianity was Gnosticism – which believed the material world was inherently evil, and did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus as an actual restoration of life to his dead body, but rather as the creation of a new body made out of ether.
In the modern era, the three main broad groupings of Christian denominations are:
- Orthodox Christianity, split between…
- Oriental Orthodox Christianity, which includes Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian and Syriac branches of Orthodox Christianity (not an exhaustive list)
- Eastern Orthodox Christianity, including Greek, Albanian, Georgian, Russian and other Slavic branches of Orthodox Christianity (also not an exhaustive list)
- Catholicism: The largest subgrouping of which is obviously Roman Catholicism, but there are around two dozen other Catholic churches (the Eastern Catholic Churches) – these are mostly former Orthodox churches that broke with them and established communion with the Roman Catholic Church
- Protestantism: A heterogeneous group of churches which split from the Roman Catholic Church over the Reformation. Ranges from high-ceremony churches like Anglicanism to more down-to-earth mainstream Protestant churches (in Australia the largest example is the Uniting Church) to modern evangelicalism (like Pentecostalism).
- The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE: A huge event in the history of Judaism too, this event saw early Christians distance themselves increasingly from Jews as the Christians saw the event as punishment for the majority of Jews’ rejection of Jesus.
- The 325 Council of Nicaea: Established the first consistent creed for all Christians to follow (the Nicene creed), and also took place during the reign of Emperor Constantine who marked the turning point from the Roman Empire repressing Christianity to beginning to adopt it as its own official religion.
- The Schism of 1054: When the Orthodox and Catholic Churches split.
- The Reformation: More or less contemporaneous with the Renaissance, this saw Protestant churches break away from Roman Catholicism in many parts of northwestern Europe.