1. c.33 CE: Death of Jesus Christ
Jesus’s death has been dated to around 33 CE. Christians believe that Christ is the son of God. However, if we can talk about who the historical Jesus was, most historians accept that there was a real figure on whom the biblical Christ is based, who lived in first-century Palestine who developed a radical ethos of love, tolerance and poverty. We have no sources about his life for at least 25 years after his death. The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written long after Christ’s death from oral traditions around his life, some time between 70 and 150 CE. Christ was purely the thinker behind the new religion. It was St Peter, who knew Christ, and St Paul, who did not, who worked tirelessly for 20 years before their executions, to establish the religion in the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire.
A traditional image of Christ. But who was the real Jesus Christ? We have a post on that here.
2. 98CE Christianity separates from Judaism
Initially Jews and Romans saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism. In 85 CE, the Jewish authorities condemned Christians among several groups which preached the Messiah had arrived. However, in the year 98, the Roman emperor Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay an annual tax imposed upon the Jews. It may be that this reflected the view that Christianity was now seen as a separate religion to Judaism. Despite Nero’s famous persecution in the 60s, in fact, Christianity was hardly noticed for almost 250 years by the Roman administration, which was generally religiously tolerant.
3. 380 CE Christianity becomes a major religion
During the late 3rd century, Christianity’s numbers began to increase substantially. It became followed by powerful people in the Empire. The Roman emperor Diocletian instituted a widespread persecution of Christians beginning in 303. One of Rome’s fears about Christianity was that its messianic, monotheistic nature was a threat to the widely accepted divinity of the Emperor. However, ten years later, Diocletian’s successor, Constantine the Great, officially tolerated Christianity and began to promote Christians at his court. He later converted himself. In 380 CE, Christianity officially became the state religion of Rome with the patriarch there becoming the pre-eminent Church father, the Pope (Papa).
4. 632 The Rise of Islam
During the life of the Prophet Muhammad, most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was Christian. However during the 630s and 640s, Islam began expanding rapidly and more than half the Christians in the world came under Muslim rule and later converted themselves, as Arabs conquered North Africa and the Middle East. This separated Christianity into three main zones: Western Christianity, under the Pope in Rome, Eastern Christianity, under the patriarchs of the Byzantine Empire and in now Muslim countries, and Ethiopian Christianity, now isolated from the first two. Eventually, Western Christianity, or Catholicism, became the dominant force in the Church, although at the time Western Europe was in the chaos of the Dark Ages. However, by 1000, society was stabilising and rich, powerful Christian institutions such as the monasteries were emerging.
5. 1054 The Eastern and Western Churches Separate
For 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Eastern and Western parts of the Church (indeed, the two halves of Europe) had been becoming increasingly distant although remained technically united. However, by the tenth century, there were deep divisions between the West (with the Church based in Rome) and the East (based in Constantinople but also cities like Jerusalem). This came to a head in 1054 when a tit-for-tat process of excommunications between representatives of the two sides led to the Pope excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, an extraordinary act of offence that shattered any union. The two patriarchs did not meet again until 2016!
Medieval image of Crusaders fighting Arabs. The relationship between Christianity and Islam has been vitally important in the history of both religions.
6. 1095 The Crusades
Despite this new division, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II for help against an invasion of the Turks into the eastern parts of his empire in 1095. As a result, the First Crusade began on a wave of fanatical preaching to “save” Jerusalem from the Arabs (who had in fact been living there, and tolerating Christians who lived there, for 400 years). In 1099, the Crusaders seized the city of Jerusalem and set up their own kingdom in medieval Palestine. The Crusades were influenced by two forces – increased stability in European society requiring an outlet for its disruptive knightly class and an intense religious revival which saw Catholicism becoming more intolerant of others. One outcome of this intolerance was waves of violence against Europe’s Jews. The Crusades have been cited as the source of much European antisemitism as well as a continued source of mistrust by Muslims for Western intentions in the Middle East…
7. 1492 Christianity Becomes a Truly Global Religion
In the wake of Columbus’s journey to the West Indies in 1492, Spain and Portugal divided up what would become Latin America along a line of longitude which had been set down by the Pope himself. The conquest of Latin America decimated the indigenous population, with 90% of the population dying in some areas. Millions of indigenous Americans adopted the faith of their conquerors. The old Christian messages of compassion and salvation seemed to have been a source of great inspiration for those who had survived. In the centuries which followed, a new pattern was established: more and more of the world was colonised by Europeans and often, though not always, colonisers established Christianity as the religion of indigenous peoples as well as their own. This would be repeated in many parts of Africa in the 19th century whilst Christian Europeans themselves became the majority populations of North America and Australasia. By 1900, Christianity was easily the biggest religion in the world.
8. 1517 The Protestant Reformation
The Catholic Church was widely criticised for being politically and morally corrupt during the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1517, a 33-year-old priest and academic named Martin Luther decided to protest to his local bishop about Church corruption. He wrote his 95 Theses and nailed them to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The early 16th century was the great age of printing, only a few decades after the printing press was invented in Europe. Copies of Luther’s 95 Theses circulated across Germany and became an instant sensation. From there, they travelled all over the Continent. All over northern Europe, monarchs declared for this new vision of the faith – which helpfully allowed them to seize church property in their country. The Catholic domination of Christianity in the West was shattered. Almost 150 years of religious war followed across Europe, in which many millions of people, especially in France and Germany, died. At the end of this period, religious toleration was established as a concept in northern and central, but not southern, Europe.
Voltaire, a leading Enlightenment writer who questioned the role of Christianity in public life
9. 1700 The Enlightenment Questions Christianity
The encouragement the Reformation brought Europeans to think freely began to extend beyond just church matters. During the seventeenth century, voices emerged in Europe which questioned previously accepted ideas like the existence of witchcraft or the Devil and among the Deists, such as Spinoza, whether God was really concerned with souls or the behaviour of individuals. These were much more fundamental questions about whether the Church was even right about God. In the 18th century, Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire went even further and questioned whether religion had any role in public life. The first atheists emerged, often brutally punished, but questioning whether there was a God at all. In 1789, revolutionary France became the first country in the Christian world to completely separate the religion from any political power, the first atheist state.
10. 1945 New Questions For Christanity
During the first half of the 20th century, Churches were often criticised as complicit with cruel regimes, for example with the Tsar in Russia before the 1917 Revolution or with fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. However, both the Bolshevik and the Nazi regimes imprisoned and executed Christian activists. Ordinary Christians took enormous personal risk and sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.
When the war ended, and many newly Christian countries became independent, new questions emerged around whether the religion was a force for change or of conservatism, or a religion of Europeans or the whole world. For many, in Europe in particular, the role of Christianity has diminished to the point of irrelevance from daily life. In many Western countries, vastly changed social attitudes to issues such as sexual liberation or homosexuality were in direct challenge to hardly changed Christian teaching on the subjects. But in Africa or Latin America, social liberalism was often not a significant force and the churches remained extremely hostile to issues such as gay rights. In worldwide churches like Catholicism or Anglicanism (Epistopalianism), tensions between the left and right wings of the Church became urgent.
This is modern Christianity’s dilemma. The world has changed but not evenly in one direction. How the faith responds, now and in the future, is a pressing but difficult matter. Is the religion a force for radicalism or conservatism? Does it protect the vulnerable or the faithful? Perhaps only in seeking an answer to these questions, will another two thousand years of the faith be secured.
What other events from Christian event do you think were important? And what about Christianity in other parts of the world, for example, India, Russia and northeastern Africa?
This Very Quick History features edited material from our book, A Quick History of Christanity, which is available to download here.