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Christianity is the largest of the world's religions, playing a central role in civilization and culture for more than 2,000 years.

Like its parent, Judaism, Christianity contains two essential principles that may appear to be mutually exclusive: its claims to particularity and universality. Christianity claims to be the one true faith, fully disclosed in Jesus Christ, outside of whom there is no salvation. Christianity's claim to universality lies in its appeal to all of humanity through the work of Jesus. By the principle of universality, all other religions are deemed wrong, while Christianity lays claim to being the only path to eternal life.

Christianity grew out of Judaism, holding that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. The first followers of Christianity were Jewish, and the first generation of Christians was almost exclusively Jewish. When the Apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, the large mass of 3,000 converts was Jewish, and they were persuaded to Christianity on the basis of the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

From there, Christianity spread quickly from Jerusalem and was soon extended to Gentiles. While Christianity was made up only of Jews, the Torah remained a part of religious life, as Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abrogate it. Extended to Gentiles, a problem arose. The Apostle Paul brought the answer to it. Called to Christianity after the ascension of Jesus, Paul did not insist that Gentile converts be circumised, or embrace the Torah. There was conflict within the leadership but it was decided in favor of Paul. In time, even the Jewish Christians began to abandon their Jewish roots.

Until the 1500s, there was only one Church body. Until the Protestant Reformation, the Church was centralized in Catholicism. Today, there are four major divisions - Anabaptist, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant - and each of these is subdivided into denominations, particularly the Protestants.


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Feature Article



The Birth of a New Religion

In the early days of Christianity, it is unlikely that those outside the faith understood what it was to be a Christian. As far as the Romans were concerned, Christians were Jews and Christianity was just another Jewish sect. In some ways, this may have worked to the advantage of Christians; since the Jewish faith was recognized throughout the Roman Empire, this association may have protected them in some areas.

However, most of the Jewish leaders viewed Christianity as a threat. In their view, Christians had abandoned the Jewish faith and were encouraging others to do likewise. Christians claimed that Jewish Law had been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, and this was seen as, not only heretical, but dangerous as well.

As the Christian faith expanded among the Gentiles, Christian practices increasingly diverged from the faith that was practiced by Jesus and his first disciples.

Within a hundred years, Christianity was recognized as distinct from Judaism. Christians were no longer welcomed in Jewish synagogues, and the Roman Empire had begun a campaign of widespread persecution of Christians.

Initially, Christians didn't even view their faith as being separate from that of the Jews. The earliest Christians were Jews, for one thing, and they understood their faith to be the culmination of Jewish beliefs, not as a different religion.

How did those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, foretold by Jewish prophets, come to be seen as a distinct religion?

The first Roman emperor to recognize Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism was Nero, but it wasn't meant as a compliment.

For six full days in 64 AD, Rome burned, reducing much of the city to rubble. Despite the story, circulated at the time, and well known today, that Nero played a harp while the city burned, credible evidence places Nero several miles away when the fire began. After hearing the reports, he rushed back to Rome, organizing the fire-fighting efforts, and allowed thousands of refugees to stay in his gardens after the fire.

A rumor was circulated that Nero had ordered the fire to be set so that he could rebuild the city according to his own plans. However, the fire was probably started by accident in an oil warehouse.

Nevertheless, the rumors hurt Nero politically. In an effort to divert the blame from himself, Nero blamed the fire on the Christians, a minority that was unpopular among many groups of people in Rome. In doing so, he became the first emperor to recognize Christianity as a distinct religion. Immediately, Nero ordered a campaign of persecution against the Christians, crucifying some, burning others alive, and setting dogs upon other Christians.

According to tradition, the Apostle Peter was martyred in Rome during Nero's persecution, being crucified upside down. The Apostle Paul was also arrested by Roman authorities, and probably killed by the sword, as it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen.

Christians were a convenient target, as they were hated by the Jews and misunderstood by the Romans. There was also the fact that accusing Christians for the fire made sense to some people, since the Christians taught that a large fire would accompany the end of the world.

Why were Christians so unpopular?

For one thing, the Christians believed in only one god, the God of Israel, which the Romans viewed as arrogant, since it was the practice of the Romans to cover all of their bases by sacrificing to a multitude of gods, even to dead emperors.

The practices and customs of the Christians were widely misunderstood by pretty much everyone outside of the faith.

One example of misunderstand involved the Christian claim that they were consuming the body and the blood of Christ at their love feasts, which can be found in John 6:53-56, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23-27, and Jude 1:12. Christians also referred to one another as brothers and sisters, which were terms that were used in Egypt to refer to sexual partners. When the early Christians shared the Lord's Supper, they wouldn't allow non-believers to watch so, without first-hand information, the Romans began accusing Christians of cannibalism and incest.

In Galatians 3:28, Paul declared, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female." In this passage, and others, Christians taught that every individual mattered, regardless of social status, and the early Christian church lived accordingly. This also offended the Romans.

Roman law prohibited slaves from inheriting property, and Roman custom did not give status to women. If a Roman father didn't want his child, it was allowable for him to simply leave the infant in a field to die. Christians challenged these social structures by adopting these unwanted infants, welcoming slaves, and by recognizing rights for women beyond that which was the custom of the day.

There is also the fact that Christianity was a new religion. To an extent, the Romans tolerated the religion of the Jews because the Jewish faith was ancient, while viewing the Christian faith as a cult.

With the burning of Rome, Christianity became very unpopular among the Romans, but it also became known to them as a distinct religion. Another fire, this one in Jerusalem, served to solidify the walls between Christianity and Judaism.

Although the Romans tolerated the Jewish people, they did not respect them. Around 50 AD, the Jews were observing the Passover in Jerusalem. A Roman fortress towered over the Jewish temple. At one point, according to a secular account, a guard lifted up his robe and bent over indecently, turning his backside to the thousands of Jews who were in the temple courts. In the words of Josephus, a Jewish-Roman historian, the guard then "made a noise as indecent as his posture." As a result of this insult, a riot broke out, in which as many as thirty-thousand people were reported to have been killed.

Over the next couple of decades, the bad blood between the Jewish people and their Roman rulers worsened, and the climate was right for a revolt. Bands of Jewish rebels overwhelmed Roman strongholds in Jerusalem and Galilee, and unrest was fomenting in other parts of the Roman Empire as well.

Emperor Nero knew that he needed to put a stop to the rebellion if was to maintain his hold on his portion of the Roman Empire. He placed sixty-thousand troops under the command of a General Vespasian, who was charged with regaining control over the provinces of Galilee and Judea at any cost, destroying Jewish communities along the way.

As he was preparing to move on Jerusalem, he received word that Nero had committed suicide, and he saw that as an opportunity to take the throne for himself. Once his position was secure, he sent an army to lay siege on Jerusalem, which came back under Roman control in August of 70 AD. Jewish rebels were massacred, the city was plundered, survivors were sold as slaves, and the temple was burned, with only the portion known today as the "Wailing Wall" remaining.

The revolt was ended, and in so violent a manner as to cause people to fear becoming associated with odd religious sects. This shift in the religious landscape resulted in widespread persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, as had been the case in Rome.

The early years of Christianity were harsh, and they were to continue for many years, but Christians were no longer regarded as a Jewish sect. Christianity had become a new religion.

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