Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Religion Survey: Christianity

Last week I discussed presenting a brief review of world religions, in order to foster respect for the diversity that religious pluralism in the U.S. brings. This is the second article in the series. For an overview of Judaism, please see yesterday’s post.  It is not possible to convey the depth of a religious belief system in 500 words or less. These posts are intended to be a high-level introduction to the origin, founder (if any), holy book(s), principles, and major holy days or celebrations of each of these faiths. I will also attempt to provide references for deeper study.

Religion: Christianity

Origin:
Jesus of Nazareth may have been born between ~7 BCE and 3 CE. Tradition has it that he began his work of teaching at the age of 30, taught for 3 years, and was executed by the Romans at the age of 33.

His life is recounted in numerous Christian writings.  The Epistles date to about 20 years after his death, and the Gospels to later in the 1st century [1].  Four accounts of his life have been accepted as Canonical. Scholars generally agree that Jesus existed.

Founder:
Tradition has it that Jesus had 12 Apostles, or followers. One of these, Peter, was selected to be the leader after Jesus’ death. Peter led a group of Jewish Christians.

Saul was a Jewish man who persecuted the Christians until an event occurred that changed his perspective. His name was changed to Paul, and he began to spread Christianity among the Gentiles (non-Jews).

Holy Book(s):

The Bible, divided into two sections:
  1.   The Old Testament, which is the Christian name for most of the books in the Tanakh
  2.  The New Testament, which includes
    • Four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
    •  The Epistles, or letters attributed to the Apostles
    • The book of Revelation
Note that the number of books varies across denominations.  The Catholics have retained a set of books called the Apocrypha, that are usually omitted from Protestant Bibles.

Principles:
There are many different branches of Christianity, which have varying beliefs.

Most Christian beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed.

Major Holy Days / Celebrations:
  • Christmas in Christianity is the religious celebration of Jesus’ birth. While textual evidence suggests Jesus was born in March, Christmas is celebrated in December at about the time of the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice.
  •  Easter is the religious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection after his death.
    • Western (Catholic & Protestant) traditions celebrate this on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  This often overlaps the Jewish Pesach, or Passover.
    • Eastern (Orthodox) traditions celebrate Easter after Pesach / Passover, often about a week later than their Western counterparts.
  • Additional days are celebrated depending on the denomination and the local culture.
Major groupings / divisions of the religion:
Conversion:
Christianity is a "universal" religion, open to all peoples. The process of becoming Christian depends on the denomination and the age of the individual, but nearly always requires a baptism with water.

For children: some churches (including the Catholic and Orthodox traditions) practice infant baptism. Other churches (usually Protestant denominations) may not baptize until the individual is old enough to request it.

For adults: Each church will have their own process. It may well require classes. Most Christian churches recognize each other's baptisms (a few do not). Some churches, like the Roman Catholic, require additional sacraments.

In addition to online resources:
  • Visit your local Christian churches. There are many different denominations with wildly different perspectives on life, the universe, and everything.
  • New Advent, the online Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Search on the specific denomination.
For a Historical perspective:
These were some of my textbooks from both undergraduate and graduate coursework in history of the Ancient (Western, <sigh>) World.
They are academic books, and not Christian-centered. They help with putting the Bible in context with the other cultures of the region.
From the Religious Studies perspective:
These were textbooks in my undergraduate Religious Studies coursework: