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Intro to World Religion

Origins and Sacred Texts of Christianity

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According to the estimate of Deming (2015, 326-27), “Christianity is the world’s largest religion, encompassing a third of the world’s population or more than 2.2 billion people … Today about 20 percent of all Christians live in Africa, and about 25 percent live in Latin America; Europe accounts for another 25 percent, Asia for about 15 percent, and North America for about 10 percent.”

On a very general level, Christianity is the religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, and Christians are the followers of these teachings. But what are the teachings of Jesus Christ? We shall deal with this question in the next section. First, let us briefly describe who Jesus Christ is and examine the holy book in which his teachings are written.

A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF JESUS

Jesus was born in Nazareth and lived around 7 BCE to 30 CE. Jesus was later on referred to by his followers as “Jesus Christ” (or Jesus the Christ) in recognition of his being the Messiah prophesized in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible (the sacred book of the Christians). The term Christ is Greek for the title “The Anointed One,” which in Hebrew is translated as “Messiah.”

While Jesus was born as a human, most Christians believe that Jesus was not just human but also God. He is, in particular, the only begotten Son of God sent to this world to redeem mankind from their sins or disobedience to God.To deal with the nature of Jesus—his human and divine nature—will already bring us to the main doctrines of Christianity and teachings of Jesus. So in our brief description of Jesus, we shall limit ourselves only to some key events in his earthly life and avoid any reference to his teachings or his nature except when unavoidable.

We know about the life of Jesus through the Four Gospels (the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) of the Holy Bible. According to their account, Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary through the Holy Spirit. Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus, of which she was made aware through an angel. Joseph, a carpenter to whom Mary was engaged, stood as the foster father of Jesus. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a manger, he was visited by shepherds and the three Magi or wise men from the East (said to be Mazdean priests from Persia) who, guided by a star, came to bring gifts to the baby Jesus (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). Jesus grew in wisdom. At the age of 12, he was intelligently conversing with the Jewish scholars on matters concerning the Hebrew Scriptures. At the age of 30, Jesus began his ministry to fulfill his divine mission.

Jesus was one of the people who went to the Jordan River to be baptized by the prophet John the Baptist (who was a cousin of Jesus being the son of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth). John the Baptist announced and preached that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and that the people needed to prepare for it by repenting for their sins and undergoing baptism or the purification ritual of water immersion. During Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit appeared and descended on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaimed that he was the Son of God. John the Baptist then publicly proclaimed that Jesus was the prophesized Messiah. Afterwards, Jesus went to the desert alone and spent 40 days fasting. There the devil (Satan) appeared and tempted Jesus three times. He prompted Jesus to prove that he was really the Son of God by turning stones into bread and by throwing himself from the mountain. He also said he would give Jesus all the riches and power of the world if Jesus would only bow down to him and worship him. Jesus was able to overcome all these temptations.

Jesus, accompanied by his twelve apostles, then proceeded to preach at different places in Israel. The apostles were: (1) Simon (also called Peter), (2) Andrew (Simon’s brother), (3) James (son of Zebedee), (4) John (James’s brother), (5) Philip, (6) Bartholomew, (7) Thomas, (8) Matthew (the tax collector), (9) James (son of Alpheus), (10) Thaddaeus (or Judas, son of James), (11) Simon (the Zealot), and (12) Judas Iscariot (who later on betrayed Jesus).

Jesus preached about a lot of topics which included the Kingdom of God, his being the Messiah and the Son of God, forgiveness, love for God and one’s neighbor (and enemies), the power of faith, humility, the proper attitude toward the Law of the prophets, helping the needy, the proper way to pray and fast, uselessness of worrying, murder, divorce, adultery, mercy, hypocrisy, judging others, Sabbath, his fulfilment of the prophecies, the last judgment, the great commission, and others. Jesus often used parables in his teaching. Among his parables were the parables of the sower, the workers in the vineyard, the wedding banquet, the ten virgins, the bags of gold, the tenants, the rich fool, the unmerciful servant, the mustard seed and yeast, the lost sheep, the lost son, the shrewd manager, the persistent widow, the ten minas, and the good Samaritan. And while preaching, Jesus performed several miracles that included, among others, healing the sick (the blind, the mute, the men with leprosy, the crippled, the paralyzed) multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand people, changing water into wine, raising the dead (a girl and Lazarus), calming a storm, restoring demon-possessed men, walking on water, and resurrecting from the dead and ascending into heaven.

The teachings and missionary work of Jesus got him into conflict with political and religious authorities. Some of his pronouncements and actions (such as his proclamations that he was the only begotten Son of God who was sent to the world to redeem mankind of their sins and that he was the prophesized Messiah, and his different views on certain established Jewish laws such as those concerning Sabbath and fasting) were found to be blasphemous by the Jewish high priests. He was also considered a threat to the stability of the control the Romans had on Israel. The Romans feared that he might cause an uprising against them. Specifically, Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority who presided on the case of Jesus, feared that not giving in to the demand of some Jews to have Jesus crucified might lead to some political unrest. All these led to Jesus’s arrest and later on to his death through crucifixion.

The night before his arrest, Jesus had supper to celebrate the Passover with his apostles, which came to be known as the Last Supper or the Lord’s Supper. Three days after his death, Jesus’s tomb was found empty by his first visitors (the three Mary’s) and he was said to have resurrected. He appeared to his disciples and friends, and ate and communicated with them. He told the 11 disciples (Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus) about the great commission—they were to travel and make disciples of all nations, baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey God’s commandments. Forty days after, he ascended into heaven.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the Holy Bible after the Gospels, we see Jesus’s disciples, especially Paul and Peter, carrying out the work of spreading his teachings to various regions outside Israel. The early Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans until the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity then spread further and continued to do so after the fall of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, various scholars and religious leaders at different stages of Christianity’s development reflected, examined, and analyzed the teachings of Jesus, giving rise to different forms of Christianity.

The Holy Bible

The sacred texts of Christianity are contained in the Christian Bible, usually referred to as the Holy Bible. The Holy Bible is divided into two parts, which are called the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament, which was originally written in Hebrew, is basically the Hebrew Bible, the sacred text of Judaism. It contains all the books of the Hebrew Bible with some modifications in the arrangement. The New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, contains the life and teachings of Jesus, the early development of Christianity, as well as Christianity’s belief about the end of time. From the perspective of Christianity, the New Testament contains the essential principles or core of Christian teachings, and the Old Testament provides the foundational principles that properly guide us in understanding Christianity’s essential principles. The Old Testament contains prophesies that Christians believe are fulfilled in the New. Foremost of these prophecies is the coming of the Messiah who would sacrifice Himself for the sins of mankind. Christians believe that this prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament through Jesus.

Just like in the case of the Hebrew Bible, it took many years to complete and finalize the list of books that constitutes the New Testament that we read today. The New Testament is divided into four main parts: (1) the Gospels, which are narrations or descriptions of the life and teachings of Jesus; (2) the Acts of Apostles, which is generally a historical account of the early growth of Christianity; (3) the Epistles, which are letters written mostly by the apostle Paul to the early Christians; and (4) Revelation, which symbolically speaks of the Christian vision of how in the end of time the good will eventually prevail over evil, or how the Kingdom of God will eventually reign in the world.

The Gospels

The Gospels consist of the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The word gospel comes from the old English godspell (which in turn came from the Greek word evangelion and Latin word evangelium), which means “good news” or “good tidings.” The good news of the gospel is the coming Kingdom of the Messiah, and of redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the central message of Christianity. The authors of these books, namely, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, who were early followers of Christ, are referred to as the Four Evangelists. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels (synoptic is a Greek word which means “having a common view”) for their close similarities in form and content and for relying on a common source. Scholars name this hypothetical common source as the Q Gospel, from the German quelle, meaning “source.” It is said that the book of Mark was written first, for the books of Matthew and Luke are said to have used the book of Mark (in addition to the Q Gospel) as a source. The book of John is not included in the Synoptic Gospels, and as such can be called a non-Synoptic Gospel, for its differences from the other Gospels in terms of form and content. The book of John is said to have separate sources (see Molloy 2010, 357-358).

The four Gospels are usually likened to different ways that artists would represent the same object or event. The Synoptic Gospels generally emphasize the role of Jesus as the messianic teacher and healer sent by God or as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. Scholars note, however, that their intended audience are different. Matthew is primarily addressed to the Jews, Mark to the Christians in Rome, and Luke to the Greeks. The book of John, on the other hand, emphasizes the mystery of Jesus being the incarnation of God, or the divine nature of Jesus being the Son of God. It is designed to appeal to all ethnic groups.

Acts of the Apostles

The book of the Acts of Apostles describes the early stage of the development of Christianity. It narrates how Christianity as a religion began and propagated first among the Jews and later on among the Gentiles (the non-Jews), from the ascension of Jesus into heaven until the time when the apostle Paul preached in Rome. It also shows the dedication and sacrifices of the apostles, primarily Peter and Paul, as they preached the teachings of Christianity in various regions.The Acts of Apostles is widely believed to have been written by Luke, the same author of the book of Luke of the Gospels. It is in fact believed that the books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles originally constituted one continuous account of the origin and development of Christianity by the same author which was later on divided into two parts.

Among the highlights of the book are as follows: Within the period of 40 days between the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension to heaven, Jesus appeared to the apostles and to his mother Mary and friends in various times. The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and gave them the gift of tongues or the ability to speak various languages (this event has been called the Pentecost). Peter’s preaching resulted in many conversions and baptisms. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and other Christians were persecuted by Jews, which included Saul (from Tarsus). Saul, on his way to Damascus to lead the persecution of further Christians, had a vision (Saul went blind for three days until his sight was restored by Ananias, a Christian), which led to his conversion to Christianity. Peter also had a vision in which food considered unclean in Jewish tradition was made clean by God. He interpreted this as God’s message that the gospel must also be preached to the Gentiles or that salvation must be for everyone and not just for the Jews. Saul, changing his name to Paul after his conversion, travelled in various places, vigorously propagating Christianity especially among the Gentiles. Peter and Paul performed miracles which included curing the sick and making a lame person walk. Due to resistance from certain Jews in power, Peter and Paul, along with their companions, were put to prison several times but God always helped them escape (sometimes through an angel, sometimes through an earthquake). The disciples of Christ were first called Christians at Antioch.

The Epistles

The Epistles refer to the 21 letters in the Bible. The word epistle comes from the Greek work epistole, which means “letter” or “message.’The Epistles expound on the great themes of God’s saving work on the cross; thus they play a major role in the formation of doctrines throughout the development of Christian churches. These letters were written either by an apostle (Paul, Peter, John) or a family member of Jesus (James, Jude), except for Hebrews whose author is unknown (it was first attributed to Paul but later experts doubted it due to the writing style).The Epistles are divided into two classes: the Pauline Epistles and the General (or Universal) Epistles (Molloy 2010, 360).

The Pauline Epistles, consisting of the first thirteen letters, were written by Paul. They were addressed to individuals and particular churches and dealt with specific issues or problems. Some of the letters were written by Paul while in prison, so they have been called Prison Epistles. The letters addressed to individual church leaders and dealt with ministerial matters are called Pastoral Epistles. The General Epistles, consisting of the remaining eight letters, were written by other apostles: one by an unknown apostle, three by John, two by Peter, and one each by James and Jude. Written for a general audience, these letters are sometimes also called Catholic Epistles.

21 Epistles

13 Pauline Epistles

8 General Epistles

1. Romans;

2. 1 Corinthians;

3. 2 Corinthians;

4. Galatians;

5. Ephesians (Prison Epistle);

11. 2 Timothy (Pastoral Epistle);

12. Titus (Pastoral Epistle);

13. Philemon (Prison Epistle)

14. Hebrews;

15. James;

16. 1 Peter;

6. Philippians (Prison Epistle);

7. Colossians (Prison Epistle);

8. 1Thessalonians;

9. 2Thessalonians;

10. 1Timothy (Pastoral Epistle);

17. 2 Peter;

18. 1 John;

19. 2 John;

20. 3 John;

21. Jude

Revelation

The book of Revelation (written around 95 CE) is the last book of the Christian Bible. It symbolically describes how the battle between good and evil would come to an end as revealed in visions. In particular, it symbolically describes how the forces of evil (Satan’s army) will be finally defeated and the Kingdom of God will finally reign in the world. It is considered an example of apocalyptic literature, referring to writings that describe how the end of the world would come about. The author of this book, the one narrating his visions which he believes are revelations from Jesus Christ, names himself in the text as “John of Patmos” (Patmos is a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea). It is traditionally believed that this is the apostle John, the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, but some present-day scholars doubt this, claiming that the author, though certainly a Christian, may be a different John.

The book is divided into two parts and it is the second part (the longer part) that contains the visions and symbolisms. The first part (Chapters 2-3) are letters to the seven Christian churches of Asia Minor (presently referring to Turkey), and they contain moral admonitions (but no visions or symbolisms). The said churches referred to the churches of (1) Ephesus, which was advised to return to its first love; (2) Smyrna, which was advised to endure persecution; (3) Pergamum, which was advised to repent; (4) Thyatira, which was advised to remove its false prophetess; (5) Sardis, which was advised to wake up from its sleep; (6) Philadelphia, which was advised to continue its patient endurance; and (7) Laodicea, which was advised to end its lukewarm faith. Though these were actual churches in the past, they also represented seven different forms of churches throughout history.

The second part (Chapters 4-22.5) of Revelation contains the visions and symbolisms. The symbols include the following: angels, whore of Babylon, beast, lamb, lion, horse, horsemen, locusts, bottomless pit, star, fire, smoke, dragon, woman, bowl, trumpets, and certain numbers (like 7,3, and 666). As these symbols are largely unexplained in the book, scholars have different interpretations of what they mean or are intended to mean. The book of Revelation culminates in the prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

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