Like Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, Christianity is a monotheistic religion. It is based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded by his apostles. It is the world’s largest religion, with approximately 2 billion followers. Most Christians, but not all, believe in one all-encompassing, universal God. The one God is considered to exist in three persons: the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The past 2,000 years have given birth to a variety of beliefs and sects, of which Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church are the primary branches.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in the world, with over a billion members. The Catholic Church claims to be, doctrinally, the original church, and it is the oldest continually operating Christian institution in existence.
The Catholic Church is hierarchical and is separated into the order of bishops, priests, and deacons.
The world is divided into over 1,000 bishoprics, each with a presiding bishop responsible for the spiritual welfare of one geographic area. The primary bishopric is that of Rome, whose occupant is called the pope, believed by Catholics to be the direct successor of the original leader of the church St. Peter (the first of Jesus’ 12 Apostles). The pope and the Curia (his ecclesiastical administrators) in Vatican City are the final authorities of the church.
Protestantism is a broad grouping of denominations within the Christian faith. They originated with groups that separated from the Catholic Church during the Reformation of the 16th century and include their offshoots and others sharing similar principles. In the broader sense of the word, Protestantism is the collective name for various denominations that severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church in a theological revolution propelled by the rebellions of Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church, and John Calvin, founder of the Calvinist movement. There are also some Western and non-Catholic groups that are labeled Protestant, even if they acknowledge no historical connection to Luther or Calvin. The major denominations of the Protestant faith worldwide are: Pentecostal, Calvinist or Presbyterian, Reformed and Congregational, United Churches, Anglican Communion, Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran. There are other minor sects in addition to these dominant groups, such as the Mormons (also called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Coptics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonite, and others.
Most Protestants are considered to be “people of the book” in that they adhere to the teachings of biblical texts. Their beliefs are more abstracted than ritualized, and they multiplied after the translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts. They are also less fond of hierarchy.
Eastern Orthodoxy is in general “Christocentric”; that is, in Orthodox churches Jesus is the head of the church. This branch of Christianity has an extensive oral tradition that predates the actual texts of the New Testament. This, however, does not dilute its devotion to the scriptures. Orthodox Christians treat the Old Testament of the Bible as less important, with the exception of the Psalms and the prophecies foretelling the coming of Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Christian Church teaches that what is sin for one may not necessarily be a sin for another; neither does it see all sin as being the same.
The traditional practice of the Orthodox is to have a spiritual father or mother to whom one confesses.
He or she will have the authority to treat sin on an individual basis and will know when to enforce strictness when dealing with sin.
Christian traditions are well known around the world. Weddings are especially characterized by delightful customs. Christian weddings are usually conducted in a church (though there are some who prefer outdoor ceremonies). The bride is generally accompanied to the church by her father, and the two of them are the last to enter the church, where they proceed down a large central aisle to the altar with grand ceremonial music played in the background.
Depending on the branch of Christianity, there may be an elaborate nuptial Mass or just a plain ceremony with an exchange of vows and rings.
In the presence of witnesses from both the bride’s and the groom’s side, the couple declares their intention to marry. The priest or minister blesses the rings, and the couple proceeds to put them on each other’s ring fingers (the third finger of the left hand). The presiding pastor then declares the couple man and wife.
Christian funerals differ slightly according to the sect, though it is customary for a Protestant funeral to be a simplified version of the Roman Catholic funeral. In the Catholic funeral, a priest is summoned to hear the dying person’s confession and to pardon him or her, eventually anointing the individual with oil previously blessed by a bishop.
Prayers are followed by burial, and the corpse is sprinkled with holy water and blessed with incense.
A Protestant funeral is a far simpler affair. A dying person may have a pastor attend his or her deathbed and say prayers. A church service is held for the deceased and is presided over by a minister. It can be conducted in many ways; at some, friends and relatives get up and relate their personal relationship with and memories of the deceased. During this phase of the funeral, they may also sing one of the deceased’s favorite songs or read a favorite poem or author.
Three things fundamental to most types of Christianity are Communion, baptism, and the confession of sin. Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, is the central practice of many sects of Christianity. Bread and wine are sanctified by an ordained minister or priest and consumed by the minister and members of the congregation in compliance with Jesus’ command at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as the Anglican, Lutheran, and many other Protestant churches, it is regarded as a sacrament that symbolizes the union of Jesus with the faithful. In Baptist churches and some other Protestant sects, communion is an “institution,” rather than a sacrament, emphasizing their observance of a commandment.
Baptism symbolizes the cleansing of sins and the union of the believer with Jesus in his death, burial, and Resurrection. The Christian tradition of baptism goes back to John the Baptist, who, according to the Bible, baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. Baptism in the Christian faith takes various forms including sprinkling water, pouring water, or full immersion (practiced in the Baptist church).
The choice to be baptized is made by a believer as a confession of faith (this is called “believer baptism” or “Credobaptism”); for a child the choice is made by his or her parents according to the parents’ faith (this is called “Paedobaptism”). Differences of opinion exist regarding the nature and practice of baptism. Some denominations, such as the Baptist, practice Credobaptism. They also believe that baptism not only saves but is also a public declaration that one has been saved through accepting Jesus.
The Catholic sacrament of confession, now renamed reconciliation, involves admitting one’s sins to God and receiving penance (a specific task to complete after having achieved absolution from God; the task is intended to repair one’s relationship with God and any others harmed by the sin). Catholics believe that a priest, being a man himself, is not holy enough to forgive sins, but God can and does exercise that power through the ministration of men.

Origins and History
Jesus Christ was born in approximately 6–4 B.C.E., although the exact date will probably never be known. He is called Jesus, because it is Greek for the Hebrew term messiah. It is commonly thought that Jesus preached for a period of three years.
However, though a specific period of time is not mentioned in any of the Gospels (the four accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus that begin the New Testament part of the Bible).
The Christian faith is based on the acts and words attributed to Jesus in the writings of his apostles, and, for many Christians, especially Catholics, the teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. There are things common to the four Gospels in the New Testament (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They all agree that Jesus preached in Galilee and Judea, that his message was one of repentance and forgiveness by faith through him, that Jesus was sentenced to death by a reluctant Roman prefect named Pontius Pilate (d. after 36 C.E.), and that he was executed by crucifixion.
According to at least one interpretation, Jesus declared to the Jews that he was their long-awaited Messiah, but the Hebrew church authorities rejected him and accused him of blasphemy in the year 30.
Christians believe that Jesus was dead and entombed but rose again on the third day after his death. His followers, usually called his Apostles (the 12 closest to him) and disciples, carried his teachings forward.
Though Jesus doubtless remains the most influential figure in Christianity, the man responsible for spreading his message more than any other was Paul of Tarsus (from the town in Turkey). He was not one of the original 12 Apostles of Jesus; still, Paul is considered by many to be Jesus’ most important disciple, and is sometimes referred to as St.
Paul the Apostle. He took Jesus’ teachings to the Gentiles (non-Israelites) and is believed to be the primary source of early Christian doctrine (most of the 27 books in the New Testament are attributed to him). Paul is also responsible for establishing the church as we know it today. It was at Antioch, in Syria, that he founded the first church. Many argue that he was largely responsible for establishing Christianity as a distinct religion rather than a sect of Judaism. Originally known as Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a self-confessed persecutor of Christians. His change of opinion regarding the faith came about on the road to Damascus, where a blinding light struck him down; the vision Paul had of Jesus at that moment reversed his outlook on Christians.
After Jesus’ death, Paul’s message, as the apostles understood it, spread rapidly during the next three centuries with the help of the Roman Empire, which supplied relative peace and excellent roads.
Within a mere generation following Paul’s death, there were already three distinct movements within Christianity: the Jewish Christians, the Hellenistic Christians, and the Gnostic Christians. As the scriptural canon was developed, primarily by early church councils, Christianity’s diversity began to harden into dogmas, especially around theological central issues such as the divinity of Jesus and the existence of a triune god.
During this initial period of development, Christians suffered sporadic persecution by Roman emperors including Nero, Valerian, and Diocletian, and martyrdom became an ambition that many achieved. Their lives, deaths, and deeds were eventually immortalized by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in the perpetual cycle of saints’ feast days. This occurred more slowly in some cases than in others. For instance, although Joan of Arc (1412–31) was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, it was 1909 before she was finally beatified, and it was not until 1920 that she was declared a saint.
The Virgin Mary, had to wait even longer on the councils of men. The actual date of Mary’s death is unknown, but in the fifth century St. Juvenal, then bishop of Jerusalem, asserted that Mary died in the presence of all the apostles and that her tomb, when opened, was empty; from this fact, the apostles concluded that her body had been taken up to heaven. As is true of other Christian holidays, no one knows when the first Feast of the Assumption (of Mary) was observed, but this, too, seems to have occurred during the fifth century. On one thing the Catholic and Orthodox Churches agree, and that is that it was Mary’s physical body that was assumed into heaven. It was not however, until November 1950 that Pope Pius XII (r. 1939–58) declared (infallibly) that the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was an article of the Catholic faith.
By the 11th century, Christianity had spread throughout most of the Western world as well as some way into the Far East. In 1054, however, the Great Schism occurred, splitting the church into the Roman Catholic Church, with its allegiance to the pope in Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which recognized the patriarch of Constantinople as the “first among equals.” The Eastern Churches adopted the word “orthodox” in order to make clear their commitment to the early traditions of Christianity, as well as their resistance to change.
The European Reformation of the 16th century, started by objections to the abuses of papal authority and doctrinal error, spawned the Protestant and other similar churches, not to mention persecution of the dissenters in some countries as well as numerous, and interminable wars.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, groups calling themselves Fundamentalist Christians, aroused by the perceived threat of scientific research-in particular Darwin’s theory of evolution and the new science of geology, which pushed the planet’s age further and further back from Bishop James Ussher’s first year of 4004 B.C.E., and eager for the dawn of Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus-created still further schisms, splitting even large Protestant congregations like the Baptists and Methodists.
The central emphasis of the Christian faith is that, though doctrines and beliefs are important, by faith in the sacrificial death and the subsequent resurrection of Jesus, one is saved from death-spiritual and physical-and redeemed from sin. Christians believe that, through God’s grace, by faith and repentance, one will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Holidays and Religious Observances
For Christians, Easter is considered the most important Christian festival, and its numerous celebrations and observances form the core of the liturgical year, which begins around the time of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere (the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere) and stretches out into summer in the Northern Hemisphere (winter in the Southern Hemisphere). This occasion celebrates the resurrection of Jesus three days following his crucifixion.
Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, and died on the cross to redeem humanity from sin.
Apart from its religious aspect, the resurrection symbolizes the resurgence of hope and a fresh lease on life for all human beings. The actual dates for Easter and its associated religious observances are different for the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the West, which follow the Gregorian calendar, and the several churches affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which continues to follow the Julian calendar.
Because of its importance in the early Church, as well as the appropriation of numerous dates and symbols from early European pagan festivals, what can be called the Easter season begins with Carnival in Spanish-speaking countries and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in French-speaking countries. Both Carnival and Mardi Gras are week-long celebrations that end the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence and fasting observed primarily by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox devout Christians, although the actual dates differ. On Ash Wednesday, the devout go to a special Mass, where the priest makes the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead with ashes.
Palm Sunday is the sixth Sunday of Lent and the first day of Holy Week, marking the last week of Jesus’ mortal life. The day is as much about his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as it is about the beginning of his journey to the cross. His arrival in Jerusalem was indeed the way to the cross. Palm Sunday was originally known as the Second Sunday of the Passion, the fifth Sunday of Lent being Passion Sunday/First Sunday of the Passion. It is called Palm Sunday because the people of Jerusalem welcomed him with palm and olive branches and the laying of garments in his path.
The rituals observed on Maundy Thursday are based on a sequence of events supposed to have occurred during the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, now called the Last Supper. First, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, then announced that he had been betrayed by one of them. At this point, Judas, the traitor, is believed to have left the gathering to meet the Roman soldiers and collect his payment for the betrayal. Finally, Jesus instituted the Eucharist: a ritual of consuming bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, also referred to as communion. In the Roman Catholic Church, Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist, the oldest of the observances peculiar to Holy Week, and gives priests an opportunity to prepare for the many rites associated with Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.
Good Friday, also called Sorrowful Friday, Mourning Friday, and Holy Friday (also Great Friday in the Orthodox Churches) observes the day on which Jesus was crucified by the Romans at Golgotha or Mt.
Calvary. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches hold special services called Tenebrae because the churches are darkened until three o’clock in the afternoon, the length of time it is believed it took Jesus to die. Both Good Friday and Holy Saturday are “aliturgical” days because no communion can be celebrated.
Easter Sunday is the most joyous of the Christian celebrations because it is the day on which Jesus is believed to have arisen from the dead.
Much of the remaining Christian liturgical calendar is dated from this day forward, with the exception of Christmas, the day chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Ascension Day celebrates the Christian belief that Jesus rose to heaven 40 days after his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. Pentecost is a two-day observance also called Whitsunday and Whitmonday, the Christian holiday that observes the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ apostles and the early Christians, about 50 days (seven weeks) after Easter and 10 days following Ascension Thursday.
The Feast of the Assumption is Mary’s most important feast. According to the customs of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, as well as Catholic theology, the soul and body of Mary, the mother of Jesus, revered as the Blessed Virgin Mary (Roman Catholic) or Theotokos (Eastern Orthodox), was taken into heaven when she died. Although this feast ranks as one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church calendar, church authorities do not view it as dogma as Roman Catholics do. Both churches commemorate the Feast of the Assumption on August 15; in the Eastern Orthodox Church this event is known as the Feast of the Dormition, stressing the belief that the mother of Jesus did die a physical death before her assumption. The Assumption is significant to Christians because it is celebrated as Mary’s heavenly birthday (the day that Mary was taken into heaven).
The last significant celebration of the Christian calendar is Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus. The New Testament gospels say that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the town of Bethlehem.
The birth of Jesus (the Nativity) was taken to be the fulfillment of a Jewish prophesy, according to which a messiah would come from King David’s lineage to save the Jewish people. The earliest Christians probably celebrated Epiphany (the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus) on January 6. It was only much later that attempts were made to determine the specific date of Jesus’ birth. Roman Catholics and Protestant sects observe Jesus’ birth on December 24–25, while Eastern Orthodox and related churches celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus’ manger, on January 6–7, following the Julian calendar.
Epiphany is regarded as the last day of the Christmas observances.