If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history

By Dr. Nancy Ross, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

How little we know

Almost nothing is known about Jesus beyond biblical accounts, although we do know quite a bit more about the cultural and political context in which he lived—for example, Jerusalem in the first century. What follows is an introductory historical summary of Christianity. It hardly needs stating that there are many interpretations and disagreements among historians.
The Good Shepherd, The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425 C.E., mosaic, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Good Shepherd, The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 425 C.E., mosaic, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Jesus v. Rome

The biblical Jesus, described in the Gospels as the son of a carpenter, was a Jew and a champion of the underdog. He rebelled against the occupying Roman government in what was then Palestine (at this point the Roman Empire stretched across the Mediterranean). He was crucified for upsetting the social order and challenging the authority of the Romans and their local Jewish leaders. The Romans crucified Jesus, a typical method of execution—especially for those accused of crimes against the government.
Jesus’s followers claim that after three days he rose from the grave and later ascended into heaven. His original followers, known as disciples or apostles, traveled great distances and spread Jesus’s message. His life is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are found in the New Testament. “Christ” means messiah or savior (this belief in a savior is a traditional part of Jewish theology).

Old and New Testaments

Early on, there were many ways that Christianity was practiced and understood, and it wasn’t until the second century that Christianity began to be understood as a religion distinct from Judaism (it's helpful to remember that Judaism itself had many different sects). Christians were sometimes severely persecuted by the Romans. In the early fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine experienced a miraculous conversion and made it legally acceptable to be a Christian. Less than a hundred years later, the Roman Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion.
The first Christians were Jews (whose bible we refer to as the Hebrew Bible or
. But soon pagans too converted to this new religion. Christians saw the predictions of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible come to fulfillment in the life of Jesus Christ—hence the “Bible” of the Christians includes both the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) and the New Testament.
Sacrifice of Isaac, mosaic, early 6th century, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Sacrifice of Isaac, mosaic, early 6th century, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In addition to the fulfillment of prophecy, Christians saw parallels between the events of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These parallels, or foreshadowings, are called typology. One example would be Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the later sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  We often see these comparisons in Christian art offered as a revelation of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.

Different Christianities

Unlike Greek and Roman religions (there was both an official “state” religion as well as other cults), Christianity emphasized belief and a personal relationship with God. The doctrines, or main teachings, of Christianity were determined in a series of councils in the early Christian period, such as the Council of Nicea in 325. This resulted in a common statement of belief known as the Nicene Creed, which is still used by some churches today.
Nevertheless, there is great diversity in Christian belief and practice. This was true even in the early days of Christianity, when, for example, Arians (who believed that the three parts of the
were not equal) and Donatists (who held that priests who had renounced their Christian faith during periods of persecution could not administer the sacraments), were considered heretics (someone who goes against official teaching). Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians who belong to a multitude of sects.
The two dominant early branches of Christianity were the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, rooted in Western and Eastern Europe respectively. Protestantism (and its different forms) emerged only later, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Before that there was essentially just one church in Western Europe—what we would call the Roman Catholic church today (to differentiate it from other forms of Christianity in the West such as Lutheranism, Methodism etc.). Christianity spread throughout the world. In the sixteenth century, the Jesuits (a Catholic order), sent missionaries to Asia, North and South America, and Africa often in concert with Europe’s colonial expansion.
Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c. 1427, fresco (Santa Maria Novella, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c. 1427, fresco (Santa Maria Novella, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Christianity holds that God has a three-part nature—that God is a trinity (God the father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ)* and that it was Jesus’s death on the cross—his sacrifice—that allowed for human beings to have the possibility of eternal life in heaven. In Christian theology, Christ is seen as the second Adam, and Mary (Jesus's mother) is seen as the second Eve. The idea here is that where Adam and Eve caused original sin, and were expelled from paradise (the Garden of Eden), Mary and Christ made it possible for human beings to have eternal life in paradise (heaven), through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Christian practice centers on the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is sometimes referred to as Communion. Christians eat bread and drink wine to remember Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of humankind. Christ himself initiated this practice at the Last Supper. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believe that the bread and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ, whereas Protestants and other Christians see the Eucharist as symbolic reminder and re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice.
Christians demonstrate their faith by engaging in good (charitable) works (works of art—like the frescoes by Giotto in the Arena Chapel—were often created as good works). They often engage in rituals (sacraments) such as partaking of the Eucharist or being baptized. Traditional Christian churches have a hierarchical structure of clergy. Devout men and women sometimes become nuns or monks and may separate themselves from the world and live a cloistered life devoted to prayer in a monastery.
[1] There are also nontrinitian Christians.

Essay by Dr. Nancy Ross, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user ChuckRamone
    "Christian practice centers on the sacrament of the Eucharist."

    But don't Protestants and those later denominations not observe the Eucharist?
    (17 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine seed style avatar for user EzraAdams
      Protestants definitely observe the Eucharist. In some Protestant denominations, it's also called the Lord's Supper; in those denominations, it's often not celebrated each week.

      To grossly oversimplify this, modern Christian worship is either centered around the Eucharist or around the sermon. In the Eucharist form, people enter the church; hear Scripture read & explained; take the Eucharist; and depart to serve. In the sermon-centered worship, there are preliminaries, the sermon, and the invitation (or response). Incorporating the Eucharist into a sermon-centered worship varies wildly in format.
      (36 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Shining Star
    Why are there different versions of The Bible?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine seed style avatar for user EzraAdams
      Great question. SimonEJ's comment is accurate.

      To answer your question as literally as I can, there are different versions of the Bible because most Christians do not learn Greek and Hebrew and must rely on others to translate the Bible into their language. This translation work is nothing new - it started with a Latin translation (I think by Jerome around 380 CE). The most famous English translation, the King James translation, was made from Jerome's Latin translation.

      Today, most English translations rely on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. One of the most important, the Codex Sinaticus, is available online: http://codexsinaiticus.org/en/

      If you learn the original languages, you will find yourself reading from this document (or one of similar age called Codex Vaticanus) - which is about as close as we can manage to "one version" of the Bible. To translate this - like translating any other language - will require a significant amount of cultural and historical awareness. Often, when a translation is produced, huge teams of scholars work together to provide as strong a sense of culture as possible to the translation.
      (22 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Quiqué
    If they is only one God then what exactly is the holy Trinity?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Wayne Kindstrom
    What is the reason some Christians are starting to use what they call the sacred names such as "Yahweh" for the Father and "Yahshua" instead to Jesus?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • female robot grace style avatar for user margaretschachte
      In the very beginning, before Jesus established his church, about 2000 B.C. the Jewish people began to call God YHWH. At least that's how they wrote it; the writing system of the time didn't make use of vowels. We believe that it was pronounced Yahweh. It literally means "I am who I am" and refers to God the Father. This is the word the Jews in Jesus' time would have used. The first Christians had been raised as Jews so they would have referred to God the Father as Yahweh, but they also started calling him "Abba"(which means Father in Hebrew) because that is what Jesus had called him.
      Yahshua is how we believe Jesus' name was pronounced in the Hebrew language. The Romans didn't speak Hebrew and found it hard to pronounce Hebrew words. So, when they tried to say "Yahshua" it turned out sounding something like "Jesus". Jesus is the name that has come down to us over the years, because the roman empire was big and everyone in the empire was calling him Jesus. So that is the word most of us use today. Some people like to get back to their Hebrew roots and call God the Father, Yahweh, or Jesus, Yahshua. They both are really the same word.
      (11 votes)
  • purple pi teal style avatar for user helenconway
    I am quite confused by the first line in this article "Almost nothing is known about Jesus beyond biblical accounts..." I'm not sure much about Nancy Ross, Beth Harris and Stephan Zacker where they found this fact but have they not heard of the writings of Josephus (37-101CE) the Roman historian or read Tacitus who lived 56-120CE or Mara Bar-Serapion a Syrian philosopher and that non-believers of Jesus but have historical writings that he existed along with many others that are not biblical accounts. I'm not sure if the writers of this essay are anti-Christian but I find that first line to clearly not be true. Can someone explain this to me?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Dear Helen, you make a good point, Much more than merely the Biblical Account is known about Jesus. But if one were to count the words written about Jesus in the Bible and then add to that number all of the words in Josephus, and Tacitus, both of whom weren't born until after Jesus' ascension so didn't have direct experience of him and then compare the resulting number of words with, say, what's been written about Winston Churchill or someone like that, then the statement that "almost nothing is known" might seem to be more valid.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user stardustcomet63
    He did not overthrow the romans, or organize protest marches. Or even suggest an overthrow of the roman empire. It is true that He did not agree with some of the various scribes and teachers. Because they did nothing to connect the people to God, which was their job.

    He had many prominent Jews as personal friends. I got another one for you: Jesus was Jewish. He had an approach of love and salvation. People sometimes cannot tolerate love.

    He was not a general in some army. He was not a politician. He was not murdered by anyone. He sacrificed His life by His own will. To save us. (Simply put).

    It is true that he was crucified. As he suffered the death penalty (at that time). He was never convicted of any crime. If he was, where is it documented? Source please.
    He was tried at night, which in and of itself was not legal to do. Under the law at that time. Night trials were forbidden.

    Jesus never lied. He simply told them the truth. That he was the Son of the Living God. The Messiah.
    (11 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Cady
    I'm still not all that sure about why Jesus was crusified. I mean, I know it was mostly because the people of Jerulisem wanted him to be the king and rid the world of evil stuff. Did he know that he was going to be killed? Or was he just deciding to leave Jeruselum at the last passover with all of his decibles?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Adira Moore
      The Jewish religion believed in order to go to heaven they must atone for their sin's. Meaning give a blood sacrifice. This animal often was a lamb, goat, cow, etc. The sacrifice had to be perfect without error. The philosophy behind Jesus' death was that he saved humankind because when he was crusified he was without sin. He was the perfect sacrifice. That is why he was called the lamb of God. He was the lamb to be killed in order to atone for human sins, which is in accordance to the Judaic religion. On the second part, yes he knew he was going to die. He mentioned to his disciples multiple times that the lamb of God, would be tortured and killed and would rise on the third day. In the mount of Olives where he prayed its was recorded that He was found crying to God and summitted his own will to God's. Which is why he was called the second adam. the first adam metaphorically. " Let not your will be done, by mine." Where Jesus said " Let your will be done"
      (5 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user sultanwizard.faris
    What does Christmas mean to Christians?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Laura
      Christmas to Christians is the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ. You could think of it is like a big birthday party for Jesus. Everyone gives and gets presents and family and friends gather together to celebrate the birth of Jesus. If you want to learn more about it you could search it. It will give you a ton more information than I can give you. I hope this helps!
      (15 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Farheen Touseef
    I know that jesus got hung because of our sins, but why did they specifically kill him and not any other person, and why do we call him god if he is dead
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user AppersonSydney
      That's a good question Farheen, and there's a really interesting story behind it. During Jesus's lifetime, the religious leaders of Jerusalem (the priesthood) felt that he was threatening their power. More and more people were following Jesus's teaching, and leaving behind the old traditions. Basically, they (the religious leaders) were jealous of his influence. In addition to that, he had performed miracles, occasionally on the Sabbath (which was a day when, according to them, almost no work should be done), and he had said many times that God was his father, and that he was the living God. (See John 14: 6 and John 8: 54, for a few examples). This was blasphemy to them, and they wanted to have his life ended. After arresting him with the temple police, they brought him to their governor, Pilate. He believed that Jesus was a righteous man, who had done nothing wrong, and sent him over to another ruler-Herod. Herod, too, didn't really find anything wrong with him and sent him back to Pilate. The whole proceeding, so far, was illegal, being held at night. The religious leaders threatened Pilate's power as a ruler, and finally he consented to Jesus's crucifixion. So, in a nutshell, Jesus was crucified because 1) the religious leaders were jealous of his influence and afraid for their power, and 2) because Pilate was afraid of losing his power! You can read the whole story in any of the four Gospels.
      And to answer your second question. Jesus has always been God. It is a difficult concept for the human mind to grasp, in fact it's impossible, but God cannot be killed. In his human form, which he took on to take the punishment for mankind, he was literally killed and buried for three days. However, just as it had been foretold hundreds of years before, God raised him back to life on the third day, and he returned to heaven. The answer is simple. God will never stop being God. Humans can never do anything to stop God. This is one of the biggest comforts for a Christian.
      Hope you enjoyed this lengthy answer...and I hope it clears up a few things!
      (8 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user CJhedgehog
    I am a Christian.
    However, I don't understand why the only history we have about the relationship (or religion, if you will) is the story of Christianity in Europe. What about all of the other places?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user