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READ: Christianity

Christianity emerged among a Jewish population living under Roman rule. The teachings of Jesus Christ included a universalism that appealed to many different communities. Today its many sects and churches include over 2 billion practitioners worldwide.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was Judea like under Roman rule during the life of Jesus?
  2. How were the teachings of Jesus similar to and different from those of Judaism?
  3. How were the teachings of Jesus recorded and spread?
  4. What was the role of women in early Christianity?
  5. How did Christianity become the official religion of the Roman Empire?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How did the rise of Christianity both disrupt and create communities in its first few centuries of existence? Does this support or challenge the communities frame?
  2. From a small sect in Judea, Christianity grew into the world’s largest religion today. How did networks make this spread possible? Was there anything new or different about the networks through which Christianity spread?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


A detailed and busy painted scene. There are many people crowded together, and some are looking up at the sky, where a parting in the clouds shows a group of cherubs holding a cross
By Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Christianity emerged among a Jewish population living under Roman rule. The teachings of Jesus Christ included a universalism that appealed to many different communities. Today its many sects and churches include over 2 billion practitioners worldwide.


Christianity appeared in the early Roman Empire, a time and place in which there was a great mixing of cultures, languages, and traditions, and when it was fairly easy to move around and exchange ideas and practices on roads and sea routes. It developed initially in the Roman province of Judaea, where movements in opposition to the Romans were spreading among Jews. Many Jews came to believe that a final struggle was near and that it would lead to the coming of a savior, or Messiah, who would destroy the Roman army and inaugurate a period of happiness and plenty for Jews.
Painting of Jesus with sheep on either side of him, as well as one resting on his shoulders
This wall painting from a third-century Roman catacomb shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a very common way in which he was portrayed. Catacombs were burial passageways dug in the soft rock where Christians placed the dead and held memorial services. Public domain.
Into this climate came Jesus of Nazareth (ca. 3 BCE–29 BCE). According to Christian scripture, he was born to deeply religious Jewish parents. His ministry began when he was about thirty. He taught by preaching and telling stories, and left no writings. Accounts of his sayings and teachings first circulated orally among his followers. Beginning in the late first century they were collected and written down to help build a community of faith, in books later called the gospels.
Jesus' followers had different beliefs about his purpose, but they agreed that Jesus preached of a kingdom of eternal happiness in a life after death and of the importance of devotion to God and love of others. His teachings were based on Hebrew Scripture and reflected a conception of God and morality that came from Jewish tradition. He said that he was the Son of God and the Messiah (Christus in Greek, the origin of the English word Christ), but also asserted that he had come to establish a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly one based on wealth and power. Worried about maintaining order in Jerusalem, the Roman official Pontius Pilate arrested Jesus and ordered him executed. On the third day after Jesus' crucifixion, some of his followers declared that he had risen from the dead, an event that became a central element of faith for Christians.

Religious ideas and practices

The memory of Jesus and his teachings survived and flourished. Believers in his resurrection and divinity met in small assemblies, often in one another's homes. They celebrated a ritual (later called the Eucharist or Lord's Supper) commemorating his last meal with his disciples. They looked forward to Jesus' imminent return. Early Christians often called each other brother and sister, a metaphorical use of family terms that was new to the Roman Empire.
Jesus' teachings were spread by many, including Paul of Tarsus, a well-educated Jew who was comfortable in the Roman world. After a conversion experience, Paul travelled the Roman Empire promoting Jesus' ideas, and writing letters of advice that were widely circulated. His writings transformed Jesus' ideas into more specific moral teachings and later became part of Christian scripture. The earliest Christian converts included men and women from all social classes. People were attracted to Christian teachings for a variety of reasons: they offered the promise of a blissful life after death for all who believed; stressed the ideal of striving for a goal; urged concern for the poor; and provided a sense of identity, community, and spiritual kinship welcome in the often highly mobile world of the Roman Empire.
By the second century CE, Christianity was changing. The belief that Jesus was coming again soon waned. As the number of converts increased, permanent institutions were established, including large buildings for worship and a hierarchy of officials—priests, bishops, archbishops—often modeled on those of the Roman Empire. Christianity was becoming more formal and centralized.
Educated men who became Christians developed complex theological interpretations of issues that were not clear in early texts. Often drawing on Greek philosophy, they worked out understandings of such issues as how Jesus could be both divine and human and how God could be both a father and a son (and later a spirit as well, a Christian doctrine known as the Trinity). These interpretations became official doctrine through decisions made at church councils. Not everyone agreed with these decisions, however, and splits over doctrinal issues led to the formation of variant branches.
Although Christianity had sacred books, most people in the ancient world could not read, so rituals were more important than texts in the transmission of Christian teachings. The veneration of saints, including Jesus' mother Mary, became especially important. Saints were people who had lived (or died) in a way that was spiritually heroic or noteworthy. They were understood to provide protection and assistance, and objects connected with them, such as their bones or clothing, became relics with special power. Churches that housed saints' relics became places of pilgrimage for those seeking help or blessing, and saints' days provided rest and celebration.

Society and family life

Because they expected Jesus to return soon, many early Christians regarded earthly life and institutions as unimportant. Marriage and normal family life should be abandoned, they thought, and instead followers of Jesus should depend on their new spiritual family of co-believers. Some women and men decided to give up life in the world, and devote themselves to worship and prayer alone or in communities. They established monasteries and convents, often in isolated places.
These ideas seemed dangerous to many Romans, who viewed marriage and family as the foundation of society. They especially worried about women who were not under the control of a father or husband, ideas that many male converts shared. Although in his plan of salvation, Jesus considered women the equal of men, by the late first century male church leaders began to place restrictions on female believers. Women were forbidden to preach or hold official positions in Christianity outside of women's convents. In some branches of Christianity, church leaders were increasingly expected to be celibate, that is, not to marry, which came to be seen as spiritually superior. They worried about being tempted by women, and some of their writings contain a strong streak of misogyny (hatred of women).
According to Scripture, Jesus had harsh words to say about wealth, and shortly before he died drove money-changers and merchants out of the temple in Jerusalem with a whip. Poverty became one of the vows expected of people who joined monastic communities, but this was not expected of all Christians. As an institution, the Christian Church became very wealthy, owning land and buildings, and running agricultural estates and commercial enterprises.

Political developments and the spread of Christianity

In the early centuries, Christians were sometimes persecuted by governors of Roman provinces and the emperor. Although most persecutions were local and sporadic, some were intense, and accounts of heroic martyrs provided important models for later Christians.
The third century brought civil war, invasions, and chaos to the Roman Empire. Hoping that Christianity could be a unifying force in an empire plagued by problems, Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337 CE) supported the Christian Church financially and legally. He expected in return the support of church officials in maintaining order. Christians altered their practices to follow the emperor's wishes. Worship became increasingly elaborate, churches grew large and fancy, and clergy began to wear ornate clothing.
A detailed mosaic depicts a woman, holding a baby, with a man at either side. Each man is holding a castle, perhaps representing their empires.
This mosaic from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople shows the Virgin Mary with the Christ child on her lap, flanked by two Roman emperors, Constantine and Justinian. Built by Justinian in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building at the time. Public domain
Helped in part by its favored position, Christianity slowly became the leading religion in the empire, and in 380 CE the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He allowed the church to establish its own courts and to use its own body of law, called "canon law." With this he laid the foundation for later growth in church power.
As Christianity became more politically powerful, it also spread. Christian missionaries, sometimes sent by bishops, and Christian travelers ventured beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. They brought Christianity to Kush and Aksum (now Ethiopia) in eastern Africa, where in the fourth century King Ezana of Aksum made Christianity the official religion of his kingdom. Missionaries, merchants, and soldiers took Christian teachings eastward and northward, into the Parthian Empire centered in Persia and to the tribal Celtic and Germanic peoples of Europe. Missionaries and converts often fused existing local religious customs with Christian teachings, so that rituals, practices, and doctrines differed significantly from one place to another. By 400 CE, there may have been 10 million Christians in the world; today, there are over 2 billion.

Primary source: The Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the Christian New Testament, contains a long collection of Jesus' teachings, usually called the Sermon on the Mount. Among these are the following:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (riches). (Matthew 6:19–21, 24)
Author bio
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and currently the president of the World History Association. She is the author or editor of thirty books that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Vidi
    Why is Jesus considered to have been born in 3 BCE and not 1 (or 0?) CE?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf yellow style avatar for user SP
      Jesus was thought to have been born in 0 BC and years following were in AD, but due to modernizations with the Gregorian calendar (removing the dependence on religion) people switched to BCE instead of BC and CE instead of AD. Plus, recent evidence has come up that suggests that he was never actually born in 0 BCE, and a few years before (google it if you're curious).
      (3 votes)
  • starky seed style avatar for user Ellie Rose Bond
    "Jesus considered women the equal of men, by the late first century male church leaders began to place restrictions on female believers".
    : If Jesus said women are equal to man, then why did man restrict female believers ? Were they not happy with it and decided to disobey the word of the lord ?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Wolfy
      See, Eve was made from Adam's rib. If Eve was supposed to be subservient, it would have been a leg, or foot bone. If Eve was supposed to be superior, it would've been a neck, or skull bone. God made both man and women equal. Jesus echoes this in his teachings, but this was not a popular teaching at the time, Women weren't held in high esteem. Women were seen as a commodity by men, who often had multiple wives or concubines, depending on their wealth and status. Women had no rights at that time, and while Christian's at first listened to Jesus' teachings, they soon began to forget the importance of certain ones, and continued in historical subjugation of women, going so far as to inject the holy word with misogynistic text where before there was none.

      As much as Jesus taught people, human beings have a chronically short memory, and lapse back into harmful behaviors, which can be called sin.
      I hope this helps.

      EDIT: Equal does not mean we are exactly the same in terms of personality and behavior, it means women are deserving of the dignity, love, respect, and compassion as much as men.
      (2 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user bob
    if jesus is the son of god who is the mom, is it humans?
    (1 vote)
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