CHRISTIANITY HAS ITS ROOTS in the Old Testament books of the Bible with their stories of creation and God’s special relationship with the Jewish people. The pivotal event, however, is the birth of Christ. Documents from the early years disagree about some of the dates, so it is not always possible to pin them down exactly. But as this timeline shows, Christianity has helped to shape much of the history of the Western world.
Birth of Judaism. According to the Bible’s Book of Genesis, God made a Covenant with Abraham, promising him a new land in Canaan where he would found a great nation, and that the Jews would be God’s “chosen people” if they agreed not to worship any other god.
Moses leads the Jewish people out of Egypt in the Exodus. He receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai, en route to Canaan.
King Herod is appointed ruler of Judaea, where Jesus will be born. This small province in the Roman Empire includes what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories. Many of Herod’s subjects are unhappy with his reign.
Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, becomes Augustus, emperor of Rome. Jesus’s parents, Joseph and Mary, will travel to Bethlehem for Augustus’s census.
Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Herod dies and his kingdom is divided among his sons.
John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin, begins his ministry, at the age of 27. Living in the desert, he performs mass baptisms and tries to prepare the people of Jerusalem for the coming of a new Christ, or Messiah.
Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and begins his ministry. He travels around Galilee and Judaea, preaching a gospel of faith and salvation with the help of his 12 apostles, or disciples.
Jesus is crucified on the orders of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, having been charged with sedition (inciting rebellion against the state).
The Council of Jerusalem, presided over by Peter, decides that many Jewish laws, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions, do not apply to Christian converts.
Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire starts with Emperor Nero, who finds them useful scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome. Their active proselytization (looking for new converts) and allegiance to Christ are seen as a threat to the emperor’s authority, since emperors are held up as gods themselves. Many Christians are martyred (killed for their faith), and some will become saints.
A fierce Jewish rebellion against Roman rule ends with the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. About 600,000 people are killed.
Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity. His Edict of Milan decrees freedom of worship for all Roman subjects.
Constantine summons 300 bishops to a Council at Nicaea to draw up the statement of Christian beliefs known as the Nicene Creed. It promotes the idea of the Trinity, or God as three beings in one: Father (God), Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (God’s continuing presence in the world).
Bishop Athanasius authorizes 27 books to be included in the New Testament.
Christianity is made the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Jerome works on the Vulgate, a translation of the Bible from its Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek parts into a single Latin volume.
Death of Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important figures in the development of Christian beliefs. Author of many works, he promotes key doctrines, such as salvation, grace, and original sin.
Saint Patrick brings Christianity to Ireland. It later spreads to Scotland with Saint Columba, who founds a community on the island of Iona. This marks the beginning of Celtic Christianity.
Disagreements between the heads of the Western and Eastern churches lead to the split known as the Great Schism, when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicate each other. The Western church, based in Rome, becomes known as Roman Catholic, and the Eastern church, based in Constantinople (capital of the Byzantine empire), as Orthodox.
Pope Urban II calls for a crusade to defend Christian lands in the East against the Turks. In response, European rulers raise armies for the First Crusade and take Jerusalem in 1099, massacring its Muslim population. Eight more Crusades follow, after losing Jerusalem, but fail to retake it. The last is in 1271.
The Fourth Lateran Council is the most important church council of the Middle Ages. Amongst other decrees, it promotes the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Disagreements over the election of Urban VI lead to a new election of a second pope, who is installed in Avignon, France. The Western Schism brought about by these events is finally resolved when the papacy is re-established in Rome.
After responding to divine inspiration and leading the armies of France, Joan of Arc becomes a martyr when she is burned at the stake for witchcraft.
The Spanish Inquisition, founded by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, becomes an institution notorious for its use of torture and execution to suppress heresies within the Catholic Church. Historians estimate that between 2,000 and 30,000 people were killed during this period.
Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in protest against the Church’s corrupt practices, including the sale of Indulgences. Intended as a call for reform, their unexpected consequence wil be to split the Church in two and start the Protestant Reformation.
After the pope refuses to allow Henry VIII to divorce his wife, the king forces the English Church to break from Rome and make him its new leader. This starts the process that brings Protestantism to England. In 1559, his daughter Elizabeth I establishes the Reformed Church of England, also known as the Anglican or Episcopalian Church.
French theologian John Calvin publishes his defence of Protestant ideas and is forced into exile. The city-state of Geneva invites him to put his ideas into practice, setting an influential example and becoming a renowned sanctuary for religious refugees.
Death of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church and famed for his open-air preaching among the poor. His teachings will inspire the 20th-century Charismatic Movement.
David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, starts to set up missions across Africa.
The First Vatican Council announces the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, which states that certain decrees are inherently correct.
The “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, USA, draws widespread attention to the opposition of Christian fundamentalists to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published 65 years earlier.
The World Council of Churches holds its first meeting. Part of the ecumenical movement, its main aim is to promote unity between the different Christian Churches.
The Second Vatican Council calls for a spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church and greater accommodation with the modern world. Reforms include making Mass more accessible by replacing Latin with the local language.
Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, USA, is ordained the first female Anglican bishop.
Benedict XVI, a German, is elected the 266th pope.