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An Introduction
Alister E. McGrath
This edition first published 2015
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McGrath, Alister E., 1953–
Christianity : an introduction / Alister E. McGrath. – Third Edition.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-118-46565-3 (pbk.) 1. Christianity. I. Title.
BR121.3.M33 2015
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Cover image: Interior of the church La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo © Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis
Set in 10/13pt Minion by SPi Publisher Services, Pondicherry, India
1 2015
Preface xii
List of Illustrations and Maps xiii
Introduction 1
1 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 3
2 The Christian Bible 28
3 Christian Creeds and Beliefs 54
4 Christian History: An Overview 121
5 Denominations: Contemporary Forms of Christianity 199
6 The Life of Faith: Christianity as a Living Reality 220
7 Christianity and the Shaping of Culture 251
Conclusion: Where Next? 278
Further Reading 280
Sources of Quotations 284
Index 291
Brief Contents
Preface xii
List of Illustrations and Maps xiii
Introduction 1
1 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 3
The Significance of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity 3
The Sources of Our Knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth 5
Jesus of Nazareth in His Jewish Context 7
The Gospels and Jesus of Nazareth 9
The Birth of Jesus of Nazareth 10
The Early Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth 13
The Teaching of Jesus of Nazareth: The Parables of the Kingdom 15
The Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth 17
The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth 19
Events and Meanings: The Interpretation of the History of Jesus 21
The New Testament Understandings of the Significance of Jesus 22
Jesus of Nazareth and Women 25
The Reception of Jesus of Nazareth outside Judaism 26
2 The Christian Bible 28
The Old Testament 30
Major Themes of the Old Testament 32
The creation 32
Abraham: Calling and covenant 32
The exodus and the giving of the Law 33
The establishment of the monarchy 36
The priesthood 37
Prophecy 37
Exile and restoration 38
viii Contents
The New Testament 40
The gospels 41
The New Testament letters 44
The fixing of the New Testament canon 45
The Christian Understanding of the Relation of the Old and New Testaments 47
The Translation of the Bible 49
The Bible and Tradition 51
3 Christian Creeds and Beliefs 54
The Emergence of Creeds 55
What Is Faith? 59
Faith and reason 61
Can God’s existence be proved? 63
The Christian Understanding of God 65
Christian analogies for God 66
God as Father 67
A personal God 69
God as almighty 71
God as spirit 72
The doctrine of the Trinity 74
God as the creator 78
The Christian Understanding of Humanity 82
Humanity and the “image of God” 83
Humanity, the fall, and sin 84
Jesus of Nazareth 86
Early Christian approaches to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth 87
The Arian controversy and the incarnation 88
The incarnation: The Chalcedonian definition 89
Jesus of Nazareth as mediator between God and humanity 90
Islamic criticisms of the Christian understanding of Jesus of Nazareth 91
The Christian Understanding of Salvation 92
New Testament images of salvation 93
Christ the victor: The defeat of death and sin 94
Christ the harrower of hell: Atonement as restoration 96
Christ the redeemer: Atonement as satisfaction 98
The death of Christ as a perfect sacrifice 99
Christ the lover: Atonement and the enkindling of love 100
Salvation and the “threefold office of Christ” 101
Grace 102
The Pelagian controversy of the fifth century 103
The Reformation debates of the sixteenth century 105
The Church 106
The unity of the church 106
The holiness of the church 107
The catholicity of the church 109
The apostolicity of the church 110
Contents ix
The Sacraments 112
What is a sacrament? 112
The function of sacraments 113
Debates about baptism 115
Debates about the eucharist 116
The Christian Hope 117
The New Testament and Christian hope 117
The nature of the resurrection body 118
Christian burial or cremation? 119
Conclusion 120
4 Christian History: An Overview 121
The Early Church, c. 100–c. 500 122
The apostolic age 122
Early Christianity and the Roman empire 123
Early Christian worship and organization 125
Women and early Christianity 127
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine 129
The cities and the rise of monasticism 131
The fall of the Roman empire 133
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, c. 500–c. 1500 135
The development of Celtic Christianity 135
The rise of the monastic and cathedral schools 137
The “Great Schism” between East and West (1054) 138
The crusades: Spain and the Middle East 139
Academic theology: The rise of scholasticism 141
Secular and religious power in the Middle Ages 142
Popular religion: The cult of the saints 143
The rise of the Ottoman empire: The fall of Constantinople (1453) 145
The rebirth of western culture: The Renaissance 146
Competing Visions of Reform, c. 1500–c. 1650 148
Christian expansion: Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery 149
The Lutheran Reformation 151
The Calvinist Reformation 153
The Radical Reformation (Anabaptism) 154
The Catholic Reformation 155
The Reformation in England 156
The Council of Trent 157
The Society of Jesus 158
The Wars of Religion 158
Puritanism in England and America 159
A Protestant religion of the heart: Pietism 160
American Protestantism and the Great Awakening 162
The Modern Period, c. 1650–1914 163
The rise of indifference to religion in Europe 164
The Enlightenment: The rise of rationalism 164
x Contents
Christianity in the American Revolution 166
Church and state in America: The “wall of separation” 167
The French Revolution and “dechristianization” 168
Orthodox resurgence: The Greek War of Independence 169
A new expansion of Christianity: The age of mission 170
The shifting fortunes of Catholicism 173
The First Vatican Council: Papal infallibility 175
Theological revisionism: The challenge of modernism 176
The Victorian crisis of faith 177
Pentecostalism: The American origins of a global faith 179
The Twentieth Century, 1914 to the Present 180
The Armenian genocide of 1915 181
The Russian Revolution of 1917 182
America: The fundamentalist controversy 184
The German church crisis of the 1930s 186
The 1960s: The emergence of a post-Christian Europe 188
The Second Vatican Council: Reform and revitalization 189
Christianity and the American Civil Rights Movement 191
Faith renewed: John Paul II and the collapse of the Soviet Union 192
Challenging the church’s establishment: Feminism and liberation theology 194
Christianity beyond the West: The globalization of faith 196
Conclusion 198
5 Denominations: Contemporary Forms of Christianity 199
Catholicism 199
Eastern Orthodoxy 203
Protestantism 205
Anglicanism 206
The Baptists 207
Lutheranism 209
Methodism 209
Presbyterianism and other reformed denominations 211
Pentecostalism 212
Evangelicalism 213
The Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches 214
The Erosion of Protestant Denominationalism in the United States 216
Conclusion 218
6 The Life of Faith: Christianity as a Living Reality 220
Gateways to Exploring the Life of Faith 220
Christian Communities: The Life of the Church 222
Christian weddings 222
Christian funerals 223
The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols 225
Christian Worship 226
Prayer 228
Contents xi
Praise 229
The public reading of the Bible 229
Preaching 230
The reciting of the creeds 230
The Sacraments 231
Baptism 232
The eucharist 234
Rhythms and Seasons: The Christian Year 236
Advent 238
Christmas 238
Epiphany 239
Lent 240
Holy Week 241
Easter 243
Ascension 245
Pentecost 245
Trinity 245
The Structuring of Time: The Monastic Day 246
The Structuring of Space: Pilgrimage and the Christian Life 247
Conclusion 250
7 Christianity and the Shaping of Culture 251
Christianity and Culture: General Considerations 252
Christian Symbolism: The Cross 256
Christian Art 259
Icons 262
Church Architecture 263
Stained Glass 268
Christian Music 270
Christianity and Literature 271
Christianity and the Natural Sciences 275
Conclusion 277
Conclusion: Where Next? 278
Further Reading 280
Sources of Quotations 284
Index 291
The study of Christianity is one of the most fascinating, stimulating, and intellectually and
spiritually rewarding undertakings available to anyone. This book aims to lay the founda-
tions for such a study, opening doors to discovering more about the world’s leading religion.
It can only hope to whet its readers’ appetites and lead them to explore Christianity in much
greater detail.
Anyone trying to sense the modern world or the process by which it came into existence
needs to understand something about the Christian faith. Christianity is by far the largest
religion in the world, with somewhere between 2,500 and 1,750 million followers, depend-
ing on the criteria employed. To understand the modern world, it is important to under-
stand why Christianity continues to be such an important presence in, for example, the
United States and is a growing presence in China.
This book sets out to provide an entry-level introduction to Christianity, understood
both as a system of beliefs and as a social reality. It is an introduction in the proper sense of
the term, in that it has been written on the basis of the assumption that its readers know
little or nothing about the history of Christianity, its practices and beliefs. Every effort has
been made to keep the language and style of this book as simple as possible.
Alister McGrath
Oxford University
1.1 The angel Gabriel declaring to Mary that she is to bear the savior of
the world, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; this incident is related early in
Luke’s gospel. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Ecce Ancilla Domini
(The Annunciation), 1850. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 72 × 42 cm.
Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 11
1.2 The birth of Christ, as depicted by Fra Angelico in a mural in the
monastery of San Marco, Florence, between 1437 and 1445.
Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (1387–1455) and workshop, Birth of Christ,
with the Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Peter the Martyr
(1437–1445). Fresco, 193 × 164 cm. Florence, S. Marco, upper storey,
dormitory, cell No.5 (east corridor). Source: Rabatti-Domingie/
AKG Images. 12
1.3 Jesus of Nazareth calling Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee (1481),
by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Domenico Ghirlandaio (Domenico Bigordi)
(1449–1494), The Calling of SS. Peter and Andrew, 1481. Fresco. Source:
Vatican Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman Art Library. 14
1.4 The Galilean ministry of Jesus (map). 16
1.5 Piero della Francesca’s depiction of the resurrection of Christ,
c. 1460–1464. Piero della Francesca (c. 1410/20–1492),
The Resurrection of Christ (c. 1460–1464). Fresco (removed),
225 × 200 cm. Sansepolcro, Pinacoteca Comunale. Source: Rabatti-
Domingie/AKG Images. 20
2.1 The route of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan (map). 35
2.2 The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the greatest wonders of
the Ancient World; after Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, c. 1700.
Source: AKG Images. 39
2.3 The gospel of Mark: a manuscript illumination from the Lindisfarne
Gospels, c. 698–700. Manuscript illumination, Irish–Northumbrian,
List of Illustrations and Maps
xiv List of Illustrations and Maps
c. 698/700. Mark the Evangelist. From the Lindisfarne Gospels,
written and illuminated by Bishop Eadfrith in Lindisfarne monastery.
Source: British Library/AKG Images. 42
2.4 The frontispiece to the King James Bible of 1611, widely regarded
as the most influential English translation of the Bible. The Holy Bible,
published by Robert Barker, 1611. Source: Alamy. 50
3.1 One of the most famous attempts to represent the Trinity: Andrei
Rubljov’s icon of 1411, depicting the three angels with Abraham, widely
interpreted as an analogue of the Trinity. Illustration: Rubljov, Andrei
c. 1360/70–1427/30, The Holy Trinity (The Three Angels with Abraham)
(1411). Icon painting. Moscow, Tretjakov Gallery. Source: AKG Images. 76
3.2 William Blake’s watercolor “The Ancient of Days” (c. 1821), depicting
God in the act of creating the world. Blake, William (1757–1827),
“The Ancient of Days,” frontispiece of Europe: A Prophecy (c. 1821).
Relief etching, pen, and watercolor. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of
Cambridge, UK. Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge/
Bridgeman Art Library. 80
3.3 Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam (1511–1512) from
the Sistine Chapel, Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).
Fresco, 280 × 570 cm. Rome, Vatican, Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel),
4th image. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 82
3.4 Karl Barth (1886–1968). Source: Ullstein Bild/AKG Images. 85
3.5 Mosaic depicting Jesus Christ, in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia,
Istanbul, c. 1260. Istanbul/Constantinople (Turkey), Hagia Sophia,
North Gallery. Deesis (Christ with Mary and John the Baptist). Mosaic,
Byzantine, c. 1260. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 90
3.6 A triumphal procession in Rome celebrating Titus’ victory over the
Jews in ad 70; carved on the Arch of Titus, triumphal arch in
the Forum Romanum erected in ad 81. The New Testament portrays Jesus of
Nazareth as a triumphant victor over sin and death. Rome (Italy),
the Arch of Titus, section of the left internal relief: Triumphal
procession with the seven-armed candlestick from the Temple of
Solomon. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 95
3.7 The Harrowing of Hell, as depicted in Jean de Berry’s Petites Heures
(14th century). Harrowing of Hell, folio 166 from Jean de Berry’s
Petites Heures. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, BNF Lat
18104. 97
4.1 Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. Source: Nimatallah/
AKG Images. 130
4.2 The Abbey of Montecassino. Source: Pirozzi/AKG Images. 133
4.3 A Celtic Cross from Ireland, widely regarded as a symbol of the
distinctive forms of Christianity that emerged in this region. Source:
Juergen Sorges/AKG Images. 137
List of Illustrations and Maps xv
4.4 Thomas Aquinas, from the series of portraits of famous men in the
Palazzo Ducale in Urbino (c. 1476), by Justus van Gent (active between
1460 and 1480). Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 142
4.5 Erasmus of Rotterdam, c. 1525/30, after the painting (1517) by Quentin
Massys (1465/66–1530). Source: Pirozzi/AKG Images. 147
4.6 Portrait of Martin Luther (1528); from the studio of Lucas Cranach
the Elder (1472–1553). Source: AKG Images. 152
4.7 Portrait of the Genevan reformer John Calvin. Source: AKG Images. 153
4.8 Henry VIII (1540), by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). Source:
Nimatallah/AKG Images. 156
4.9 Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (1556), by Jacopino
del Conte (1510–1598). Source: AKG Images. 158
4.10 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924), leader of the Bolshevik Revolution
in Russia. Source: AKG Images. 182
4.11 The opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council,
September 29, 1963, with Pope Paul VI (formerly Giovanni Battista
Montini). Source: Keystone/Getty Images 190
6.1 A Russian Orthodox wedding at the Church of the Transfiguration,
St. Petersburg. Source: © Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy. 223
6.2 Christian baptism by total immersion in the Indian Ocean in the
island of Zanzibar. Source: © World Religions Photo Library/Alamy. 233
6.3 The Last Supper celebrated and commemorated in the eucharist;
according to Jacopo da Ponte Bassano (c. 1510–1592). Source:
Cameraphoto/AKG Images. 235
6.4 Queen Elizabeth II hands out Maundy Money during the Royal
Maundy Service held at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in 2004.
The purses containing the coins were handed to 78 men and 78 women,
the number selected to mark the Queen’s 78th year. Source: Phil Noble/
PA Archives/Press Association Images. 243
6.5 Santiago de Compostela, the center of a major pilgrimage route in
northern Spain. Source: Andrea Jemolo/AKG Images. 249
7.1 Saint Augustine of Hippo in a monastic cell, as depicted by Sandro
Botticelli, c. 1495. Source: Rabatti-Domingie/AKG Images. 253
7.2 Ground plan of York Minster, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals
of Europe. Note especially its cruciform structure. Source:
© The Dean & Chapter of York. 258
7.3 The crucifixion, as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim
Altarpiece, executed c. 1513–1515. Source: Erich Lessing/AKG Images. 261
7.4 Byzantine icon of the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century,
showing Mary with the infant Jesus. Source: Cameraphoto/AKG Images. 263
7.5 The south transept of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, one of
the best examples of Gothic church architecture. The façade was
completed in the mid-thirteenth century. Chartres (Dep. Eure-et-Loir, France),
xvi List of Illustrations and Maps
Cathedrale Notre-Dame (1134–1514; choir 1194–1221,
transept after 1194–c. 1250, nave c. 1200–1220, west façade
1134–1514). Exterior: façade of the south transept. Source:
Archives CDA/St-Genès/AKG Images. 265
7.6 The pulpit in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva. Source: J.-P. Scherrer/
Geneva 2005. 267
7.7 The great rose window above the main portal of the cathedral of
Notre Dame, Strasbourg, France, one of the finest examples of
stained glass in Europe. Strasbourg (Alsace, France), Minster:
Cathédrale Notre-Dame (12th–15th century). West façade
(planned in 1276 by Erwin von Steinbach): Window rose above
the main portal. Source: Hedda Eid/AKG Images. 269
Christianity: An Introduction, Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
At some point around ad 60, the Roman authorities woke up to the fact that there seemed
to be a new secret society in the heart of their city, which was rapidly gaining recruits. They
had not the slightest idea what it was all about, but it seemed to involve some mysterious
and dark figure called Chrestus or Christus (Latinized form of the ancient Greek word
Christos, “anointed”) as the cause of all the trouble. His origins lay in one of the more
obscure and backward parts of the Roman empire. But who was he? And what was this new
religion all about? Was it something they should be worried about, or could they safely
ignore it?
It soon became clear that this new religion might have the potential to cause real trouble.
The great fire that swept through Rome at the time of the Emperor Nero in ad 64 was con-
veniently blamed on this new religious group. Nobody liked them much, and they were an
obvious scapegoat for the failings of the Roman authorities to deal with the fire and its after-
math. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117) gave a full account of this event some fifty
years after the fire. He identified this new religious group as “the Christians,” a group that
took its name from someone called “Christus,” who had been executed by Pontius Pilate
back in the reign of Tiberius. This “pernicious superstition” had found its way to Rome,
where it had gained a huge following. It is clear that Tacitus understands the word “Christian”
to be a term of abuse.
Yet, muddled and confused though the official Roman accounts of this movement may
be, they were clear that the movement centered in some way on that figure called Christus.
It was not regarded as being of any permanent significance, being seen as something of a
minor irritation. At worst, it was a threat to the cult of the emperor (or emperor worship).
Yet, three hundred years later, this new religion had become the official religion of the
Roman empire.
2 Introduction
So what was this new religion? What did it teach? Where did it come from? Why was it
so attractive? How did it come to be so influential in its first few centuries? What happened
after it had achieved such success at Rome? And how has it shaped the lives of individuals
and the history of the human race? It is these questions that the present book will begin to
So where do we start? What is the most helpful entry point to a study of Christianity?
Looking at Christian beliefs? Exploring the history of the church? Surveying Christian art?
In the end, the best place to begin is the historical event that got all of these under way. It is
impossible to think or talk about any aspect of the Christian faith without talking about
Jesus of Nazareth. He is the center from which every aspect of the Christian faith radiates
outward. We therefore turn immediately to Jesus and his significance for Christianity, to
begin our exploration there.
Christianity: An Introduction, Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Christianity is rooted in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, often also referred to as
“Jesus Christ.” Christianity is not simply the body of teachings that derive from Jesus of
Nazareth – ideas that could be dissociated from the person and history of their originator.
Marxism, for example, is essentially a system of ideas grounded in the writings of Karl Marx
(1818–1883). But Marx himself is not part of Marxism. At a very early stage, however, the
identity of Jesus became part of the Christian proclamation. The Christian faith is thus not
merely about emulating or adopting the faith of Jesus of Nazareth; it is also about placing
faith in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Significance of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity
As we have already noted, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is central to Christianity.
Christianity is not a set of self-contained and freestanding ideas; it represents a sustained
response to the questions raised by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Before we begin to explore the historical background to Jesus and the way in which the
Christian tradition understands his identity, we need to consider his place within
Christianity. To begin with, we shall consider the ways in which Christians refer to the
central figure of their faith. We have already used the name “Jesus of Nazareth”; but what of
the related name, “Jesus Christ”? Let’s look at the latter in more detail.
The name “Jesus Christ” is deeply rooted in the history and aspirations of the people of
Israel. The word “Jesus” (Hebrew Yeshua) literally means “God saves” – or, to be more pre-
cise, “the God of Israel saves.” The word “Christ” is really a title, so that the name “Jesus
Christ” is better understood as “Jesus who is the Christ.” As a derivative of the verb “to
anoint” (chriō), the word “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins
of Christianity
4 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity
refers to an individual singled out or raised up by God for some special purpose (p. 23).
As we shall see, this captured the early Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the
culmination and fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel.
Initially, since so many of the first Christians were Jews, the question of Christianity’s
relationship with Israel was seen as being of major significance. What was the relation of
their old religion to their new faith? Yet, as time passed, this matter became less important.
Within a generation, the Christian church came to be dominated by “Gentiles” – that is,
people who were not Jews – to whom the term “Messiah” meant little – if anything. The
name “Jesus Christ” seems to have been understood simply as a name. As a result, even in
the New Testament itself, the word “Christ” came to be used as an alternative way of referring
to Jesus of Nazareth.
This habit of speaking persists today. In contemporary Christianity, “Jesus” is often seen
as a familiar, intimate form of address, often used in personal devotion and prayer, whereas
“Christ” is more formal, often being used in public worship.
As we have noted, Christianity is an historical religion, which came into being in response
to a specific set of events, which center upon Jesus of Nazareth and to which Christian the-
ology is obliged to return in the course of its speculation and reflection. Yet the importance
of Jesus far exceeds his historical significance. For Christians, Jesus is more than the founder
of their faith or the originator of Christianity: he is the one who makes God known, who
makes salvation possible, and who models the new life with God that results from faith.
To set this out more formally:
1 Jesus tells and shows what God is like;
2 Jesus makes a new relationship with God possible;
3 Jesus himself lives out a God-focused life, acting as a model of the life of faith.
In what follows we shall explore each of these ideas briefly; then we shall consider them
further later in this volume.
First, Christianity holds that Jesus of Nazareth reveals both the will and the face of God.
The New Testament sets out the …

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