You heard correctly. Christianity doesn’t exist.
But… “Christianities” do. Tens of thousands of them. Gotcha!
“Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of his Hebrew name, “Yeshua,” which is usually translated as “Joshua” in English. “Christ” comes from the Greek word “christos” which means “anointed.”
According to biblical evidence, he is believed to have been born in Bethlehem in Judea, circa 5 BCE. He was tried for insurrection by the occupying Roman army in Jerusalem, found guilty, and executed circa 33 CE.
During the first century CE, Christianity evolved into three Christianities: The Way, Gnostic Christianity and Pauline Christianity.
The original followers of Christ were Jewish and referred to themselves as members of “The Way.” Among them, Paul of Tarsus had a profound effect on the early Church because of his journeys around the Mediterranean to establish new churches.
He also contributed at least seven books to the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a.New Testament) — more than any other author.
In Galatians 2:9, he listed the Apostles James, Peter, and John as the three pillars of the synagogue that “The Way” had organized in Jerusalem. Their synagogue was led by James, who was referred to in the Bible as a brother of Yeshua.
This movement is now called Jewish Christianity. Most of them lived in or near Jerusalem, many died during the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Army and the rest scattered. The last known traces of the movement are dated in the late third century CE.
Gnostic Christians were mainly located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. They developed their own Christian movement which included the teachings of Yeshua and incorporated elements of astrology, Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, as well as Judaism. They believed Jesus didn’t actually have a physical body… that he only “appeared” to have one.
The term “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “to know.” They taught that salvation is given only to those who acquire special divine knowledge. The movement was heavily persecuted and almost destroyed.
However, it survived until the present time and is now rapidly growing in numbers. Copies of some of their ancient gospels and other writings were discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, a town in northern Egypt. They are referred to as the Nag Hammadi library.
Pauline Christianity was derived largely from the teachings of Paul of Tarsus and his interpretations of Jesus’ messages. Some followers refused to offer sacrifices to Roman Pagan Gods and Goddesses which was considered a civic obligation for all. Thus, they were considered a threat by the Roman Empire.
They were intermittently persecuted, until 313 CE when Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan which introduced religious freedom to the empire. This ground to a halt in 380 CE, when Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica and made Christianity the official church of the Roman Empire.
The consolidation and fragmenting of Christianity into many faith groups:
Control of the Christian Church was originally consolidated among five bishops or patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.
During the 7th Century CE the expansion of Islam throughout the Middle East resulted in church authority being concentrated at Constantinople and Rome.
Over time, the Church separated into three traditions: the Roman Catholic Church centered in Rome, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Communion.
The Roman Catholic Church split from the rest in 1054 CE due to language differences, cultural conflicts, and different concepts of church organization and authority.
Five hundred years ago, during 1517 CE, Martin Luther triggered a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote Ninety-five Theses which was a document declaring his criticism of the Church for selling indulgences to church members. The faithful believed that the purchase would assure that they would have their sins forgiven and that they would be rapidly accepted into Heaven after death.
Tradition states that he nailed a copy of his document to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in Eastern Germany. This triggered the Reformation (also known as the Protestant Reformation) in which Lutherans, Calvinists, and other groups split away from the Catholic Church. The Church of England left from the Church in the early 1530’s.
Over time, the Anglican Communion was established which is comprised of the third largest Christian communion in the world (after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). It consists of 38 autonomous national and regional Churches plus six Extra Provincial Churches and dioceses.
The Protestant Reformation emphasized the authority of the individual believer which accelerated the fragmentation of the Christian denominations.
Today, the total number of Christian groups has been estimated as being on the order of 40,000 denominations, sects and faith groups.
Eric Hatfield, writing for The Way website, said:
- “World Christian Encyclopedia (David A. Barrett; Oxford University Press, 1982) apparently estimated almost 21,000 denominations. …”
- “The updated World Christian Encyclopedia (Barrett, Kurian, Johnson; Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) estimated at least 33,000. ‘Denomination’ is defined as ‘an organized christian group within a country.”
- The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated 34,000 denominations in 2000, rising to an estimated 43,000 in 2012.”
Internal tensions caused by the diversity of Christian faith groups:
A problem has arisen because of these more these 40,000 Christian faith groups in existence. They teach different beliefs and practices. Yet, many — perhaps most Christians — believe that their particular denomination, sect or faith group is the only one that has the “fullness of truth.” They view all of the other groups as being in error. Often, the difference is great enough to cause them to not recognize baptisms performed by other denominations. Sometimes their error is sufficiently serious to exclude them from Christianity.
One example The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (also known as the LDS or Mormon church). They are one of about 100 organizations who claim to be Mormon. According to the Religion Facts web site:
“Most followers regard their particular group, however small, to be the only legitimate Christian church.”
The Mormon denominations believe that their individual church follows the teachings of Jesus and of the primitive church.
However, when the last apostle died, they believe that the Christian Church started to deviate from the truth. Meanwhile, many other Christians feel that their own denomination as remained true to Jesus teachings and that the LDS denominations are non-Christian.
With tens of thousands of groups teaching different beliefs, only one can have “the fullness of truth.”
Perhaps none do. If there is a true faith group then it is very unlikely that a given person, randomly selected from among the more than 2.2 million worldwide who identify as Christian, belongs to the “true” church.
Yet many — perhaps most — Christians believe exactly that.
“Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.” ~ Sam Pascoe
Sam Pascoe, an American scholar and occasional former chaplain to Richard Halverson, the former chaplain to the U.S. Senate.
Anglicanism. (2017). At https://en.wikipedia.org/
Hatfield E. (2012). How many christian denominations worldwide? The Way. At https://theway21stcentury.wordpress.com/
Religion Facts. (2016). Branches of Mormonism. At: http://www.religionfacts.com/
The views presented on this blog are an extension of those presented on the Religious Tolerance website. The purpose of all articles is to compare the full range of beliefs and actions by people who are members of various faith groups within Christianity and other world religions, individuals who are NOT Affiliated with a faith group (NOTAs), and secularists.