The Bible consists of the Old Testament inherited from Judaism and the New Testament which tells the story of Jesus known as the Christ and his apostles, and also contains letters written to Christian communities, especially those by St Paul. Discussion of the Old Testament and St Paul's letters is omitted in the following for reasons of space.
The New Testament Story
The Christian belief is based on the life and teachings of Jesus who, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, travelled through Palestine for three years declaring his message and performing miracles until he was arrested, accused of being a rebel against the occupying Roman authorities and crucified. The authorities were particularly upset by his claim to be the son of God, and therefore the long-awaited Messiah. According to believers, three days after his crucifixion Jesus rose from the dead and for the next few weeks appeared several times to his followers. He then 'ascended' to heaven.
Subsequent to his death, resurrection and Ascension, his apostles (see below) and other disciples travelled through the Roman Empire preaching and gaining converts. Of these converts St Paul, who was in the first place fanatically anti-Christian, is perhaps the most important; many Christian doctrines are based on his letters to the various Christian communities.
In the gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as reluctant to perform miracles, performing them only out of compassion, with a reminder that people should not believe in him for his miracles. The miracles most often mentioned involve making the lame walk and the blind see, from others he 'casts out devils' (a phrase now given a psychological slant by many). A few seem to have a mystical or symbolic significance: turning the water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the feeding of the five thousand (with two loaves and three fishes) and calming the storm on Lake Galilee all seem to fall into this category.
The miracles are often a prelude to a discussion in which a parable, or maybe several, are told. Jesus was not primarily someone who laid down moral laws; it is the attitude and approach to life of his listeners that he targeted. Taken collectively the parables form a set of yardsticks against which the Christian can measure himself. As they are stories, rather than codes of behaviour, their origin many years ago in a largely pastoral and Roman-occupied Middle East does not confine and date them. Phrases from the parables occur naturally in conversations of those who live in societies moulded by Christianity (no matter how secular they have become). A 'Good Samaritan' is a person who helps a stranger in need; a 'Prodigal Son' is one who is wayward; 'to sort out the sheep from the goats' is to separate the good from the bad; 'to turn the other cheek' is to withhold retaliation. There are many other examples. The parables emphasise ethical precepts central to Christianity: returning good for evil, forgiveness, welcoming the sinner and valuing a person for what he is, not for who he is. The most direct statements of Christian ethics in the Bible are perhaps to be found in the Beatitudes, the most famous being 'Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth'.
The 12 apostles were disciples who were particularly close to Jesus; several were fishermen. Notable among the apostles was Peter (meaning 'stone'), who through force of character, or perhaps conviction, was able to overcome his weaknesses. Another apostle, Matthew, symbolises the universal nature of the Christian appeal; he had been a tax-collector (a universally corrupt and despised profession in the Roman Empire). Most notorious was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the authorities; down the centuries his actions, and those of the priests he assisted, have been used as a justification for persecution of the Jewish people throughout the centuries.
The Gospels & Apostles
John's Gospel is generally accepted as being the closest eye-witness account. The visionary nature of his work, however, inclines many interpreters against being over-literal. The other Gospels are called collectively the 'synoptic' Gospels; though there are differences between them, they draw on the same source material. Mark's, the earliest, is a 'no frills' narrative; the aim is clearly to bring the material together and put it in writing. Matthew's is written from a Jewish perspective and has a clear emphasis on putting the story into the context of Jewish tradition. Luke, on the other hand, as a gentile convert, emphasises the universal elements of the story. From Luke also comes the Acts of the Apostles, an account of the early days of Christianity, which significantly gives us a picture of the second major progenitor of Christianity: St Paul.
Whilst Christian denominations vary radically in their practices, virtually all perform the Act of Holy Communion (see below) and hold services on a day of worship (generally on Sunday the day of the Resurrection, traditionally the Christian day of rest), though such activities are not necessarily confined to the one day. A prayer ('grace') is often said at table before meals, especially the evening meal. It may be read or memorised and may also give mention to preoccupations or current events. It is customary for persons in attendance to lower their eyes, bow their head and clasp their hands in front of them or hold the hand of the persons sitting next to them. The prayer always finishes with the word 'Amen' (meaning 'So be it'), at which time those attending can resume their normal posture and begin their meal. It is a breach of manners to begin eating before the prayer is completed.
In general, practising Christians are definably members of a community centred on their church; originally the act of baptism symbolised the acceptance of a Christian as a full member, but in many denominations it is performed at so young an age that there is usually some other recognised form of acceptance, which occurs when a person is old enough to take responsibility for his actions. The nature of this form of acceptance varies greatly, but what is centrally important, and sets Christianity apart, is that individuals are offered the choice of whether or not to accept it.
At the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover immediately before being taken prisoner and crucified, he broke bread and drank wine with his apostles, saying: "Do this in remembrance of me". This has become the Christian sacrament of Communion when by re-enacting this event Christians renew their ties with God. There is no particular time or place for this sacrament, though over the centuries many rites and practices have grown around it, mostly perhaps in the Roman Catholic Mass.
The Christian Calendar
The most important event in the Christian calendar is Easter, which celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus: Good Friday, the day when hope was lost; Easter Sunday, the day it was restored. Very much second in importance is Christmas, which celebrates the Birth of Jesus. The Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts and family celebration is very much a secular affair and not rooted in any Christian doctrine. The older European tradition is to celebrate on St Nicholas' Day (December 6) whilst other churches prefer to commemorate the arrival of the Magi with their gifts. Many other events in the life of Jesus are celebrated in the Christian calendar. The most important dates are as follows: