As societies become larger and more complex, its people become more likely to join monotheistic religions. The three most influential monotheistic religions in world history are Judaism, Christianity,
all of which began in the Middle East.
Judaism dates from about 1200 B.C. The first Hebrews were nomads who settled in the land of Canaan near Egypt. Unlike their polytheistic neighbors, the Jewish patriarchs
(“leaders”) and prophets
(“inspired” teachers) committed themselves to one almighty God. They stressed utter obedience to Yahweh in the form of a strict moral code, or law.
Jews call their holy text the Tenakh, which Christians call the “Old Testament.” Within the Tenakh lie the five books of the Torah, which begins with the creation of the world by God's word. The Torah primarily tells the story of the early Hebrews and Yawheh's communications to Moses, which established laws on worship and daily life.
The Torah plays a central role in Jewish worship. During services in the synagogue, the rabbi removes the Torah (rolled into a scroll) from the ark (a cupboard). The rabbi then carries the scroll, capped with a silver crown, in procession to a lectern, opens it, and reads from it to the congregation.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the “Messiah” (meaning “Christ” and “Annointed One”) who saves the world. This global religion first emerged as a sect of Judaism, and in the beginning embraced many Judaic views and practices. Within decades of Jesus' death, Christians began distinguishing themselves from their Jewish neighbors. Much of Christianity's rapid growth in the early years was due to a Greek‐speaking Jew and Roman citizen named Saul of Tarsas. Later known as St. Paul, he preached extensively and planted churches in the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece. Because Christians refused to worship the Roman Emperor as divine, Romans severely persecuted Christians until the 4th century. At that time, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman State. Today, Christianity has grown into an influential force throughout the world, but especially in the West.
The Bible's (the 66 books of the Judeo‐Christian Scriptures) “New Testament” (new covenant) is a collection of 26 books and letters interpreting portions of the Tenakh from a Christian point of view. The New Testament also presents a range of unique teachings, such as the writings of St. Paul, which early Christians sent to newly established churches. The authors of the Gospels, or presentations of Jesus' life and teachings, probably wrote them decades later, though contemporary Biblical scholarship on this topic remains inconclusive.
Christianity represents the largest of the world's religions and is also more evenly spread around the globe than any other religion. Christianity claims more than a billion adherents, though Christians belong to many different denominations (groups with a particular theology and form of organization) that sharply divide the religion. The three largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (which includes such denominations as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Baptist).
The second largest religion in today's world is Islam, which originated from the teachings of the 7th century prophet Mohammed. His teachings most directly express the will of Allah, the one God of Islam. Moslems, or followers of the Islamic religion, believe that Allah also spoke through earlier prophets such as Jesus and Moses before enlightening Mohammed.
Moslems have five primary religious duties (“The Pillars of Islam”):
- Reciting the Islamic creed, which states that Allah is the one God and Mohammed is His messenger.
- Taking part in ceremonial washings and reciting formal prayers five times every day. During these prayers, worshippers always face towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
- Observing of Ramadan—a month of fasting when Moslems may have no food or drink during daylight hours.
- Giving money to the poor.
- Making at least one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Messages that Mohammed received from Allah comprise the Islamic scriptures, called the Koran. (“Koran” derives from the Arabic term meaning “to recite.”) Because the prophet could not write or read, he memorized Allah's words and later relayed them to his students. After Mohammed's death, his followers wrote down these revelations. The Koran sets forth standards of daily behavior and the Pillars of Islam.
Islam has grown to more than 600 million adherents throughout the world. Most Moslems live in the Middle East, Pakistan, and parts of Africa.