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Neal G.
As the winter holidays approach,
many children seem surprised to learn
that the whole world doesn’t celebrate
Christmas. In fact, with the heightened
degree of commercialization, many
adults forget that Christmas really is a
Christian holiday.
Christmas is officially celebrated
by only one of the world’s major religions. Christianity is the prevalent religion in Europe, North and South
America and Australia. It is but one of
three major religions that have common geographic roots in the Middle
East. The Christmas season is a reminder that the origins of Christianity
are in the Holy Land. Many do not
realize, however, that Judaism and Islam also hold the region in reverent
regard and, in many
cases, even worship at
the same shrines.
Judaism is the oldest of the Middle Eastern religions. Its origins
reach date to the 15th
century B.C. Members
of Israelite tribes, who
considered themselves
descendants of the Hebrew Patriarch Jacob,
migrated to Palestine
from the south and east.
The region was already
Canaanites, an ancient
Semitic people who had
occupied the region for more than 1,500
years. Moses became the Israelites’
spiritual leader in the worship of their
god, Yahweh (yah-WAY). They believed that Yahweh had chosen the
Israelites to be his people.
At the height of the Israeli king-
dom, between 1,000 and 960 B.C., Israel
included all of Palestine, and Jerusalem
was the political and religious center.
During this period and continuing until
the kingdom was destroyed in 586. B.C.,
the great Jewish prophets studied and
refined many tenets of Judaism, including those dealing with social justice.
In a rebellion against the Romans in
A.D. 66, the Jews were beaten by Titus
(TIE-tus) and forced to leave their homeland. Called “diaspora” (DIE-ah-SPORah), this dispersion forced Jews to migrate to the farthest corners of the world.
As a result of the dispersal, the scriptures were codified, or organized and
written down, in the Torah, so that persons great distances away could read
and know the scriptures.
Christianity began with Jesus Christ,
who, it is now believed, was actually
born in 7.B.C. His public life began
around the age of 30 with his ministry
near the Sea of Galilee. The New Testament, written after his death, attests to
extraordinary deeds accomplished during his ministry. Adapting some of the
Jewish teachings about “God of the Universe” and rejecting some of the more
nationalistic Jewish teachings?, Jesus
taught the love of God and of fellow
humans and that forgiveness of sins
could be attained here on earth. But final
judgment would have to wait until death.
Christianity quickly spread
throughout the Roman Empire. By A.D.
330, the Catholic Church had followers
from Spain to India and from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. Divisions of Christianity occurred and new
branches evolved. Today, the major denominations are Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Anglicans, with
numerous lesser groups.
Islam, the religion of the world’s
Muslims, originated with Mohammad
between A.D. 610 and 632. Born in A.D.
670 into a caravan tribe in Mecca on the
Arabian Peninsula, Mohammad was
able to travel the regions as far as Syria
to the north. Although he had no formal
training in either Judaism or Christianity, he transcribed the Koran, which Muslims regard as the Word of Allah, or
God. Mohammad’s followers considered him the prophet of Allah. There
are many similarities between his teachings and those of Jesus and the Old
Islam requires the total surrender
to the will of Allah. Sins, as well as good
deeds, will be evaluated at the Last
Judgment, the first being rewarded with
hell and the latter with paradise.
The estimated memberships of the
three religions that originated in the
Middle East are: Christians 1.9 billion,
Muslims 1.1 billion,
and Jews 13.9 million.
World Distribution of Christians
Of the denominations
of Christianity, Roman Catholics number 981 million, Protestants 404 million,
Orthodox 218 million,
Anglicans 69 million,
and all other Christians are 282 million.
The birth of Jesus
is celebrated by
Christian Majority Regions
Includes Protestant, Catholic,
Christians, who repand Eastern Orthodox Sects
resent nearly 31 perSource: Oxford Atlas of the Word, 1996
cent of the world’s to©2003
Geography in the News 12/19/03 P. Larkins
tal population of 6.2
Jesus died on a cross on the outskirts
billion. No other single religious day of
of Jerusalem and his death was prothe year is more widely celebrated.
claimed as the ultimate sacrifice that
And that is Geography in the
would “save” others. Thus Jesus’ life is
News™. December 19, 2003. #707.
viewed by all sub-religions of Christian(The author is a Geography Professor
ity as the point of departure of Chrisat Appalachian State University, Boone,
tianity from the older Jewish theological
NC. This is an updated version of an article
traditions spelled out in the Old Testapublished by the author in December 1989.)
© 2003