Christianity is easily and frequently misunderstood (especially by Christians). I hope to quickly demonstrate that being a Christian does not necessitate being naive, irrational, or ignorant of history.
From that foundation I want to paint a portrait of what human identity can look like and show that said portrait can be accepted regardless of your belief system. But it will take a cursory knowledge of Christianity to comprehend that portrait.
You don’t have to buy the Christian interpretation of history lock, stock, and barrel in order to get what they’re talking about, nor to accept in general (even if not in total) its worldview.
To understand Christianity means to know some bits of history, know how they are interpreted by Christians, and know what beliefs about the world Christians make from said interpretation.
The first step is to delve into Judaism.
Hopefully it’s obvious that Jesus was Jewish. Christianity sees itself as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, just as Islam sees itself as the culmination of Christianity.
The Jewish people are an historical oddity, plain and simple. Much as the emergence of Christianity has to be historically explained because it is so unlikely, the sustaining of a Jewish identity as a cultural and ethnic group likewise has to be explained against incredible odds.
This much is undisputed history: the cultural / ethnic / religious group now identified as Judaism traces back, at least, to approximately 1800 BC and possibly earlier.
Throughout history there have been several such groups of people, and typically with the rise and fall of empires and nations, these groups end up being assimilated into others (i.e., no one currently identifies as a Roman, or Saxon, or Vandal, or Babylonian, or Sumerian, etc.).
The Jewish people have managed to buck the fate that has felled nearly every other cultural group and have maintained a strong and distinct cultural and religious identity for over 4,000 years, despite the fact that Jewish history is colored by self-rule for only approximately 300-500 of those years; the remainder has seen them as subjects of several empires, including most of the infamous empires that typically destroyed every other cultural group they assimilated – the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans.
The group of people who became the Jews were slaves in the Egyptian Empire for a long period of time, and somewhere likely between 1400 – 1200 BC became semi-nomadic and traveled to the area of Canaan (modern Palestine) and established some sort of kingdom there around 1000 BC, part of which was conquered by the Assyrians near 700 BC and the remainder by the Babylonians close to 580 BC.
From that point they were ruled by several succeeding dynasties and empires, ultimately were dispersed from Canaan with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and returned in large part after World War II when Israel was granted statehood by the United Nations.
The Jewish self-understanding and identity is that they are the descendants of a man named Abraham, who was the only person who responded to the call of a god sometime in the distant past. Turns out this god was actually the Creator of the Universe, and Abraham made a covenant with God stating that he and his descendants would worship only Him, and in return God promised to bless them and make them His special chosen people to guide everyone else in the world to choose to know and worship Him.
From Abraham comes his son Isaac, then Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons who would become the fathers of the 12 tribes that made up the nation of Israel. Jacob’s favorite son Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers.
Through a series of divinely-guided situations over several years, Joseph rose to the position of running the government affairs for the Pharaoh, and in time of great famine revealed his identity to his brothers, forgave them for what they had done to him, and moved his entire family to Egypt, where over a period of many decades his family grew into a nation that became so numerous that the Egyptians enslaved them out of fear of their large numbers.
After 400 years, God directed Moses to free the Jewish people from slavery. They left Egypt and were directed to Canaan, the land which God had promised to Abraham.
Over roughly 200 – 300 years, the Jews struggled with the inhabitants of Canaan to win control of the land, and their fortunes ebbed and flowed along with their loyalty to worshiping God. Eventually, a man named David established a strong monarchy, and David’s son Solomon ruled a vibrant nation centered in Jerusalem, where Solomon built a massive temple to God.
After Solomon died, his son was not loyal to God, and the kingdom split in two: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. A series of kings ruled both nations, but Israel fell completely away from worshiping God; God warned Israel through several prophets to turn away from the gods they were now worshiping and return to Him, but they didn’t listen and were conquered by the Assyrian Empire.
The southern kingdom of Judah, along with the city of Jerusalem, endured for almost 150 more years before they, too, turned away from God and were conquered by the Babylonian Empire.
Most of the Jewish population were sent into exile by the Babylonians, only to be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild many of their cities (and the temple) after the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians.
The Jewish people remained in Canaan under the rule of several different empires (Persia to Alexander, Alexander to his successors, then finally to Rome after a very brief period of independence).
Prophecies had come through the Isaiah during the last decades of the kingdom of Judah and through other later prophets that told of God’s faithfulness to Israel even though they had abandoned Him and even though it appeared He in turn abandoned them.
The prophecies spoke of an anointed one, a savior (messiah), who God would send to save Israel from its captivity.
Those who are Jewish in faith today are still awaiting this messiah 2,500 years later, or are attempting a new understanding of what God meant by those prophecies.
Those who are Christian believe that messiah came 2,000 years ago as Jesus. His mission was not to save Israel from political captivity, but to save them from the captivity they kept falling into as a people: the rebellion in their hearts that kept them turning away from God.
Not only did He come to set Israel free, but to spread the Good News that this freedom was for ALL people who would turn to God and worship Him.
At the heart of how this works within Christian theology is something that we understand as a metaphor but has become alien to us in the West, despite the fact that it is at the center of almost every ancient religion and human world view: sacrifice.