Ophiolites, and discussions on their origin and significance in Earth's history, have been instrumental in the formulation, testing, and establishment of hypotheses and theories in earth sciences. The definition, tectonic origin, and emplacement mechanisms of ophiolites have been the subject of a dynamic and continually evolving concept since the nineteenth century. Here, we present a review of these ideas as well as a new classification of ophiolites, incorporating the diversity in their structural architecture and geochemical signatures that results from variations in petrological, geochemical, and tectonic processes during formation in different geodynamic settings. We define ophiolites as suites of temporally and spatially associated ultramafic to felsic rocks related to separate melting episodes and processes of magmatic differentiation in particular tectonic environments. Their geochemical characteristics, internal structure, and thickness vary with spreading rate, proximity to plumes or trenches, mantle temperature, mantle fertility, and the availability of fluids. Subduction-related ophiolites include suprasubduction-zone and volcanic-arc types, the evolution of which is governed by slab dehydration and accompanying metasomatism of the mantle, melting of the subducting sediments, and repeated episodes of partial melting of metasomatized peridotites. Subduction-unrelated ophiolites include continental-margin, mid-ocean-ridge (plume-proximal, plume-distal, and trench-distal), and plume-type (plume-proximal ridge and oceanic plateau) ophiolites that generally have mid-ocean-ridge basalt (MORB) compositions. Subduction-related lithosphere and ophiolites develop during the closure of ocean basins, whereas subduction-unrelated types evolve during rift drift and seafloor spreading. The peak times of ophiolite genesis and emplacement in Earth history coincided with collisional events leading to the construction of supercontinents, continental breakup, and plume-related supermagmatic events. Geochemical and tectonic fingerprinting of Phanerozoic ophiolites within the framework of this new ophiolite classification is an effective tool for identification of the geodynamic settings of oceanic crust formation in Earth history, and it can be extended into Precambrian greenstone belts in order to investigate the ways in which oceanic crust formed in the Archean.