When do the movements that form around the memory and the message of Jesus of Nazareth become something recognizably other than, different from, and even hostile toward Judaism? Some sort of clarity on this complicated social and historical question might be gained by noting the first appearance of the word “Christian,” which occurs only in the early second century. A Latin-stem term that designates a “follower of Christ,” “Christian” rests on the Greek christos, the word for “anointed.” In a pagan context, it would connote someone, whether entering a wrestling match or exiting a bath, who would have been rubbed down with oil. Only within a Greek-speaking Jewish context would christos indicate someone with a special religious and social status as “God’s anointed one,” maschiach in Hebrew. In ancient Jewish tradition, priests and kings were anointed into office; and “God’s anointed” became especially associated with the idea of a kingly figure of Davidic lineage. Linked with the figure of Jesus, the term christos proclaimed his status as “messiah.” At what point, then, did Christ-followers start to distinguish themselves with the term “Christian”?
Did you know…?
- Within the New Testament the word “Christian” appears only in the Acts of the Apostles (
Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28) and in 1Pet 4:16, both early second-century texts.
- Though Acts ascribes use of this term to the early 40s in the city of Antioch, all of the texts containing “Christian,” including Acts and also the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, date to the early second century.
- The word also appears in early second-century pagan texts: Tacitus, Annales 15.44; Suetonius, Claudius 25.4; and Pliny’s letter to Trajan, Ep. 10.96.
- Jews who joined some form of the Jesus movement would have made a lateral move within Judaism: their god, their scriptures, and their practices would have remained the same as before. A Christ-following Jew, to an outsider, would seem like a Jew.
- Pagans who joined some form of the Jesus movement had to abandon their native gods, become familiar with biblical and Jewish terms and concepts (e.g., “Abraham,” “David,” “law,” “resurrection,” “messiah”), and radically change their religious practices. A Christ-following gentile, to an outsider, would seem like a deviant pagan.
- For these last two reasons, the term “Christian” probably arose to describe these ex-pagan, gentile members of the movement.
Was Jesus a “Christian”? Was he founding a new religion distinct from Judaism?
The word “Christian” is nowhere in the gospels. And in those texts, the figure of Jesus is nowhere depicted as standing outside of his native religion. The gospels individually vary their respective portraits of Jesus, but they all present him as someone who inhabits the world of late Second Temple Judaism. Jesus frequents synagogue gatherings on the Sabbath and the temple in Jerusalem during the pilgrimage holidays (e.g., Sabbath:
In his controversies with scribes and Pharisees, the gospels’ Jesus offers his interpretations of ways to keep the Sabbath, to honor God, and to participate in temple worship. The parties argue precisely because they share a common commitment to what is religiously important: argument implies inclusion. Gentiles, whether sympathetic or hostile, do not loom large as a focus of Jesus’s mission, and Jesus at no point urges worship of himself. Those characteristics of later Christianity—a predominantly gentile population; a reverence for the figure of Jesus as a divine intermediary between heaven and earth; a measured hostility toward Jews and Judaism—do not appear in the gospel stories. For these formations, we must look outside of Jesus’s own lifetime and predominantly Jewish location, to the movements that bloomed, postresurrection, within diaspora Mediterranean cities.
Was Paul a “Christian”? Was he founding a new religion distinct from Judaism?
The earliest direct testimony that we have from a follower of Jesus comes, mid-first century, from the letters of his apostle Paul. Paul identifies himself as an Israelite, a Pharisee, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents, and member of the tribe of Benjamin (
Paul’s conviction that Jesus, raised and shortly returning, was God’s messiah, compelled Paul’s gentile mission, in which he sought to turn pagans from the worship of their native gods to an exclusive commitment to Israel’s god. To this degree, Paul urged these gentiles to “Judaize”: no other gods and no idols were the first two commands of the Sinai covenant (