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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Christian (the Name)

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CHRISTIAN (The Name).—The word ‘Christian’ occurs in the NT only in Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28 (about 20 years later), and 1 Peter 4:16. The author of Acts alludes to it once in his earlier treatise (Luke 6:22), however, putting into the mouth of Jesus a sentiment whose linguistic form, at least, is coloured by the experiences and terminology of the Apostolic age. In some other passages where it is apparently mentioned (e.g. Acts 5:41, James 2:7), the ‘name’ is not ‘Christian’ but ‘Christ,’ while the references in Josephus (Ant. xviii. iii. 3) and the Pompeii inscription (CIL [Note: IL Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.] iv. 679), it may be noted in passing, are too uncertain to be used as evidence for the title. Other and later inscriptions, however, are accessible.

For the origin and primitive usage of the term we are thus thrown back upon the three first-named passages. Of these, the fontal reference in Acts 11:26 explains that the name by which the religion of Jesus has been known for nineteen centuries was coined by the pagan slang of Antioch on the Orontes, a city which, like Alexandria, was noted for its nicknames. Yet the title is not a rough sobriquet. It expresses a certain contempt, but not derision, though St. Luke does not inform us whether it was coined by the mob or by government officials. ‘Christian’ (Χριστιανός) simply means ‘a follower of Christ,’ just as Pompeianus or Herodianus denotes ‘a follower or partisan of Pompey’ or ‘of Herod.’ ‘Christ’ was thus taken as a proper name. It meant no more to these Syrian pagans than some leader of revolt or obscure religious fanatic in Palestine. His name was ever on the lips of a certain set of people, and it was but natural that these should, for the sake of convenience, be distinguished as ‘Christ’s adherents’ or ‘Christians.’ Unconsciously, in giving the title—which there is no evidence to show was applied previously to Jews—these citizens of Antioch were emphasizing one deep truth of the new religion, viz. that it rested not on a dogma or upon an institution, but on a person; and that its simple and ultimate definition was to be found in a relationship to Jesus Christ, whether ‘Christos’ to these Syrian Antiochenes was some strange god (Acts 17:18) or a Jewish agitator. An outstanding trait in the Christians whom Pliny found in Bithynia was that they ‘sang a hymn to Christ as to a god’ (Plin. Ep. x. 90, ad Trajan.) at worship. From the impression made by facts and features like this, it was but a step to designate the new sect as ‘Christ’s folk or party.’

It was neither the original nor the chosen name of believers in Jesus Christ. Their inner titles (see Weizsäcker’s Apost. Age. i. p. 43 f.) were ‘brethren,’ ‘disciples,’ and ‘saints,’ all of which preceded, and for some time survived alongside of, ‘Christians.’ Nor could the title have been coined by the Jews, who would never have admitted that Jesus of Nazareth was the ‘Christ.’ To them believers in Jesus were ‘Nazarenes’ or ‘Galilaeans.’ It was the pagan community of Antioch alone that would invent and apply this title. Now a name implies life. Titles are not required unless and until a definite, energetic fact emerges. And the need evidently felt for some such designation as ‘Christian’ arose from two causes: (a) from the conspicuous extension of the new movement throughout the country and the city, and (b) more particularly from the predominance of Gentile Christians, who could not be provisionally grouped, like most of their Jewish fellow-believers, with the community and worship of Judaism. There was a Jewish ghetto at Antioch. But the local, heterogeneous paganism yielded an incomparably richer harvest to the efforts of the Christian age is, so that the general success of the movement produced, for the first time, a noticeable alteration in the proportions of Jewish and Gentile Christians—so noticeable, indeed, that, as the historian points out, it necessitated an attempt on the part of the outside public to verbally classify the adherents of the new faith. The significance of this step is patent to the historian. He signalizes the crisis. The Christianity he knew was overwhelmingly a Gentile Christianity, and in Acts 11:26 he is keen to mark its debut, as well as to suggest that the name ‘Christian’ was primarily and principally applied to Gentile Christians. ‘Truly,’ as Renan observes, ‘it is remarkable to think that, ten years after Jesus died, His religion already possessed, in the capital of Syria, a name in the Greek and Latin languages. Christianity speaks Greek, and is now finally launched into that great vortex of the Greek and Roman world which it will never leave.’ Its weaning from the breast of Judaism had commenced. And this was due to that increasing sense of Christ’s personal authority which has been already noted (cf. Amiel’s Journal Intime, English translation p. 3f.). The more the significance of this came to be grasped, as the new faith expanded beyond the precincts of Judaism, the more did the distinctive universalism of the Gospel assume its true place.

For, while the basal conception of ‘Christian’ is Semitic (‘Christ’), the linguistic termination (-ieni) is either Latin or (more probably) Greek. Even were it Latin, it would be hasty to attribute (with Baur) the origin of the term to Rome, where Tacitus is our first pagan witness for its currency about a.d. 110. Early designations in -ιανός (cf. Mark 3:6, Justin’s Dial. 35) were not infrequent among the Greeks of Asia Minor, and it is arbitrary scepticism to hold that St. Luke in Acts 11:26 must have antedated and misplaced the origin of the name, or that Tacitus has done the same. The latter (Annal. xv. 44) describes Nero’s victims as ‘men whom the common people loathed for their secret crimes, calling them Chrestians. The name was derived from Christ, who had been put to death by Pontius Pilate, the procurator, during the reign of Tiberius.’ Long before that period it must have been the interest of the Jews and Christians alike to differentiate themselves to some degree, one from the other. And the circumstances of the Neronic émeute, which was probably instigated by the Jews, must have made the distinction plain, once and for all, to the local authorities. The inherent probabilities of the case, therefore, seem to preclude any reasonable suspicion of a hysteron-proteron upon the part of the Roman historian; nor is it unnatural, even for rigid historical criticism, to admit that the distinctive name of ‘Christian’ may have been coined and current nearly twenty years earlier upon the banks of the Orontes. In short, both passages in Acts give one the impression of being historically authentic reminiscences; had the author been more anxious to emphasize the new name, he would not have employed it so sparely and incidentally. It is curious to notice that, outside the Church, Epictetus, slightly later than Paul, used ‘Galilaeans,’ while Marcus Aurelius employed ‘Christians.’

In 1 Peter 4:16 (cf. Luke 6:22, John 16:2), together with Pliny’s letters (Epp. x. 96, 97) less than fifty years later, we catch one glimpse of the connexion between the name ‘Christian’ and the civil or social penalties in which it involved believers (cf. Mommsen and Ramsay in Expositor, 4th series [1893], vol. viii.). To ‘suffer as a Christian’ i.e. (for being a Christian) covers a wide range of experience, from molestation to official and even capital punishment. The latter extreme, however, is not prominent in this passage, although the term ἀπολογία certainly suggests it. But the vague outline of 1 Peter 4:14-17 is filled out and vividly coloured by the later evidence of Pliny and of the 2nd cent. martyrs’ literature, which shows how Christianity was treated as a forbidden or illicit religion, hostile to the national cult, and therefore exposing any of its adherents, without further question, to the punishment of death.

How soon and how far the mere name of ‘Christian’ was thus a capital offence, it is not easy to determine, but by the 2nd cent. the ordinary formula of confession before a magistrate was, ‘I am a Christian.’ This was put forward as the natural and sufficient reason for refusing to swear by the genius of the Emperor, and it was usually accepted by the authorities as final. Polycarp’s martyrdom at Smyrna is our earliest case in point. But the story of the martyr Sanctus in Gaul, not long afterwards, shows how widespread was this habit. When tortured by the authorities, ‘he steeled himself so firmly against them, that he would not so much as tell his name or nation or city. All his answer to their inquiries was, “I am a Christian” ’ (Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica v. I). Pliny’s account of his own judicial proceedings is equally blunt and plain. When people were accused of Christianity, he writes, ‘I asked them personally whether they were Christians; if they confessed it, I asked them a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment. Then, if they adhered to their confession, I ordered them off to execution.’ The test applied to doubtful cases was that of offering worship to the Emperor’s statue. ‘No real Christian,’ says the governor, ‘can he made to do that.’ Nor could the name of Christian he legally borne by any one who added sacrilege to high treason, in refusing to worship the ancestral gods of the State. Christianity, ipso facto, was a challenge to these deities. Hence to avow the name of ‘Christian’ was to expose oneself to pains and penalties, either voluntarily or involuntarily incurred.

Both 1 Peter 4:16 and Acts 26:28 denote the use of the title by outsiders (James 2:7 referring probably to ‘Christ,’ not ‘Christian’), and this is corroborated by the evidence of Christian writings in the 2nd cent., where we find that its comparatively rare occurrence is confined mainly to the Christian apologists, i.e. to writers who were principally concerned with the outward relations of the faith to society and to the State. Traces of its use among Christians themselves are to be found, however, in Asia Minor during the first quarter of the 2nd cent. (Ignatius—himself a native of Antioch—and the Didache, cf. Mart. Polyc. 3, ‘the God-beloved and God-fearing people of the Christians’), in Gaul by the middle of the 2nd cent. (Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica v. 1), and elsewhere (cf. Ep. ad Diogn. ‘Christians are in the world as the soul is in the body,’ etc. etc.). Gradually, as time went on, the title came to assume the position of authority which it has occupied for centuries, though it does not seem to occur on a tomb till the close of the 3rd cent. (Asia Minor). And this process was marked, if not accelerated, by a double play upon the word. (i.) It was often pronounced or mispronounced Chrestiani, as if derived from the familar proper name Chrestus (cf. Suet. Claud. 25), the vernacular adjective χρηστός being equivalent to ‘kindly,’ ‘excellent,’ ‘worthy’ (cf. 1 Peter 2:3, perhaps a slight play on the word). Such is the reading of א in the NT passages, of most of the inscriptions, of Tacitus (apparently), and of Suetonius (Claud. 25, ‘Chresto’) certainly. Writers like Justin, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria catch at this idea. On the principle of nomen et omen, they retort upon their critics and opponents, ‘If our name has this meaning, why hold it up to opprobrium? Does it not suit our characters?’ Perhaps, too, as Harnack conjectures, the very choice of the imperfect appellabat, instead of the present appellat, indicates that Tacitus seeks to draw a distinction between the popular mistake in a.d. 64 and the more correct usage of his own day (circa (about) 110). ‘The common people used to call them Chrestians (while nowadays, of course, we know that their proper name is Christians).’ (ii.) The other play upon the word was more private, though it also may have originated in some popular etymology. It was connected with Christos as ‘the anointed.’ ‘We are called Christians,’ says Theophilus (ad Autol. i. 12), ‘because we are anointed with the oil of God’ (χριόμεθα ἔλαιον Θεοῦ, cf. Tert. Apol. 3, and Justin’s Dial.).—These and other motives contributed to render the term so popular, that there are traces, as early as Tertullian (loc. cit.) and Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica ii. iii. 3), of a disposition to ignore or deny its pagan origin and to represent it as a creation of the Apostolic or early Christian consciousness. So holy and catholic a title, it was felt, must have arisen inside the Church. Ignatius twice employs it in order to plead for Christians who are Christians in deed as well as in name (Magn. 4, Romans 3)—a significant allusion. And he usually employs ‘Christianity’ (which first occurs in his Epistles, cf. Magn. 10, Phil. [Note: Philistine.] 6) as the antithesis to Judaism.

Two and a half centuries later came Julian’s reaction against the title. It was dictated, as Gibbon admits, partly from a superstitious fear of the sacred name, and partly from contempt for it and for its bearers. ‘As he was sensible that the Christians gloried in the name of their Redeemer, he countenanced, and perhaps enjoined, the use of the less honourable appellation of Galilaeans’ (Decline and Fall, ii. 540, Bell’s ed.). Naturally this restriction had but a limited and transient effect. ‘Christian’ became more and more the watchword of the Church, despite the rise of ‘catholic’ within and the use of ‘Nazarene’ (in the East) without.

In the modern usage of the term, three points are of especial interest. One is the frank denial, by Strauss and others, of any right, upon the part of modern Christians, to the title in question (see an uncompromising article in the Fortnightly Review, March 1873, entitled ‘Are we yet Christians?’), presupposing that the Apostles’ Creed is the norm of Christianity. The opposite view is well put by Rathbone Greg (Creed of Christendom, vol. i. p. xlix f.). The second point is the deliberate repudiation of the name, as savouring of sectarianism, by certain Unitarians (cf. the first volume of Dr. Martineau’s Life, by Drummond and Upton). And, thirdly, it is interesting to notice that an American sect, dating from the revival of 1801, called themselves by the name of ‘Christians’ (pronouncing the first i long), in order to bring out their unsectarian principles.

Bunyan made ‘Christian’ the antithesis to ‘graceless,’ and various other definitions, practical and philosophical, have been essayed. For Mr. Samuel Laing’s, see his Problems of the Future (ch. viii.), and cf. Mr. Le Gallienne’s Religion of a Literary Man (ch. vii.), and Sir John Seeley’s Natural Religion (pt. ii. ch. iii.). ‘He who can pray the Lord’s Prayer sincerely must surely be a Christian,’ says Rothe; while Martineau’s definition, in reference to a church, runs thus: ‘imbued with Christ’s spirit, teaching His religion, worshipping His God and Father, and accepting His law of self-sacrifice.’ Perhaps the data of the NT would be covered adequately by the declaration that the name ‘Christian’ belongs to any one who can call Jesus ‘Lord’ in the sense of 1 Corinthians 12:3. See, further, the following article.

Literature.—Besides the articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. pp. 384–386 (Gayford), and Encyc. Bibl. i. 752–763 (Schmiedel), the Commentaries on Acts 11:26 and Histories of the Apostolic age (s.v.), consult Lipsius, Über d. Ursprung u. d. altesten Gebrauch d. Christennamens (1873); Keim, Aus dem Urchrist. (1878), pp. 1–78; Carr in Expositor (June 1898), pp. 456–463; Harnack, Ausbreitung des Christenthums (1902), pp. 37–38, 54, 57, 294–297 [English translation, see Index, s.v.]; also Zahn, Einleitung in d. NT, ii. pp. 34, 39–42; Renan, Les Apotres, p. 234 f.; Westcott’s note in his Epistles of St. John; Farrar, Paul (ch. xvi.); Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. vol. i. 400 f., vol. ii. 134. On the later use and form of the word consult Blass, Hermes (1895), p. 465 f.; Kattenbusch, Das apost. Symbolum, ii. 557 f.; Watkins, Christ. Quart. Review, i. p. 47 f.; Ramsay, Church in Roman Empire (Index, s.v.); Sanday in Church Times (June 21), 1901; and Leslie Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology (pop. ed.), 130.

James Moffatt.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christian (the Name)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/christian-the-name.html. 1906-1918.

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