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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Christian

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CHRISTIAN . This name, from very early times the distinctive title of the followers of Jesus Christ, occurs only thrice in NT ( Acts 11:26 ; Acts 26:28 , 1 Peter 4:16 ).

1. Time and place of origin . Our only information on this point comes from Acts 11:26 . It was in Antioch, and in connexion with the mission of Barnabas and Saul to that city, that the name arose. It has sometimes been suggested that the infrequent use of ‘Christian’ in the NT points to a considerably later origin, and that the author of Acts had no better reason for assigning it to so early a date than the fact that the founding of the first Gentile church appeared to him to be an appropriate occasion for its coming into use. But apart from St. Luke’s well-established claim, as the historian of Christ and early Christianity, to have ‘traced the course of all things accurately from the first,’ his own non-employment of the word as a general designation for the disciples of Christ suggests that he had no reason other than a genuine historical one for referring to the origin of the name at all.

2. Authors of the name . (1) It is exceedingly unlikely that it was originally adopted by the Christians themselves. As the NT shows, they were in the habit of using other designations ‘the disciples’ ( Acts 11:26 and passim ), ‘the brethren’ Acts 9:30 , Romans 16:14 and constantly), ‘the elect’ ( Romans 8:33 , Colossians 3:12 ), ‘the saints’ ( Acts 9:13 , Romans 12:13 ), ‘believers’ ( Acts 5:14 , 1 Timothy 4:12 ), ‘the Way’ ( Acts 9:2 ; Acts 19:9 ). But in NT times we never find them calling themselves Christians. In Acts 26:28 it is king Agrippa who employs the name. And though in 1 Peter 4:16 it comes from the pen of an Apostle, the context shows that he is using it as a term of accusation on the lips of the Church’s enemies.

(2) It cannot have been applied to the followers of Jesus by the Jews . The Jews believed in ‘the Christ,’ i.e. ‘the Anointed One,’ the Messiah; and they ardently looked for Him to come. But it was their passionate contention that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Christ. To call His followers Christians was the last thing they would have thought of doing. They referred to them contemptuously as ‘this sect’ ( Acts 28:22 ; cf. Acts 24:5 ; cf. Acts 24:14 ), and when contempt passed into hatred they called them ‘Nazarenes’ ( Acts 24:5 , cf. John 1:46 ). It is true that Agrippa, a Jewish king, makes use of the name; but this was nearly 20 years after, and when, in that Roman world with which he lived in close relations, it had become the recognized designation of the new faith.

(3) Almost certainly the name owed its origin to the non-Christian Gentiles of Antioch. As these Antiochenes saw Barnabas and Saul standing day by day in the market-place or at the corners of the streets, and proclaiming that the Christ had come and that Jesus was the Christ, they caught up the word without understanding it, and bestowed the name of ‘Christians’ on these preachers and their followers. Probably it was given, not as a mere nickname, but as a term of convenience. Yet doubtless it carried with it a suggestion of contempt, and so may be compared to such titles as ‘Puritan’ and ‘Methodist’ originally applied by those who stood outside of the spiritual movements which the names were meant to characterize.

3. The spread of the name . Originating in this casual way, the name took deep root in the soil of human speech, and the three passages of the NT in which it occurs show how widely it had spread within the course of a single generation. In Acts 26:28 we find it on the lips of a Jewish ruler, speaking in Cæsarea before an audience of Roman officials and within 20 years after it was first used in Antioch. A few years later St. Peter writes to ‘the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia’ ( 1 Peter 1:1 ); and, without suggesting that ‘Christian’ was a name which the Church had yet adopted as its own, he assumes that it was perfectly familiar to the ‘elect’ themselves over a vast region of the Dispersion; and further implies that by this time, the time probably of Nero’s persecution (a.d. 64), to be called a Christian was equivalent to being liable to suffer persecution for the sake of Christ ( 1 Peter 4:16 ). It was later still that St. Luke wrote the Book of Acts; and when he says that the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch ( Acts 11:26 ), he evidently means that this was a name by which they were now commonly known, though his own usage does not suggest that they had even yet assumed it themselves.

Outside of the NT we find Tacitus and Suetonius testifying that the designation Christian (or ‘Chrestian’) was popularly used in Rome at the time of the Neronian persecution; while from Pliny, early in the 2nd cent., we learn that by his day it was employed in Roman courts of law. ‘Are you a Christian?’ was the question he was himself accustomed to put to persons brought before him on a charge of being followers of Christ. By the time of Polycarp’s martyrdom (soon after the middle of the 2nd cent.), the term of accusation and cross-examination has become one of joyful profession. ‘I am a Christian’ was Polycarp’s repeated answer to those who urged him to recant. It was natural that those who were called ‘to suffer as Christians’ should come to glory in the name that brought the call and the opportunity to confess Christ. And so a name given by the outside world in a casual fashion was adopted by the Church as a title of glory and pride.

4. The meaning attached to the name . The original meaning was simply ‘a follower of Christ.’ The Antiochenes did not know who this Christ was of whom the preachers spoke; so little did they know that they mistook for a proper name what was really a designation of Jesus. But, taking it to be His personal name, they called Christ’s disciples ‘Christians,’ just as Pompey’s followers had been called ‘Pompeians,’ or the adherents of Herod’s dynasty ‘Herodians.’ No doubt they used the word with a touch of good-humoured contempt the Christians were the followers of somebody or other called Christ. It is contempt again, but of an intenser kind, that seems to be conveyed by Agrippa’s words to St. Paul, ‘With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian!’ ( Acts 26:28 ). In 1Peter a darker shadow has fallen upon the name. Nero has made it criminal to be a Christian, and the word is now one not of scorn merely, but of hatred and fear. The State ranks a Christian with murderers and thieves and other malefactors (cf. 1 Peter 4:14 with 1 Peter 4:15 ). On its adoption by the Church, deeper meanings began to be read into it. It testified to the dignity of the Church’s Lord ‘the Anointed One,’ the rightful King of that Kingdom which hath no end. It proclaimed the privileges that belonged to Christians themselves; for they too were anointed with the oil of God to be a holy generation, a royal priesthood. Moreover, in Greek the word christos (‘anointed’) suggested the more familiar word chrestos (‘gracious’). The Christians were often misnamed ‘Chrestians’ from an idea that the founder of their religion was ‘one Chrestos.’ And this heathen blunder conveyed a happy and beautiful suggestion. It is possible that St. Peter himself is playing on the word ‘Christ’ when he writes ( 1 Peter 2:3 ), ‘If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious ( chrestos ).’ And by and by we find Tertullian reminding the enemies of the Church that the very name ‘Chrestians,’ which they gave to Christ’s people in error, is one that speaks of sweetness and benignity.

5. The historical significance of the name . (1) It marked the distinct emergence of Christianity from Judaism , and the recognition of its right to a separate place among the religions of the world. Hitherto, to outsiders, Christianity had been only a Jewish sect (cf. the words of Gallio, Acts 18:14-15 ), nor had the first Apostles themselves dreamt of breaking away from synagogue and Temple. But the Antiochenes saw that Christ’s disciples must be distinguished from the Jews and put into a category of their own. They understood, however dimly, that a new religion had sprung up on the earth, and by giving its followers this new name, they helped to quicken in the mind of the Church itself the consciousness of a separate existence. (2) It marked the fact, not heretofore realized, that Christianity was a religion for the Gentiles . Probably it was because the missionaries to Antioch not only preached Christ, but preached Him ‘unto the Greeks also’ ( Acts 11:20 ), that the inhabitants discerned in these men the heralds of a new faith. It was not the way of Jewish Rabbis to proffer Judaism to Greeks in the market-place. Christianity appeared in Antioch as a universal religion, making no distinction between Jew and Gentile. (3) It is not without significance that it was ‘first in Antioch’ that the Christians received this name. It shows how the Church’s centre of gravity was shifting . Up to this time Christians as well as Jews looked to Jerusalem in everything as the mother of them all. But Jerusalem was not fitted to be the chief city of a universal faith. Paul saw this clearly helped to it without doubt by his experiences at this very time. And so Antioch became the headquarters of his missionary labours, and through him the headquarters of aggressive Christianity in the early Apostolic age ( Acts 13:1 ff., Acts 14:26 f., Acts 15:1 ff., Acts 15:22 f., Acts 15:35 ff., Acts 18:22 ff.). It served as a stepping-stone for that movement, inevitable from the day when Christianity was first preached unto the Gentiles, which by and by made Rome, the metropolis of the world, the mother-city also of the universal Church. (4) The name marked the fact that Christianity was not the religion of a book or a dogma, an idea or an institution, but a faith that centred in a Person . The men of Antioch were mistaken when they supposed that Christ was a personal name, but they made no mistake in thinking that He whose name they took to be Christos was the foundation-stone of this new faith. By calling the disciples Christians they became unconscious prophets of the truth that Christianity, whether regarded from the side of historical revelation or of personal experience, is all summed up in the Person of Jesus Christ.

J. C. Lambert.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christian'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/c/christian.html. 1909.


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