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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Christian

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(Χριστιανός)

We might expect that, in the case of so renowned a name as ‘Christian,’ the occasion and circumstances of its origin would have been recorded with all possible detail, but such is not the case. Its first appearance is noticed in the most simple, matter-of-fact way without further explanation. ‘The disciples were called Christiana first in Antioch’ (Acts 11:26). Then, as far as the NT is concerned, the name almost disappears; it is mentioned only twice again (Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). In the former passage Agrippa says: ‘Thou wouldest fain make me a Christian’; in the latter, Peter’s words, ‘If a man suffer as a Christian,’ are spoken from a persecutor’s standpoint. Even in Agrippa’s day the designation was understood (circa, about a.d. 44), and, when 1 Peter was written (a.d. 64-67), it must have been in common use. In the other Epistles the name does not occur. There the terms used are such as ‘disciples,’ ‘believers,’ ‘the faithful,’ ‘brethren,’ ‘saints.’ The only two points definitely indicated in Acts 11:28 are the time and place, and both these are in every way appropriate.

The missionary work of the Church was about to begin from Antioch as its starting-point. There a considerable church had been formed by the united labours of Barnabas and Saul. Driven from Jerusalem by persecution, disciples had gone to Cyprus and preached to the Jews there. Thence some came over to Antioch and preached to ‘Greeks also’ (Ἔλληνας; another reading has Ἐλληνιστάς, ‘Grecian Jews’), with the result that ‘a great number believed.’ Barnabas came from Jerusalem on an errand of inquiry, and under his ministry ‘much people was added to the Lord.’ Barnabas then fetched Saul from Tarsus; both laboured in Antioch ‘a whole year’ and taught ‘much people’ (ὄχλον ἱκανόν). Here was the first considerable church on Gentile soil; a common name was necessary and was forthcoming-providentially, we cannot doubt, but how is not so clear.

The city of Antioch (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ), the capital of Syria, a splendid centre of Greek life and culture, became after the Fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70) a second home of the Church and the mother-church of Gentile Christianity. Although it does not figure prominently in the NT, in subsequent history it plays a great part as a rival of Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Chrysostom, the prince of early Christian preachers, won his first fame there. This Antioch school of theology represented a type of interpretation more akin to modern thought than any other in those days. Ignatius, martyr and writer of the famous letters, was bishop of Antioch. Chrysostom writes: ‘As Peter was the first among the apostles to preach the Christ, so was this city the first to be crowned with the name of Christian as a diadem of wondrous beauty.’

As to the mode in which the name ‘Christian’ originated, there is great difference of opinion. We seem compelled to accept one of three explanations. (1) All agree that the name did not originate with the Jews. On their lips it would have been a tacit acknowledgment of the Messiahship of Jesus. While the first disciples were Jews, the Jewish element soon became a diminishing quantity in the Church. Their name for believers in Christ was Nazarenes. Their attitude, as we see in the Acts, was increasingly one of estrangement and hostility,

(2) The suggestion has been made that the designation originated with Christians themselves. Eusebius (4th cent.), usually well-informed and trustworthy, supports this view. An argument in its favour is its eminent appropriateness. Nothing could better signalize the central position of Jesus in Christianity. St. Paul’s attitude on this question represents the Church of all ages. Systems like Muhammadanism and Buddhism, once established, are independent of their founders. Not so Christianity: ‘Christianity is Christ.’ His person, life, and work are the key-stone of the arch, the alpha and omega of the gospel. Yet, if this opinion were correct, we should expect some intimation to this effect in Acts 11:26. Still more, the name is not found in the NT outside the three passages mentioned, and, as far as records go, for some time afterwards. In writers of the 2nd cent. it is of common occurrence-in pagan writers, the Apologists, the author of the Didache, and so on. Speaking of the Neronian persecution, Tacitus (a.d. 116) says: ‘They whom the populace (vulgus) called Christians (Christianos).’ Suetonius (a.d. 120) and Pliny (a.d. 112) use the same designation. P. W. Schmiedel (Encyclopaedia Biblica , s.v.) says that Christian writers did not use it because they did not need it. ‘Saints,’ ‘brethren,’ etc., served their purpose. ‘It follows that, notwithstanding its absence from their writings, the name of Christian may very well have originated at a comparatively early time.’ As we have seen, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16 imply that the term was in use. As to scanty references, many early Christian writings have perished.

(3) The opinion most in favour is that the term originated in Gentile circles outside the Church. The people of Antioch with their quick wit had a reputation for the invention of party names. A title so apt, almost obvious, once suggested, would persist with a vitality of its own. Coming from outside, it was not at once accepted by believers, but slowly grew in favour. This explanation on the whole presents the fewest difficulties and fits the circumstances of the case. We need not accept the view that the title was used at first derisively. There is nothing of this character in the title itself, although Conybeare-Howson and others think that it was so meant. A. Carr in an essay in his Horœ Biblicae takes tills view. He thinks that St. Paul’s preaching of the Kingdom, carrying with it the idea of Christians as an army, would suggest comparison with the followers of great military leaders (Pompeians, Herodians), greatly to the discredit of Christ and Christians. This meaning is not expressed in the term itself, but, if it were a fact, would arise out of the memory of the Crucifixion. Antiochene ingenuity could certainly have discovered a better expression for such an idea. At a much later date the Emperor Julian saw nothing discreditable in the name, for he forbade its use and replaced it with Galilaean. (The incidental character of the origin of a great name is not without analogy. In Acts 11:30 of the same chapter we have the first mention incidentally of ‘presbyters’-the office out of which the countless forms of church polity have grown. So again with regard to deacons in Acts 6:3.)

It has been argued that the term Χριστιανός implies a Western and Latin origin. But the termination -ανός was in wide use among Greeks everywhere (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 384).

The use of this name was the first step in the differentiation of Christians from Jews in the public eye. Previously the two classes had been confounded; and the confusion was advantageous to Christians in many respects, as the Jews were a privileged nation before the Roman law. As the Church grew in numbers the confusion ceased, and the new name emphasized the distinction.

As the name Χριστός was often confused with χρηστός (‘good,’ ‘useful’), so Χριστιανός was often misspelt Χρηστιανός. This was intelligible enough in pagan writers. Suetonius says that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they were always raising tumult under the instigation of Chrestus. Christian writers are not disinclined to turn the mistake to account. Tertullian (Apol. 3) does this intentionally, saying to pagans: ‘When you wrongly say Chrestians [Chrestianos] (for your knowledge of the name is limping), it is composed of suavity and benignity’ [de suavitate et benignitate]. Clem. Alex. (Strom. ii. 4) also writes: ‘They who believe in Christ both are and are called good (χρηστοί)’; Justin (Apol. i. 4); ‘You ought rather to punish those who accuse (us) because of our name. For we are accused of being Christians; but it is unjust for that which is good (τὸ χρηστὸν) to be hated ‘; Lactantius (Div. Inst. iv. 7): ‘Ignorant of our affairs, they call Christ Chrest (Christum Chrestum) and Christians Chrestians (Christianos Chrestianos).’

We can imagine nothing more fitting than that Christians should bear their Master’s name (Christ) in their own (Christian). There was more than accident in such an origin. The name betokens the vital union between Christ and believers, of which the Epistles make so much (‘they that are Christ’s’). An early Liturgy says: ‘We thank thee that the name of thy Christ is named upon us, and so we are made one with thee.’ What a Christian is called he is. He has the mind of Christ. He thinks and feels, loves and acts, as Christ does. His name is an index to his heart. ‘We are called children of God, and such we are.’ ‘A Christian is one who has Christ in his heart, mouth and work’ (à Lapide). Passages like Matthew 19:29; Matthew 24:9 found a literal fulfilment in the Church; see Mark 9:41, ‘Because ye are Christ’s,’ and margin, the name standing for the person; Acts 4:12, ‘Neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved.’ To believe on the name is to believe on Christ (John 1:12).

Literature.-Comm. of Meyer, Rackham, Alford, Wordsworth on Acts 11:26; articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Encyclopaedia Biblica , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , and Kitto’s Cyclopaedia, s.v.; Conybeare-Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul2, 1877, i. 146f.; A. Carr, Horœ Biblicae, 1904; F. H. Chase, The Credibility of the Book of Acts, 1902.

J. S. Banks.


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


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Saturday, December 15th, 2018
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