THEY WERE CALLED CHRISTIANS

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As the missionary work among the Gentiles began in Acts 11, the followers of Christ began to be known by a new name—the name Christian. Luke records that the Christians were first called Christians at Antioch. Where does the name originate? Who called them Christians?

WHERE DOES THE NAME “CHRISTIAN” ORIGINATE?

Most scholars agree that the name “Christian” is of human origin. Bickerman noted that the widespread scholastic agreement “that the term was invented by non-Christians.”[1] Perhaps this was a term used by the Gentiles to differentiate the new Christians from the Jewish religion.[2] Mattingly suggested that the Antiochenes, in a derogatory tone, compared the Christians to the fans of Nero who were called “Augustiani.” Perhaps, the residents of Antioch called the disciples “Christiani” in order to mock both groups.[3] Caulley concluded that “For the audience of 1 Peter, the title Christianos was still very much an uncomfortable outsider label that only later was fully embraced as the everyday positive self-designation of the church.”[4]

It is also possible that the people of Antioch recognized the followers of Christ without derogatory intentions. Marshall argued that “”The church’s evangelism made such an impact that the local people dubbed its members ‘Christ-people.”[5] Perhaps, this argument is strengthened by the fact that two out of the three occurrences of “Christian” in the New Testament are from the mouths of non-Christians. This hypothesis is possible, but perhaps it fails to account for the widespread usage of the name.

Perhaps the name “Christian” was adopted by the disciples themselves. Bickerman argued from the Latin suffix “-ιανος” which refers to that which belongs to another.[6] Therefore the Χριστιανούς would refer to those who belong to Christ. Furthermore, Bickerman argued that the verb “called” is in the active voice and refers to “to call oneself” rather than to have a name imposed on the group. Moreau and Spicq largely agree with this view.[7] However, Strauss disagreed and noted that “The Latinized ending need only indicate that they were copying a Latinized pattern of speech that was typical for naming groups of supporters, not necessarily that they were named by native Latin speakers or the Roman government.”[8]

Witherington and Larkin argued that the name “Christian” was a name taken by the disciples so that they could “transact business” under that name.[9] According to this theory, the disciples wanted to be “commonly known” by the name of Christian. However, Luke does not specifically address who knew the disciples as “Christians.” Rather the name “Christian” is put forth as a new name by which the Christians were to be called without revealing why that was the case. Furthermore, in the New Testament, the word χρηματίσαι is rarely used as a self-designation.[10]

IS THE NAME “CHRISTIAN” OF DIVINE ORIGIN?

It is also possible that the name Christian is of Divine origin. That the name “Christian” is of Divine origin is very likely because the word translated “called” in Acts 11:26 is most often, if not always, used to describe a divine message.[11] Therefore, it will be argued that the name Christian originated from the mind of God rather than from the mind of mankind.

The word translated “called” (χρηματίζω) is defined as “to impart a divine message, make known a divine injunction/warning” or “to take/bear a name/title.” [12] This verb “occurs 9 times in the NT, 7 times referring to injunctions or prophecies from God.”[13] Louw and Nida also defined the word as  “to give a name or title to—‘to call, to give a name to, to give a title to.”[14]

The verb χρηματίζω and its cognates are found several times in the New Testament. The ESV translates the word as “being warned” (Matt. 2:12, 2:22; Heb. 11:7, 12:25); “revealed” (Lk. 2:26); “directed” or “instructed” (Acts 10:22; Heb. 8:5); and “called” (Acts 11:26; Rom. 7:3). The only passages which do not demand a divine oracle are Acts 11:26 and Romans 7:3.

In Romans 7:3 Paul wrote, “she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive.” Is such a person “called” an adulteress by God or mankind? Romans 7:3 either references the Mosaic Covenant given by God (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10; Nu. 5:13), the rule of Christ (Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:39), or the similar principle in both the Levitical system and the Christian system. Either way, the phrase “she shall be called an adulteress” is a label given by the Lord and recognized by mankind.

Acts 11:26 is the only passage left in question. Every other passage which uses χρηματίζω or one of its cognates records a divine pronouncement. In Acts 11:26 Luke records then that the disciples were called (χρηματίσαι) Christians first in Antioch and it is likely that this was a divine pronouncement.

“Naming” always implied an authoritative position. God named Adam. Adam named the animals over which God had placed in his dominion. Adam also named Eve who was given to him as a helper. It is only fitting that the name for God’s people would be given by God. God promised a new name for his new covenant people. Isaiah recorded “but his servants he will call by another name” (Is. 65:15). What is that name that God has called his servants? Could it not be the name Christian (Acts 11:26)?

Isaiah 65:15 recorded God’s promise, “You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death, but his servants he will call by another name.” In the 4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem referred to the name “Christian” from Acts 11:26 as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 65:15. He wrote “the Holy Ghost, methinks, bestowing on the believers that new Name, which had been promised before by the Lord.”[15] He also wrote, “Jesus Christ being the Son of God gave us the dignity of being called Christians.”[16] Cyril went on to challenge those who clung to the Jewish religion to present their “new name.” He wrote:

Shew then your new name. For ye were called Jews and Israelites in the time of Moses, and the other prophets, and after the return from Babylon, and up to the present time: where then is your new name? But we, since we are servants of the Lord, have that new name: new indeed, but the new name, which shall be blessed upon the earth. This name caught the world in its grasp: for Jews are only in a certain region, but Christians reach to the ends of the world: for it is the name of the Only-begotten Son of God that is proclaimed.[17]

Since a new name was promised for the people of God, if they did not have the new name, then they weren’t the new people of God. Christians did have the new name from God; therefore they were the people of God. This argument hinges upon the view that Acts 11:26 is a divine naming. Cyril of Alexandria also expounded the name “Christian” in his commentary on Isaiah. He wrote, “but we submit to Christ in the newness of the life of the gospel, and having been given his name, like a crown, we are called Christians. This celebrated and blessed name has spread throughout the world.[18]

The context of Isaiah 65 is one of judgment upon the Jewish people for their rebellion and the subsequent blessing from God on “the offspring of Jacob” (65:9). For Isaiah, the new heavens and new earth began with the reign of “the branch” prophesied in Isaiah 11. This “branch” is Christ. Isaiah 11:11 says that in the day the branch reigns “the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people.” This refers to the people brought in by Christ, the branch, to the peaceful Messianic reign.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE CALLED?

The people of God who are redeemed by the Branch (Christ) were to have a new name. The new name that is given by divine decree is “Christian” (Acts 11:26). Therefore, God’s people are to be known by the name of Christian. What a beautiful name it is. It is the name by which I want to be known. Paul disciplined the Corinthians who wanted to be known by the names of mere men (1 Cor. 1:12-15). When we stand in judgment, the names of men will not save us. Our own name will not save us. The only hope we have is the name of Christ. How blessed we are to be called Christians!

 

 

 

 

              [1] “This agreement came about as “commentators tacitly assume the passive meaning (“were called”) of the active aorist χρηματίσαι (called). This postulate goes back to Guillaume Bude, the illustrious restorer of Greek studies in France (1467-1540).” Elias Bickerman “The Name of Chrsitians” Harvard Theological Review. 42 no 2 April 1949: 110.

              [2] This is argued by Peterson and also by Downey. Erik Peterson. “Christianus” Misellanea Giovanni Mercati, vol. I (Studi e Testi 121; Vatican City Bibliotca Apostical Vaticana), 1946, pp344-372. Glanville Downey, A History of Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest. (Princeton: University Press, 1961): 275.

              [3] Harold B. Mattingly, “The Origin of the Name Christiani,” Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958): 27.

              [4]Thomas Scott Caulley “The Title Christianos and Roman Imperial Cult” Restoration Quarterly. (53 no 4 2011):206

              [5] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 199.

              [6] Elias J. Bickerman, “The Name of Christians”, HTR 42 (1949), 109-124.

              [7] J. Moreau, “Le nom des chrétiens”, La nouvelle Clio, 1/2, Brussels, 194950־, pp. 190-192; C. Spicq, “Ce que signifie le titre de chrétien”, Stud. Theol. 15 (1961), 68- 78.

              [8] Stephen J. Strauss “The Significance of Acts 11:26 for the Church at Antioch and Today” Bibliotecha Sacra 168 (July-September 2011: 290.

              [9] Larkin, Acts, 179; Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 1951, 238; and Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, 371.

              [10] “The analogy with the German verb heißen may be useful: it is in the active voice but is normally translated into English with a passive (and into French with a reflexive); it does not necessarily carry the sense that the name borne is self-chosen.”  Taylor, “The Disciples Called ‘Christians at Antioch,” 83.

              [11] “Gardner noted the consistent divine usage in the intertestamental period and the New Tetstament. He wrote, “The noun χρηματισμόε, occurs in 2 Macc. 2 4; 11 17 ; Rom. 11 4 · In all of them it means a divine communication, although otherwise translated in 2 Macc 11 17” F. Gardiner. “On The χρηματίσαι .. · χριστιανούς OF ACTS 11 26” Journal of Biblical Literature. January 1, 1931: xxxvi.

              [12] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1089.

              [13] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 474.

              [14] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 402.

              [15] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 130–131.

              [16] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 61–62.

              [17] Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” 62.

              [18] Mark W. Elliott, ed., Isaiah 40–66, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 271.

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