Those Christians Again

Current considerations of the name

Some readers of this blog might wonder why I’ve placed emphasis on the fact that the early church did not describe itself as “Christian.” I believe this is important because their verifiable self-description tells us a great deal about their practice. They were followers of “the Way” and the New Testament confirms this. Their mode of conduct is radically different from that of the majority who take the term Christian to themselves today, or since the term was accepted as a self-definition.

Aside from the fact that most scholars of this period agree that “Christian” was not the self-description of the early church, (among them Amy-Jill Levine, John Gager and John Garr, who have affirmed this to me in interviews*) there is the reality that the New Testament record is extremely limited in its use of the term. When the word is mentioned (only three times), one cannot conclude by the context that this was the name the early followers used of themselves. Rather others used it of them and probably pejoratively.

This is reinforced by the record of profane authors such as Pliny who provides comments about the group he calls Christians. The name was clearly not a self-definition, but a label imposed by outsiders.

Some have wondered about the word “Christian” found in English translations of certain early extra-biblical texts. Surely they prove that the Church referred to itself that way from an early date.

English translations of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (attributed to Clement of Rome in the late 1st century) use the term. But when we look more closely at the original Greek, we find that χριστιανός never appears. In The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, edited by Michael William Holmes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999, p. 83) the word is not “Christian” but “Christ.”

1 Clem 3:(4) For this reason “righteousness” and peace “stand at a distance,”  While each one has abandoned the fear of God and become nearly blind with respect to faith in Him, neither walking according to the laws of His commandments nor living in accordance with his duty toward Christ.

1 Clem 21:(8) Let our children receive the instruction which is in Christ: let them learn how strong humility is before God, what pure love is able to accomplish before God, how the fear of him is good and great and saves all those who live in it in holiness with a pure mind.

1 Clem 47:(6) It is disgraceful, dear friends, yes, utterly disgraceful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the well-established and ancient church of the Corinthians, because of one or two persons, is rebelling against its presbyters (Cf. Isa. 59:14).

Kirsopp Lake’s earlier translation is almost identical and also never uses the term “Christian.”

The first use of χριστιανός that can be dated with any certainty outside of the New Testament appears to be in Ignatius of Antioch (100-120 CE). He mentions it six times in five of his epistles and his use would almost make it appear that it is his term or that he is popularizing it.

A possible earlier use (once) is in the Didache - - but the dating of this work is open to much question.

The supposed use by Polycarp is actually found (four times) in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a work written after Polycarp’s death, possibly by Marcion of the Church in Smyrna (not the well-known heretic, Marcion) sometime after 150 CE.

The only other use in the Early Church Fathers is in the Epistle of Diognetus, where it is used 14 times. The date of this epistle ranges from 170-310 CE.

So again we find no evidence that χριστιανός was the self-description of the first century followers of Jesus. Even the supposed second century use by those with some ties to the first century church, such as Clement and Polycarp, is shown to be without foundation. By the time of Ignatius of Antioch, teachings and ideas contrary to those held in the first century were appearing in the Church. Ignatius’s use of the term is probably indicative of early attempts by a leader to establish a separate identity from the Jews of his day. It took almost three centuries for this to be established and for a clear differentiation to be made between Jews and Christians even in Antioch. The result was a church that was radically different from anything represented in the New Testament.

*Interview comments:

Amy-Jill Levine:

One could ask if there were Christians in the first century – and indeed some people have asked whether there are “Christians” today. It all depends on how we define the term. In the book of Acts, Luke talks about how the term Christian was applied to followers of Jesus by outsiders, to distinguish them from Jews who were not followers of Jesus but were still associated with the synagogue. It might be easier to call them followers of “the Way,” or followers of the Jesus movement. Eventually they become known as Christians, for better or for worse.


John Gager:

….since we don’t encounter the term “Christian” until the beginning of the second century, we probably don’t have something called “Christianity” until the beginning of the second century. ….

The passage in Acts[11:26] is, of course, of great interest because it says, if you read the Greek carefully and literally, that it was in Antioch that the followers of “the Way” were first called Christians. It doesn’t say that they called themselves. And so it suggests the possibility that it was a term applied, perhaps by Roman authorities, to the followers of Jesus. It is, in fact, in its form Christianoi as it appears in the book of Acts and elsewhere. Christianoi is in fact, in form, a Latin root, which suggests again the possibility that it came from Roman authorities, keeping in mind that Rome was the reigning political power and authority in this area, and that it probably in its origins didn’t have a very positive ring. My sense is that Christianoi as it was probably first used sounded more like “Christ-ers,” which is not a common word in English but has a definite negative twist to it, “Christ-ers” than the word “Christian,” which, of course, has come to be term which the followers of Jesus have applied to themselves. The other place where it occurs is in the first letter of Peter where the followers of Jesus are coming under persecution, and the author of that letter says, “you must never suffer because you have actually stolen, because you have actually lied, because you have actually murdered. But if you suffer “as Christians,” --hos Christianoi -- perhaps using their legal language -- “if the cause of your suffering is the accusation that the Romans have called you “Christ-ers”; then I think that that perhaps fits very nicely with the passage in Acts which suggests the term arose as a description of these people among outsiders.

David Hulme:

The other one is, of course when Agrippa says, “you almost persuade me,” which doesn’t tell us anything either.

John Gager:

That’s also in Acts. But it is interesting it’s a Roman official.


John Garr:

There were no Christians in Paul’s time by our modern definition. Obviously Jesus Himself was not a Christian, because the word did not even exist in His time. The idea for the term Christian was to identify those who were the followers of “the Christ”—or, as it had come into the Greek language, Christos. They could easily have been called Messianics or Messians to identify that they were followers of Jesus the Messiah.

. . . originally the word Christian was a negative term, a caricature, just as the term Jew was when it was first used. The people who were of the tribe of Judah were called Jews, a contracted form of Judah, in what was essentially a racial slur. The same is true of the original use of the term Christian, when believers in Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch.

Tags: Christians, Jesus Christ, Church Fathers, Clement of Rome, followers, Ignatius

Church History Date

Anniversary for a major historical city

The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that May 11 is the date in 330 CE on which Constantine dedicated Constantinople as the capital of his empire. Formerly known as Byzantium, and today Istanbul, Constantinople was considered the administrative omphalus or navel of the earth by Constantine. To make the point, Constantine apparently moved Apollo’s statute from Delphi to the city.

Read more on Constantine on our Vision site.

Constantine: The Man and the Church 

Messiahs! Rulers and the Role of Religion, Part 2: The Coming of the "Christian" Emperor 

Splitting Heirs? 

Jerusalem: Center of the Earth? Part One 

Tags: christianity, Constantine, Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul

First Century Tomb Discovered

A New Testament king’s final resting place is uncovered at last.
 Mount Herodium
Mount Herodium: Site of Herod's Tomb

The remains of a tomb from the first century B.C.E. has been uncovered at Herodium, 12 miles south of Jerusalem. Unlike other tombs that have been in the news of recent date, this tomb can be linked unequivocally to a specific individual: King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, who ruled the Jewish nation from 37 to about 4 B.C.E. and who died shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Herodium was one of the monumental public works commissioned by Herod. His reign witnessed one of the most prolific building campaigns in Judaea. Herod not only refashioned Jerusalem but started to restore and enlarge the temple—a project that lasted for some 46 years—making the sacred structure a focus and magnet for Jews throughout the Diaspora. He also built a number of fortified palaces for himself at Jericho, Machaerus, Masada and Herodium, the latter becoming his burial place. 

Details of his funeral procession, circa 4 B.C.E., are given by Flavius Josephus. But the exact

Base of Herod's tomb

Tomb of Herod the Great

location of the tomb at Herodium was never recorded. For the past 35 years, Professor Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University has made it his goal to locate it. Initially the focus fell on the “Tomb Estate” on the lower levels of the tumulus, or hillock, on which Herodium is built. An extensive palace and administrative center were found, but no sign of a tomb. Other archaeologists such asJodi Magness believed that the tomb was in the fortified palace at the top of the mound. Since archaeologists discovered that the palace was no longer used after the Herod’s death, some reasoned that it could be the location of the tomb. 

Ultimately, Netzer found the tomb on the northeast shoulder of the mound at the top of a processional stairway that led to the burial site. Sadly for the professor, the mausoleum that contained the sarcophagus had been vandalized and destroyed, most likely after the 70 C.E. fall of Jerusalem. Herodium, like Masada, became an outpost for the Zealots and, also like Masada, was finally destroyed by Roman forces. The Zealots had no love for Herod, regarding  him as a puppet of the Roman Empire that had given him his role and legitimacy. The magnificent sarcophagus in which Herod was buried, estimated to be eight feet long (almost 2.5 meters), had been smashed. Despite the failure to recover anything more than fragments and decorations, the site is accepted as having been the final resting place of Herod and is being noted as one of the most significant of archaeological discoveries. 

Decorated Fragments Herod's Tomb

Fragments and Decorations from Herod's Tomb

Herod, of course, is known for his brutality and despotism. The account of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, is characteristic. He ordered the murder of at least one of his wives and two of his sons, and his dying wish was that all the leaders of Judaea perish with him so that the entire nation would mourn his death. Fortunately, those charged with his orders did not carry them out. 

Whether loved or hated by the people of his day, Herod made a major contribution to the region in a critical period of time. His life ended shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ, with the consequent spread of Jesus’ followers throughout the Roman world and beyond. Herod’s reign as a puppet of the Roman Empire also contributed to the ultimate fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of its people. 

Tags: Herod, Jesus Christ, Judaea, Josephus, Heroduium

First Followers of Jesus: Doctrinal Distinctives

G.K. Chesterton

“Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.” This recent comment from Rice University professor and blogger April DeConick reminded me of statements from three other thinkers.

In the 19th century, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted, “The Christianity of the New Testament simply does not exist.” He further concluded that through the centuries, millions have "sought little by little to cheat God out of Christianity, and have succeeded in making Christianity exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament” (The Fatherland, 1854-1855, X).

In 1910, the English author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (What’s Wrong With The World, 37).

Toward the end of the 20th century, the French theologian, lawyer and sociologist Jacques Ellul said: “We have to admit that there is an immeasurable distance between all that we read in the Bible and the practice of Christians” (The Subversion of Christianity, 7).

These writers were simply recognizing a contradiction that has characterized what became official Christianity from the time it left its first century moorings. Their observations provide a backdrop to the award-winning video, Cheating God out of Christianity. 

The authentic followers of Jesus certainly lived a different way than most professing Christians today. When we examine the New Testament record without the filters of subsequent denominational teaching, we discover a body of believers whose practice is largely unfamiliar.

I began making a list of the differences. Perhaps you can add to the list by posting a comment below.

Of course none of this matters unless a person is convicted that getting back to those early church beliefs and practices is essential. The articles in the following series provide more background:

The Gospels for the 21st Century
The Apostles 


Tags: Jesus, first christians, Church Practice

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