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

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