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.”
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.
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