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

Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Early Church in Context

If so for Jesus, does it also hold for Paul
Gateway and street in the Roman spa resort of Hierapolis, where Paul taught first century followers. More from locations like this in Quest for the Real Paul.  Also included are interviews with Craig Evans, Paula Fredriksen, John Gager, John Garr, Amy-Jill Levine, James Tabor and N.T. Wright.
Rice University professor April DeConick recently wrote, “Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.” She was blogging about the various attempts of scholars to understand the historical Jesus. Mark Goodacre, of Duke University, engaged in the discussion a little, but it seems to have dropped out of sight almost as quickly as it appeared.


Since I’m in the midst of writing about the self-understanding of Jesus’ earliest followers, DeConick’s comment prompted me to reflect on whether the earliest followers of Jesus saw themselves as embedded in Judaism. Certainly they were not Christians in any modern sense, nor, based on the New Testament record, did they name themselves Christians in any other sense. My previous posting dealt with that.


Professor DeConick is making the point that for modern Christianity, truly understanding Jesus as Jewish in religious belief and practice would be dangerous and virtually impossible to act upon. Why? Because Christianity as a belief system and as a set of practices has removed itself so far from His way of life that it would be grossly uncomfortable to go back to New Testament requirements.


So from a first follower’s perspective, today’s Christianity would be unrecognizable.


But of course for many Jews of His time, Jesus was a major challenge and, some would say, dangerous. Focusing on the right way of life was not popular. After all, as Jesus said, “the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14, English Standard Version throughout). Back then, Jesus was up against the same problem. Just as Christianity today would find him dangerous, so did the Judaisms of His day.


So back to the question left over from last time: If the first followers of Jesus didn’t refer to themselves as Christians, how did they view themselves? Interestingly, “the way” that Jesus mentioned is central to the discussion. As with the last posting, the Acts of the Apostles—the record of the early church written by Luke—is our main reference point.


In chapter 24, the apostle Paul stands before Felix, the Roman governor of Palestine (52–60 C.E.), charged with causing riots among the Jews. He explains to Felix that he is being falsely accused and makes his defense. He mentions the name of the group to which he belongs, and implies that it is a part of Judaism:


“This I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14).


Paul worships God according to the tenets of what he calls “the Way.”


Here the Greek word translated “way” is hodos. It is literally a road, street, path, highway—something that is traveled on. Hodos also means the act of traveling, or making a journey. We have a reminder of the word in the English odometer, a device for measuring distances traveled on roads. Also in Acts we find hodos linked to the Greek word for “Sabbath” (sabbaton echo hodos) to express the distance allowed by Judaism for travel on the Sabbath. This phrase is found in Acts 1:12, in reference to the fact that the Mount of Olives was considered a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem—a distance of about 2,000 paces.


But when Paul uses hodos to describe his allegiance as a follower of Jesus, he means it figuratively. There are two figurative meanings of the word: a way of life and a system of doctrine. Both are applicable to Paul. He worships God according to a body of belief, practicing a defined way of life.


The term “the way” is central to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew term derek conveys the same ideas as the Greek hodos. We find it used of those with whom God had a relationship from the very earliest accounts in the Scriptures. Abraham was one who knew the way and would teach it to his children (Genesis 18:19). The Psalmist extolled those who walked in God’s way (Psalm 1:6). The prophets foretold of the one who was to come to prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3).


Paul’s own description of his core beliefs is distinguished from that of his accusers, who claim that he belongs to a sect. In their introductory comments to Felix, they had referred to the sect as "the Nazarenes": “For we have found this man [Paul] a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).


The Greek for sect is hairesis. It means literally, "choice" or "option." As used here it means a party, sect or school. Paul was perceived as belonging to a sub-group of the Judaisms of that day—one that followed the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene. Other usage includes the concept of opposing beliefs, as in heresy, which has its root in hairesis. Paul saw himself not as a schismatic or heretic, but as one who had made the choice to remain firmly fixed within the universe of the Law and the Prophets, worshipping the “God of our fathers” and accepting Jesus as his Master.


This was the heart of the problem for Paul’s accusers—not his adherence to the Law and the Prophets, but the fact that he was encouraging people to consider the message of Jesus the Jew, which the Jewish religious hierarchy perceived as a threat. Paul knew exactly how they felt. He himself had been a violent opponent of the first followers: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” Acts 22:4). He had gone to the high priest “and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).


By the time Paul stood before Felix, he had long personal experience of what it meant to be a follower of the Way. He had delivered the message in synagogues in the Diaspora and seen the opposition. During his three-year stay in Ephesus, “some [in the synagogue] became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation.” As a result, “he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9). Not surprisingly in the great crossroads commercial city, “about that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23).


It was the intensification of Jewish opposition that brought Paul before Felix. The governor was a freed slave and protégé of the emperor Claudius. His appointment as governor was an unusual favor. His wife was the Jewess, Drusilla. Perhaps that’s why Luke records that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (Acts 24:22) and why, in part, he interviewed Paul about his beliefs for two more years (see verses 24–27).


So did Paul and the early church define themselves as “Christian,” or did they see themselves as followers of “the Way,” as defined by the Father and practiced by Jesus?


Next time, we’ll look at some of the unique beliefs and practices of the first followers compared with today’s Christianity.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Paul, followers, Godfearers, the way

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