Friday, March 30, 2012

The Name “Christian” (Acts 11:26)

In what city were the believers first called Christians? Antioch (Acts 11:26)

In the nascent years of the Christian movement, the early church was seen simply as a rebellious offshoot branch of Judaism. As such, the sect was not initially associated with the word “Christian”. In fact, the word “Christianity” is not found in the Bible and “Christian” appears only sparsely.

Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) reminds:

We use that term so commonly we think it must be scattered all across the New Testament, but it appears only three times—Acts 11:26, 26:28; I Peter 4:16...Christians was an outside nickname, possibly given in derision. It means “Christ followers” or “people of Christ’s party.” (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary ), 180)
Jesus’ followers were known by many names and “Christian” was hardly the first. From the book of Acts, Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) catalogs:
Up to this point the followers of Jesus have been called “saints” (Acts 9:13, 32, 41), “disciples” (Acts 6:2, 7, 9:1, 10, 26, 36), “believers” (Acts 4:32, 5:4, 10:45), “the church/assembly” (Acts 2:47, 5:11, 8:1, 3, 9:31, 11:22, 26), “the brothers” (Acts 1:15, 10:23, 11:1). Now outsiders give the disciples a new name: Christianoi. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 104)
The New Testament records that the name Christian was derived in Antioch.
and when he [Barnabas] had found him [Saul], he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26 NASB)
There are two cities known as Antioch in the book of Acts, Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19-30, 14:1-28) and Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52). The moniker “Christian” originated with the former.

Syrian Antioch was a leading city in the Roman world at the time. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) details:

Antioch, called by Josephus [37-100] “third among the cities of the Roman world” after Rome and Alexandria (War 3.29), was of great strategic importance to early Christianity. It was to be the first major cosmopolitan city outside Israel where Christianity clearly established itself as a force with which to be reckoned. Located on the Orontes, some eighteen miles upstream from its seaport on the Mediterranean (Seleucia, Pieria), Antioch was a great commercial center and near an important religious center connected with Artemis and Apollo (Daphne). It was the Roman provincial capital for Syria, and by the middle of the first century had an estimated population of a half-million people. On its coins Antioch called itself “Antioch, metropolis, sacred, and inviolable, and autonomous, and sovereign, and capital of the East.” It had come a long way since its founding by Seleucus I about 300 B.C., who named it after his father Antiochus...Jews had played a part in the city from its earliest days, and there was a considerable and well-established Jewish community in Antioch in the middle of the first century. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 366-267)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) specifies that:
Antioch was a cosmopolitan city, where Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian rubbed shoulders, where Mediterranean civilization met the Syrian desert; racial and religious differences which loomed so large in Judaea seemed much less important here. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 228)
Though the name’s origin is registered, its etymology is not. Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) acknowledges, “Luke doesn’t tell how this name was pinned on the disciples, whether by way of ridicule, for example. So he lets drop this bit of information either as a historical note or as an indication of popular recognition of the disciples’ attachment to Jesus as the Christ (Gundry, Commentary on Acts).”

The interpreter cannot even be certain when the name was given. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) reminds:

It is doubtful whether the name originated during the time when Saul and Barnabas worked together in Antioch – Luke does not quite say that it did. It was probably used in Pompeii between the earthquake of AD 62 and the destruction of the town in AD 79. (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 175)
Scholars have developed some hypotheses as to how the name developed. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) relays:
The verb were called implies in all probability that ‘Christian’ was a nickname given by the populace of Antioch, and thus ‘Christ’ could well have been understood as a proper name by them, even if at this stage the Christians themselves still used it as a title; it was not long, however, before the title became increasingly more like a name for Jesus. It is likely that the name contained an element of ridicule (cf. Acts 26:28; I Peter 4:16, its only other New Testament uses). The Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as ‘disciples’. ‘saints’ and ‘brothers’. (Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 203)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) adds:
The term obviously based on the title christos/chrestos = Messiah. If compared to a similarly formed designation like hērōdianoi (Mark 3:6, 12:13), it appears to mean a follower of someone, or a member of a movement. The translation “Messianist” would be appropriate in English. The other New Testament occurrences are placed in the mouths of outsiders: King Agrippa (Acts 26:28), and opponents (I Peter 4:16). It appears to have originated, therefore, as a somewhat slighting designation given not by the “believers” themselves but by hostile observers (see also Tacitus, Annals 15:44). The contemporary example of the name “Moonies” given to the members of the Unification Church (based on the name of the founder, Sun Yung Moon) is instructive. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 204-205)
There was precedent for an opprobrious name developing in Antioch. William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) recounts:
Ancient Antioch was famous for its humor, especially the coining of jesting nicknames. When an organized brigade of chanting devotees of Nero led crowds in adulation, his band of imperial cheerleaders with their ludicrous homage was quickly dubbed Augustiani. And earlier, when the devotees of the one called Christ came to public attention, they were named Christianoi, partisans of Christ (Acts 11:26). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 175)
Many a truth is said in jest and even if it was intended to mock, the epithet is fitting. Though Christians in the Bible do not use the name, it obviously stuck and likely did so at an early date.

Paul Trebilco (b. 1958) notes:

Luke could well be indicating more widespread use of the term...Acts 11:26 suggests that Luke can presume his readers know the term. He does not need to explain it in any way, but can simply indicate this indication of its origin. His use of πρὡτως [“first”]also suggests the readers are to recall other times when they have heard the term, and they know of its ongoing use. At the very least, these points suggest that when Luke writes, the term was quite widely known both by outsiders (such as Agrippa) and by ‘Christians’ in a range of places. (Trebilco, Self-Designations and Group Identity in the New Testament, 282)
John J. Pilch (b. 1936) observes:
Only outsiders use the word “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; I Peter 4:16-17) in mocking or pejorative fashion. Historically the word is most appropriately used after the time of Constantine (around A.D. 300). Prior to that time, the word is anachronistic. From this point of view, there are no “Christians” in the New Testament. How can one interpret or explain this statement? (Pilch, Visions and Healing in the Acts of the Apostles: How the Early Believers Experienced God , 150-151)
As Christ is a title and Jesus is a name, why were the early followers called Christians instead of Jesusians? What would you have called Jesus’ followers? Would you rather a group be named by insiders or outsiders? What do outsiders call your church? What other common names were originally intended to be disparaging? Is there significance to the fact that the name originated in Antioch?

James S. Jeffers (b. 1956) speculates:

The followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” at Antioch according to Acts 11:26. This is probably because believers in Antioch, for the first time, stood out enough from Jews to be nicknamed “Christus-people” by the local pagans. (Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, 288)
Mark DeYmaz (b. 1961) and Harry Li (b. 1961) assert that it is fitting that the Christian name emerged in Antioch:
Jews loved Gentiles, Gentiles loved Jews, and they were all worshiping God together as one in the local church at Antioch...Its pastoral leadership team included two men from Africa, one from the Mediterranean, one from Asia Minor, and one from the Middle East (Acts 4:36; 9:11; 13:1), providing the church with a visible witness and a model of unity at the highest level. And it was the church at Antioch, and not the church in Jerusalem that first sent missionaries to the world. With these things in mind, it’s not coincidental that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26). For there Christ was clearly recognized in the midst of unity, just as he had said he would be (John 17:23). (DeYmaz and Lee, Ethnic Blends: Mixing Diversity into Your Local Church (Leadership Network Innovation Series), 42)
Bruce Milne (b. 1940) concurs:
It is...highly significant that it was here that the name “Christian” began to be applied to the followers of Jesus (Acts 11:26)—a further critical indication of their sheer “newness,” but a newness, be it noted, expressed not least in the diversity of their community. The citizens of Antioch could find no serviceable term to refer to them, either within Judaism or in any other Gentile religious tradition. It was a new thing and required a new name, but one which identified it with its primary focus—the Lord Jesus Christ—and with its most obvious feature, its welcoming of every race and every type—hence “Christ-ones,” Christians. Is it too much to claim that we truly justify our right to the name Christian only when we practice diversity in unity under Christ? (Milne, Dynamic Diversity: Bridging Class, Age, Race and Gender in the Church, 46-47)
Where, if ever, were you first called “Christian”? Do Christians still stand out today? Should they? What does it mean to be a “Christian”?

“The very word ‘Christianity’ is a misunderstanding—at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), The Anti-Christ, p. 111

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