EARLY CHRISTIANITY: First Century Christians

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Origin of the Term

The word “Christian” occurs only three times in the NT (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). The first passage, Acts 11:26, gives the origin of the term: “In Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” The older generation of critical scholars disputed the historicity of this statement. It was argued that, had the term originated so early, it must have been found far more frequently in the records of early Christianity; sometimes also that the termination –ianos points to a Latin origin. But there is general agreement now that these objections are groundless. The historicity of the Lukan account was upheld not only by Harnack, but by the more radical Knopf in J. Weiss, ed, Die Schriften des NT (1906–1907). In early imperial times, the adjectival termination –ianos was widely diffused throughout the whole empire. Originally applied to the slaves belonging to the great households, it had passed into regular use to denote the adherents of an individual or a party. A Christian is thus simply an adherent of Christ. The name belongs, as Ramsay stated, to the popular slang, as indeed sect and party names generally do. It is only after a considerable interval, and very often under protest, that such names are accepted as self-designations.

The name, then, did not originate with the Christians themselves. Nor would the Jews have applied it to the followers of Jesus, whose claim to be the Christ they opposed so passionately. They spoke of the Christians as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5); perhaps also as “Galileans,” a term which the emperor Julian later attempted vainly to revive. The word must have been coined by the unconverted population of Antioch, as the Church emerged from the synagogue and a Christianity predominantly gentile took its place among the religions of the world.

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Christian Attitude to the Name

Perhaps the earliest occurrence of “Christian” as a self-designation is in Didache 12:4. In the Apologists and Ignatius, on the other hand, the word is in regular use. 1 Peter simply takes it over from the anti-Christian judicial procedure of the law courts, without in any way implying that the Christians used it among themselves. There is every probability, however, that the very element of danger that thus began at an early date to attach to the name was what commended it to the Christians themselves as a title of honor. Deissmann (Deiss.LAE) suggests that Christian means “slave of Christ,” as Caesarian means “slave of Caesar.” But the word can scarcely have had that fulness of meaning until the Christians themselves had come to be proud of it.

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According to tradition, Luke himself was from Antioch. (Cf. Codex Bezae of Acts 11:27f, “when we had assembled.”) If the historian was not only an Antiochene, but a member of the original gentile Christian Church, we have the explanation alike of his interest in the origin of the name Christian and of the detailed precision of his information.

Was “Christian” the Original Form?

In all three NT passages the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus reads Chrēstianoi. We know from many sources that this variant was widely current in the 2nd century. Blass in his edition of Acts not only consistently reads “Chrestian,” but conjectures that “Chrestian” is the correct reading in Tacitus (Ann. xv.44), the earliest extrabiblical testimony to the word. The Tacitus MS has since been published in facsimile. This has shown, according to A. von Harnack (Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, I [repr. 1962], 413f), that “Chrestian” actually was the original reading, though the name “Christ” is correctly given. Harnack accordingly thought the Latin historian intended to correct the popular appellation of ca a.d. 64, in the light of his own more accurate knowledge. “The common people used to call them ‘Chrestians,’ but the real name of their founder was Christ.” Be this as it may, a confusion between “Christos” and the familiar Greek slave name “Chrestos” is more intelligible at an early date than later, when Christianity was better known. There must have been a strong tendency to conform the earlier witnesses to the later, familiar, and etymologically correct usage. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that א retains “Chrestian.” On the whole it seems probable that this designation, though bestowed in error, was the original one.

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Other Christian Self-Designations

The Christians originally called themselves “disciples,” a term afterward restricted to personal hearers of the Lord, and regarded as a title of high distinction. The ordinary self-designations of the apostolic age are “believers” (Acts 5:14; 1 Tim. 4:12), “saints” (Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Rom. 1:7), “brethren” (Acts 6:3; 10:23; etc.), “the elect” (Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10), “the church of the Lord [mg God]” (Acts 20:28), “servants (slaves) to God” (Rom. 6:22; 1 Pet. 2:16). The apostolic authors refer to themselves as “servants (slaves) of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1). Other expressions are occasionally met with, of which perhaps the most significant is: those “that call upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:14; Rom. 10:12f; 1 Cor. 1:2). Cf. Pliny’s report to Trajan (Ep x.97): “They affirmed that … they had been wont to assemble and address a hymn to Christ as to a god.”

What Christians Were Called by Others. As Jesus’ disciples preached and won converts after the resurrection, other Jews began to see this as a new movement. They applied four names to the Christian community, not all of them complimentary.

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Galileans. Since Jesus and most of the 12 disciples were from Galilee, it was natural for the term to be applied to all of his followers, especially since it implied that the movement was not as pure as Judean Judaism. Some interpreters believe that Luke 22:59 is an example of the use of “Galilean” as a title; in Acts 1:11 and 2:7 it is merely a geographical reference. One sure reference to Christians by that title appears in the work of the pagan philosopher Epictetus (ad 50?–135?), who was impressed with how Christians died for their faith. It is not clear how common the title of Galilean was, but it had obviously spread from Judea to Rome, where Epictetus lived.

Nazarenes. Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene,” so it was easy to transfer that title to his followers. They were “followers of the Nazarene” or “Nazarenes.” The earliest use of the term is in Acts 24:5, where Tertullus accused the apostle Paul of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Certainly he did not intend the title as a compliment, but how others used it is not known. Whether the early Christians used that name for themselves is doubtful, although later Jewish-Christian and Gnostic groups did call themselves Nazarenes. One early writing was even called The Gospel of the Nazarenes.

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Followers of the Way. Christianity was far from being simply an abstract belief; it was a whole way of life. The new way of living was obvious to those around Christians and to the Christians themselves, for they were following Jesus’ life style, the way he had lived and taught. Soon the term “this Way” or “the Way” meant Christian. Thus Saul (the pre-Christian name of Paul) was sent to Damascus to arrest anyone belonging to “the Way” (Acts 9:2). Christians may also have used the term to describe themselves; Luke referred to the Christian movement as “the Way” (Acts 19:9, 23; 24:22). It is the only name Christians and non-Christians both may have used for the new movement.

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Christians. When the Christian movement reached Antioch in Syria, the gospel was preached to Gentiles as well as Jews. Such evangelism marked the sect as more than a new type of Judaism; it was a new religion. The Gentiles in Antioch invented a name for the new group. Since members of the group constantly talked about Christ, they were called Christians, meaning the “household” or “partisans” of Christ. Some satire may have been intended in the name. For instance, since the “Augustinians” were an organized group who led the public praise of the emperor Nero Augustus, the citizens of Antioch may have made a comparable Latinized name out of Christ as a joke. Similar groups included Herod’s partisans, the Herodians. “Christ” was an unusual and meaningless name to Gentiles, but Chrestos (meaning “good” or “kind”) was a common name; some pagans called the new sect “Chrestians.” Thus Suetonius wrote of the Jews being expelled from Rome in ad 49 on account of “Chrestus.”

Antioch, where believers were first called Christians.

The Christians themselves apparently did not appreciate the name, but, like many other nicknames, “Christian” stuck. It appears only three times in the NT: Acts 11:26 describes its origin; Acts 26:28 records Herod Agrippa II saying satirically to Paul, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!”; 1 Peter 4:16 instructs believers not to be ashamed if they suffer because the name has been applied to them. No further record of the name appears until the 2nd century, when Ignatius of Antioch became the first Christian to call believers Christians. The Roman governor Pliny (from the area to which 1 Peter was addressed) wrote to the emperor Trajan about people accused in his court of being Christians. From that time on, the nickname became popular among Christians. What better name could there be than one declaring that they belonged to Christ?

What Christians Called Themselves as a Group. Christians naturally had a set of names for themselves, some used to refer to individuals, others to a whole group. Three terms were used to identify Christians collectively.

Church. One way of referring to the body of Israel in the OT was simply “the congregation.” Groups claiming to be the true Israel spiritually rather naturally called themselves “the congregation.” The term was used by the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as by early Christians; it is the actual meaning of the word “church.” Christians often referred to themselves simply as the church or the congregation (with “of God” being understood). The term could be applied either to all believers in the world or to any local group of them. It meant the total presence of God’s people in a given location. That is why the NT often uses the singular “church” even when many groups of believers are included together (Acts 9:31; 2 Cor 1:1); the term “churches” is rarely found (Acts 15:41; 16:5). Each group or the whole group was the place where God was present (Mt 16:18; 18:17); God had purchased the congregation with the blood of his Son (Acts 20:28).

Multitude. The term “the multitude” is similar to “church” as a way to describe Christians as a body. The Dead Sea Scrolls frequently refer to “the Many” or “the Multitude,” meaning the gathered congregation of the true Israel. The same phrase was occasionally used to describe the early Christians (Acts 4:32 kjv; 6:5; 15:12 kjv). It also appears in the writings of Clement of Rome (ad 96?) and in the Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century). It was probably a shortened form of “the multitude of the righteous,” “the multitude of God,” or some similar title. But when Christians referred to “the multitude,” they meant the whole group of Christians.

Flock. The simple designation “the flock” or “the flock of God” was sometimes used for Christians (Acts 20:28; 1 Pt 5:2, 3; also in Clement of Rome’s writings). The title grew out of a common Jewish metaphor for Israel found in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings (1 Enoch 90; Ps of Sol 17:45); Jesus also used the term (Jn 10). It became a title, so that a Christian referring to “the flock” meant the whole Christian body, whose shepherd was God.

 

Evangelicalism’s most eminent scholars have labored to make the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible a comprehensive and reliable tool for all who study Scripture. The encyclopedia contains more than 5,700 articles by over 175 leading evangelical scholars from around the world, including Colin Brown, Frederic Bush, Andrew Hill, Howard Marshall, Grant Osborne, Moisés Silva, Willem Van Gemeren, Gordan Wenham, Edwin Yamauchi, and Robert Yarbrough.

What Christians Called Themselves as Individuals. At least nine terms were used by early Christians to describe themselves as individuals.

Disciple. Jesus was followed by a group of men and women who listened to his teaching of the Scriptures, observed his way of life, and patterned their lives after his. Those followers were called by a term common in the ancient world for a teacher’s pupils: “disciples” (Mt 10:1; Lk 6:17; Jn 6:66). Jesus’ command to the disciples was that wherever they went in the world they should make others into his disciples, not only baptizing them, but also teaching them to do everything he had commanded (Mt 28:19, 20). It was proper for early Christians to be called disciples of Jesus of Nazareth or simply “the disciples” (Acts 6:1, 2, 7; 9:36; 11:26) because they were carrying on the teaching of Jesus and living the life he had exemplified. They were thus recognized as a “school” or living community that embodied the teaching of their “master” in practice. The Book of 1 John emphasizes that only those who keep Christ’s commandments show real love for God (2:3–6; 3:10, 11).

Slave. Five NT authors called themselves “slaves [or servants] of Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tm 2:24; Ti 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pt 1:1; Jude 1; Rv 1:1). In many cases the term is a synonym for “Christian.” Why would such a term become a name for Christians? In the OT God was viewed as a great king; the subjects of kings were their slaves, since a king could do with them as he liked. The people of Israel saw themselves in the same relationship to God: they were his slaves.

Often the title “slave of the king” meant that the person was an officer in the king’s service; it was a title of honor. In Jewish literature Moses and others were called slaves of God (Nm 12:7, 8; Rv 15:3). The term “slave” was thus a title both of honor and of subjugation; in the NT it is hard to know which sense is intended. Certainly subjection was often meant (1 Cor 7:22; Phil 2:7), but when applied to the apostolic writers the term probably suggested their honored position in God’s household. At the same time it indicated their obedience to Christ: he commanded and they obeyed. Since obedience was characteristic of all Christians, “slaves of Christ” became a title for members of the young church.

Elect; Called. In the OT, God called the people of Israel into being as a nation. They were the “chosen people,” the “elect,” the “called of God.” The NT presents Jesus as supremely the chosen one of God (1 Pt 2:4). His followers, who knew themselves to belong to God and indeed to be the true heirs of the election of Israel, also called themselves “the elect,” “the chosen,” or “the called” (Rom 1:6; 16:13 kjv; Col 3:12; 2 Tm 2:10; 1 Pt 1:2; 2 Jn 1:13; Jude 1; Rv 17:14; the same meaning may be reflected in Mt 22:14). That title pointed to the special place of Christians within God’s plan as the heirs of his promises. Yet, it also indicated that their position was not based on any special merit; God chose them when they could do nothing. Pride was eliminated because God had graciously given them such an honored position.

Righteous. The righteous person, who stood pious and pure before God, was prominent in the OT. Several such OT texts are quoted in the NT (Hb 2:4 in Rom 1:17; Ps 14:1 in Rom 3:10; Ps 34:16 in 1 Pt 3:12). For Christians, Jesus was the one truly righteous person (1 Pt 3:18; 1 Jn 2:1). Christians saw themselves as having been made righteous by Jesus, and, since they now lived in obedience to God, they could claim for themselves the OT title of “the righteous” (Rom 5:19; Gal 3:11; Jas 5:6; 1 Pt 4:18; Rv 22:11). The title may not have been used regularly enough to be considered a “name,” but its use was not infrequent.

Saints; Holy Ones. Israel was called to be “holy” or consecrated to God (Ex 22:31; Lv 11:44); Jesus was the “Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). The background of the title, however, is probably to be found in apocalyptic literature, where it stands for the faithful remnant of Israel, the elect people of God (Dn 7:18, 21–27; 1 Enoch 38:4; cf. the language of Ps 79:2; Ps of Sol 8:34; 9:6; 10:7; note the “pious ones” of 1 Mc 2:42; 7:13). The emphasis is not on holiness as such, but rather on the fact that as a member of the elect group one must follow the laws of the kingdom, separating oneself for God.

“Saints” became the apostle Paul’s favorite name for Christians (Rom 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 16:2, 15; plus 31 other places in Paul’s letters). The name is also used 14 times in the Book of Revelation. Other NT writers used it occasionally (Heb 6:10; 13:24; Jude 3). The name means that Christians are expected to be holy (Heb 12:10; Rv 22:11); they have been consecrated to God as a holy priesthood and have rejected the ways of the world (1 Pt 2:5, 9; cf. 1:15, 16). More than that, they are the people of the coming age, who will reign with God over the earth and over angels. The early church could hardly have found a more exalted name for itself.

Believers. One would expect the term “believers” (sometimes translated “faithful”) to be a title for Christians, since the NT stresses belief in Jesus. It meant not only believing as a mental activity, but total commitment of one’s whole person to Jesus. Christians were called not merely to believe something but to give themselves to someone. Although NT authors emphasized believing, they rarely used the term “believer” as a name for Christians. There are a few clear examples (Acts 4:32; 10:45; 19:18; 1 Tm 4:3, 12), but in other places the term is a description, not a name (Acts 2:44; 15:5; 18:27). As a name, “believer” points to the personal commitment of Christians to Jesus.

Friends. Since Jesus called his disciples friends (Lk 12:4; Jn 15:14, 15), it would have been natural for Christians to refer to themselves as “the friends (of Christ).” Such terminology was used for members of philosophical groups in the Greek world. The designation is used only once in the NT (Acts 27:3); some translations read “his friends,” but the Greek has simply “the friends.” Apparently, “friends” seemed too cold a title, losing its place to “family” designations.

Brothers (Sisters). Good evidence exists that Jews at the time of Jesus frequently referred to themselves as brothers (Acts 2:29, 37; 7:2; 22:5; 28:21; Rom 9:3). From the beginning it seemed natural for Jewish Christians to call each other “brothers” (that is, “siblings”—the term included both male and female; Acts 1:15, 16; 9:30; 11:1). Members of gentile religious communities also called each other brothers, so the name found a home in the gentile churches as well (Acts 17:14; Rom 1:13; 1 Cor 1:1, 10; plus dozens of other places in Paul’s letters to gentile churches). In fact, along with “disciple” (in Acts) and “saint” (always plural in the writings of Paul and the Book of Revelation), it was one of the most popular names for Christians and the only one used in James and 1 John.

Each Christian was called “brother,” and the Christians collectively were “the brothers.” The name stressed the intimacy of the Christian community. That is, the relationship of believers to one another was as close as that of blood kin (closer, in fact—Mk 10:23–31). In 1 John and James the name underlines the claim that poorer Christians have upon those better off (Jas 2:15; 1 Jn 3:10–18; 4:20, 21). It also points to equality among members of the Christian community.

Children of God. The OT refers to Israel as God’s child (Ex 4:22; Is 1:2; Hos 11:1) and to the king in particular as God’s son (Ps 2:7). The most important characteristic of such sonship was likeness to the Father; because the king was God’s son, he would judge righteously as God did. The term was soon extended to include all righteous persons, because they acted like their Father (Hos 1:10; Wis of Sol 2:18). It was natural for Jesus to call those who behaved righteously “sons” or “children of God,” stressing their moral likeness to God (Mt 5:9, 45; Lk 6:35; 20:36). The church picked up that usage, referring to Christians with the term whenever their moral likeness to God needed stressing (Rom 8:14; 9:8; Eph 5:1; Phil 2:15; 1 Jn 3:1, 2, 10; 5:1, 2).

It would be illegitimate for a person to take the name “child of God” if he or she were committed to doing evil. The title also points to Christians as God’s elect, chosen to be part of his family (Jn 1:12; 11:52; Rom 8:16–21; Gal 3:26). The two ideas complement each other because anyone who is made part of a family must act like the family.

The title “sons of God” was always used in the plural to refer to Christians. The singular “Son of God” was reserved for Jesus Christ. The early Christians would speak of themselves as “children of God.”

Bibliography.—H. J. Cadbury, B.C., V, 383–86; E. Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles (Eng. tr. 1971), pp. 367f n 3, 689. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Christians, Names For,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 431–434.[1]

[1] J. Dickie, “Christian,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 657.

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3 thoughts on “EARLY CHRISTIANITY: First Century Christians

Add yours

  1. I am not sure why you would say “churches” is rarely found in the NT, for the ASV uses the word 35x. Perhaps you have something more in mind than what I am reading. As far as an identifier, one can’t go wrong with 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rom. 16:16, or “churches that belong to God” or “churches that belong to Christ” (Matt. 16:18-19). *** With regard to Acts 11:26, there is no reason to think it was a disparaging term (cf. RWP), although EGT uses the word “probable”, but I would dispute that. In any event, just a few thoughts.

    1. It is not my article, but it could be that he meant plural used over singular use. But I suspect he is referring to ἐκκλησία ekklēsia (sing.) ἐκκλησίας ekklēsias (pl.), which is best rendered “congregation” as it is in the UASV. Its meaning is simple, it is not a building, it is a group of people, who are gathered for a particular purpose, in many cases the purpose is religious worship. William Tyndale had it correct when he rendered ekklēsia as “congregation” in 1526, but the 1611 KJV changed it to “church.” Maybe their motive was to take the power from the people and give it to the so-called church.

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