Self-Designations and Group Identity– Part Seven

It will come as some surprise to many that the term ‘Christian’ or in this case ‘christianos’ in the Greek, is found exactly three times in the NT, no more, and no less. Paul does not use the term at all, he rather speaks of those who are ‘in Christ’, which has a different sense than ‘christianos’. The former tells you where they are, the latter tells you who they are the adherents of. The three NT occurrences are two in Acts (11.25-26; 26.28), and one in 1 Peter 4.16. That’s all folks. It also occurs in the Apostolic Fathers– five times in Ignatius, once in the Didache (12.4), four times in the martyrdom of Polycarp (in chapters 3,10,12) and 14 times in the apologetical document the Epistle to Diognetus.

One of the clues that Trebilco rightly highlights to understanding this term and its provenance is that ‘christianos’ is a Latinism– the use of a Latin term in this case christianus which is turned into a Greek term by changing the ending so it suits a Greek language context. In this case it is like the term Herodianos– the partisans or adherents of Herod. Here finally we have a term that is regularly used by outsiders of Christians and we find it in Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius and Trajan. This comports with the suggestion that like the label ‘Methodist’ it was originally an outsider term used to identify a particular group, in this case a religious group, and used to distinguish them from ordinary Jews. Also like the term Methodist, it is used by Tacitus and others in a pejorative way. Luke however turns this around and uses it in a positive way, since it squarely labels who these believers are the followers of, adherents to, and believers in— Christ.

Acts 11.25-26 suggests Luke is citing an historical source and giving a report— in Antioch is where they were first called Christians… and the question must be— by whom?? Not,to judge from Paul’s letters, by Christians themselves (see pp. 276-77). I agree with Trebilco that the designation was likely coined by Gentiles not Jews, as Jews who were not Christians would not call Jesus ‘the Christ’ whereas Gentiles would simply take the term Christos to mean the anointed or daubed one— not a very special term (christos as an adjective in any case is found on ancient perfume bottles meaning for external application only– i.e. for anointing not dipping bread in). It is even possible that the term was first coined by Roman administrators like Felix, though in this case in Antioch (so presumably by an official from the Syrian province). If it is true that Agrippa II and Felix used the term it was used at least as early as the late 50s A.D.

In 1 Peter however, the term is used by a Christian as a term of honor. If in fact it was first used in Antioch in the late 30s early 40s as Acts 11 may suggest, then Peter could have heard it there (see Galatians 2) and adapted it for his own purposes later, writing from Rome. David Horrell is cited approvingly by Trebilco when he stresses that creative reinterpretation of a derogatory phrase is a classic practice of a new religious or political group (p. 284). Peter in 1 Peter seems to assume his audience all over eastern and northern Turkey already knows the meaning of this term. It is important to remember that all the NT documents are written to Christians, and so are insider facing documents. Any use of the term christianos in such documents is for Christian’s benefit, and assumes their understanding of the term. But clearly the term continued to be used by outsiders of Christians as the evidence from Tacitus and Pliny etc. shows, as does the evidence in Ignatius as well who takes the term to be such a badge of honor that one can only really live into it if one is martyred like Christ. Not accidentally both Polycarp and the author of the letter to Diognetus are writing to outsiders and use the term frequently. It had become a label known both inside and outside the church. So important does the label become, that by the time of Pliny in Bithynia in the early second century confessing or denying one is a christianos can be the ultimate litmus test and a matter of life and death (see Pliny’s Epistle 10.96-97). It proved to be a label that stuck and was embraced by Christians then, and continually sense.

As Trebilco’s fine book shows, the earliest Christians were creative and had a variety of ways of talking about themselves, even embracing some outsider labels and using them positively. They truly saw themselves as the true people of God, ardently believing in and following Christ, regularly assembling together, being pilgrims on the way, disciples of a master who was more than a teacher, and more than that they saw themselves as family, a new eschatological family of faith which is the terminology they seem to have used most frequently with each other– brothers and sisters in Christ. The use of the seven terms we have been examining helped boundary definition for Christians, and helped them understand who and whose they were.

The real implications of the study become clear in the Conclusions (see especially p. 306) where it becomes clear that the terminology is exclusive in various ways– if we are the believers, others are not. If we are the saints, others are not. If we are the followers of the right way, others are not. The very terminology reflects, and helps pave the parting of the ways with Judaism. Jewish self-definition is very different from what is meant by these terms, especially as they point to belief in and emulation of Christ. Christians do not call themselves ever in this literature the baptised ones. Contrast this with ‘the circumcision’ terminology for Jews. Once a significant number of pure pagans became Christ followers without ever being God-fearers, or the like, and are accepted simply on the basis of their faith in Christ and following him, we are already de facto talking about a non-ethnically based religion which while it has Jews roots, sees itself as the natural and true development of God’s people— Jew and Gentile united in Christ. The language which Jewish Christians saw as fulfillment or completionism language, is the same language non-Christian Jews saw as not merely sectarian but as supercessionism— and rightly so. When Paul in 2 Cor. 3 or the author of Hebrews in various places indicates that the Mosaic covenant was pro tempore, and now obsolete in light of the new covenant and in light of Christ, clearly the discussion has simply accepted the parting of the ways and moved on. It appears to me that this was already happening in the 40s and during Paul’s ministry. As Trebilco points out, Christians could no longer call Jews ‘hagioi’ because what they now meant by the term was set apart by and for Christ, or in the case of the use of believer terminology it meant something specific, belief in Christ, something that could not be said of non-Christian Jews (see p. 309). On p. 310 Trebilco makes a misstep when suggesting that what Paul is saying is that Gentiles are being grafted into non-Christian Israel. This is not correct. In regard to Jews who reject Jesus, Paul says they are branches broken off from the olive tree, albeit temporarily so Gentiles could be grafted in. For Paul the line of continuity goes from OT saints to Jewish Christians to Gentile Christians. Gentile Christians are grafted into the inheritance of Abraham through being united with Jewish Christians… the ‘true Jews’ in Paul’s view. True enough, God has a plan by which all Israel will be saved (see Rom. 11.25-26) but the plan is for them to be grafted back in by grace through faith in Jesus when he returns to turn away the impiety of Jacob at the second coming. In other words, there will not be any people of God who doesn’t confess Jesus is Lord in the end. Paul does not believe in the notion that there has ever been two peoples of God co-existing at the same time.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, because it is truly thorough in what it sets out to do, even if one could have wished for less old style word studies and more new fangled social identity theory analysis. Even so, it is one of the best books written on the NT is a good while.

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    Dr. Witherington
    FYI – This is the 8th in the series on Trebilco’s book. There are two (2) that are labeled as part 6.


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