kris'-chan, kris'-ti-an (Christianos):

1. Historicity of Acts 11:26

2. Of Pagan Origin

3. The Christian Attitude to the Name

4. Was "Christian" the Original Form?

5. The Christians and the Empire

6. Social Standing of the Early Christians

7. Christian Self-Designations


1. Historicity of Acts 11:26:

The word Christian occurs only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16). The first passage, Acts 11:26, gives the origin of the term, "The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." 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 -ianus points to a Latin origin. But there is general agreement now that these objections are groundless. The historicity of the Lukan account is upheld not only by Harnack, but by the more radical Knopf in Die Schriften des New Testament, edited by Johannes Weiss. 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 says, 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.

2. Of Pagan Origin:

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 attempted later vainly to revive. The word must have been coined by the heathen population of Antioch, as the church emerged from the synagogue, and a Christianity predominantly Gentiletook its place among the religions of the world.

3. The 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. 1Pe 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 it was the danger which thus began at an early date to attach to the name which commended it to the Christians themselves as a title of honor . Deissmann (Licht vom Osten, 286) suggests that Christian means slave of Christ, as Caesarian means slave of Caesar. But the word can scarcely have had that fullness of meaning till the Christians themselves had come to be proud of it.

According to tradition, Luke himself belonged to Antioch. In Acts 11:27,28 Codex Bezae (D) reads "There was much rejoicing, and when we had assembled, there stood up," etc. In view of the greater authority now so frequently accorded to the so-called Western text, we cannot summarily dispose of such a reading as an interpolation. If the historian was not only an Antiochene, but a member of the original GentileChristian church, we have the explanation alike of his interest in the origin of the name Chris tian, and of the detailed precision of his information.

4. Was "Christian" the Original Form?:

In all three New Testament passages the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus reads "Chrestian." We know from many sources that this variant was widely current in the 2nd century. Blass in his edition of Ac not only consistently reads "Chrestian," but conjectures that "Chrestian" is the correct reading in Tacitus (Annals, xv.44), the earliest extra- Biblical testimony to the word. The Tacitus manuscript has since been published in facsimile. This has shown, according to Harnack (Mission and Expansion (English translation), I, 413, 414), that "Chrestian" actually was the original reading, though the name "Christ" is correctly given. Harnack accordingly thinks that the Latin historian intended to correct the popular appellation of circa 64 AD, 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" (Christos) and the familiar Greek slave name "Chrestos" (chrestos is more intelligible at an early date than late r, 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 the original scribe of Codex Sinaiticus retains "Chrestian." On the whole it seems probable that this designation, though bestowed in error, was the original one.

5. The Christians and the Empire:

The fuller discussion of this subject more appropriately falls under the articles dealing with the relation of the church and empire. Suffice it here to say that Paul apparently hoped that by his acquittal the legal position of Christianity as a religio licita would be established throughout the empire, and that 1 Peter belongs to a time when the mere profession of Christianity was a crime in the eyes of the state, but that in all probability this was a new position of affairs.

6. Social Standing of the Early Christians:

That early Christianity was essentially a movement among the lower non-literary classes has been rightly emphasized--above all by Deissmann. This is a circumstance of the utmost importance for the correct understanding of the early history of our faith, though probably Deissmann in some degree exaggerates and misplaces the significance. Is it correct to say, for example, that "primitive Christianity was relatively indifferent to politics, not as Christianity, but as a movement of the humbler folks, whose lot on the whole had certainly been lightened by the Empire" (Licht vom Osten, 254)? Very probably however the difficulties of the Pauline Gentilemission were appreciably increased by the fact that he touched a lower social stratum than that of the original Jewish Christianity of Palestine. No class more resents being associated in any way with the "submerged masses" than the self-respecting peasant or artisan, who seems to have formed the backbone of the Palestine church. The apostle had conseq uently to fight against social, no less than racial and religious, prejudices.

7. 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 Timothy 4:12), "saints" (Acts 9:13,12,41; Romans 1:7), "brethren" (Acts 6:3; 10:23, etc.), "the elect" (Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 2:10), "the church of God" (Acts 20:28 margin), "servants (slaves) to God" (Romans 6:22; 1 Peter 2:16). The apostolic authors refer to themselves as "servants (slaves) of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 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; Romans 10:12,13; 1 Corinthians 1:2). Compare Pliny's report to Trajan (Epistles, X, 97): "They affirmed that .... they had been wont to assemble and address a hymn to Christ as to a god."


The most recent discussion of the names of Christian believers, including "Christian," is in Harnack's Mission and Expansion of Christianity, English translation (2nd edition, 1908), I, 399. See also EB, HDB, DCG, with the lit. there cited. On the social status of the early Christians, compare Orr's Neglected Factors in the Study of the Early Progress of Christianity; on the religious significance of the name, see CHRISTIANITY.

John Dickie

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'CHRISTIAN'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.