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We were Called Christians First in Antioch!

19 Feb

Did you ever wonder how we got our name Christian? I have several nicknames and I know how I received each one. Some of the reasons are quite funny, while others are a bit embarrassing. Some were used for a short period of time, and others I am known by to this day. Nevertheless, all of them are mine, and I know the reason why and by whom I had been called by each name that was used to identify me. So, since we had begun to be known as followers of the Way or Nazarenes, how is it we finally became known as Christian? Who gave us this name and why, and can we know?

To be honest, the Scriptures do not say why we are called Christian or who began referring to us by this name, but it does tell us we became known as Christians first in Antioch. I think this gives us clues for the why and also the who that are involved in how we have become known. First of all, we need to understand that it was probably meant to be a derogatory remark. Early Christian Graffiti seems to imply this is so. In fact, the Scriptures never show that we ever described ourselves as Christian in the early decades of the Jesus movement. We didn’t begin doing so until sometime in the 2nd century CE. There are only three references in the New Testament that describes us in this manner. Two are in Acts and the third is in the first epistle of Peter. Notice:

Acts 11:26 KJV  And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

Acts 26:28 KJV  Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.

1 Peter 4:16 KJV  Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.

Acts 11 shows that non-Christians referred to us by the name Christian, while Acts 26 has King Agrippa referring to the Jewish sect as Christian. Again, it was other people or non-Christians referring to us by this name. Finally, Peter says, “if any of you suffer persecution as a Christian…” In other words, other people were identifying us by this name and in a quite negative manner. Therefore, is seems that Scriptures are clear that the term Christian, which identifies the followers of Christ, was at first derogatory and used by non-Christians to identify the followers of Jesus. If this is so, the reference to our being called Christian first in Antioch (Acts 11:26) implies the term was used by non-Christians and in an unflattering manner.

Secondly, we see that, if we were referred to by the name Christian first in Antioch, it was a term that was quickly picked up by others, even important people like King Agrippa who fancied himself a worshiper of the true God in Judaism. In other words, the term was not simply neighborhood slang, used to identify the followers of Jesus. It was used by the important people in Antioch. Otherwise, how could we have ever come to be known by this name in Caesarea and, in fact, all over the Roman Empire? People who used it were important people who travelled often and referred to us by this name wherever they went.

Notice the timeline of this reference to the followers of Jesus. It comes to us in chapter 11 of Acts. The chapter begins with Peter having to explain why he entered a Gentile’s home and ate with him. This was Cornelius, the first Gentile baptized as a follower of Jesus who was not compelled to be circumcised by those in Judea. This was big news, and notice that Cornelius’ band was stationed at Caesarea just south of Ptolemias where Petronius, the Roman governor of Syria waited for his reply from Caligula, who had ordered him to set up his image in the Temple at Jerusalem. Rome and Jerusalem were at the brink of war, and “…the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26)!

Remember that the term Christ-ian comes is the Graecized manner of referring to Messianics, or followers of the Messiah. This had reference to the Jewish claim that a King would rise who would free them from the bonds of their enemies. Antioch was the capital city of the eastern frontier province of Syria. Today, American secret service agents keep a watchful eye on those they consider might harm our country. Don’t you think the Roman government at Syria had been keeping a watchful eye upon this Jewish sect who preached about a new Kingdom of God, whose Lord and King was the Messiah, Jesus?

The Jews and Rome were at the brink of war, and only a few years before this Jesus, the founder of this sect of the Jews, had been executed (as far as Rome was concerned) as a political agitator. However, the Roman government’s continued investigative activity had reckoned this particular Jewish sect as politically innocuous, due to its idea that the Kingdom of God was spiritually defined and were opposed to using external force against any government. On the contrary, they preached to “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” and that included taxes. Therefore, although it was a Messianic movement within Judaism, it was not a threat to Caesar.

In order to differentiate this body of believers (who also had recently been accumulating a considerable number of gentile followers) from other Jewish sects, the Roman officials were probably the first to begin referring to the followers of Jesus as Christ-ian. Remembering that the believers in Antioch spoke Greek and any reference to Jesus as the Messiah would be used in its Greek form, Christ. The suffix “ian” is actually Latin, implying that it was the Roman officials who first took the Greek, Christ, and added a Latin ending to the term and began referring to the followers of Christ as Christian!

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Related Posts:

They Called Us Christian at Antioch

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8 Comments

Posted by on February 19, 2011 in Christianity, New Testament History, Religion

 

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8 responses to “We were Called Christians First in Antioch!

  1. Georgia Estes

    April 10, 2011 at 16:29

    Interesting discussion between you and Rabbi. Very.
    I never thought of Luke,Acts as being a defense to anyone before. I pictured it as Luke, journaling…perhaps for future generations. Thought of “Theophilus” as a symbolic name.
    So…you have both opened new doors of thought to me about this.
    Rabbi…as to the name Christ-ian…why is it that so many Messianic Jews I have come across get so upset with this name and say, “I am not Christian” as though it were a terrible thing to be called thus…when we are speaking of the same Savior?

     
    • Ed Bromfield

      April 11, 2011 at 16:35

      Hi Georgia, and and thank your for stopping by. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut of believing one thing, which is usually our first impression. Most of my commentary isn’t set in cement. It is just another way of looking at the circumstances. Sometimes a different look opens up some hidden truth that the old way of seeing had kept us from understanding. I am glad you enjoyed to post and my little discussion with Rabbi Mike. Lord bless.

       
  2. Return of Benjamin

    February 21, 2011 at 13:22

    You’re points are strong and well thought-out, but I think you’re missing a couple of key points of data that, when combined with your facts, take us in a different direction.

    1) Theophilus is obviously a Roman official, not a Temple official. Luke initially addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus” in Luke 1:3. The title “most excellent” is how one formally addresses a Roman official, as shown in Acts 23:26 and 24:3 (to Felix) and Acts 26:25 (to Festus). It is never used anywhere that I have heard of to address Judaism’s High Priest. Moreover, Theophilus would be an unlikely name for a member of the priesthood to use, since it simply isn’t Jewish. A Hellenized Jew might use it (much as we can tell from the names that Stephen and Phillip were Hellenized Jews), but there was a distinctive bias against such “tainted” Jews in Judea.

    2) Luke does spend a lot of time explaining Jewish customs to his audience. He also avoids Yeshua’s discussions on the finer points of Torah and uses alternative terms that would be unfamiliar to a Roman/Greek audience, such as translating “rabbi” as “master,” and “scribe” as “lawyer.” A quick examination of Luke’s probable audience can be found here.

    Moreover, Luke also manages to fit in brief summaries of Jewish history that would be entirely superfluous if his audience was primarily Jewish in Acts 7 and 13, but which would help to give a Gentile reader some background.

    You are correct that Luke makes a point of demonstrating Felix’s corruption, but if his purpose was to see Paul exonerated in his trial at Rome, it would make perfect sense to show this anyway. It would fit perfectly with the defense: “Hey, honorable and wise men like Gallo didn’t have a problem with Paul or this Messianic sect; it’s only those who were corrupt like Felix who falsely imprisoned him.”

    You’re also right that they were probably planning on using Roman law to fight back against the Jerusalem priesthood. But that fits even better with the scenario of Luke-Acts as a part of Paul’s legal defense as presented to a Roman official investigating the matter than of it being an apologetic work to a Jewish audience.

    For example, there were many other Messianic sects that arose between Christ and 70 CE. All were sought out and destroyed except for “The Way” or Christ-ian to Rome.

    Because they were revolutionary and violent. The defense of Acts is that the followers of the Way, whether Jew or Gentile, strove to live in peace with all peoples, and included even centurions and foreign dignitaries (the Ethiopian Eunuch)–and that wise officials, like Gallo, recognized it.

    A final point: If Acts were written as an apologetic work to a Jewish audience, why is it so focused on Paul’s Gentile mission? Why is there almost no mention of any other Apostle after chapter 11? Why wouldn’t part of the defense of the faith be, “And look at the work of the Apostles among the Jews and how many believe in Yeshua because of their work!”

    You might be able to find an explanation, but the theory that Luke-Acts was written to a Gentile audience–which is the majority view of conservative scholars for a reason–just fits better with all of the available facts.

    As I’ve said before, I am enjoying your study of Acts, minor quibbles aside. Keep up the good work!

    Shalom,
    Rabbi Mike

     
    • Ed Bromfield

      February 22, 2011 at 08:35

      Greetings Rabbi Mike,

      1) Theophilus is obviously a Roman official, not a Temple official. Luke initially addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus” in Luke 1:3. The title “most excellent” is how one formally addresses a Roman official, as shown in Acts 23:26 and 24:3 (to Felix) and Acts 26:25 (to Festus). It is never used anywhere that I have heard of to address Judaism’s High Priest.

      I agree the expression is used to address Roman officials, but an argument of silence that it was never used for the high priest is weak in my opinion. Paul says the high priest was the ruler of the Jews. How was the high priest addressed? The Scriptures don’t say, but you can be certain it was not without some honorable title. I think, because Luke does not address Theophilus in the same manner in Acts 1:1, it shows he is no longer serving in his “most excellent” office. Why would one work address him as “most noble” but not in the second work—if—both works were to be used at the same time for Paul’s defense?

      On the other hand, if Luke is addressing the former high priest 24 to 25 years later in Acts, in an effort to get him to use his influence for Paul’s exoneration, it makes sense.

      Moreover, Theophilus would be an unlikely name for a member of the priesthood to use, since it simply isn’t Jewish. A Hellenized Jew might use it (much as we can tell from the names that Stephen and Phillip were Hellenized Jews), but there was a distinctive bias against such “tainted” Jews in Judea.

      You don’t believe one of the high priests was named Theophilus? It is well documented that there was a high priest by this name, and the last official high priest before the destruction of the Temple was his son.

      2) Luke does spend a lot of time explaining Jewish customs to his audience. He also avoids Yeshua’s discussions on the finer points of Torah and uses alternative terms that would be unfamiliar to a Roman/Greek audience, such as translating “rabbi” as “master,” and “scribe” as “lawyer.” A quick examination of Luke’s probable audience can be found here.

      Yet, things like the “course of Abia” and “altar of incense” and “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “house of Jacob” and “Abraham” and “horn of salvation” and “give light to them that sit in darkness” (and these represent just a glance at the first chapter) he leaves all these things unexplained for the Roman who is supposed to be defending Paul.

      Moreover, we have no precedent for Paul enlisting anyone to come to his defense. He always took the opportunity to defend himself in a manner that glorified God—why would he let his defense up to an unbeliever and a lawyer who needed to be instructed? It doesn’t make sense.

      Moreover, Luke also manages to fit in brief summaries of Jewish history that would be entirely superfluous if his audience was primarily Jewish in Acts 7 and 13, but which would help to give a Gentile reader some background.

      On the contrary, these are the sins of the establishment. All the Old Testament prophets bared the sins of the rulers before them in an effort to get them to repent. Speaking of Stephen and his speech makes perfect sense, and Paul’s speech in 13 is just as condemning—and don’t forget, Paul spoke in the synagogue. There were some God-fearers there, but the majority attending were Jews. Recalling Jewish history is not necessarily for the gentile reader.

      You are correct that Luke makes a point of demonstrating Felix’s corruption, but if his purpose was to see Paul exonerated in his trial at Rome, it would make perfect sense to show this anyway. It would fit perfectly with the defense: “Hey, honorable and wise men like Gallo didn’t have a problem with Paul or this Messianic sect; it’s only those who were corrupt like Felix who falsely imprisoned him.”

      As I said above, Paul would have wanted to defend himself before Nero, as he had done before other Roman officials and King Agrippa. There is no reason to expect him to change his modus operandi at this stage in his life. He would have wanted to speak for himself, rather than let a lawyer (believer or not) defend him, especially when that one needed to be instructed in the faith.

      It makes better sense for Luke to imply he is well aware of why Paul was kept in chains, and, given the new law passed by the Roman senate that obligated accusers to be present and correct under the penalty of being punished themselves for false accusations, Acts is a warning of Roman judgment against the Annas family, if they refused to drop their charges against Paul.

      You’re also right that they were probably planning on using Roman law to fight back against the Jerusalem priesthood. But that fits even better with the scenario of Luke-Acts as a part of Paul’s legal defense as presented to a Roman official investigating the matter than of it being an apologetic work to a Jewish audience.

      Paul never sought to bring charges against those who accused him. He bore the penalty of taking the higher, less-traveled road. Luke’s work was a warning of what could occur to the Annas family, if Paul was found innocent at Rome. Moreover, there is no adequate explanation for why Luke dropped the appropriate title for the “most excellent” Roman official in Acts, if both Luke & Acts were to be used for Paul’s defense. It makes sense only if the two works were written to the same individual a two different and distant points in his life.

      Concerning my saying “there were many other Messianic sects that arose between Christ and 70 CE. All were sought out and destroyed except for “The Way” or Christ-ian to Rome.”

      Because they were revolutionary and violent. The defense of Acts is that the followers of the Way, whether Jew or Gentile, strove to live in peace with all peoples, and included even centurions and foreign dignitaries (the Ethiopian Eunuch)–and that wise officials, like Gallo, recognized it.

      Aren’t you making my case for me that the Romans, from Pilate to Nero, saw the Jewish movement as innocuous? They were able to see it was a branch of Judaism that had harmless political views. Whether wise or corrupt—all—Roman officials perceived the Jesus movement as harmless.

      A final point: If Acts were written as an apologetic work to a Jewish audience, why is it so focused on Paul’s Gentile mission? Why is there almost no mention of any other Apostle after chapter 11? Why wouldn’t part of the defense of the faith be, “And look at the work of the Apostles among the Jews and how many believe in Yeshua because of their work!”

      Paul was fulfilling the mission that the prophets foretold—the Jews would reach the gentiles for God. Paul was doing a very Jewish work in bringing the gentiles under the authority of the Jewish God. There is no mention of the other apostles at this time, because it is Paul who is in chains at Rome at the time of Luke’s writing. A year or two later, he may have focused on Peter more than he did.

      You might be able to find an explanation, but the theory that Luke-Acts was written to a Gentile audience–which is the majority view of conservative scholars for a reason–just fits better with all of the available facts.

      The “Luke-Acts written to a gentile audience” theory may enjoy the honor of support by the majority of conservative scholars at present, but opinions often prove fickle. In any event, I don’t base my understanding on which way the wind is blowing. I strive to understand what makes sense to me and see if the Scriptures and history support what I believe makes sense. I have never seen an adequate explanation for why Paul would use someone else in his own defense (believer or not), why Luke leaves so many things unexplained that are clearly inside Jewish stuff, why the supposed Roman official is “most excellent” in Luke’s first but not in his second work, why Luke pays so much attention to the priesthood in Jerusalem (which was only part of the Sanhedrin), yet, though the events described would be known and recognized for their condemning nature to Theophilus (the high priest), they are left unexplained for the uninitiated reader. Luke implies inside knowledge, but doesn’t use it to embarrass his rulers. None of these matters receive adequate attention by the majority viewpoint.

      Thank you for your encouraging remark at the end of your post; I too am enjoying our little discussion. Lord bless,

      Eddie

       
  3. Return of Benjamin

    February 20, 2011 at 10:37

    A quick note: In Paul on Trial, Mauck quotes a source (which I can’t remember off the top of my head) which points out that in Greek, “Christian” has a political overtone–like “Republican” or “libertarian”–and is faintly disdainful.

    One of Christianity’s great strengths is the way it takes something initially thought to be shameful–like, oh, I don’t know, the Cross–and turns it into a badge of honor.

    Shalom.

     
    • Ed Bromfield

      February 20, 2011 at 12:16

      Hi Rabbi,

      I agree completely that one of the marks of Christianity is to take something that was first meant for dishonor was turned for honoring God and/or the Church which he has called out. What comes to mind is the witness of one who was persecuted behind the iron curtain and was released through the efforts of Christians lobbying their governments for his freedom. After the curtain fell and Christianity was accepted, he went back to his ‘torture chamber’ and it was a Bible book store. He wept in praise of God.

      Concerning the word, Christian, I first read the idea of the Greek, Christ¸ being Latinized by Roman officials with the ‘ian’ ending (for that is Latin and not Greek) in a book “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” by C. Peter Wagner. He made some good points about why believers were called Christ-ian. You are correct that it had political interests—remembering that this time in Antioch occurred during the Caligula reign as Caesar. The Roman officials at Syria’s capital wanted to know if the new gentile converts would side with Jews in a possible war that was looming in the background of the period. Of course, we were deemed politically innocuous then as at the time of Pilate and continued to be seen as such until the Nero persecution.

      Lord bless,

      Eddie

       
      • Return of Benjamin

        February 20, 2011 at 21:16

        I’m not sure “politically innocuous” is necessarily the right word. “Technically legal” is closer to the mark. Remember that Judaism was a legal religion (one of two, the other being Emperor worship) in the time of Acts. Mauck makes the case that Luke-Acts were written as pre-trial documentation for Paul who, being Paul and Luke being Luke, used it as a platform to proclaim the Gospel. (That’s why the book starts ignoring everyone else after about chapter 12.)

        In any case, a major point of the defense was the fact that these Christians were not a new mystery sect but were practicing the legal religion of Judaism. That’s why they make a point of showing that numerous Roman governors considered the dispute to be an internal dispute of Judaism, ala Gallo, one of the most respected men in the whole Roman world, saying “they are questions about words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves. For I don’t want to be a judge of these matters” (Acts 18:15).

        It may have actually worked. There were sporadic persecutions here and here, and Nero certainly persecuted those in Rome for the latter part of his reign, but the first Empire-wide persecution was, IIRC, Domitian’s, nearly thirty years after Paul’s trial and twenty years after Jerusalem’s fall. Remember that even Titus Vespasian understood that he was not at war with Judaism, but allowed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to build an academy of Pharisaic Judaism in Yavneh. It wasn’t until the second revolt c. 135 CE that the persecutions really began full-scale for both Jews and Christians, Judaism’s legal status having been revoked.

        Shalom

         
        • Ed Bromfield

          February 21, 2011 at 07:28

          Greetings Rabbi,

          I’m not sure “politically innocuous” is necessarily the right word. “Technically legal” is closer to the mark…

          Perhaps, but legal to the Jews was not necessarily legal to the Romans. For example, there were many other Messianic sects that arose between Christ and 70 CE. All were sought out and destroyed except for “The Way” or Christ-ian to Rome.

          Remember that Judaism was a legal religion (one of two, the other being Emperor worship) in the time of Acts. Mauck makes the case that Luke-Acts were written as pre-trial documentation for Paul who, being Paul and Luke being Luke, used it as a platform to proclaim the Gospel. (That’s why the book starts ignoring everyone else after about chapter 12.)

          I agree that Luke-Acts was originally a defensive work, but presented to the Jews, not Rome. The Gospel of Luke was a defensive work to show the persecution of the Hellenist Jews was unrighteous. The book was presented to Theophilus, the high priest who served between the times of Jonathan and King Herod Agrippa Sr. This may not fit the liking of many modern critics, but the NT wasn’t written to please them. Luke was written by a Jew and he didn’t feel he had to explain Jewish stuff to his recipient. “Theophilus” is, therefore, not a Roman nor could he be a new Christian who should have had all the “inside stuff” explained to him. Theophilus was a Jew and in important one—who better than the high priest who was persecuting believers in Jesus at the time of Luke’s writing his Gospel. He shows Jesus is a good Jew.

          I believe, as you do, that Acts was also a defensive work—but presented to Jews, not Romans. Theophilus was not the officiating high priest at this time but probably someone with some influence, since his son was the officiating high priest at the time of the end of Acts. Felix had left Paul in chains to “please” the Jews—i.e. the Jewish authorities. He knew Paul was innocent and would have released him, if Paul had come up with a sizeable bribe. Anyway, Jonathan had been officiating as high priest for the second time, but was secretly killed by Felix for interfering in his affairs—probably wanting Paul dead. In any event Felix needed some friends in Jerusalem since he was being brought up on charges in Rome for misconduct in the Syrian province. Josephus shows that important people, no doubt, Annas, the most influential and powerful high priest in Jerusalem bribed important men in Rome to intercede on Felix’s behalf before Nero. Thus, Paul was kept in prison to save Felix. Acts was written, showing Paul was a good Jew. Moreover, a law had been while Paul was in Rome which could hurt Paul’s accusers if they couldn’t prove their case. The law required them to appear before Caesar with the accused, and if it could be shown that the charges were bogus, they could be fined or imprisoned. Acts was, indeed, a defensive work **for** Paul but **to** Jews. They were Paul’s accusers, and specifically they were all of the Annas family.

          In any case, a major point of the defense was the fact that these Christians were not a new mystery sect but were practicing the legal religion of Judaism.

          Mystery religions didn’t appear in this part of the Empire until later in the century. I don’t believe this was even a consideration. Besides, both works were written as though the recipient knew exactly what Luke was talking about—no explanation of the Jewish stuff was needed.

          That’s why they make a point of showing that numerous Roman governors considered the dispute to be an internal dispute of Judaism, ala Gallo, one of the most respected men in the whole Roman world, saying “they are questions about words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves. For I don’t want to be a judge of these matters” (Acts 18:15).

          Agreed! But, this would work even more favorably in the scenario I painted above. Luke was showing the Annas family didn’t have a case and they risked being brought up on charges themselves for false arrest.

          It may have actually worked…

          Perhaps it did, but we don’t know. However, I believe Paul and perhaps even Luke were slain in the Nero persecution. The two years Paul was imprisoned in Rome would bring us to 64 CE, very near the time of Nero’s fire and not long before the Jewish war. I don’t see Paul ever being released. The organized persecutions that did occur – all came out of Jerusalem. Annas was behind three specific and organized persecutions of Messianic believers.

          Lord bless

          Eddie

           

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