Personally, I don’t like to refer to believers as Christian before Acts 11:19-30, because until that time there were no Christians per se. We referred to ourselves as followers of the Way (Christ—cp. John 14:6), and up until Antioch most believers were either Jewish or Jewish proselytes No doubt Paul was preaching to both Jews and gentiles in Syria-Cilicia where his hometown of Tarsus was located, but no one was called Christian, until believers from Cyprus and Cyrene preached to gentiles in Antioch.
We need to remember the context in which our name was coined. Rome and Jerusalem were on the brink of war over Caligula’s intention of placing a statue of himself (god) in the Temple at Jerusalem. If war broke out, could Rome expect Jews from all over the Empire to cause trouble for them, intercepting supplies for the war effort etc. When gentiles began believing in the Jewish God in comparatively large numbers at Antioch (Acts 11:21), could Rome expect gentiles there to support the Jewish effort? The name Christ comes from the Greek Christos, meaning “anointed one,” and corresponds to the Hebrew word we translate as Messiah, but the ending –ian is actually Latin, implying Roman influence in giving us the name Christianoi (Greek/Latin) or its translation: Christian! An interesting parallel would be the Herodians who were “partisans, clients or even members of the extensive household of Herod the Great. Herodians were not only found in Judea, but were found in many places throughout the Empire, especially in Rome. Herod the Great and his family were considerably the most powerful family of client kings and princes in Syria and Asia Minor, and their political influence was frequently important in serving the cause of the Jews in their homeland.
Knowing this and the fact that Pilate, the Roman governor, had executed the founder of the Christian sect less than ten years previous, the Roman officials in Antioch, the capital of the Syrian province which included Judea, had a right to be concerned over the evangelical work occurring there. Up to now believers in Jesus had been considered politically innocuous, but Rome had to be certain their initial estimation of this new Jewish sect was still correct, given the precarious development in the then current Roman/Jewish relations. So, this is how we were given our name. It was undoubtedly politically motivated and probably not meant to be complimentary. We didn’t begin calling ourselves by this name until the second century CE.
These things occurred cir. 39-40 CE, while the Roman governor of Syria, Petronius, awaited word from Caligula in the hope he would change his mind about desecrating the Jewish Temple. During this year or year and a half, Peter preached to Cornelius, Paul was preaching in Syria-Cilicia and the Hellenist-Jewish believers who fled to Antioch from the persecution initiated by the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem began preaching Jesus to the gentiles there. So, was Cornelius the very first gentile who believed? I doubt it. As I said in my previous blog, his importance was probably to correct the problem in the Jerusalem church. Jerusalem church authorities may have been wondering what to do with the new uncircumcised gentile believers they heard rumors about in places like Antioch. It was probably shortly after Peter’s defense of his activities in Caesarea that Barnabas was sent to Antioch (Acts 11:22), and both Paul and he ministered to believers there for a full year (Acts 11:26). It was during this time that we became known as Christian. Therefore, at least part of this year of ministry was while Caligula was alive and Petronius and his armies awaited word from Rome at Ptolemias, which is situated just north of Caesarea. Caligula was assassinated in January of 41 CE, and Claudius became emperor. Claudius had wanted to cool down the political fires in the eastern frontier province of Syria, so he appointed Herod Agrippa (the Herod of Acts 12) king of the territories once held by his grandfather, Herod the Great, and this included Jerusalem.
While the political climate was still uncertain (i.e. before Caligula’s assassination), certain prophets came down to Antioch from Jerusalem, one being Agabus (Acts 11:27-28), and they prophesied that there would be a worldwide famine and indicated that Jerusalem would be particularly affected. As an editing remark, Luke tells us this famine occurred during the reign of Claudius. In a later blog I hope to show this famine occurred cir. 48-49 CE in the days of the Roman governors: Cuspius Fadus (cir. 44-48 CE) and Tiberius Alexander (cir. CE 48-49 or 50). The reason for the prophecy was to alert the brethren to begin to store money and grain to help the Judean poor who would be affected most severely (Acts 11:29), and at the right time both Barnabas and Paul were appointed by the believers in Antioch to take their offering to their Jewish brethren in Judea (Acts 11:30), but more about this in its proper place in a future blog.