“What Did the Word ‘Christian’ Mean in the First Century?”

Believe it or not, when someone hears the word “Christianity,” it can conjure up thoughts about the Republican Party or moral positions in the political arena. Sadly, in many cases, nobody is talking about Jesus. It is the name “Christianity” and all that is attached to it that people are rejecting. But what did it mean to say you were a “Christian” in the first century? From my own experience, I can say without hesitation that many people in our culture are oblivious to this issue.

The name “Christ”

For most Christians, they say they follow Jesus Christ. But what does that mean? “The comparable New Testament Greek word is Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ.” But this Greek word carries the same connotations as the Hebrew word — “the Anointed One” which is is where  the word “messiah” comes from. “Messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests (Exod. 28:41; 29:7, 29; 30:30; Lev. 7:36; 8:12; 16:32;), kings (Jdg 9:8; 9:15; 1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12, 13; 2 Sam. 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3; 1 Chron. 11:3; 5:17; 127; 2 Sam. 19:11; 1 Kgs. 1:34, 39, 45; 5:15;19:15,16; 2 Kgs 9:3, 6,12;11:12; 23:30; 2 Chron. 22:7; 23:11; 29:22; Ps 89:21), and even prophets.

 

But notice these figures were all in the present. None of these texts speak of a future figure. Even though mashiach occurs thirty-nine times in the Old Testament, only nine of those instances have a possible reference to the coming Messiah (1 Sam. 2:10, 35; Pss. 2:2; 89:51; 132:10, 17; Dan. 9:25, 26; Hab. 3:13). Even in Isa. 45:1 where God “anoints” the pagan king Cyrus for the task at hand (Isa. 41:2-4, 45). Yes, even the pagan king Cyrus was used to restore Israel while the nation was under attack (Isa. 44:28;45:13). One of the most dominant messianic themes is the expectation of a descendant of King David who will rule Israel during the age of perfection: (Isa. 11:1-9; Jer. 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezek. 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hos. 3:4-5).

Michael Bird’s comments are helpful:

“The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Jesus the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163.

What’s the point? For someone to be a Christian in the first century would mean they would have known the Messiah can’t be understood apart from Israel’s story.  Furthermore,  linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.” Thus, there were many Judaisms (i.e.,the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots). The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes”(24:5). Hence, the first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism. A survey of the book of Acts shows us that the apostles continued to go to the Temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:20-21). They continued to go to the synagogue (Acts 13:14-15; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8); and  continued to observe the feasts and the law (Acts 20:6; 21:24) While the word “Christian” is used three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16),  if you were called a “Christian,” you would have been part of the Jewish world. Also, given Israel’s calling it should be no shock that in Ephesians 2: 11-3:6, the Gentiles recipients are addressed as those who were formally without the Messiah. They were “aliens from  the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise\, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2: 12). So Israel was already near (Eph. 2:17), but the good news is that now along with Gentiles they even brought closer to God (Eph. 2:18). Thus, Christianity hadn’t become a completely separate religion apart from the Jewish world.

For example, as Craig Evans says;

 “Did Jesus intend to found the Christian church? This interesting question can be answered in the affirmative and in the negative. It depends on what precisely is being asked. If by church one means an organization and a people that stand outside of Israel, the answer is no. If by a community of disciples committed to the restoration of Israel and the convers…ion and instruction of the Gentiles, then the answer is yes. Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike. The estrangement of the church from Israel was not the result of Jesus’ teaching or Paul’s teaching. Rather, the parting of the ways, as it has been called in recent years, was the result of a long process”—Craig Evans , From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.

A Slave to Jesus

Also, to say you were a follower of the Jewish Messiah meant you were a “doulos.” Gary T. Meadors notes in Bakers Dictionary of Evangelical Theology the following:

Christ plays on the concept of servant to image his own mission ( Mark 10:45 ; Luke 22:27 ). The epistolary literature focuses on the figurative usage of slave. These books frequently use the primary term for slave, doulos[dou’lo”], as a metaphor of being a servant to God ( Rom 1:1 ; Php 1:1 ; 2 Tim 2:24 ; Titus 1:1 ; James 1:1 ; 1 Peter 2:16 ; 2 Peter 1:1 ), to fellow believers ( 2 Cor 4:5 ), and even to sin ( Rom 6:20 ). This is a most striking metaphor because a Greek person linked personal dignity and freedom together. Freedom was power and something about which to be proud. The use of doulos [dou’lo”] to image relationship to God and fellow believers sent a message of commitment and abandonment of autonomy ( 1 Cor 7:22 ; Eph 6:6 ; Col 4:12 ).

In other words, if you were to profess Jesus, you were giving him your commitment and abandonment of your own autonomy.

Following a Cursed Messiah?

Golgotha

Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status- dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion as a means to end the uprising of any revolts.

There is a relevant verse about crucifixion in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

“If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”-the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. So what is seen in these verses is not the execution itself but what is done to the body after the person is executed–it is displayed as a warning to others. For Jewish people at the time of Paul, the a crucified victim could be viewed as either a victim or a villain. If it is the latter, the person being condemned as a criminal would be considered cursed by God because of their actions.-Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 144-145.

Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)

One of the most challenging statements of all is the following:

“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “- Luke 9: 23

The cross may be viewed as a symbol of love. But when we look at the first century context, it is clear that to a Jewish person the cross was not a badge of honor. Rather, the cross was a sign of rejection and embarrassment. When the disciples heard Jesus talk about the cross and self-denial here, they knew to make Jesus the Lord of their lives was going to be a life of commitment and abandonment of autonomy.

Obviously much more can be said.  However, we can conclude one thing for sure: There is a lot more to following Jesus then simply praying a prayer so you can go to heaven when you die.

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