Referring to Acts 11:26: Did the people (unbelievers) of Antioch call the "Believers" Christian, or did the Believers start calling themselves Christian first in Antioch?

Here is what I mean: Acts 11:26 The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” I have this feeling in the tone of these two verses that the word "Christian" was more of a mockery since it came from unbelievers, like we have "goody-two-shoes", especially the way Agrippa said it to Paul, I could almost hear the rest of Agrippa's audience laughing at this!? And 1 Peter 4:16 "Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter." sort of supports my argument!?

It seems that this mock-name Christian was getting around, and the disciples were resenting it, so 1 Peter 4:16 tells them not to be ashamed (for they mocked our Lord also) but that they should glorify God in this matter!? Your thoughts fellow Believers?

  • "were" implies it was done to them, not by them - @guest37's answer is quite good. – warren Mar 27 '17 at 21:02
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    Side note of possible interest: today's Society of Friends also refers to itself as Quakers, even though, or perhaps because, originally that term was used as an insult against them. – Ray Butterworth Apr 13 at 13:18

Strictly speaking, the reference in Acts is to "disciples" (μαθητὰς) and not "believers" (πιστεύοντες), though the latter word seems to be used elsewhere synonymously in Acts (e.g. 5:14).

The Greek literally says (in different word order) "the disciples were called first Christians" (χρηματισαι τε πρωτον ... τους μαθητας χριστιανους). Perhaps it may be true that the Christians called themselves Christians, but the Greek text does not supply the reflexive (i.e. "the disciples called themselves Christians").

It seems that even after the disciples/believers were called "Christians", it was still more common to refer to them as those who were of "the Way" (e.g. 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22). This is also found in The Didache (English translation here), where the essentials of a Christian life are described as "The Way of life". The word "Christian" (Χριστιανός) only appears three times in the entire New Testament (including the passage cited; the other two are Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). It is even rare in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, where it only appears 5 times (once in Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians, once in the Epistle concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, and 3 times in the Epistle to Diognetus).

  • Wow, I'm sooo grateful I found this sight, and thank you so much for your intelligent answer. And you are correct, it was the Disciples, not Believers who were first called Christian, and that they did not refer to themselves as Christian, but as you said: "The Way". I'm new here and running out of 'characters', so I will place the rest in "answer my own question", but please respond to that, I need all your help here. – OSabo Mar 28 '17 at 21:30
  • If I follow what you have added, you are speculating that "Christian" was a derogatory term applied to those who followed Christ. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think there is enough in the text to support it one way or the other. The first, earliest writing that I know of that wrote extensively about how others viewed Christians was the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus. It seems that Jews hated Christians because they considered them apostates and pagans hated Christians because they refused to worship the gods ... – guest37 Mar 28 '17 at 22:17
  • ... but there's still no clear indication that either of these groups coined the term "Christian" out of spite. – guest37 Mar 28 '17 at 22:17
  • Thank you again. But knowing how the Romans, and as you said the Jews felt about the Believers/Disciples, reading these 2 verses: Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. and .. 1 Peter 4:16 Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed. It has a feel to it as if it was spiteful!? I mean why would the Apostle say "ashamed"? The whole point is that it wasn't the Believers that coined this; Christian!? And they were persecuted up until Constantine, .. so it's not hard to conclude that it was in spite?? – OSabo Mar 30 '17 at 0:42

This is a interesting question and one that I believe can be answered by looking at a prophecy in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 62 the prophet has been speaking of the glorious blessings to be received when the Messiah comes. Verses 1-2 tell us that righteousness will go forth and shine the light of truth not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. After the Gentiles receive the light of the truth the Lord will call His people by a new name, a name that He will give. Acts 10-11 we see the Gentiles receiving the gospel and right after that they are called Christians. Isaiah 56:1-5 is another passage that can be used to answer the question as well. Since unbelievers would not have a way of knowing God's will by His Spirit the believers named themselves Christians.

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    This conclusion is contradictory to ⓐ the plain reading of the text of Acts 11:26 and ⓑ almost all branches of Christian theology which acknowledge that God can by His Spirit move people who are not themselves believers to do and say things according to his will (Pharaoh, Balam's donkey, the Assyrians & Babylonians, Herod, Pilate, etc.) If he wants to give His people a name he could do it just as easily by a third party as one of His own self-labeling. Also this provides but a tenuous connection with no evidence that Christian is the name referred to in those prophecies. – Caleb Mar 27 '17 at 17:39

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