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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 '19 at 13:18
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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).

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  • 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
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Dr. Robert Dean Luginbill, a Christian Professor of Classics outlined a plausible theory for the origin of the word "Christian" with extra-Biblical and manuscript support.

As many suspected (the OP, guest37, Ray Butterworth, and some commentaries I consulted), Dr. Luginbill also believed that it's the outsider who started the name "Chrēstian" (χρηστιανος, meaning "the goody-goody bunch" or "members of the household of Goody-Goody"), while the believers preferred to designate themselves "Followers of the Way" or "Disciples".

But a few decades later since the name stuck, the believers changed it to "Christian" (χριστιανος) and started to use it for self-designation, to mean followers of Christ, which obviously work well until today.

Here's a quote from Dr. Luginbill's answer for the 4 stages he proposed:

1) The unbelieving gentile inhabitants at Antioch took notice of this new group which was trying to convince them to join (evangelism recorded in this chapter). Not having a Jewish background, the word "Christos" meant nothing to them, so that referring to these people in terms of "the anointed One" would have been a bit too much for them when referencing this group whose activities and beliefs (to the extent they understood them or were interested in understanding them at all) seemed ridiculous. Ready at hand, however, was an excellent pun on the name that seemed to fit them to a tee. Rather than "followers of the anointed One", they were "the goody-goody bunch" or "members of the household of Goody-Goody" (Greek chrestos, xrhsto/j, often meaning "good" or "moral" in Hellenistic Greek). Besides being a good pun, this appellation caught precisely the sanctified behavior that characterizes believers and which contemporary unbelievers in particular found so odd (cf. 1Pet.4:4: "They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you").

2) This pun was so good, in fact, it caught on rapidly as the main way of identifying this new sect. Believers preferred to be called "brethren" or "disciples" after scriptural parallels, and also occasionally as "followers of the Way" (cf. Acts 24:14). As the new appellation caught on, it was apparently always used with a large measure of scorn, and believers were certainly aware of this. For that reason, they did not apply this term to themselves, except when making a point of the ostracism to which the secular world often subjected them (this accounts for both the rare use of the term in the NT and the fact that in all three instances it has this negative connotation of external abuse).

3) Eventually, Christians reacted, and began to say, in effect, "You've got that wrong! We are followers of Christ! Not of somebody named 'Goody-Goody'!" When this began to occur, the correction "Christian" for "Chrestian" most likely became a self-designation. We see the transition no doubt already accomplished by the time we get to Tertullian, writing at the turn of the next century. He actually vents his spleen against the mis-pronunciation "Chrestianus" (which may actually have been the original form changed by Christians to reflect the Lord's rightful title): "But Christian, so far as the meaning of the word is concerned, is derived from anointing. Yes, and even when it is wrongly pronounced by you "Chrestianus" (for you do not even know accurately the name you hate), it comes from sweetness and benignity" (Apology 3.5). This same attitude is to be found in Ignatius' letter to the Romans (3.2): "[I pray] that I may not only be called a 'Christian' (i.e., by others as a term of abuse), but be found as one [in truth]".

4) Later readers and correctors of the earliest manuscripts began to see the spelling Chrestianos as an error for Christianos. Oral readers in the scriptoria where manuscripts were copied sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously made the change in pronunciation as they read resulting in the later editions showing no trace of the original ETA (the scribes never knew the difference). What happened in the case of Sinaiticus is similar. I doubt that it was a conscious effort to obliterate and cover up any trace of the earlier, correct reading. Rather it most likely struck the person who made the changes (at what point, early or very late, we cannot tell), as a mistake that needed correcting. He probably thought he was doing us all a great favor. Fortunately, the evidence has not been entirely erased, even if two thirds of the ETA has in all three passages.

Dr. Luginbill concluded:

What does all this mean? Are we Christians or Chrestians? While the word "Christian" might never have been coined except as a corrective, defensive mechanism, we certainly have the right to use this fine designation to describe ourselves, whether or not it originally came from the Bible. For we are in very truth, "members of the household of Christ", and proud of it.

In the Name of the Anointed One, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

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  • Is the last paragraph there suggesting that Codex Sinaiticus has an "e" rather than a "i" in its original text? – curiousdannii Mar 5 at 5:20
  • @curiousdannii It looks that way. Seeing that he is a Professor of Classics he must have had training in Greek of various periods (Attic, Hellenistic, etc.) as well as knows how to use apparatus, critical edition of Greek manuscripts, etc. So I trusted his assessment. – GratefulDisciple Mar 5 at 5:43
  • How fascinating. It's an eta (not an epsilon as I originally assumed), but it is clearly visible. This page lists more documents that say "chrestian". – curiousdannii Mar 5 at 6:05
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    @curiousdannii Though the link you provided has good collection of pictures including the snapshot of Acts 11:26 in Codex Sinaiticus, the author of that website is a proponent of alternative history of orthodox Christianity, using those artifacts to support his own agenda. So I decided not to include it in the answer. – GratefulDisciple Mar 5 at 15:10
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Looking at the whole new testament just as it is and looking at the state of Christians of our time, it is very clear and without a doubt that the word "Christianity"` which also means "follower of Christ" or "Christlike" was used by others to mock the believers.

In John 19, we see how even Jesus was beaten and called names to mock Him. he had a sign on his death cross that said "King of the Jews" in mockery so yes, I do agree with you that the name was used to mock the believers of that time. It is without a doubt but then again the bible has said in 1 Corinthians 1:27 (KJV): "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;"

Also in 1 Corinthians 1:18 (KJV) "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God."

So to them, the disciples look just as "foolish" as Christ and therefore mocked them.

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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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