What’s in a Name?

Early Followers of Jesus Weren’t Christians

The apostle Paul “did not become a Christian, since there were no Christians in those times.” So said Jewish theologian and historian Pinchas Lapide. On the surface it’s a shocking statement about the man that many think of as the real founder of Christianity. It’s well known that the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth were Jewish in faith and culture. But did they become “Christian”? Surprisingly, the New Testament uses the word Christian only three times and never refers to Christianity. What’s going on here, and why is it important?

When the Gospel writer Luke composed the history of the early Church as the book of Acts, he used the word Christian not as Jesus’ followers’ self-description, but as detractors would refer to them. For example, when he wrote that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch,” he used the Greek Christianoi, a term that indicates members of a political party—“the partisans of Christos.” There were other similar parties at the time; the Herodianoi, for example, were supporters of King Herod and plotted against Jesus. In other words, detractors said that Jesus’ disciples were followers of a man whom they understood to be a political activist and Judean king.

Opponents of the Jesus movement in Antioch apparently derided the disciples with a new coinage based on Roman political parties: ‘the partisans of Christ’ (i.e., of the Judean king).”

Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary

In another example, Luke recorded the term Christianoi on the lips of King Agrippa, before whom Paul defended himself. In response, the king said that Paul almost persuaded him to become a Christian. Again, the usage was derogatory.

Third, the apostle Peter encouraged his audience of believers not to be discouraged if they suffered for being Christian—the name applied to them by certain nonbelievers.

How, then, did the early disciples refer to themselves? The book of Acts uses several terms: “brothers,” “saints,” “believers.” And Paul contrasted his identity as a follower of “the Way” with what others called a “sect.”

It was not until the late second century, when the original Church had disappeared from the scene, that some began to refer to themselves proudly as once-derided “Christians.” The word then passed into the mainstream. To be accurate, today what is termed “Christian” is an outgrowth of belief and practice from that later period, not the original first-century Church. The importance of getting language right is that concepts arise from such usage. If language is incorrect, inaccurate or wrong, then the concepts and understanding we form by using that language will be at best compromised.

What’s in a name? Much in every way.

Consider that the Christian sabbath emerging from those later centuries is the first day of the week, while the original Church observed the seventh day. Reflect that God is defined as a closed, triune, three-person God by Christianity, yet as some scholars will admit, the New Testament has nothing to say about the Holy Spirit as a third person. It has much to say, however, about the power of God and the mind of God made available to those God calls. It is only after the end of the first century that Trinitarian thinking begins to gain a foothold. Consider, too, that Jesus Christ was apolitical, a compassionate man focused on the needs of the marginalized, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for all humanity, in contrast to those who mix religion and politics—often for personal gain.

If we follow the path of the original Church at Jerusalem and rely on the New Testament as the basis of belief and practice, we will quickly discover these and many other contradictions between the “Christian” of subsequent times and the “follower of the Way.”