‘Christian’ – Where the Word Originated

Christian was a name that the people of Antioch in Syria gave to the followers of Christ in their city.

This is an excerpt from the study “Antioch in Syria.

Act 11:25-26  Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:  (26)  And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

The believers at Jerusalem had sent Saul to his home in Tarsus when his preaching had caused threats upon his life. Tarsus is about 85 miles to the northwest of Antioch as the crow flies across but lies across the Gulf of Armenia. By land, going around the gulf, it is about 120 miles. Traveling on foot would take about four days one way. If Barnabas had a horse or donkey or a cart the time would be lessened a few hours. Barnabas was probably gone nearly a fortnight.

Since the ministry at Antioch was so successful, perhaps Barnabas needed help. He knew that Saul was nearby at Tarsus, so he journeyed there at brought Saul back with him to Antioch. Saul had proven himself to be a powerful preacher and Barnabas was fully aware of his abilities. With Saul’s help, Barnabas and the other preachers at Antioch reached large crowds. The city of Antioch would have noticed that. But, as a cosmopolitan city that was tolerant of the multitude of Hellenistic Jews that lived there would have considered Christianity a sect of the Jews and would have accepted them. We do not know of any persecution of Christians at this particular time, though persecution eventually arose there. The church there grew exponentially.

The word, Christian, comes from the word, Christ, which is a transliteration of the Greek word Χριστος, kristos, meaning an anointed one. To anoint with oil was a practice that predated Jesus for centuries. Kings were anointed with oil. The sick were anointed with oil. The dead were anointed with oil. To anoint someone became a metaphor for appointing them to an office, such as priest, prophet, or king.  So the phrase Jesus Christ, Ιησους Χριστος, Iesous Kristos, means Yehovah’s Anointed Savoir. Jesus, which is properly Yeshua or Yehoshua (Joshua) in Hebrew, means Yehovah’s Savior and kristos in Greek is the same as Moshiach (Messiah) in Hebrew, which means anointed. The Greek word rendered ‘Christians’ is Χριστιανός, Christianos, meaning a follower of Christ. The early Christians did not call themselves Christians—they usually referred to themselves as disciples or saints. They did not consider themselves a separate “religion,” but Jewish believers in the Messiah. The title was given to them by outsiders, perhaps mockingly. The people at Antioch probably used the term to distinguish them from other groups of Jews. The Roman authorities later used the name to show them as political followers of Christ, Whom they thought of as political leader.

Eventually the appellation became one of derision and scorn. The word became associated with heinous crimes and vices. This explains how normal people would allow such terrible persecution of Christians. The average Joe thought they deserved being torn apart by lions because he thought they were atrocious criminals. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first recorded use of the term by actual Christians describing themselves was in a letter written to the Magnesians by Ignatius, the Bishop of the church at Antioch dated around the turn of the First Century AD. To the public, the term Christian was a diminutive and a cause for persecution until the public grew tired of the killing of innocent Christians in the reign of Diocletian in the late Third Century. In the West today, the word is once again becoming an appellation of derision and scorn. Christians are considered a “hate group” by some. That is because we believe in John 14:6, “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” which makes us intolerant according to some.

Christians have been in and out of vogue throughout the centuries. Christianity was highly respected in the early era of the United States, but “Christian” has now once again become a term of derision. People call Christians evil. We are accused of being hateful killers on the level of Islamic terrorists. Many people claim Christians are just as hateful and murderous as Muslims. They say the Christian terrorists are as bad as Muslim terrorists. There have been a few instances of terrorism against abortion clinics, by a few supposed Christians, but they are very few when compared to Islamic terrorism. These Christian “militants” do not have the blessing of any church, nor are they state sponsored like the terrorism of Islam is1. Yet Christians are considered by many Americans to be of the same timbre as Muslim terrorists. Just this week (June 13 -17, 2011) Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) equated “Christian militants” with Islamic terrorists2. I have never even seen a Christian militant, but I have seen plenty of Muslim terrorists. Christians are on the verge of persecution once again in history; this time in the United States which was once known as a Christian nation (Supreme Court, Holy Trinity v. The United States, February, 1892).

  1. I am discussing “Christian Militants” in the USA. There have been other supposed “Christian” terrorists such as those in Northern Ireland, and in Serbia, however, those have been political organizations and Christian in name only; the same can be said of the Crusades. Yes the Crusades were a religious war, but “religious” does not always mean Christian. They were following the Pope of Rome, who was a major political power at the time. That was a political attempt to recover lands conquered by the Seljuk Turks, specifically what was considered by the Pope to be holy lands. One cannot accurately equate Muslim terrorism, which is almost universal in Islamic countries, with Christian “terrorists,” whose numbers pale in comparison to Muslim terrorism, though many attempt to do so.
  2. Ibid.
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