According to Acts 11:26, “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” It was apparently Gentiles outside the church who coined the word as a nickname, i.e., “Christ's ones.” While it is little used in the NT (thrice only), it soon became established as the obvious title (Acts 26:28). In the NT, it is used only once of themselves by Christians (1 Pet. 4:16), and some scholars feel Peter is here employing it as a term of accusation on the lips of the church's enemies, as the context might indicate. Other titles were used concurrently during the apostolic age (as expressed in KJV): Christianity was “the way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, etc.), and Christians were “followers” (Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6, etc.) and “believers” (Acts 5:14; 1 Tim. 4:10, etc.). The favored designations in the NT are “saints” (Acts 9:13; Rom. 12:13), “the elect” (Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12), “the brethren” (Acts 9:30; Rom. 16:14), and “the disciples” (Acts 11:26, 29). Until the appellation “Christian” became common, doubtless several others were used, such as “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), which would bring little comprehension outside Palestine, but could be used there as a pejorative term (cf. John 1:46) for believers in Jesus of Nazareth.

When the name “Christian” was coined in Antioch, it gained usage quickly and was used widely within the course of a single generation. Outside the NT, the Roman historian Tacitus declares that this name (or “Chrestian”) was popularly used in Rome at the time of Nero (c. a.d. 64). By the middle of the second century it had been taken up as one of jubilant testimony by those who might have expected martyrdom if they admitted to being a follower of Jesus Christ. As the church adopted the name, deeper meanings began to be seen in it. The Greek word christos (“anointed”) suggested the more familiar term chremstos (“gracious, good”). Such terms witnessed to the dignity of the church's Founder and Lord, “the Anointed One,” and Peter (1 Pet. 2:3) may be making a play on the word “Christ” when he writes, “Now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

CHRISTIAN (Χριστιανός, G5985). The word Christianus is basically a Lat. formation, Hellenized in Luke’s Gr. text (Acts 11:26). The ending -anus or -ianus (pl. -ani) is not pejorative. It is merely descriptive, and common Lat. (Hale and Buck, Latin Grammar, par. 210). In historical writings of classical times it is used to define a group in terms of its allegiance: e.g. commonly in Caesar’s Civil War for his opponent Pompey’s troops, “Pompeiani,” and by Caesar’s lieutenant Hirtius for Caesar’s troops, “Caesariani.” Tacitus records the story that the Emperor Augustus ridiculed the historian Livy for his republican sympathies, calling him Pompeianus (Ann. 4.34). There is nothing, however, in any way satiric in the ending itself, for Tacitus follows the practice already mentioned of naming combatant groups after their leader: e.g. Galbiani, the legionaries of the brief-lived emperor Galba (Hist. 1.51). In Mark 12:13 mention is made of the “Herodians,” the friends and supporters of Herod’s house, and the name is equally without emotive significance.

It follows that, when the members of the Early Church (the “brethren” of Acts 1:16; “all who believed” of 2:44; the people “of the Way” of 9:2; 22:4; the “disciples” of 11:26) “in Antioch were for the first time called Christians,” the word was not necessarily a satiric coinage of the Antiochenes, who were somewhat prone to name-calling. The formation of the word demanded no such content. If it was bestowed to parallel the Augustiani, as Harold Mattingly has suggested, the organized “cheerleaders” of the Emperor Nero, it is the context rather than the etymology which puts the contempt into the word. The suggestion of the great expert in Rom. coins is rendered dubious by the date. Luke seems to imply that the term was invented at Antioch at the time of the events which he is describing. This would date it around the years a.d. 40 to 44. It is likely to have been a bureaucratic term, invented by some clerk of the Antioch administration to cover a distinct group among the Jewish community of which the authorities had become aware. The scorn which was infused into the word was the mood of all time, and, like the glad acceptance of those who actually found honor in a term which bore the name of their Lord, reflected an attitude toward Christ.

There are three classical contexts: Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny all use the word in writings of the second decade of the 2nd cent. and within a few years of each other. Tacitus (Ann. 15:44) speaks of the Christians of a.d. 64, the year of the great fire, a minority group which had incurred the hatred of the proletariat and became the scapegoats for Nero’s crime. Suetonius (Nero 16) uses the same word in the same connection. Pliny, in his famous letter to Trajan (a.d. 110-112), describes his repressive acts against the Christians of Bithynia in a manner which implies the general acceptance and currency of the term. All this is parallel with the NT evidence. The first usage, in Antioch, has been mentioned and dated 40 to 44. Perhaps fifteen years later, Herod Agrippa II, after listening to Paul, remarked ironically: “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” (Acts 26:28). Five years later still, or thereabouts, with the Neronian persecution a near or present reality, Peter, possibly writing from Rome, bade those who were in the Church in certain eastern provinces not to be ashamed if called to suffer “as a Christian” (1 Pet 4:16). It would appear that the term, in whatever fashion it was first applied, had become, like “Methodist,” accepted by those to whom it was given. It had, after all, a certain appropriateness, for it implied loyalty and acceptance of a person, and that person, the Messiah (Christ). The Church fathers followed naturally, and in patristic lit., as in the legal codes of Justinian (viz. Lewis and Short, Latin Dictionary), the term is frequent and regular. (The dictionary also lists a superlative, Christianissimus, and an adverb Christiane.)

The true modern use of the word follows the same tradition. In all evangelical contexts the Christian is one who accepts, with all its implications, the lordship of nodetitle. There is also a deviant use, in which sectarian groups have sought an exclusive application of the term, and a popular use, in which the word is employed to signify that which conforms to ethical standards, social attitudes, or even political allegiance alleged to reflect the spirit of a basic Christianity, without creedal connotation of any sort. (It is in this sense that 19th cent. Unitarianism claimed the appellation.) French, and English by derivation from French, has a strange and pathetic doublet. In French both chrétien and crétin derive from Christianus. A “cretin” was an afflicted unfortunate, a human being, and no brute. Honoré de Balzac discusses the pathos of the term in his novel Médecin de Campagne.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

kris’-chan, kris’-ti-an (Christianos):

1. Historicity of Ac 11:26

2. Of Pagan Origin

3. The Christian Attitude to the Name

4. Was "Christian" the Original Form?

5. The Christians and the Empire

6. Social Standing of the Early Christians

7. Christian Self-Designations


1. Historicity of Ac 11:26:

The word Christian occurs only three times in the New Testament (Ac 11:26; 26:28; and 1Pe 4:16). The first passage, Ac 11:26, gives the origin of the term, "The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." The older generation of critical scholars disputed the historicity of this statement. It was argued that, had the term originated so early, it must have been found far more frequently in the records of early Christianity; sometimes also that the termination -ianus points to a Latin origin. But there is general agreement now that these objections are groundless. The historicity of the Lukan account is upheld not only by Harnack, but by the more radical Knopf in Die Schriften des New Testament, edited by Johannes Weiss. In early imperial times, the adjectival termination -ianos was widely diffused throughout the whole empire. Originally applied to the slaves belonging to the great households, it had passed into regular use to denote the adherents of an individual or a party. A Christian is thus simply an adherent of Christ. The name belongs, as Ramsay says, to the popular slang, as indeed sect and party names generally do. It is only after a considerable interval, and very often under protest, that such names are accepted as self-designations.

2. Of Pagan Origin:

The name, then, did not originate with the Christians themselves. Nor would the Jews have applied it to the followers of Jesus, whose claim to be the Christ they opposed so passionately. They spoke of the Christians as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Ac 24:5); perhaps also as "Galileans," a term which the emperor Julian attempted later vainly to revive. The word must have been coined by the heathen population of Antioch, as the church emerged from the synagogue, and a Christianity predominantly Gentiletook its place among the religions of the world.

3. The Christian Attitude to the Name:

Perhaps the earliest occurrence of Christian as a self-designation is in Didache 12:4. In the Apologists and Ignatius on the other hand the word is in regular use. 1Pe simply takes it over from the anti-Christian judicial procedure of the law courts, without in any way implying that the Christians used it among themselves. There is every probability, however, that it was the danger which thus began at an early date to attach to the name which commended it to the Christians themselves as a title of honor . Deissmann (Licht vom Osten, 286) suggests that Christian means slave of Christ, as Caesarian means slave of Caesar. But the word can scarcely have had that fullness of meaning till the Christians themselves had come to be proud of it.

According to tradition, Luke himself belonged to Antioch. In Ac 11:27,28 Codex Bezae (D) reads "There was much rejoicing, and when we had assembled, there stood up," etc. In view of the greater authority now so frequently accorded to the so-called Western text, we cannot summarily dispose of such a reading as an interpolation. If the historian was not only an Antiochene, but a member of the original GentileChristian church, we have the explanation alike of his interest in the origin of the name Chris tian, and of the detailed precision of his information.

4. Was "Christian" the Original Form?:

In all three New Testament passages the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus reads "Chrestian." We know from many sources that this variant was widely current in the 2nd century. Blass in his edition of Ac not only consistently reads "Chrestian," but conjectures that "Chrestian" is the correct reading in Tacitus (Annals, xv.44), the earliest extra- Biblical testimony to the word. The Tacitus manuscript has since been published in facsimile. This has shown, according to Harnack (Mission and Expansion (English translation), I, 413, 414), that "Chrestian" actually was the original reading, though the name "Christ" is correctly given. Harnack accordingly thinks that the Latin historian intended to correct the popular appellation of circa 64 AD, in the light of his own more accurate knowledge. "The common people used to call them `Chrestians,’ but the real name of their founder was Christ." Be this as it may, a confusion between "Christos" (Christos) and the familiar Greek slave name "Chrestos" (chrestos is more intelligible at an early date than late r, when Christianity was better known). There must have been a strong tendency to conform the earlier witnesses to the later, familiar, and etymologically correct, usage. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the original scribe of Codex Sinaiticus retains "Chrestian." On the whole it seems probable that this designation, though bestowed in error, was the original one.

5. The Christians and the Empire:

The fuller discussion of this subject more appropriately falls under the articles dealing with the relation of the church and empire. Suffice it here to say that Paul apparently hoped that by his acquittal the legal position of Christianity as a religio licita would be established throughout the empire, and that 1 Peter belongs to a time when the mere profession of Christianity was a crime in the eyes of the state, but that in all probability this was a new position of affairs.

6. Social Standing of the Early Christians:

That early Christianity was essentially a movement among the lower non-literary classes has been rightly emphasized--above all by Deissmann. This is a circumstance of the utmost importance for the correct understanding of the early history of our faith, though probably Deissmann in some degree exaggerates and misplaces the significance. Is it correct to say, for example, that "primitive Christianity was relatively indifferent to politics, not as Christianity, but as a movement of the humbler folks, whose lot on the whole had certainly been lightened by the Empire" (Licht vom Osten, 254)? Very probably however the difficulties of the Pauline Gentilemission were appreciably increased by the fact that he touched a lower social stratum than that of the original Jewish Christianity of Palestine. No class more resents being associated in any way with the "submerged masses" than the self-respecting peasant or artisan, who seems to have formed the backbone of the Palestine church. The apostle had conseq uently to fight against social, no less than racial and religious, prejudices.

7. Christian Self-Designations:


The most recent discussion of the names of Christian believers, including "Christian," is in Harnack’s Mission and Expansion of Christianity, English translation (2nd edition, 1908), I, 399 ff. See also EB, HDB, DCG, with the lit. there cited. On the social status of the early Christians, compare Orr’s Neglected Factors in the Study of the Early Progress of Christianity; on the religious significance of the name, see Christianity.

John Dickie