I received the following question:

Someone recently commented to me that their grandchild was named “Christian, which means ‘Christlike.'” Although I chose not to contradict her, I knew that you had taught that it original meant “little Christ” in a derogatory sense. Later, having looked online for the etymology, I found the attached article. I am interested to know if you find it correct.

http://jesus-messiah.com/html/christianos-christian.html

There can be no doubt from examining the three uses of the word in the Scriptures that it was a derogatory term first used by the enemies of the believers. However, I find this article’s suggestion for its etymology to be suspect at best. The fact is that the word was adopted as a badge of honor by the believers themselves in the second century, and many of those believers were native Greek speakers. If the meaning of the word was really so bad as this article suggests (followers of an unholy Christ,) then it seems almost beyond belief that the Greek-speaking church of the second century, whatever we might think of it otherwise, would have adopted the term.

For example, many people would define what I believe and teach as “ultra dispensationalism.” This term is meant to be derogatory, but it is mildly so. Since “ultra” means “beyond the norm,” and I will admit that I take my dispensationalism beyond what normal dispensationalists do, I am not against using this term to refer to myself. I realize that it is meant to make me sound bad (after all, anything “ultra” must be bad, right?) but since it is accurate, I will even claim to be an ultra-dispensationalist, if I think it convenient to do so. I would rather call myself an Acts 28 dispensationalist or something along those lines, but I will accept this mildly derogatory term.

However, if someone would call me “one of those damn dispensationalists,” a term which would be much more strongly derogatory, it is highly unlikely that I would ever take this term to myself, or go around cheerfully identifying myself as “a damn dispensationalist.” A highly derogatory term would not at all lend itself to be converted to a term I would accept under any circumstances (unless I was being sarcastic.)

The same would be true of the word “Christians.” Whatever it means, it is derogatory, but I believe it must be mildly so. Otherwise, the Greek-speaking believers of the second century would not have been willing to accept it. No one would wear the name “followers of an unholy Christ” proudly. A more mild term, like “little Christs,” would be one that could start out derogatory, yet be accepted later on, whether wisely or not.

No one can prove what exactly the enemies of Christ had in mind when they started calling His followers “Christianos.” The identification of “anos” with “anosios” seems shaky to me. “Os” is a common Greek ending, so really this is basing everything on “an” being a contraction of “anosi,” which does not seem at all obvious to me, and clearly wasn’t to the Greek-speaking church of the second century, either. I also doubt they meant “Christ-like,” since that would not be derogatory, and they had no respect for Christ. Christos is the word for “Christ.” Often an “i” is thrown into words to change the meaning to little, like biblos (book or scroll) to biblios (little book or scroll.) Where did the “an” come from? Maybe it just sounded good in Greek. Philippoi (Philippi) changes to Philippeseos (Philippian,) whereas Ephesos (Ephesus) changes merely to Ephesios (Ephesian (or “little Ephesus?”)) Why the change is hard to say. Why is it a “Wisconsinite” for a resident of Wisconsin, but it is an “Oregonian” for a resident of Oregon, when both names end with “n”?

My best guess (and it is not mine alone) for the etymology is what I have expressed above, that the idea was that they were “little Christs” or “little Christ followers.” I doubt it just meant “Christ-like,” because that would not be something an enemy would use. I doubt it meant “followers of an unholy Christ,” because that would not be something a Greek-speaking believer of the second century on would use. If I am wrong about the “little Christs” thing, then I would like to hear an alternative suggestion as to what was derogatory about the term. I do not think the scoffers would have coined a phrase that just meant “a follower of Christ,” nor that the first century believers would have avoided the phrase (or that Peter would have apologized for it) if it was so innocent. What exactly they meant has been lost to time, but I think the “little” idea is a plausible one.

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