The First Christians
formerly "What is a Christian?"
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 7 November 2011; Revised 19 May 2021
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Scripture quotations may be taken from different versions. Click here for abbreviations of Bible versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the author.
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." Explanation of grammatical abbreviations and a pronunciation guide for New Testament Greek may be found here.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
A demographic study in 2015 found the Christian population of the world to be 2.3 billion. The United States has long been described as a Christian nation. According to polling conducted in 2018 and 2019 by the Pew Research Center 65% of American adults describe themselves as "Christian" when asked about their religion. Since most Americans are not church members and a significant percentage do not even attend a church, then survey respondents must be using a very indefinite definition.
Within Christianity the term "Christian" is broadly used to describe someone who is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings, has received Christian baptism, affirms a statement of faith akin to the Apostles Creed, and perhaps is a member of a Christian congregation. More narrowly defined some groups exclude anyone who does not agree with their doctrine or does not conform to their code of conduct.
Outside of the Bible the label "Christian" appeared as a self-designation in the second century with the publication of the Didache, Chap. XII (c. 100) (Moseley 13). The Church fathers, beginning in the second century, redefined the nature of being a follower of the Messiah, or Christ. The Church fathers used "Christian" for self-identification as part of the Church's efforts to totally separate itself from Judaism and expunge the Jewish roots of the Christian faith (e.g., Ignatius, The Epistle to the Magnesians, Chap. X.). "Christian" meant someone who had been baptized into the Church according to the Church's ritual and who submitted to the Church's authority.
Jews who trusted in Yeshua as Messiah and Savior were known as "Nazarene Christians" as in the apostolic era ("Nazarenes," Acts 24:5), but because they practiced circumcision the Catholic Church refused to consider them part of the Body of Messiah (Augustine, Anti-Donatist Writings, Book VII.1.) At the Second Council of Nicea (787) the Church banned all Jewish life in Yeshua, so if a Jew wanted to be a "Christian" he had to totally surrender his Jewish identity (Canon VIII). See Dan Juster, Anti-Messianic Judaism - A Brief Summary, for a list of anti-Jewish canons of the various ecclesiastical synods. As a result of the history of antisemitism in Christianity Messianic Jews do not use the label "Christian" as a self-description.
In the Bible the term "Christian" occurs only three times: Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1Peter 4:16. To understand the original meaning of the label, let us examine these three passages.
Origin of the Name
"19 Therefore those indeed having been scattered from the persecution having taken place upon Stephen passed through as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to none except only to traditional Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and of Cyrene, who having come into Antioch, were speaking also to the Hellenistic Jews, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Yeshua. 21 And the hand of ADONAI was with them; also a great number having believed turned to the Lord. 22 Now the report concerning them was heard in the ears of the congregation being in Jerusalem; and they sent Barnabas as far as Antioch, 23 who, having come, and having seen the grace of God, was joyful and began exhorting all to remain with the Lord with resolute purpose of heart: 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faithfulness. And a large crowd was added to the Lord. 25 Then he went to Tarsus to seek Saul; 26 and having found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came to pass they also for a whole year assembled with the congregation, and taught a large crowd; also first in Antioch called the disciples, 'Messianics'. (Acts 11:19-26 BR)
See my word-for-word commentary on this passage of Scripture here.
After the martyrdom of Stephen disciples of Yeshua fled Jerusalem to avoid the wrath of their enemies (Acts 8:1) and Messianic evangelists traveled into the Diaspora to share the good news, as far as Damascus and Antioch of Syria (Acts 9:2; 11:19). From the beginning the good news was only proclaimed to traditional Jews (Grk. Ioudaioi), but in Antioch evangelists brought the message of the Messiah also to Hellenistic Jews (Grk. Hellēnas). Most Bible versions translate Grk. Hellēnas as "Greeks" and Christian commentators assume the audience consisted of Gentiles. The translation may rest on the assumption entrenched in Christian scholarship that the number of Gentile believers in the apostolic era greatly exceeded Jewish believers and Acts 10−11 tells the story of that change.
The determination of superior Gentile numbers in early congregations has no biblical or historical evidence to support it. For a discussion of the constituency of congregations in the apostolic era see my web article The Apostolic Community. The narrative of Acts 11:19-21 is clearly retrospective in viewpoint and summarizes evangelistic activity in the Diaspora from AD 31−40 in order to explain the later ministry of Barnabas and Saul in Antioch. So, the evangelism of the scattered evangelists occurred before Peter went to Caesarea to proclaim the good news for the first time to an uncircumcised Gentile.
The Messianic evangelists that preceded Peter lacked the divine revelation given to him and so they only shared the good news with orthodox Jews in the named Diaspora locations. They complied fully with the Jewish law banning fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 10:28). As an adjective "Hellenistic" implies the Jews spoke Greek as their primary language and made some lifestyle choices to fit in the Gentile culture. To understand the rationale for translating Hellēnas as "Hellenistic Jews" see my article Hellenism and the Jews.
Identifying these new members of the Antioch congregation as disciples means that they not only believed the apostolic message and trusted in Yeshua's atoning work for salvation, but they had surrendered their wills to live within the framework of God’s commandments and were obedient to apostolic authority (e.g., Acts 2:42). They also committed themselves to developing a spiritual character and devoted themselves to the advancement of God's Kingdom among Jews and Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3, 52). After a period of instruction Barnabas and Saul called these disciples "Christians" (Grk. Christianoi, pl. of Christianos).
The Greek label Christianos properly identifies an adherent of the one called Christos, the expected fulfiller of the hopes of Israel for an end-time deliverer, the Anointed One or Messiah. Thus, a Christianos would be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel. The TLV in a marginal note identifies Christianoi ("Christians") as corresponding to the Heb. Meshichim (Messianics), lit. "anointed ones." Thus, the label not only says something about whom they follow, but something about themselves as well. Indeed, the universal experience of the ones who followed Yeshua is their anointing with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 4:27; 10:28; 2Cor 1:21; 1Jn 2:27).
As indicated by my literal translation I believe the apostles actually came up with the name. I think the credit should go to Barnabas, who likely received the name by divine revelation (cf. Isa 62:2) since he was the appointed leader of the congregation in Antioch (verse 22 above). If Saul (Paul) had coined the label surely he would have used it in his letters.
"King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you believe." 28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, "In a short time will you convince me to become a Messianic?" 29 And Paul said, "I would pray to God, either in a short time or a long time, not only you, but also those hearing me this day, to become such as I am, except for these chains." (Acts 26:27-29 BR)
In Acts 26:28 King Agrippa used the term Christianos with the apostle Paul who was on trial, demonstrating its cultural acceptance as a useful label for followers of the Jewish Messiah who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. Agrippa was a Jew and an expert in all matters of Jewish knowledge and custom (26:3). So, what did the term Christianos (Messianic) mean to him? At the very least a "Messianic" was someone who believed the apostolic message. What was this message? First, the message could be summarized as fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Acts 26:6). Second, a Messianic is one who turns from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to the Kingdom of God (26:18). Third, a Messianic is one who repents and produces works of repentance (26:20).
Fourth, a Messianic is one who believes in the inspiration and authority of the Torah and the Prophets (26:22). I would point out that many modern Christians would not agree with the fourth principle. Fifth, a Messianic is one who understands that the Messiah had to suffer and believes that Yeshua rose from the dead (26:23). At the end of the sermon Agrippa declared to Paul, "You are out of your mind." (26:24). Agrippa then responds with a rhetorical question, which Bible versions translate as a declaration, and his mention of Christianos indicates that the label was in common use. However, Agrippa the Jew was not saying, "almost you persuade me to leave Judaism and join Christianity" (which hadn't been invented yet).
Agrippa was really musing out loud, indicating that he was considering the merits of Paul's message, the Jewish gospel. A public profession of accepting Yeshua as Messiah, Lord and Savior, would be dangerous for Agrippa to make. Supporters of Caesar might well conclude that Agrippa was switching loyalty to a pretender to Caesar's throne. Agrippa hesitated and hesitation in accepting Yeshua can bring spiritual catastrophe. No evidence exists concerning whether Agrippa ever revisited that fateful decision.
Pride as a Messianic
"12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fire among you, taking place for a testing to you, as if a strange thing were happening to you; 13 but as you have shared the sufferings of Messiah, rejoice, so that also you may rejoice with exultation at the revelation of His glory. 14 If you are defamed in the name of Messiah, you are blessed, because the glory and the Spirit of God rest on you. 15 For let not any of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evildoer, or as a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Messianic, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this name." (1Pet 4:11-16 BR)
Unlike the previous passages Peter adds the dimension of suffering to the meaning of Messianic [Christianos]. The reference alludes to identification by adversaries of disciples and particularly as a convenient legal term for ruling authorities. Two important facts need to be considered, one from the biblical context, that his audience consists of primarily Messianic Jews, and the other from the historical context, that the suffering mentioned here is not specifically caused by the Roman government.
The first important fact is that the introduction to Peter's first letter implies that he is addressing primarily Messianic Jews (including Jewish proselytes who later accepted Yeshua), since he was "an apostle to the Circumcised" (Gal 2:7–8): "to the chosen ones [Grk. eklektos] exiles [Grk. parepidēmos] of the Diaspora [Grk. Diaspora] of Pontus, of Galatia, of Cappadocia, of Asia, and of Bithynia" (1Pet 1:1 BR). Three specific points of identification indicate Peter's Jewish audience.
● Chosen: Grk. eklektos is used in the LXX for the descendants of Jacob and the nation of Israel with whom God made an eternal covenant (Num 11:28; Ps 89:3; 105:6, 43; 106:5). Most versions put "chosen" at the end of the verse or into the beginning of the second verse, but Peter actually begins his greeting by identifying their covenantal heritage.
● Exiles: Grk. parepidēmos means "staying as a resident foreigner" and thus "resident alien" or "sojourner." The word is only found three times in the Besekh (also Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet 2:11) and only once in the LXX of Genesis 23:4 where Abraham describes himself as a sojourner in Canaan. In Heb 11:13 parepidēmos is used to refer to the patriarchal and Israelite heroes of faith listed there. In 1Peter 2:11 the noun is set in contrast to the Gentiles mentioned in verse 12.
● Diaspora: Grk. Diaspora was the name given to the lands where the Jews were scattered from captivity in Babylon. Many Jews returned to Israel, but in the centuries before Yeshua many more migrated westward to Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy and the islands of the Aegean (Tarn & Griffith 219). The Jewish historian Josephus quotes the Greek geographer Strabo as saying: "It is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that has not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them" (Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, 7:2). All of these settlements became the starting point for the apostles to proclaim the good news of the Messiah.
Peter's use of Messianic no doubt included Gentiles in the congregations that trusted in the Jewish Messiah, since by their trust such Gentiles have been grafted into Israel (Rom 11:17–24, Eph 2:11–16). What should be obvious, however, is that the three points of identification in no way means "the Church," as opposed to "the Jews" as conceived by the church fathers and today in Christianity.
The second important fact is that the instruction concerning suffering alludes to the Jewishness of the audience. The book of Acts records numerous incidents of open hostility by unbelieving Jews, particularly Judean leaders, against the Jewish apostles of the Messiah, but only four incidents of Gentile hostility. In 2Corinthians 11:24 Paul says he received 39 lashes five times from unbelieving Jews. In his letter to the Hebrews Paul lists various sufferings experienced by Messianic Jews, such as public reproaches, imprisonment, and seizure of personal property (Heb 10:32-34). However, he reminds them they had not yet shed blood for their faith (Heb 12:4). Both Paul's letter to the Hebrews and Peter's first letter occurred well before Nero's persecution in which the two great apostles suffered martyrdom.
Having established the Jewish audience and context it may seem strange that Peter, rather than eschewing the name "Christian" (by modern definition), but actually encourages the Jewish disciples to take pride in the name Messianic. After all, he knew the apostolic origin and the original meaning of the name. Given the Jewish context for the name "Christian," one might reasonably wonder why some Jews who believe in Yeshua as their Savior choose to be known as Messianic Jews rather than "Christians." Indeed, in the nineteenth century Jewish believers sometimes identified themselves as Hebrew Christians. This label served to emphasize Jewish heritage while associating with the Church.
The designation "Messianic Jew" really came into vogue in the great revival among Jews that followed the Six-Day War in 1967. The preference for "Messianic Jew" is clarified by David Stern:
"'Messianic’ comes from 'Messiah,' which has meaning to Jews; whereas the words 'Christ' and 'Christian' are not only alien to Jewish culture and religion but represent the banner under which the Jewish people experienced centuries of discrimination, persecution and murder. And although 'Hebrew' may have had an elegant ring in the nineteenth century, today it sounds quaint—no Jew today calls himself a 'Hebrew.'" (262)
These Jewish believers also prefer not to be known as Christian, since it can have an exclusive meaning in many denominations of Christianity and historically Christianity worked hard to separate itself from any taint of Judaism. For a Jew to call himself a Christian means turning his back on Moses and Torah and conforming to a particular denomination's position on what it means to be Christian.
It is a great tragedy of history that this wonderful name coined by the Jewish apostles should be separated from its Jewish roots and revised, if not diluted, in its meaning. Most of those who identify themselves as "Christian" know little of the name's origin and its significance. While the word "Christian" occurs only three times in the Besekh its meaning is reflected in numerous other passages. Based on the foregoing analysis the principal elements of definition may be identified.
· Believer in Yeshua. A Christian is one who (1) believes in the good news that Yeshua is the King and Messiah of Israel and Lord of all the earth, (2) trusts in God for forgiveness of sins on the basis of Yeshua's atoning sacrifice, (3) has confessed and repented of his or her sins, and (4) has been immersed in water as a testimony of faith (Acts 2:38; 10:43; 13:39; 15:11; 16:31).
· Disciple of Yeshua. A Christian, as indicated in all three passages, is a disciple or student of Yeshua. A Christian recognizes Yeshua as his Teacher in the ways of God and seeks to live in accordance with all that he commanded (cf. Matt 28:20; 1Pet 2:21). A Christian also recognizes apostolic authority and treats their writings and instruction with respect and obedience (Eph 2:19-20). See my article Disciples of Yeshua.
· Servant of Yeshua. A Christian, as determined by the original meaning of the suffix of Christianos, is a "servant" of Yeshua. Followers of Yeshua are identified as "servants" (Grk. doulos) 22 times in the Besekh (e.g., Acts 16:17; 2Cor 4:5; Eph 6:6; Rev 1:1). The frequent usage of doulos in the Besekh for Yeshua's followers indicates His possession and absolute authority. A Christian is the property of Yeshua and he is the Christian's Master.
· Partisan for Yeshua. Unlike partisans who give their allegiance to a political leader or party, a Christian is first an adherent or supporter of Yeshua and his standards, not only in private life (home or congregation), but especially in one's public life. A Christian by definition cannot compartmentalize his life into sacred and secular. It is all sacred. A Christian has an unbending spiritual and emotional allegiance, one that will not be compromised, even in the face of persecution or death (Rev 12:11).
· Anointed for Yeshua. A Christian, given that the name is built on the word Christos, the Greek translation of the Heb. Mashiach, Anointed One or Messiah, is by definition an "anointed one." The Christian is anointed or cleansed and empowered by the Holy Spirit for obedient service (Acts 1:8; 2:4, 38; 4:31; 5:32; 8:17; 9:17; 10:44; 11:15; 15:8-9; 19:6).
· Supporter of Israel. In context a Christian believes God fulfilled the promise that He would make Jacob into a company or commonwealth of nations (Eph 2:12), accepts the enduring nature of God's covenants with Israel (Rom 9:4; 2Cor 1:20), supports efforts to bring the good news of Yeshua to all Jews and the nation of Israel (Acts 1:8; 9:15; 10:36; 13:23), and extends financial aid to needy Israelites (Acts 10:2, 4; 11:29-30; 24:17; Rom 15:25-27).
You, the reader, should answer the question for yourself. Do you consider yourself a Christian? If so, what kind of Christian are you? Or, if you prefer not to use that name for yourself, how many of the characteristics listed above reflect your faith and life in Yeshua? For myself, I want to be like these Antioch Messianic Jewish Christians. To be this kind of Christian is a high calling.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Moseley: Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. Lederer Books, 1996.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.
Copyright © 2011-2021 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.