It's almost in the nature of a Dorothy Dix question in Christian circles these days to ask if Christ is the surname of Jesus. Most educated Christians know the answer. But, what does the name "Christ" or "Christos" signify? Now that is the fascinating subject of today's commentary from Dr Ian Elmer exploring our scriptural heritage.
The Christos in Whom Paul Believed...
There is an old joke about a man who obtains work in a cheese factory and who later the same day encounters a Christian evangelist on the bus. Our hero asks the evangelist what his job is; to which the evangelist replies pompously that he works for "Christ Jesus". Delighted, his fellow passenger proclaims, "Hey! Isn't that a coincidence? I work for his brother, Kraft Chesses!"
For us the term "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" rolls off the tongue with such ease that it tends to border on the blasphemous; but more often-than-not represents rather a mere unthinking familiarity. We apply the term "Christ" to Jesus much as one would employ a surname. For the early Christians, however, such a use of the term "Christos" (Messiah) would have rung a very strange note. In proclaiming Jesus as "the Christ" or "the Messiah", the early Church was applying to Jesus an eschatological term that derived from their Jewish heritage.
Our earliest documents come from the hand of Paul and his team of missionaries; and, in these documents, the term "Christos" appears frequently. Indeed, we find that of the 531 times "Christos" appears in the New Testament, 270 of these are found in the Pauline corpus. It was clearly a significant title for Paul and, we must assume, the early Church before him. Remarkably, however, Paul often uses the expression as a virtual surname for Jesus, much as we do today — which raises questions about what the term actually meant for Paul. Who was the "Christos" in whom Paul believed?
In terms of its derivation, the title "Messiah" was used to describe the long-awaited "Anointed one", the agent of God who would variously cast off the Roman occupation forces, usher in a new world order, and/or renew the faith of Israel. As best we can determine, messianic expectations were not necessarily widespread among the common people; and when we do find such expectations they seem to vary greatly. Messianic scenarios came in different forms. For some, the Messiah would be a military leader and heir of King David; for others, he would be a prophetic figure, perhaps even the prophet Elijah returned from heaven.
Messianic scenarios were most likely the preserve of apocalyptically-charged sects, such as the Qumran Covenanters who conserved the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls and the earliest Jesus movement at Jerusalem, the story of which is told in Acts 1-5. Despite their similarities, these two Jewish sects held very different messianic views.
In the Qumran texts, for example (150 BCE-70 CE), we find what appears to be an expectation of two "anointed" figures (e.g., 1 QS 9:10-11; CD 12:22-23) who would preside over the elect in the future: a "messiah of Israel" (probably a royal figure) and a "messiah of Aaron" (a priestly figure). For the Qumran community, the latter figure was apparently seen as outranking the royal "messiah".
In the Psalms of Solomon (late first century BE), however, hope for the restoration of Israel is tied to God's raising up a descendant of David as "the Lord's anointed one" (christos kyriou, 17:32; 18:7), and the messianism here is of a purely royal variety.
By contrast, another contemporary work, 1 Enoch, conveys a further and different image, in which the messianic figure ("the elect one" or "the son of man") is pictured in quite exalted terms in heavenly glory and seems to be identified as Enoch (cf. Gen 5:21-24). It is not entirely clear whether this is another type of messianism or if royal/messianic imagery has been appropriated here to describe another type of exalted figure connected with hopes for eschatological salvation. Later in 135 CE, during the second revolt against Rome, the Jewish military leader of the revolt, Bar Kochba, was hailed as the "messiah".
The earliest Christian community seem to have focused on a similar (albeit non-violent) restoration theology, but one that was invested in the resurrection and parousia of Jesus (Dunn, 1990).
At the outset of Acts the constituents of the community are described as chosen Apostles (1:2) and "men of Galilee" (1:11) who looked to Jesus as their risen Lord and Messiah (2:36; 5:23), as the one who was to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6; 2:38-39; 3:21). This description is confirmed by Paul who indicates that the first followers of Jesus saw his resurrection as a vindication of his messianic status (Rom 1:3-4), the first fruit of the general resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 6:14; 15:12-23; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Rom 8:11), which would signal the start of the eschatological reign of God (1 Cor 15:23-28). The constituents of the earliest Jerusalem church probably lived in daily expectation of the parousia of Jesus. Their constant prayer was most likely that of the ancient Aramaic invocation preserved in 1 Corinthians 16:22 "Marana tha — Our Lord, Come!" (cf. Rev 22:20).
Matters, of course, may have been very different in the Gentile missions where Jewish restoration theology focused on an expected "anointed" agent of god would have made very little sense. In secular Greek usage the term christos simply means an ointment or cosmetic (cf. Euripides Hipp 516); and never appears as descriptor for one "anointed". A fragment from a manuscript written by Diodorus Siculus (1b:38-39, 4) shortly before the time of Jesus uses the term neochristos to refer to a building "newly plastered".
Something of the possible confusion around the title Christos may be found in Acts 11:26, which relates that it was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus first became known as "Christians". In a Gentile environment where the term "Christos" would have been misunderstood, the title "Christian" appears to be a sarcastic jibe at the new religious movement. É. Trocmé (1997) observes that Christianos is a political term (Latin suffix — ianos) that must have first emerged as a derisory expression — that is, "supporters of the oiled one".
Paul's Use of Christos...
Having noted its unique Jewish origins, it seems remarkable that Paul, who for the most part wrote for Gentiles, would continue to employ the title Christos for Jesus. Thus the prolific Pauline use of the term Christos, almost as a name for Jesus, requires an explanation. This is especially so since there was a perfectly good Greek word available for speaking of an anointed person, ēleimmenos (from the verb aleiphō, "anoint"). The translators of the Septuagint used this term to render the Hebrew māšīa in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
So why didn't Paul simply use another more appropriate Greek term, such as ēleimmenos? Well, the simplest answer is probably that it didn't begin with Paul! The title Christ was too well established even by the time Paul wrote to simply translate or replace it with another more accurate description of Jesus. The name "Jesus Christ" already existed as central to the paradosis, the sacred "tradition" of early Christians which he and others handed on.
In one of Paul's earliest letters, 1 Thessalonians, probably written in the 50s if not earlier, a variety of uses of Christos appear. For example, Paul speaks of the "Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess 1:1; cf. 1 Thess 5:23, 28), "Christ" (1 Thess 2:6), "in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 2:14) and, what was to become one of Paul's favourite phrases, "in Christ" (1 Thess 4:16). This suggests that in the early 50s, and even earlier, the term Christos had already become a virtual name for Jesus and would be recognized as such by Paul's audience in Macedonia.
A similar variety of usage and assumptions can be observed in 1 Corinthians. There, for instance, we find not only the phrase "Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 1:1-4) but also "Christ" (1 Cor 1:6) as well as "our Lord Jesus Christ" and "Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor 1:2, 7-10). There is no obvious significance to this variation; all these terms and phrases refer to the same person and, moreover, all these permeations are used to describe the relationship of Jesus to his followers.
It can be shown that Paul uses the term Christos and its variants especially in contexts where he is drawing upon pre-Pauline tradition or is reflecting on the eschatological significance of Christ's death, resurrection and parousia. These epochal events are the primary reason Paul is willing to call Jesus Christos.
In particular, we should single out the fact that when Paul rehearses the Christian paradoses he indicates that it included the confession that "Christos died for our sins" (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3). This extraordinary formula, having no known precedent in early Judaism, is regarded as the heart of Christian faith by Paul, who had learned of it from those who were "in Christ" before him.
This means that in the period between 30 CE and the point at which Paul received this tradition (surely prior to his missionary journeys), the term Christos was not only being used by Christians as a term having exclusive reference to Jesus, but already it was being closely linked to Jesus' death as the means of eschatological salvation — which brings us to the nub of the issue of Paul's use of the term Christos.
The Meaning of Christos as it Pertains to Jesus...
Romans 1:16 provides a possible clue indicating why Paul so persistently used the term Christos and occasionally gave hints that it was originally a title, rather than a descriptive term such as Sōtēr ("Savior") to refer to Jesus. Though Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, he wished to continue to affirm to his audience, and perhaps on occasion even stress, the continuity of their faith in Jesus as saviour and the historic faith in the Jewish God and his messianic agent. Most likely, Paul wished to remind an increasingly Gentile church of the Jewish origin and character of the Saviour and his salvation.
Paul was aware of, and does on at least one occasion remind his Gentile audience of, early Jewish ideas about Messiah being a Jew born under the Law (cf. Gal 4:4) and of Davidic ancestry (cf. Rom 1:3). He is happy to affirm these things of Jesus. As a Jew, Paul no doubt wished that it never to be forgotten that Jesus, who is saviour of the world, is such only as the Jewish Messiah — the Christos. One way of doing this was to continue to juxtapose the two terms Iēsous Christos. He does a similar thing with the Jewish name of Peter, Kephas (Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14; 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5), which seems to serve as a reminder that Peter's authority was derived from his role as "apostle to the circumcised" (Gal 2:9, 14).
To pursue the issue further, however, a careful scrutiny of all Paul's uses of the term Christos suggests that in the main Paul's meaning was not derived from early Jewish ideas about God's anointed, but rather from traditions about the conclusion of Jesus' life and its sequel.
The first and most noteworthy departure from Jewish messianic expectations is that Paul and other early Christians used the term Christos to refer to someone who had died on the cross and had risen from the dead. We can find no other significant references in Jewish texts to the Messiah who was destined to suffer death. The closest parallels are found in the so-called suffering servant songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12); and there is no doubt that these texts played a role in the later Church's attempts at understanding the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Having said that, however, we must admit that there is no direct connection between Isaiah's servant and other Jewish messianic schemes — the context in which the songs occur (Second-Isaiah) suggests that the servant refers not to the Messiah or king of Israel, but to Israel itself. Indeed, the innovative and creative application of the Servant Songs to Jesus as the Christos indicates the extent to which the meaning of the term Christos was transformed.
Paul's usage of the term Christ suggests that in the main Paul's meaning was not derived from early Jewish ideas about God's anointed, but rather from traditions about the conclusion of Jesus' life and its sequel — in particular, Jesus' death on the cross. Paul's characteristic proclamation of Christos estaurōmenos ("Christ crucified" — e.g., 1 Cor 1:23) would have shocked Jewish listeners because there is no conclusive evidence that early Jews expected a crucified Messiah.
There is nothing in any of the aforementioned messianic texts from Qumran or the Enoch material that suggest a messiah who must suffer death. On the contrary, the Messiah is a triumphant figure — even the semi-divine "son of man" in Enoch — who will win victory of Israel's enemies.
In Christainity, however, instead of being God's agent who would cast off the Roman occupation forces, usher in a new world order, and/or renew the faith of Israel, Jesus Christ is said to have brought redemption to his people by dying, rising and being exalted to authority and power at the right hand of God over all the principalities.
We can see further the expansion and reformation of Jewish restoration theology most clearly in Romans 9:5, which speaks of the coming of the Christos "who is over all God blessed forever" — a phrase that suggests that Paul saw the Christ as not only assuming divine functions in heaven but in some sense properly being called God.
Similarly, the divinity of Jesus is evident in Paul's famous Kenosis hymn (or the Carmen Christi) in Philippians 2:6-11, where Jesus is presented as being in the "form" of God whose obedience is rewarded by his being exalted to the Godhead. Even pre-existence is known to Paul; in 1 Corinthians 10:4 Paul declares Christ to be "the spiritual rock that followed them [the Moses group in the desert following the Exodus]".
In short, then, I think that the term Christos, if studied in the context of its varied uses in the Pauline corpus, reveals how the early Christians drew on, amplified, transformed and transcended some early Jewish ideas about the Messiah.
For Paul the content of the term Christos was mainly derived from the Christ event and his experience of the risen Christ. This led to three elements in his preaching about Christ that were without known precedent in early Judaism:
Paul characteristically uses Christos (either alone or in connection with "Jesus") in passages that refer to Jesus' death and resurrection (e.g., 1 Cor 15; Rom 3:23; 5:6-7; Gal 3:13), and it is likely that these passages reflect Paul's familiarity with and emphasis on the early Christian conviction that Jesus' crucifixion was part of his mission as the "Messiah" and that he would return as Messiah to establish God's reign on earth.
Non-Christian Jews did not speak of a crucified Messiah much less of a Second Coming of Messiah. Nor do we have any evidence that early Jews were willing to call the Messiah "God", or one in whom the fullness of deity dwells.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer