Why Aren’t Christians Jews?
Q: “Christian” means “Christ-like” but if Christ was a Jew and Christians have different beliefs from Jews how are we being like Christ?
A: Christian means “of Christ” or “belonging to Christ.” Used of a person, a Christian is one who professes a belief in Jesus Christ. The word was introduced in Acts 11:26, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Only twice more is it repeated. Believers were also called “The Way” and other titles, either by themselves or by others. For some time, many of the original Jewish believers still thought of themselves as Jews as well as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Antioch was basically a Gentile congregation. Paul and Barnabas, among others, spent over a year teaching and building up the little flock. As this group became more prominent, the people of Antioch might have been confused about this new group. Since it had Jewish leaders and roots in Judea, many likely thought of it as one more sect or political subdivision of Judaism. However, these new disciples could point out that they were not Jews: They (Gentile believers) wouldn’t receive circumcision or bind themselves to the laws of Israel. They confessed Christ as a descendant of Judah, Jesse, and David; they didn’t claim to be Jews themselves.
Probably, “Christian” became a nickname hung on the Antioch Church by those on the outside. Yet like many nicknames applied by others, those so named began using the word of themselves. The title may be based on military terminology. Latin often used the plural ending -iani to denote the soldiers of a specific general and, by extension, partisans of an individual. Thus, Tacitus writes of the Galbiani, or “Galban’s soldiers.” At a slightly later date, the Augustiani were the chanting sycophants who led public honor and worship of Nero Augustus. This use is consistent with the Caesarani, the slaves and clients of the Roman emperors. In the Gospels, we encounter the Herodianoi, who may have been partisans or clients of Herod.
Christiani or Christianoi would be slaves, soldiers, partisans, or members of the household of Christ. When Luke says the disciples “were called Christians,” this could mean that they were an officially registered and publicly acknowledged religious entity. In the beginning, there was be no great concern with being called both “Christian” and “Jew” if that’s what one was. Early Jewish believers communed together yet still worshiped in the temple (Acts 2:42, 46). However, the disciples themselves noted that one need not become a Jew to be a Christian (11:1-18).
A problem with deciding whether to use “Jew” stems from deciding what a Jew is. At times, both Scriptural and secular usage indicate that anyone who followed the Hebrew Scriptures, claimed lineage from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and was circumcised was a Jew. The word appears late in the Old Testament, during and after the Babylonian captivity. Following the division of the kingdom under Solomon’s son Rehoboam and the northern tribes’ leader Jeroboam the son of Nebat, Judah and Benjamin were the only tribes remaining in the south. “Israel” — once the name of the whole family, nation, and kingdom — was claimed by the ten northern tribes. When they were carried off, scattered, and destroyed as a nation by the Assyrians, only Judah remained. The word “Jew” came directly from Israel’s sole surviving tribe.
However, Christ and His disciples — especially as shown in the Gospel according to Saint John — often used “Jew” in a negative sense. In the fourth Gospel, the Jews opposed Jesus. They spied on him, plotted against him, and finally schemed his capture and execution. Jesus distinguished them from the true heirs of Abraham, who hadn’t deserted the promised Messiah. John 1:19 tells us, “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask [John the Baptist], ‘Who are you?’”
Just a bit later, after Philip ran to get his friend Nathaniel to come see if Jesus wasn’t the One promised in Moses and the prophets, Jesus greeted him by saying, “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Here, the distinction was religious. “Jews” were those who forgot or ignored the prophecies. Many, especially among the Sadducees, accommodated Roman rule, often making a profit from it. Others, particularly many Pharisees, became legalistic fundamentalists inventing new laws rather than emphasizing God’s promises.
As the Church spread from Jerusalem and Judea, both believers and non-believers increasingly recognized that whatever these people were, “Jew” didn’t accurately describe a follower of Jesus. While other terms came and went, “Christian” stuck. Concisely and accurately it denoted both their allegiance to Christ and, especially, His possession of them. Christ was born “King of the Jews,” but, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. (John 1:11)” However, John continued in verses 12 and 13, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So then, Christians are not Jews, for many Jews rejected the Christ already in His own generation. Yet Jews can be (and some are) Christians, since He is their Savior every bit as much as He is Savior of the Gentiles. The Lord said in John 4:22, “Salvation is from the Jews,” although many of the Jews themselves may not be saved. Therefore, as the Gospel was preached, Paul would go first to the synagogues, leaving for the Gentiles only after Christ’s own people rejected the message. Acts 13:46 notes, “And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly [to the Jews], saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.’”
For more on Christianity and being a Christian, please see Luther, Lewis, and “Little Christs” and the earlier posts to which it refers.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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