Reflections on the Christianity Seminar Spring Meeting

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 4.15.2019

As the Christianity Seminar comes to the end of its project (the last seminar meeting is scheduled for Spring 2020), various loose ends are starting to form patterns in suggestive and interesting ways.

This blog is not a review or summary of the fine papers presented to the Seminar but reflections on a couple of items that sparked my interest and illuminated ongoing concerns of the Seminar.

A foundational problem for the Seminar is the translation of the Greek word Christianos, traditionally translated in English as “Christian.” This, of course, is not a translation—it does not translate the meaning—but a transliteration, meaning it transfers the letters from one language (Greek) to another (Latin and then eventually to English).

David Wilhite and Robert Miller both presented papers on Justin Martyr and Hal Taussig presented a paper on Christianos in the second century. Justin Martyr is an important character in the later construction of the master Christian narrative or, as I would prefer, the master Christian myth. Justin Martyr was born in Judea around 100 CE, converted to the Jesus movement, and became what would later be called the first apologist for the movement. (In the initial section of his Dialog with Trypho he gives a description of his education and his move towards the Jesus movement.) After experimenting with various philosophical schools, he eventually ended up in Plato’s camp. Significantly, while becoming a Jesus follower, he remained a Platonist, much like Augustine who converted to Christianity, while remaining a Neo-Platonist.

Writing somewhere between 147 and 160 CE, Justin is the first member of the Jesus movement to use Christianos extensively, but he was not the first. Traditionally, Acts 11:26 was deemed the earliest use of Christianos: “at Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (see also Acts 26:28). But if we follow Richard Pervo and the Acts’s Seminar dating for Acts of circa 125, then Acts is no longer the first extant occurrence.

There are four other candidates for the honor: 1Peter 4:16, Didache 12:4, Ignatius, and Pliny the Younger.

Recent scholarship has increasingly dated 1Peter in the second century, perhaps as late 175, as Taussig indicates. So, rule 1Peter out.

Didache is notoriously difficult to date, but the current version surely dates from after 125. Its knowledge of various New Testament writings, especially Matthew and Acts, clearly supports this later date. So, rule out Didache.

That leaves only Ignatius and the Roman writer and governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny the Younger. Ignatius employs the term around 113-7 CE, while Pliny writes in 111 CE using the term in Latin Christianus. Thus, the earliest extant usage is by a non-follower (he is not a pagan—such a designation is appropriate only much later) of Jesus. Furthermore, it is in Latin. This is telling since the Greek word Christianos is a Latin loanword. Let’s follow the trail.

The Greek word Christos is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Both words mean “anointed with oil.” In Greek this translation does not mean much because Greeks do not anoint their kings as do Hebrews, therefore Christos (Anointed) always reminds a Greek speaker that the term is a foreign, Hebrew title. But eventually the root meaning of “anointed” begins to slip away and Christos more or less becomes his name without the strong titular overtone. But it never completely looses the connotation of Messiah. But Messiah becomes less important than other titles, especially kurios (Lord).

The Latin Christus is not a translation but a transliteration. The Latin simply takes over the letters of the Greek word, adding a Latin case ending (-us for -os).

The Greek Christianos (“Christian”) uses the noun Christ- with the Latin adjectival suffix -ian, indicating that it is a Latin loanword; -os is the case ending.

The English words “Christ” and “Christian,” through several intermediary languages, continues the transliteration initiated by Latin.

Several points to observe. The Latin loanword status indicates the word evolved in a Latin context. All the early uses indicate that it is an outsider’s word, a type of nickname.

If Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan is the earliest extant use of Christianus, it exemplifies both points. The earliest usage is in Latin, not Greek, and it is used by Pliny, an outsider, as an apparently bureaucratic term. Thus, the Greek Christianos probably is derived from the Latin. Furthermore, since the emperor Trajan replies to Pliny using the same term, it indicates that both Pliny and Trajan know its meaning. Therefore, we obviously have here not the first usage. How much further the term goes back is hard to know, but probably not much before 100 CE.

While it might seem obvious that we should “translate” Christianus as “Christian,” I think that practice remains very problematic. “Christian” makes several unwarranted implications. It implies the whole system of the Christian religion, thus risking an anachronistic understanding. One can easily be reading a much later understanding of Christianity into an earlier writing. “Christian” also assumes that its opposite is Judaism, and I am not at all convinced that is the case in this usage.

Pliny’s Letter to Trajan:

“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians.”

There are two problems with this translation. “Trial” is an over translation. More exactly it is a questioning or investigation. “Trial of Christians” risks implying the later situation of the formal trials and persecutions of Christians. Pliny is a governor in a remote province of the Empire who is not quite sure what he is doing. Nothing particularly organized is going on here.

More importantly, just what does Christianus signify here? Certainly not Christian in the sense of an established religion. A much more literal translation, implied by the adjectival suffix -ian would be “an adherent to the party of the Anointed” on the analogy of the Herodians, “those who adhere to the party of Herod.” Given this, Pliny is assuming they are a Jewish sect, Messianists. So rather than assuming these folks are Christians representing a non-Jewish religion, he assumes they are a part (maybe deviant) of Judaism.

This background is helpful in disentangling Justin’s usage. Both Wilhite and Miller address Justin’s attitude to Judaism. Miller terms it “anti-Judaism,” while Wilhite terms it “de-Judaizing.” Employing the antiquated terms of Judaism and Christianity, both see Justin as seeking to replace Judaism with Christianity, what would later be called supersessionism. Wilhite compares Justin to Marcion and notes that while Justin is fiercely anti-Jewish, Marcion is not. Wilhite speculates that this is because Marcion from Pontus comes from a form of Christianity that does not know Judaism or Israel’s scriptures, that he only encounters those scriptures in Rome. Miller also notes that Justin, while opposing the Greek philosophers, does not attack them with the vitriolic antagonism with which he attacks the Jews. Afterall, the dialogue is with Trypho, a Jew, not with a Greek philosopher. Why is he not equally antagonistic to Greek philosophers?

Our new translation/understanding of Pliny helps at precisely this point. Justin, the Messianist, is contesting with Typho, the Jew, for the heritage of Israel. This comes out in his terminology. Jews are “carnal Israel,” and the Messianists are “spiritual Israel.” Being a good Platonist, for Justin “carnal” is bad and “spiritual” is good. Israel’s scriptures look forward to Jesus, so the Messianists are the true interpreters of those scriptures. Why? Because they have the “spiritual” (i.e., true) interpretation, while Jews have the “carnal” (i.e., false) interpretation.

It may be a quibble with both Wilhite and Miller, but Justin is not so much “de-Judaizing” or “anti-Jewish” as he is attempting to erase Judaism. Contesting for the correct interpretation of Israel’s heritage, an intra-Jewish debate, has now become an effort to erase carnal Israel.

Works Referenced:

Miller, Robert J. “Prophecy, Christology, and Anti-Judaism in Justin Martyr,” Westar Christianity Seminar Meeting, Spring, 2019.

Pervo, Richard I. Dating Acts. Between the Evangelists and the Apologists. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2006.

Smith, Dennis Edwin, Joseph B Tyson, and Westar Institute, eds. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013.

Taussig, Hal. “The (In)Appropriateness of “Christian” in the First Two Centuries,” Westar Christianity Seminar Meeting, Spring, 2019.

Wilhite, David E. “Is Jesus YHWH?:  Two De-Judaizing Trajectories of Marcion and Justin,” Westar Christianity Seminar Meeting, Spring, 2019.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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