Newsletter: Vol. 12, Iss. 2
June 2014

Was Paul A Christian?

Peter J. Miano

One of my professors, Paula Fredriksen, captured my historical imagination with the comment, “Anachronism is the first and last enemy of the historian.”

On a recent journey, I was made aware of how pervasive anachronistic thinking is in the popular imagination and how unchallenged it is even in academic environments. I made a casual remark that the Apostle Paul was not a Christian to a group of seminarians. The comment provoked more response, most of it incredulous, than any other comment I had made…and I wasn’t even trying. Scholars, clergy and laity alike all too often use language casually and anachronistically.

Perhaps it seems innocuous and inconsequential, but anachronistic thinking pollutes most popular devotion and even scholarly discourse in biblical studies. If we use terms from the modern age to describe events in an ancient one, we are using terms anachronistically and probably distorting our thinking of the past. For example, many think of the ancient Israelites as monotheistic. Yet, the term monotheism did not appear in any language until the 16th Century. Not only does the term monotheism not apply to the ancient Israelites, our use of that term twists our understanding of them.
Did either Jesus or Paul imagine themselves as starting a religion? Did either of them ever imagine such a thing as a Trinity? Transubstantiation? Did Jesus or Paul ever hear of a thing called a Bishop? Were the disciples Christians? Was Paul a Christian? Did either Jesus or Paul or the disciples ever hear of such a thing as a Christian? The simple answer to each of the preceding questions is, if not a resounding NO, then at least a more humble “probably not”. An anachronism is the use of a word from one time period, with all its contemporary referent, to describe a phenomenon in another time period. If you answered any of these questions quickly, you are probably participating in anachronistic thinking.

Consider the word Christian. As much as it might surprise a group of seminarians or a contemporary reader, the unvarnished truth is that there is no evidence that either Paul or Jesus ever heard of one. Paul never used the term. Neither did Jesus.

In his own writings, the earliest of the New Testament writings, Paul refers to Christ or the Lord Christ or Christ Jesus many times. However, he never uses a word that can be translated as Christian—not even loosely. Likewise in the Gospels, the term Christ occurs frequently, but Jesus is never depicted in the Gospels as using any word that can be translated as Christian. Neither do the Gospels contain any reference to anyone who is known as a Christian. Rather, the followers of Jesus are called disciples. Jesus refers to his followers as disciples 12 times. The terms disciple or disciples occur about 250 times in the New Testament. By contrast, in the New Testament, there are only three occurrences of a Greek word that can be translated as Christian. Two are in the Book of Acts (11:26, 24:26) which scholars usually date to late in the 1st Century or even later. The third of the three references to Christian in the New Testament is 1 Peter 4:16. The dating and authorship of 1 Peter is particularly speculative. Even if its authorship is assigned to the Apostle Peter and the traditional assumptions of Peter’s martyrdom are accepted—not entirely safe assumptions—this one reference certainly does not suggest that the term Christian was widely used or understood by the end of the 1st Century. A mere three references in the New Testament for the word Christian is hardly evidence of it being in common usage. More likely, the fist followers of Jesus were called disciples or followers of the way or Nazoreans. This latter term is the root of the common term for Christians used by Muslim Arabs (Nasara). Christian Arabs refer to themselves as Messiyahi from the Hebrew word for Messiah. Rather than resort to questionable anachronisms, if you want to know how to refer to an ancient people, ask how that ancient people referred to themselves. Self reference is a valuable indicator.

Additional 1st Century references to Christians outside the canon of the New Testament are just as rare and more ambiguous. Josephus, the Judean chronicler, wrote voluminously for a Roman audience during the decade of the 80’s, roughly contemporaneously with Matthew and Luke. In one verse, he makes a reference to “the tribe of Christians so named after him.” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.3) Tacitus, the Roman chronicler who wrote not earlier than the end of the 1st Century, but probably early in the 2nd Century, includes an interesting reference to christians. He identifies them as a class of people whose name derived from their leader, Christus, or Chrestus (Annals 15.44). Thus, in all, there are a total of five instances in all extant literature from the 1st Century of a word that can be even loosely translated as Christian. Another important early reference to Christians is in Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajian (10.96), dating from the first quarter of the 2nd Century. There he uses Latin words for Christian and Christianity. It seems likely, but hardly a sure thing that by the time of this correspondence, these terms were being used more widely. All of these extra biblical references to "Christians" are subject to huge debate about their authroship and dating. The assumption that they all are authentic is hardly a safe one, but even assuming that they are, collectively they do not add up to a lot of evidence of the widespread use of a word that can be translated as "Christian."

Biblical studies involve historical studies. Careless historiography in the field of New Testament studies is rarely noticed, but it is ubiquitous. It is an affliction borne by even the most renowned scholars. It is one of the reasons why the popular and sensational search for the historical Jesus has become, according to John Domnic Crossan, something of a bad joke. (Crossan: The Historical Jesus, 1991) Perhaps it would be less of a joke if biblical scholars were trained in history.

Anachronism is the act of thinking of an historical event or era in contemporary terms. Literally, it means “out of time.” Leonardo’s iconic work, The Last Supper, is anachronistic in that it depicts Jesus and the disciples seated around a table. Why does Leonardo depict Jesus and the disciples sitting at a table when the Gospels consistently state that Jesus reclined at table in the manner of everyone in the Hellenistic/Romanistic world? Anachronism abounds, not only in popular thinking, but in scholarly thinking as well. It is rarely challenged.

Similarly, when we use the contemporary term Christian to describe the first generations of Jesus’ followers, we are using a term that the first generations of Jesus’ followers did not use for themselves. Furthermore, we are using it with nuances drawn from our own time period that it could not possibly have had in the 1st Century. In New Testament studies, when anachronistic thinking remains unchallenged, misleading interpretations result. What happens when we 21st Century believers think of the first century in terms of our own is that we get too cozy with Jesus and in our faith and we persuade ourselves of a sort of spiritual presumptuousness. We end up taking liberties with our faith when it would be much healthier to adopt more of an attitude of humility.

Words not only describe reality, they condition our understanding of it. There is no evidence that either Jesus or Paul or the first generations of their followers ever used the term Christian or understood themselves as Christians. Our 21st Century Christian faith and the faith of the Apostle Paul are not nearly identical to each other. We would do well to endeavor to understand the first followers of Jesus on their own terms, instead of imposing our terms upon them.

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...anachronistic thinking pollutes most popular devotion and even scholarly discourse in biblical studies. If we use terms from the modern age to describe events in an ancient one, we are using terms anachronistically and probably distorting our thinking of the past.