Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is Christianity an Anachronism?

According to the Book of Acts (11:26), the followers of Yeshua were called Christians for the first time in the Syrian city of Antioch. Interestingly, the oldest manuscripts available to us identify this group, not as Christians, but as Chrestians. The fourth century manuscript known as the Sinaiticus is the oldest known collection of the gospels and epistles. Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, the Biblical Archaeology Society, in 2007, published an article about the importance of this document:

The Codex Sinaiticus is relevant not only for the history of the text of the Septuagint and New Testament, but also for the history of many layers of later revisions to the text made by generations of correctors. These [revisions] range in date from…the 4th century to…the 12th century…[the revisions can be as simple as] the alteration of one letter [or as complex as] the insertion of whole sentences.

The Codex Sinaiticus is therefore the base text against which all other New Testament manuscripts are measured for accuracy. Another ancient text, the fifth century Bezae manuscript, also uses the word Chrestian. These two ancient documents seem to indicate that the inhabitants of Antioch mispronounced the term Christian. The second century historian Seutonius tells us that the edict of the Roman Emperor Claudius, in the year 49, resulted from the trouble-making acts of someone named Chrestus. The Book of Acts makes a reference to this edict, mentioning that Priscilla and Aquila had left Rome because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave (18:2). Scholars are not clear on whether Seutonius mispronounced Christus, like the people in Antioch, or whether a rebellious Jew having the actual name of Chrestus was the real instigator, resulting in Claudius’ actions. Regardless, the fifth century historian Orosius quoted Seutonius and changed the spelling to Christus because he believed that is what Seutonius meant. If Christus is the correct spelling, as Orosius contends, then Claudius banned the Jews on account of the Christians. Personally, I think Orosius made a serious error in judgment and created an anachronism.

An anachronism is an error in historical chronology, assigning people, ideas, technology, etc., to the wrong period. For example, to say, “air travel in the time of ancient Rome,” would be an error in chronology because neither the airplane nor any other form of air travel existed two-thousand years ago. I am suggesting that the term Christian is also anachronistic.

Another second century historian, Tacitus, wrote about Chrestus as the founder of a group of men known as Chrestianos. Later manuscripts, written generations after Tacitus, changed the spelling of these words to Christus and Christianos. Based on this evidence, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), a standard reference for over ninety years, concludes that Chrestian was probably the original designation used by outsiders as a label for the early disciples. What the ISBE seems to be saying is that Gentile outsiders of the first century did not understand the term Christos so they corrected it to Chrestos, a fairly common name in first century Greek. In other words, Chrestian was the label used by uninformed outsiders to refer to the followers of Christ.

At this point a question should be asked. Why should people care that the early believers were called Chrestians and that translators, living hundreds of years after the fact, changed the word to Christian? This question should not be taken lightly. First, the early believers did not call themselves Christians. The word seems to be a derogatory term used by outsiders. Instead, the believers called themselves disciples. Scripture itself confirms what they were called when we compare the frequency of these two words in the Gospels and Epistles. The word Chrestian appears three times while disciple appears over 100 times. Second, Chrestian has no meaning. It is not defined by scripture nor is it a term for the followers of Christ. Third, the term “Chrestian” only evolved into “Christian” hundreds of years after its original usage.

To me, none of these reasons really matter when answering the question. What does matter is that the word Christian is a much later theological term indicating a break from the Jewish past. To the believers of the first century, the word Chrestian made sense as a word to describe the ignorance of those on the outside. Hundreds of years later, after the Gentile believers had long broken away from the Jewish community, the translators read back into the first-century text a fourth, fifth, and sixth century reality that did not exist at the time when the text was originally written. For this reason, I don’t call myself a Christian, choosing instead to be labeled as a disciple. While the distinction might seem trivial to some, to me "disciple" communicates a return to the Jewish roots of the faith and a restoration of the body of Messiah to the nation of Israel.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2007
The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume I

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