"They Were Called Christians"
When Luke wrote Acts, the name “Christian” had been in use about 20 years. It apparently was so well known Luke felt no need to explain the cause or source of the name (Acts 11:26). As a result of this lack of clarification, many have wondered about the name "Christian" and what its origins are. We hope to provide some insight as to possible origins in this article.
The Origin of The Name
Since Theophilus needed no explanation, it seems clear that by that time the name was known. This new name that originated in Antioch proved to be the most potent name that has ever been applied to a body of men. There was no one at Antioch who recorded why or by whom the name was given. We know that Luke had at least two sources of information. First, he was a companion of Paul who was in Antioch when the name was given. Second, he had the Holy Spirit Who was also in Antioch. If either told Luke of the origin of the name, the Spirit did not lead Luke to record it.
OPTION 1 - The Disciples Gave Themselves The Name
Luke is looking back twenty years. He is stating a historical fact. That in itself does not eliminate the possibility of their calling themselves “Christians.” It is possible to understand Acts 11:26 as using a middle voice which would suggest that they called themselves Christians; however, it can also be read as a passive voice which would indicate others referred to them as such. One of the strongest evidences for this viewpoint is that there are numerous, early, extra-biblical sources in which the term is used as a self-designation (Ign. Eph. 11.2; Magn. 4; Rom. 3:2; Pol. 7:3; Mart. Pol. 3, 10.1, 12:1-2; Did. 12.4)
OPTION 2 - The Name Was Given By God
Two arguments are presented in favor of God’s giving of the name. First, some maintain that “Christian” is the fulfillment of the promise made by Isaiah (Is. 62:2, 5; 56:5). If the prophet had in mind a specific name to be established in the future other than "Hephzibah", Christian would seem to be the fulfillment. The prophet, however, may simply be referring to reputation and honor, rather than shame and disgrace. Another argument is based on the word “called”. One commentator examines the usage of this word thus: “This term is used eight other times in the New Testament (Matt. 2:12, 22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Rom. 7:3; Heb. 8:5; 11:7; 12:25), where it is translated by the terms warned, called, revealed, and spake. In each of these eight verses, the word has reference to a divine utterance. If chrematizo is used in this verse in the same way it is used every other time it occurs in the New Testament, then God is the one who called them Christians.” (Johnny Stringer, “The Book of Acts”, Truth Commentaries. Bowling Green: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1999, 238). A related question to this: was the name given by Paul or Barnabas? If it was, then we would have to say that they gave it as spokesmen for God. In fact, if God is the origin, He would have spoken through them. A good literal translation of the sentence would be, “And it happened to them also for a whole year to be assembled with the church and to teach a considerable crowd, and to call first in Antioch the disciples Christians.”
OPTION 3 - The Name Was Given By Gentiles Without Malice
“The name Christian was given to believers in Jesus as a nickname by Gentile onlookers, who seem to have realized that here was a religious movement distinct from Judaism (see Acts xi. 26).” (Alan Stibbs, “The First Epistle General of Peter”, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981, 162). To call the followers of Christ “Christians” is so obvious, proper, and natural that it might have occurred to almost anyone acquainted with the situation. The word was formed after the Roman style signifying an adherent of Christ. “The ending of the word (Christianos) indicates that it is a Latin word, like ‘Herodian’, and that it refers to the follwoers of Christ.” (I. Howard Marshall, “The Acts of the Apostles”, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981, 203) Conservative Jews would not have given the name (the Herodian Jews however would be a tenable option). If the Gentiles gave it, it would have been the most sensible name to give.
OPTION 4 - The Name Was Given In Derision By Gentiles
This is the way many take it because of what is perceived as the natural persecution or derision context of Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. This would be in line also with how Pliny uses it in his letter to Trajan as well as Trajan’s response (10.96-97). Stibbs takes it this way in regards to the two passages: “The name was used by Agrippa in scorn (see Acts xxvi, 28). It is its unfriendly use that is clearly here in mind [1 Peter 4:16; EP). Obviously, in some circumstances, the very fact of thus being known as a Christian was enough to bring upon the bearer of such a name social obloquy or ostracism or possibly official persecution.” (ibid.) This is, however, the least likely of all explanations. Johnny Stringer responds: “Many have said that the enemies of Christianity gave this name to the Lord’s disciples as a term of derision. There are no sound grounds for such conjecture. There is nothing about the name that would be offensive or insulting. If the Lord’s enemies were inventing a derisive epithet, they surely would not have chosen such an innocuous, unoffensive term.” (ibid.) The nearest contemporary account we have is Luke. He says nothing about derision. Liberal theologians, who deny Christ and the divine origin of the New Testament, will accept any story that belittles it.
Ultimately, the source is not nearly as important as God’s attitude toward the name – absolute authorized acceptance. At any rate, as far as sheer Bible usage, the early Christians preferred to use other names for themselves like disciples, saints, and brothers.
What Did They Call Themselves?
We have been told they called themselves “believers.” Using the ASV, we see the word “Christians" is used twice in Acts and once in the Epistles. The word “believers" is used once in Acts, and not at all in the Epistles. “Believers” is used less than “Christians.” If we accept the footnote, that one use disappears. The word “believer” is found in 1Cor. 9:5 but is the word for sister (1Cor. 7:15; Rom. 16:1; James 2:15).
“Disciples” is used 30x in Acts, but is not used even once in the next 22 books of the New Testament. Following Acts, no follower of the Lord was ever called a disciple. Various other designations are applied.
There is only one to which the command is attached to glorify God (1Pet. 4:16). It may well be associated with persecution. From the first day of the church, men gladly suffered unashamed for Christ (Acts 5:41). It is in that name we are to glorify God. Was the name “Christian” ever used in derision? Certainly. It is today, but that does not prove it originated in derision any more than the fact some people use “American” in derision. Instead of being ashamed when he suffers on account of his faith in Christ, the Christian has an opportunity to glorify God by his attitude and conduct (1Pet. 3:15-16).
We should all desire to be Christians. When Paul preached to Agrippa, the king made his famous response (Acts 26:28). Agrippa saw clearly the aim of the Apostle. It is possible he was being sarcastic and was rejecting in disdain Paul’s appeal; contrariwise, it is possible Agrippa was sincere. Paul’s reply shows his wish for his hearers, even his jailors (Acts 26:9). This is our desire for you if you have never confessed Jesus as your Lord. Let us not accept any conclusion until we have search out the Word (Acts 17:11). If you are not a Christian, become one! (Acts 2:38; 22:16)