The name Christ has become synonymous with Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity. But how did Jesus come to be called Christ? This question has puzzled believers and non-believers alike.
In this comprehensive article, we will trace the linguistic and historical origins of the name Christ, examine its theological significance, and explore its enduring legacy and popular usage when referring to Jesus.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Jesus was given the title Christ, meaning ‘Anointed One’, by his early followers because they believed he was the long-awaited Messiah or ‘Christos’ in Greek, who would deliver the Jewish people.
The name stuck and Jesus Christ emerged as the defining name for the founder of Christianity.
The Etymological Roots of ‘Christ’
Christ Comes from the Greek ‘Christos’
The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word “Christos,” which means “anointed one.” In ancient Greek culture, kings, high priests, and prophets were anointed with oil as a sign of consecration and empowerment.
The title signifies that Jesus wasn’t just an ordinary man, but the Anointed One sent by God.
The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in the 2nd century BCE, uses “Christos” to translate the Hebrew word “Mashiach” (Messiah). While the Hebrew term refers specifically to an anticipated king and deliverer sent by God, the Greek word “Christos” has a broader meaning of “anointed one.”
So in calling Jesus the Christ, early Christians were affirming that he was the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Hebrew scriptures.
Christos as Greek Translation of Hebrew ‘Messiah’
“Christos” became the perfect Greek translation for the Jewish concept of an “Anointed One” or “Messiah.” Whereas the title “Christ” has religious and spiritual connotations in English, the designation would have had political implications to Greeks and Romans in antiquity.
Claiming Jesus as the Christ announced him as the rightful king that the Jews had long expected – the one anointed to rule and lead them.
By the 4th century BCE, Jewish prophets had foretold of a coming king from the line of David who would deliver them from oppression and usher in a new era. Jews were waiting for this revolutionary figure that would change their destiny, rebuild the Temple, and restore their land.
Several Jewish rebel leaders and “false messiahs” emerged through the centuries that failed to fulfill these expectations. Jesus’ followers proclaimed him as the long-awaited Christ and true King of Israel in opposition to the empire of Rome.
Jesus as the Embodiment of Old Testament Prophecies
Prophesied Coming of a Messianic King
Many Old Testament prophecies pointed to the coming of a Messiah or “Anointed One” who would redeem God’s people. Several passages refer to this figure as a great king in the line of David who would restore the kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2; Isaiah 9:1-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6).
Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of these prophecies given his Davidic lineage (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38) and his miracles, healings, and ministry which validated his identity as the long-awaited Messianic king.
Though Jesus did not overthrow Roman occupation as some expected, the Gospels present him as establishing a spiritual kingdom which would culminate upon his second coming (Acts 1:6-11).
Jesus Seen as Fulfillment of Messianic Expectations
Beyond prophecies of a Davidic messiah, Jesus also fulfilled prophet passages in Isaiah depicting the servant of the Lord who would suffer and die on behalf of his people (Isaiah 52-53; Mark 10:45; 15:27-28). Other expectations Jesus matched include:
- Being born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23)
- Being preceded by a messenger (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:2-8)
- Entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:2-11)
- Being betrayed by a friend (Psalm 41:9; Luke 22:47-48)
- Being crucified with thieves (Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 27:38)
Jesus and the apostles frequently appealed to such connections between Jesus’ life and ministry and the Old Testament prophecies to demonstrate that he was the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39-40; Acts 3:18; 13:27).
This evidence of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic expectations was a key part of the early Christian proclamation about him (Acts 5:42; 17:2-3).
The Title of Christ in Early Christian Usage
New Testament Depictions of Jesus as Christ
The New Testament frequently refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus” to identify him as the promised Messiah (Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah). Jesus is first called Christ at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, indicating that early Christians already considered this part of his name and identity.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is referenced as Christ in narration, dialogue, and Jesus’ own words. This indicates the early development of “Christ” as part of Jesus’ name and identity. By the end of the 1st century AD, Christians commonly referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” in writing, such as the letters of Paul.
Emergence of Christ as Part of Jesus’ Name
In the generations after Jesus’ death, “Christ” went from being a title applied to Jesus by early Christians to part of his name. The book of Acts shows this transition occurring. In Acts 2:38, Peter says “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Here, Christ is used not as a title but alongside Jesus as part of his full name. Throughout Acts, Jesus is most often referred to as “the Lord Jesus” or “the Lord Jesus Christ,” showing Christ becoming fixed as part of his name.
By the late 1st and early 2nd century, Christian writers consistently used the name/title “Jesus Christ” when referring to him, cementing it as his name. So within decades of Jesus’ ministry, Christ was established as part of his essential name and identity within the Christian movement.
Christ Becomes Part of Common Parlance
Standard Reference to Jesus Christ in Christian Theology
Jesus Christ has become the standard way to refer to Jesus in Christian theology and culture. The name combines his given Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua) with the Greek term Christos (Messiah), meaning “anointed one.”
This dual name communicates Jesus’ human and divine natures as understood in orthodox Christianity.
Theologians typically use the term “Jesus Christ” to refer specifically to the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. Scripture presents Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the coming redeemer of Israel.
The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament depicts the early church calling upon the name of Jesus Christ and baptizing converts in his name.
The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, foundational statements of Christian belief, both refer to “Jesus Christ” as essential to the faith. Church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch bore the name Jesus Christ in their own names to identify with the Savior.
Today, Jesus Christ remains the cornerstone of Christian doctrine, worship, ethics and mission.
Widespread Use of Jesus Christ in Culture at Large
Beyond formal theology, Jesus Christ has become embedded in culture and language. The terms “Jesus Christ” or “Christ” appear across literature, music, film, television, products and speech. Here are some examples of the widespread cultural use of this name:
- Exclamations like “Jesus Christ!” and “Christ almighty!” are common in English. This demonstrates how the divine name has become intertwined with everyday language.
- Many businesses and products incorporate Jesus Christ in their names and slogans, like Christ Hospital or Christ Candle Company. Some brands reference Christ in cheeky or irreverent ways.
- Films focusing on Jesus have entered popular culture, including Jesus Christ Superstar, The Passion of the Christ, and The Chosen. These portrayals range from inspirational to controversial.
- The names Jesus and Christ appear frequently across music genres, from Christian worship songs to classic rock. U2 has a popular song called “Jesus Christ” praising the Savior.
- Authors incorporate Christ into literature ranging from sacred writing to science fiction. C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia series concludes with The Last Battle, featuring a lion representing Jesus Christ.
Regardless of one’s own religious beliefs, it’s hard to escape the prevalence of Jesus Christ in the arts, media, language and products we encounter each day. The billions of Christians across the globe ensure that this name remains firmly rooted within worldwide culture.
In conclusion, the name Christ became indelibly attached to Jesus of Nazareth through the belief among his earliest followers that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Christ originated as a Greek translation of the Hebrew term for Messiah, crystallizing the idea of Jesus as the anointed leader that the Old Testament prophets had foretold.
Over time, Jesus Christ emerged as the proper name of the founder of one of the world’s great religions. The title of Christ remains central to Christian theology while also entering common parlance and name recognition around the world.