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The Origin of the Word ‘Christ’
There’s a World of Difference between ‘Christ’ and the Greek ‘Christos’
by Dr. B. Brandon Scott
At the heart of Christian belief lies Jesus Christ, and Christology names a major branch of Christian theology. While Christology asks what Christ means, my interest is different. What is the origin of the word ‘Christ’ and what does that tell us?
The Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (CHRISTOS) translates the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ, (māšīyaḥ), anglicized as Messiah, which means “anointed with oil.” Hebrew kings, prophets, and priests were anointed with oil. Messiah became a word for ‘the king,’ and in later Hebrew traditions it designated the king to come who will save conquered Israel. Messianic expectations were widespread and varied in late Hebrew writings (post 200 BCE). Some groups, like the Essenes, associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, expected two Messiahs: a Messiah of David and a Messiah of Aaron. Other Jews had no messianic expectation.
In Greek christos means “oil” or “oiled” or “covered in oil.” Anointing in the Greek world was associated with bathing and athletics, not kings. A whole class of statues called apoxyomenos (the scraper) depicted the anointing of the athlete.
Greek speaking Jews first translated the Hebrew Messiah as christos, making it a technical term. Psalm 2:2 is a good example.
The kings of the earth stood side by side,
and the rulers gathered together,
against the Lord (YHWH) and against his christos (Messiah-anointed).
Translating christos as Anointed instead of Christ makes a difference in the interpretation of Paul’s letters. 1 Corinthians 1:23 illustrates this.
but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (NIV).
Traditionally the doctrine of atonement has determined the interpretation of this verse:
Christ died for our sins is the stumbling block.
Now my translation:
We proclaim the g-d (of Israel’s) Anointed (Messiah) CRUCIFIED!! an offense to Judeans, nonsense to the nations.
This translation brings out the Hebrew dimension of Paul’s proclamation. The Romans crucified the g-d of Israel’s Messiah. Paul’s proclamation immediately raises the question, how can Jesus be the Messiah if Rome crucified him? The Messiah, g-d’s anointed king, should defeat his enemies, not be defeated by them. That is why Paul’s message is offensive and nonsense. This translation reveals a very different understanding of Paul than the traditional theological understanding of atonement.
Since Greeks crowned their kings with a laurel wreath, how would Paul’s non-Jewish converts have understood “anointed” in Greek??
- Paul’s converts who followed Judaism would have understood.
- Those who did not follow Judaism would need instruction.
- Without instruction, the non-Jewish converts would not have understood Paul’s allusion to the anointed. This group would have understood iēsous christos as “Jesus oiled,” mostly nonsensical.
The scandal of calling christos, the ‘Messiah of Israel,’ increased after two major Jewish revolts or wars in 68-70 and 132. Rome was on the alert for any resistance from groups associated in anyway with Israel.
With the move to Latin, the translators decided not to translate christos into Latin, but to transliterate it as christus, indicating they think it is a proper name or title. Translation involves finding a word in the target language with the same or similar meaning as the originating language. Transliteration involves transposing the letters of the original into the corresponding letters of the target language.
For example, the translation of the Latin arbor into English is ‘tree.’ The transliteration of the Latin arbor into English is ‘arbor,’ as “Arbor Day Celebration.” Initially a transliterated word sounds foreign and often the original meaning mutates or is lost. ‘Rodeo’ in English is a transliteration from the Spanish rodeo which means a corral. ‘Rodeo’ in English means a ‘roundup’ or “a public performance featuring bronco riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, and Brahma bull riding.” (“Rodeo.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.)
The transliterated Christus in Latin was later transliterated into English as ‘Christ.’ As the original meaning is lost, the word can come to mean a whole variety of things. Christus and ‘Christ’ became increasingly disassociated from ‘Anointed’ or ‘Messiah’ and became a Christological title or even a part of Jesus’s name. This process had already begun in Greek-speaking Christianity. By the third century the Jewish roots of the title christos were becoming a faded memory, and with that, its political overtones as a threat to the Roman empire were submerged.
This opened up a wide Christological avenue. The notion of Christ Almighty (Christos Pantokratōr) dominated the later Greek Christian mindset. This icon from Hagia Sophia (ancient Constantinople, modern Istanbul) is the classic example of Christ Almighty.
The shifts from ‘Messiah,’ to christos, to christus, to ‘Christ’ were momentous. In the process, the root meaning of g-d’s anointed king was forfeited and with that several things were lost.
- Connection to Hebrew and Jewish roots.
- The notion of political resistance to empire.
- Paul’s notion that proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah is offensive and nonsensical.
- Connection to the Jesus of history.
The gain, if such it be, was the whole rich development of Christology’s search for who Jesus is.
I’m not a scholar just a 50-year student of the KJV and of Christian Science theology, which emphasizes the resurrection as the point at which the disciples finally rose and faithfully fulfilled their holy purpose, among other things that tie directly to CS theology.
The Jews had their moment with Jesus and decided to kill him, thereby passing the torch of enlightened opportunity from their faith tradition. Having said that, the Father of their faith, Moses and the prophets cannot be severed from Christianity. I see myself as a descendent of the children of Israel, the tribe of Judah. I relate to the struggles, perils and triumphs they experienced.
What Jesus said (John 14-17 ish) about the relationship of believers in him (Christ, God’s anointed) to God must have been paralyzingly threatening to egotistical, power-craving humans who wanted to be in charge instead.
Translation: the spiritual idea of man (Gen 1:31) is one with Christ in God or “hid with Christ in God.” (No need for intermediaries be they priest or emperor or temple or otherwise.)
And so a twisted power-hungry bastardizarion of Jesus’ pure messages was after politicized and militarized in Greece and Rome. Problems that plague state-affiliated churches today.
Other modern-day “Christian” churches followed – hallowing the personalities of their founders by name – slaughtering each other and “infidels” – shattering the holy declaration of “my church” singular that Jesus confirmed upon Peter’s declaration.
I’m not sure what the problem is with the resurrection that you wrote your book about, but the above material you wrote juxtaposing translation and transliteration makes sense to my understanding.
Jesus was Jewish, so your translation of Paul’s proclamation makes perfect sense to my understanding.
Neither moral weakness (Pilate), nor murderous mobs and armies, nor self-serving emperors and televangelists, nor all the personality cult factions that arose ever since have successfully co-opted the one church Christ declared.
That church door is open to anyone who believes
what Peter believed and staked his mortal life on. We stake our lives on it as well. We have some understanding of life eternal as the resurrection demonstrated.
Perhaps your book that I haven’t read proves that there’s a problem with the resurrection- like maybe it never happened? Or it’s fiction as written and gnostic gospels hold the “truth.”
If the problem relates more to how the emperor bastardized the unbroken spiritual reality that Christ demonstrated, I look even more forward to reading it.
Meanwhile I pay most attention to what Christ Jesus did and said, according to KJV and happily translated into multiple translations by multiple men and at least one woman.
Warm regards for your work, for Westar and for all it scholars.
Good day, sir
After reading your article on the “Christological Christ”, I thought you might be interested in the articel found here: https://jayroderickblog.wordpress.com/2022/10/05/antichrist/
christos means oiled in ancient greek ? oh…
I always knew there was something wrong with Christianity and that the Christ that they talked about was not the last name of Yeshua and I think you for your article because it is a great article God bless you