Why Is Jesus Called Christ?
The word ‘Christ’ is fundamental to our understanding of the Savior and his Gospel. More than simply differentiating the Lord from others who might share the name Jesus, Christ is the term that defines his followers and his religion. Christians, Christianity, Christendom — even the word Christmas is built on Christ as its root. But despite how ingrained this term is in our collective consciousness, many people are not fully aware of its significance or meaning.
Here, we discuss the origins of the word Christ, and how understanding it can help us better know Jesus himself.
Not a Last Name
In most modern cultures, it’s common for individuals to have at least two names: a given name (or forename), and a family name (or surname). But this has not always been the case. In fact, until relatively recently, established surnames have historically been extremely rare.
Instead, in many parts of the world and through most of history, individuals had only one name. If further distinction was needed, they would follow that name with the name of their father. So, to make a modern comparison, a man named Thomas who has a father named Erik might be called Thomas, son of Erik, or Thomas Erikson (a naming convention that has partially survived through Scandinavian and Germanic languages). Following this patronymic convention, Jesus would likely have been known to his community as Jesus (or Yeshua) bar Yosef, or son of Joseph (Luke 4:22; John 6:42).
But this carries with it certain problems. For one thing, we know that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son. And although Joseph was a righteous and worthy father, it’s important to acknowledge Jesus’ divine lineage. Many scriptural historians believe that Jesus was known to his faithful followers as Jesus bar Abbas, or Jesus, son of the Father (God).
So why is it that we so often refer to him as Jesus Christ? Where did the name ‘Christ’ come from?
Christ Name Meaning?
If Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name, then what is it? What does the name Christ mean? Well, despite how it’s commonly used, Christ isn’t actually a name at all; it’s a title. And, to further complicate matters, it’s a title in a language that the majority of Jesus’ original followers may not have spoken.
Most of us know that the New Testament as we have it today has gone through many different translations. But even if we were to have access to the very first manuscripts of the Gospels and the scriptures that followed, we would still be reading a language other than the one in which the Savior taught. That’s because much of the New Testament was actually written in Greek.
And this is where we first encounter the word Christ.
Jesus’ followers during his mortal ministry recognized him as a prophet, but his true mission was so much more. Jesus was nothing less than the promised Messiah, whose coming had been foretold and looked forward to throughout Israelite history. More than that, he was destined to be the Savior and Redeemer of all humanity, not just the covenant people of Israel. How then could this truth be acknowledged in the scriptures that would tell his story? By referring to Jesus as the Christ.
The word Christ as we know it today is a Middle English word, derived from the Latin word Christus, which in turn was adopted from the Greek Christos. Christos means “Anointed One.” In ancient Judaism, as described in the Old Testament, oil was used as a symbolic gesture of setting apart or consecrating an individual to a great work. By having oil placed on their head, the individual was said to be anointed, signifying that they were ordained to fulfill a special role. Priests and kings were among those anointed with oil.
Why Is Jesus Called the Christ?
Thus, Jesus’ most widely known title takes many meanings. It refers directly to the fact that his purpose was established for him long before he was born in a manger in Bethlehem. He was ‘anointed’ to be the Savior of the world, as described by the Apostle Peter when he said “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:38). Christ is also synonymous with Messiah, which also means “anointed,” but that carries with it additional meaning to readers who recognize that the Messiah’s mission is to save his people. Finally and perhaps most interestingly, Christ is a word in Greek — a Gentile language — symbolizing that the gospel itself would spread well beyond the cultural borders of Ancient Israel. Jesus’ title, like his mission, is one that is inclusive of everyone.
What We Can Learn from the Word Christ
As we study the life of the Savior, it’s always beneficial to recognize that he was more than just a philosopher or a leader; he was God’s love for his children made manifest. He came to earth to guide us by his perfect example, to show us how we should live our lives and serve one another, and finally to die as a sacrifice to free us from our mistakes. As such, it’s fitting that his title should come to represent him as much as his given name. Jesus Christ was and is the anointed one, and understanding his mission is perhaps the most important way we can better understand him.
Want to learn more about Jesus and the world of the New Testament? Watch The Chosen, and experience Christ’s mission for yourself.