Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3b

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post surveyed the range of arguments over whether Paul uses the word “Christ” (χριστός) as a personal name for Jesus or as a title. The answer to the question has implications for Paul’s Christology and theology. (Did he view Jesus as a messianic figure in the traditional Jewish sense or not?) I also suspect the question has implications for the more radical question of Christian origins (Novenson does not address this broader topic, however) and whether or not the earliest concept of the Christian Christ is compatible with an itinerant Galilean teacher and/or healer, or to what extent, the original Christian Christ figure matched contemporary messianic understandings and how best to account for this match/non-match?

Earlier posts in this series examined how Jews of Paul’s era did understand and write about the “messiah”, and we saw Novenson’s conclusion that the concept revolved around a small subset of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures and a limited range of syntactical expressions.

This post concludes an outline of chapter 3 in Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs, Names, Titles, and Other Possibilities. Having covered the arguments fueling the debate over whether Paul used χριστός as a name or a title, we conclude here with Novenson’s own argument for how Paul understood and used the word.


Christ as an Honorific

Novenson does find a naming category that he believes is “just right” for the way Paul uses χριστός. The trouble is the particular category has been hidden beneath a range of other widely varying modern concepts:

Nickname is not the appropriate ancient Greek onomastic category for Paul’s χριστός, but there is such a category, namely the honorific. Unfortunately, this category goes under a confusing variety of names in the secondary literature, including at least honorific, title, epithet, surname, and cult name. Historians use these various terms to denote the illustrious second terms added to the personal names of certain public figures. Perhaps the best-known example is provided by the Hellenistic kings, whom we typically designate by Roman numerals denoting their order of succession (e.g. Antiochus I, II, III). They and their contemporaries, however, instead used a system of honorific second names. (pp. 87-88)

We speak today of Alexander the Great but “Great” was never his honorific title in his own lifetime. Alexander’s successors (The Diadochi) in Syria and Egypt, however, did regularly use honorifics. Thus we have in the Seleucid empire:

  • Seleucus [I] the Victor
  • Antiochus [I] the Saviour
  • Antiochus [III] the Great
  • Antiochus [IV] [God] Manifest (Epiphanes)

And in Egypt:

  • Ptolemy [I] the Saviour (Soter)
  • Ptolemy [III] the Benefactor
  • Ptolemy [V] [God] Manifest
  • Ptolemy [XIII] the Father-loving God

Like Greek secondary names generally (see the part 3a) the added name could sometimes be introduced by a phrase such as “who is called” — thus distinguishing the secondary name from the personal name and official title.

Thus the title of Antiochus IV — as attested on his coins — was “king”. But in the literature he could variously be named as Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. 1:10) or “the God Manifest”/Epiphanes Antiochus (Josephus, JW, 5.460). Antiochus V Eupator (“of a noble father”) was sometimes named Antiochus Eupator (2 Macc. 13:1) and other times as Eupator Antiochus (2 Macc. 10:10) or simply Antiochus (1 Macc. 7:2) or equally simply, Eupator (1 Macc. 6:17; 2 Macc. 10:13). His title, however, was “king”.

When was such an honorific bestowed? In the case of King Antiochus V it was bestowed at his accession to the throne (on the death of his father). In this case it was the caretaker of the young king (he was a minor) who bestowed the name. (See Maccabees 6)

The same convention applied to the primary antagonist of Epiphanes, Judah Maccabee. Judah the son of Mattathias, during the course of his revolt against the Seleucids, applied to himself the honorific Maccabee (hammer) as an indicator of his military victories. Subsequently this Judah was sometimes referred to as “Judah who is called Maccabee” (see post Part 3a), or as Judah Maccabee, or Judah, or simply Maccabee.

Simon (or Shimon) bar Kosiba (known by this birth name from documentary and numismatic records) led the second Jewish revolt against Rome in the 130s. He took the name “bar Kokhba”, meaning “son of the star”, as a messianic reference to Numbers 24:17. Hostile rabbinic literature always twists this honorific into “bar/ben Kozeba”, meaning “Liar”. Bar Kokhba, “Son of the Star”, was his honorific name, but not his title. If asked for his title this Simon would say it was “prince over Israel”, at least according to the coins and papyri.

In the rabbinic literature, however, he is referred to as “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “King Messiah” (Aramaic). “Bar Kokhba” is thus neither a personal name nor a title, but an honorific, a name not given at birth but bestowed upon him on a special occasion.

Novenson writes of the Jewish convention we see here with Maccabee and Bar Kokhba:

It is clear, however, that Jewish honorifics like Maccabee and Bar Kokhba are for the most part a linguistic convention held in common with other antique civilizations, not one unique to Judaism. This observation is apt in light of a strand in the secondary literature that would connect Paul’s χριστός very closely to Semitic parallels rather than Greek ones. (p. 92, my bolded fonts)


Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel

Martin Hengel informs us that it was not unusual in Semitic cultures, in the context of religious terminology, to transform titles into proper names. That is the origin of:

  • Satan – from Job where the name of the demon is adversary
  • Mastema — from Jubilees and meaning enemy or hatred
  • Belial — from 1QM, meaning ruin or destroyer

Latin honorifics closer to Paul’s own time are also well attested. We are familiar with the first emperor of Rome, originally named Gaus Octavius Thurinus. He incorporated Julius Caesar’s name into his own when Julius Caesar adopted him as his son to be known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

On his accession to power after the assassination of his adopted father, he took the title of imperator (till then a victory title for successful commanders) as his personal name (or praenomen). He even dropped his gens/tribal name of “Julius” and had himself known by the name of Imperator Caesar divi filius.

After Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra he took the name of Augustus, and was from that time on increasingly known as Caesar Augustus. J. A. Crook in the Cambridge Ancient History attempted to convey the full significance of this development:

“On 16th January [27 B.C.E.] Caesar was heaped with new honours proposed by his adherents, above all with the name “Augustus”; and that was a fantastic novelty, the impact of which is blunted for us by two millennia of calling him by that name. No human person had been called it before, and its symbolic range was very large. The sources preserve a tale that Caesar, or some of his advisors, or both, had first thought of “Romulus.” Some scholars doubt, others think that Augustus was a second-best imposed by the strength of the opposition; but it came to the same thing.” (p. 94, Crook quoted by Novenson)

Romulus? We all know Romulus was a proper name. And for Novenson the analogy here is critical. Whatever the facts of the debates that led to the adoption of Augustus, we can see that Augustus, as a possible alternative to Romulus, was not a mere title. So this Divi Filius, Son of God, took the name Imperator Caesar Augustus.

The force of the new name . . . was no doubt felt by Octavian’s subjects, as it was surely intended to be. (p. 94)

Novenson identifies a feature a peculiarity that would seem to support his thesis. We know that names then (as now) are often transliterated across languages. So the Roman Flavius would be known to the Greeks as Flavios.

But note what happens with Augustus. Yes, the Roman Augustus was frequently transliterated as Augustos. But, and here is the significant point, equally often the meaning of the name “augustus” would be translated into the equivalent Greek word to refer to the emperor. Augustus = Venerable = (in Greek) Sebastos. So to the Greeks Augustus could just as well be known and named as Sebastos/Venerable. In Luke 2:1 we read of Caesar Augustus while in Acts 25:21 we read “emperor” for the Greek word “sebastos” in connection with Caesar.

The same custom is found in the case of “Christ”. The Hebrew Messiah is sometimes transliterated into the Greek, Μεσσίας, as in John 1:41 and 4:25. But the more common habit was to translate this name — into the Greek χριστός.

Novenson’s conclusion

Paul’s use of χριστός is not idiosyncratic. It is neither a proper name nor a title. But that does not mean it is an innovation. It is an honorific — a category known and understood throughout Paul’s world.

Honorifics, which are amply attested in Greek, Latin and Hebrew in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, were typically born by rulers. (p. 95, my highlighting)

  • Honorifics were not bestowed at birth. They were taken by the ruler, or bestowed upon him, either on the occasion of a military victory or assumption of power.
  • Honorifics were not proper nouns. They were common nouns or adjectives, such as star, hammer, saviour, manifest, august, anointed.
  • Honorifics could be used with a person’s proper name or they could stand alone to identify the person.
  • Honorifics were not uniquely Semitic but known and used and translated throughout the Mediterranean world.

It is not coincidental that these are the various features of Paul’s use of χριστός that have so vexed his modern interpreters. (p. 96)

Novenson makes clear he is not the first to have suggested the analogy between Paul’s use of χριστός and Greek honorifics. But he does think he is the first to have built a systematic argument for this classification. Before him, Martin Hengel comes closest to acknowledging the fullness of Novenson’s case:

“The traditional form of the name ὁ κυρίος Ἰησοῦ Χριστός [Lord Jesus Christ] . . . has a similar form to that of the Roman ruler . . . or Hellenistic kings . . . [In that form] Jesus was the real proper name. ‘Christos’ the cognomen and ‘Kyrios’ the title.” (p. 96, quoting Hengel, my emphasis)

Title Name Cognomen
Κυρίος (Lord)

Ἰησοῦς (Jesus)

Χριστός (Christ)

Βασιλεύς (King)

Πτολεμαῖος (Ptolemy)

Σωτήρ (Saviour)

Βασιλεύς (King)

Αντίοχος (Antiochus)

Ἐπιφανής ([God] Manifest)

Αὐτοκράτωρ (Imperator/Emperor)

Καίσαρ (Caesar)

Σεβαστός (Venerable)

Imperator (Emperor)


Augustus (Venerable)


Problems with the details of Hengel’s model

The above table sets out Martin Hengel’s model. The category of cognomen, Novenson reminds us, is not strictly correct:

  1. It assumes a Roman tria nomina –– a form of name Paul never uses for Jesus. Hellenistic kings (Ptolemy and Antiochus) do not use this Roman form of name, either.
  2. It also assumes Roman citizenship.
  3. Though Imperator (Αὐτοκράτωρ) was originally a title it became a real praenomen in the case of Augustus.

However, if we set aside the peculiar strictures of the Roman system and use the corresponding Greek categories instead—titles, personal names, and honorifics—then the analogy is actually quite close. (p. 97)

Hengel himself expressed frustration with all the available categories for “Christos”:

“In fact ‘Christos’ seems to be a word with a character all its own. It was neither one name among many, like Jesus, nor was it a customary Greek title, an honorific designation like βασιλεύς, κυρίος or δεσπότης. . . . [Instead] Χριστός expresses the ‘inalienable uniqueness’ of Jesus.” (p. 97, quoting Hengel)

Novenson agrees with what Hengel denies but disagrees with what he affirms:

It is true that χριστός in Paul is neither a personal name nor a title, but it does not follow that it is sui generis. If Paul intends to express the inalienable uniqueness of Jesus, he does not do so by using an unparalleled onomastic category. Paul’s χριστός is an honorific, and it works according to the syntactical rules that govern that onomastic category. That is to say, Paul’s χριστός differs in kind, not in evolutionary stage, from names on the one hand and titles on the other. (p. 97, my highlighting)

Novenson further notes that his argument has a point of contact with Horbury’s thesis (outlined in Part 2 of this series) that the Hellenistic ruler cult influenced the development of Jewish messianism and its Christian counterpart. Horbury, however, does not comment on the linguistic analogy between the names of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors and the names of Jesus, and Novenson sees his own argument as being independent from Horbury’s.

Future posts in this series will bring the points of this and previous posts together as they are applied to some of the specific instances of Paul’s use of χριστός. We will see how χριστός in Paul did indeed conform to the contemporary Jewish understanding of “messiah” language.


. . . to be continued

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