Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3a

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by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we saw how Matthew Novenson in Christ among the Messiahs showed that

there were certain linguistic conventions in Jewish antiquity whereby a speaker or writer could refer meaningfully to the concept of a messiah by alluding to a small but significant group of scriptural texts.

This post looks at the question of discovering what word “messiah” itself meant, or what role a messiah was thought to have, among ancient authors and with special reference to Paul.

One approach to interpretation is to note the frequency with which the word is used. It is significant, says Novenson, that 1 and 2 Maccabees never use messiah language with reference to Judah Maccabee or his brothers, that the Epistle of James uses the word only twice (1:1 and 2:1) and the Gospel of Thomas not at all. Paul’s seven “undisputed” letters contain 270 instances of the word. This total is

more than he uses any other word for Jesus and more than any other ancient Jewish author uses that word. (p. 64)

So was Paul really “the most messianically interested of any ancient Jewish or Christian author”? Did he really mean “messiah” in any traditional Jewish sense or was it mainly a personal name he applied to Jesus?


The Name-versus-Title Debate

If Paul used the word Christ as a title for Jesus then we may understand Paul as having a messianic Christological view. If he used it only as a personal name, however, then we may conclude that he had no such Christology and the word had no particular or traditional messianic meaning.

Most scholars have come down on the side of the latter argument — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name,

and that consequently the messiahship of Jesus plays little or no role in Paul’s thought . . . It follows, then, that for Paul “the Christian message does not hinge, at least primarily, on the claim that Jesus was or is the Messiah.” In fact, for Paul, “the Messiahship of Jesus is simply not an issue.” (p. 65, quoting MacRae, also Hare, Kramer, Dahl)

A minority of scholars, including N. T. Wright, have taken the contrary view and argued that Paul used the term as a title and that the messiashship of Jesus “lies at the very heart of his theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.”

But Novenson identifies problems with the terms being debated. The debaters themselves have noted them but have paid little heed to them, writes Novenson.

Nils Dahl, the most important twentieth-century advocate for taking χριστός in Paul as a proper name, actually qualifies his argument at a crucial point. He writes that although χριστός in Paul is a proper name, “it is not a colorless proper name, however, but an honorific designation, whose content is supplied by the person and work of Jesus Christ.” A name, but not a colorless one. The caveat depends, of course, on the assumption that names are generally colorless but titles are colorful; therefore, Dahl has to make room for a different kind of name, a name that is not colorless. Similarly, Udo Schnelle accepts the name-versus-title rubric but is unable to conclude on one side or the other: “For Paul, Χριστός Ἰησοῦς is a titular name, both title and name. . . . When combined with Ἰησοῦς, Χριστός is thus to be understood as a cognomen (surname) that also always has the overtones of its original titular significance.” (p. 67, my emphasis)

Because interpreters have had to invent or invoke awkward concepts like “not colorless names” and “titular names” Novenson believes there is something wrong with the terms of the question itself. Two things wrong, actually:

  1. there has been a faulty assumption about what names and titles are and how they work;
  2. there has been a faulty assumption that names and titles were the only categories available to Paul


How Names and Titles Mean

Otto Jespersen

The first mistake has been to assume that while titles convey significant information about a person names do not. In actual fact the difference between names and titles is relative, not absolute. The evidence for this understanding is the way names can become titles and titles can become names.

They are not, in fact, altogether different kinds of words. On the contrary:

No sharp line can be drawn between common and proper names, the difference being one of degree rather than kind. . . . (p. 70, quoting Jespersen)

I am skipping over Novenson’s more detailed argument which relies heavily upon the thought of renowned Danish linguist Otto Jespersen. Novenson points out that the present majority opinion among students of ancient Greek onomastics (e.g. Michael Crawford, Anna Morpurgo Davies, Anne Thompson, Peter M. Fraser) is that this rule does apply to Greek nomenclature from the classical through to the late antique period. The evidence is in Homer, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Plautus to Pliny the Elder and Donatus among others. To illustrate, while our names like Blackstone, Greenhill, Browning, are long divorced from their geographic roots and are nothing more than surnames for us, there is evidence that in ancient Greek society these sorts of names had not lost their original meaning-impact, that the meanings of the names had a deeper psychological impact upon the ancient Greeks than they do with us.

[I]t is . . . clear that many ancient Greek names did, in actual use, connote certain attributes of their bearers. As Steve Mason has observed in a context nearer to Paul, “Orators—and Josephus—did not forfeit their right to exploit the literal meaning of someone’s name for the purpose of word-play, whether friendly or hostile.” In sum, in linguistics generally and in ancient Greek in particular, it is not the case that titles “mean” while proper names merely “refer.” In fact, there were a variety of conventions in ancient Greek whereby certain types of names could connote things. The problem of χριστός in Paul cannot be solved simply by ruling in favor of either name or title. A more thorough account of ancient Greek naming is necessary. (p. 72, my emphasis)


Other Onomastic Possibilities

Modern speakers of English and German too quickly conclude that Paul’s use of χριστός must have been either a name or a title. Naming conventions in ancient Greek contained much richer possibilities.

Greek names

A single name was the norm for Greeks. Names could be simple or compound, identical with either a noun or an adjective, and open to a wide range of variations with the additions of suffixes. Compound names could appear in either order. Some names could have as many as 50 different forms.

Names could also be either theophoric (deriving from the name of a god — Dionysius, Kleonumos) or secular. The latter could derive from a host of sources: animals (Leontiskos, lion), weapons, body parts, plants, rivers, leadership, militarism, civic organization, saving or defending, strength, beauty or nobility, honor, reputation, abstract nouns, even undesirable physical characteristics.

In addition to these personal names was the patronymic, the father’s name that could be used for identification on certain occasions.

Then there was the “demotic” or name that identified the deme (civic region) of a person in cities that were organized that way.

When a person was abroad he could bear an ethnic name that identified his home city or region.

Paul’s χριστός, if it is a Greek name, is patently not a birth name, a patronym, an ethnic, or a demotic. It may be, then, that it falls somewhere within [a] category of secondary names. (p. 75)

These “secondary names” are distinct from the above class of names in that they are neither personal nor family nor geographical. They were usually flagged when used by an expression such as “who is called” (ὁ ἐπικαλούμενος) — as in Simon, who is called Peter (Acts 10:18). (Excuse this Semitic example to illustration is a Greek practice; it is mine, not Novenson’s). They could be applied to “public figures such a politicians, courtesans, and kings”. They were nicknames (the person was always acknowledged by a single name) and were not handed down in the family. Novenson will return to the possibility that Paul’s χριστός was such a name.

Jewish names

Tal Ilan classifies Jewish names of the Hellenistic and Roman periods as follows:

  1. biblical names
  2. Greek names
  3. Latin names
  4. Persian names
  5. nonbiblical Semitic names in Hebrew characters
  6. non biblical Semitic names in Greek characters

In Palestine the most popular names were names of the Hasmonean dynasty — Simon, Judah, Eleazar for males, “with just two names — Mariam and Salome — accounting for some 48 percent of all female names in the corpus.” Hellenistic monarchs who visited or resided in the east found their names being widely used, too: Alexander, Antigonus, Antiochus, Ptolemy, Philip, Bernice, Cleopatra.

Second names were not common among Palestinian Jews in the period under discussion, but Roman influence meant they were not unknown. Ilan provides the following types of second names:

  1. Patronyms and papponyms (e.g. Bar Timaeus)
  2. Geographic names (e.g. Eleazar of Narot)
  3. Sectarian affiliations (e.g. Simon the Zealot)
  4. Hebrew-Greek translation equivalents (e.g. Thomas Didymus)
  5. Biblical name plus Greek second name (e.g. Judah Aristobulus)
  6. Biblical name plus Latin second name (e.g. Saul Paul)
  7. Given name plus nickname (e.g. Eleazar Goliath)
  8. Titles that are used as second names (e.g. the elder, the younger, father, mother, the priest (Cohen))

Of course the last listed is the one of most interest for our investigation into the meaning of χριστός for Paul.

Alternative names were much less common among Diaspora Jews.

Roman names

Freeborn male Roman citizens followed the tria nomina convention:

  1. praenomen (the personal name)
  2. nomen/gentilicium (the clan name)
  3. cognomen (approximating our family name or surname)

Some people acquired a second cognomen, really a nickname (agnomen). Thus the third emperor of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar, took on the name “Little Boots”, Caligula. Other such nicknames: Pius (“virtuous”); Superbus (“haughty”); Pulcher (“handsome”).

A special form of nickname was the victory title. Such a title was an honorific identifying the place-name where a successful campaign had been fought. Examples: Africanus, Britannicus, Germanicus.

Roman influence led to inconsistent variations in naming practices among Greeks and others. Jews remained very little influenced since so few of them became Roman citizens. Some Greeks, on becoming Roman citizens, took a Roman form name while retaining their original Greek name as a second cognomen. But practices varied widely and sometimes creatively.


Personal Names in Paul

If Paul did refer to Jesus with a real double name, it would be a striking exception to Paul’s own general practice. In the seven undisputed letters, Paul names some fifty-five people, and he almost invariably uses a single personal name for each, never an alternate name or a combined name. (pp. 80-81)

Contrast the Book of Acts where one reads double names quite often:

  • Sergius Paulus
  • Titius Justus
  • Claudius Lysias
  • Porcius Festus
  • Tabitha Dorcas (Aramaic-Greek double name)
  • John Mark (Hebrew-Latin double name)
  • Simeon called Niger (i.e. nickname)
  • Lucius of Cyrene (i.e. an ethnic name)

Compare Paul’s names:

  • Phoebe
  • Prisca
  • Aquila
  • Epenetus
  • Mary
  • Andronicus
  • Junia
  • Ampliatus
  • Urbanus
  • Stachys
  • Apelles
  • Aristobulus
  • Herodian
  • Narcissus
  • Tryphena
  • Tryphosa
  • Persis
  • Rufus
  • Asyncritus
  • Phlegon
  • Hermes
  • Patrobas
  • Hermas
  • Philologus
  • Julia
  • Nereus
  • Olympas
  • Timothy
  • Lucius
  • Jason
  • Sosipater
  • Sosthenes
  • Chloe
  • Apollos
  • Stephanus
  • Barnabas
  • James
  • Fortunatus
  • Achaicus
  • Silvanus
  • Titus
  • Aretas
  • John
  • Epaphroditus
  • Euodia
  • Syntyche
  • Philemon
  • Apphia
  • Archippus
  • Onesimus
  • Epaphras
  • Demas
  • Aristarchus
  • Luke
  • Cephas
  • Peter (if the same as Cephas, note Paul never uses the two names as a double-name)

As for titles, Paul uses them very rarely:

  • 1 Cor. 11:32 — an unnamed ethnarch or governor
  • 1 Cor. 11:32 — Aretas “the king”
  • Rom. 16:2 — Phoebe, patron
  • Rom 16:23 — Erastus, quaestor(?)
  • Phil. 4:22 — Caesar’s household — “Caesaris” is functionally a title of the office, “emperor”, in this context
  • Rom 16:1 — deacon
  • Rom 16:7, Gal 1:19 — apostle

Wayne Meeks has explained Paul’s consistent use of Greek single names — mostly in greetings — as the language of “fictive kinship”. Compare Paul calling himself a father of his churches, and all members as brethren.

So if “Jesus Christ” were a real double name in Paul’s letters

then it would be the only instance of a double name anywhere in his letters. This fact does not decide the question, but it does raise further doubts about the majority opinion that takes χριστός in Paul as a straightforward second name. (p. 84)


Christ as a Nickname?

If χριστός in Paul is neither quite a name nor quite a title, a few have argued that it is really a form of agnomen or nickname. Thus A. E. Harvey (1980) suggested that χριστός was not first attached to Jesus after his death but during his lifetime. In support he points to Mathew 1:16; 27:17, 22 where we read

“Jesus called Anointed”.

Harvey reaches his conclusion by comparing this form of name with

Simon called Rock (Matt. 10:2)

Thomas called Twin (John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2)

Jesus called Just (Col. 4:11)

Of course he is looking at the Greek — ὁ λεγόμενος — behind the English translations I am using.

So just as other persons were given nicknames (Rock, Twin, Just One) by their contemporaries in response to a particular quality or characteristic they saw in them, so people who knew Jesus in Galilee gave him the nickname of Christ. Such a nickname would explain, Harvey reasons, Paul’s lacklustre use of the word “Christ” — neither as a real personal name nor as a title.

The argument rests especially on a controversial claim about what χριστός would have suggested to Jesus’ contemporaries, namely, not an eschatological royal son of David (“Messiah”) but rather the range of functions attributed to the figure who is “anointed by the Lord” in the songs of Second Isaiah. (p. 84)

That is, Jesus’ contemporaries would have nicknamed Jesus χριστός because, as per Isaiah’s anointed one, he taught liberty and healed people.

But as we saw in the previous post in this series, the concept of messiah to the Jews of this period necessarily embraced a Jewish king to arise and usher in a new age. We have no reason to think that among the Jews of the day that χριστός would have conjured up the concept of one who was known only for preaching and healing. Yes, Luke 4:16-21 does make such a connection

but it is not attested widely in the early Christian sources, and much less can it be assumed to have been obvious to people who have not left us any literary record. (p. 85)

Further, Harvey is extrapolating from the Gospel of Matthew alone to describe the entire early Jesus tradition. Nor does Harvey’s argument really resolve the “name-versus-title” debate. He merely offers another form of name into the mix.

Novenson offers other reasons to dispute Harvey’s argument, but I will move on to Merrill Miller.

Miller likewise argues Christ was for Paul a nickname (or byname) but that it was assigned to Jesus after his death. But the nickname was not assigned because of what it said about Jesus — it did not describe any particular intrinsic quality of Jesus himself — but because the word, with its royal and eschatological associations, was an ideal brand name that lent to the new Christian movement an image of being led by a divine authority. Miller found a presumed precedent for his case in the nicknames given to philosophers of the various philosophical schools.

One of the problems with Miller’s argument is that the nicknames attributed to the philosophers of their respective schools in every case did describe some personal attribute of the philosopher. They were not chosen simply to add a formidable image to the school. Plato really was in some sense “broad”, Democritus “wise”, Lyco “sweet-voiced”, etc.

In almost every case the nicknames were acquired in their lifetimes, too, and not posthumously.

Miller repeats Harvey’s claim that the word χριστός had no “messianic” associations in the time of Paul — a view challenged by Novenson and outlined in the previous post. One scholar, Willi Braun, has challenged the logic of Miller’s argument by asking what good is a brand name if it does not evoke anything.

That is, if χριστός is empty of any biblical connotations, then how does it render theocratic legitimacy at all? (p. 87)


This post is long enough. I will conclude Novenson’s discussion of the meaning of χριστός for Paul in the next post in this series. We will then look at specific instances — some of particular interest to the mythicist argument — of Paul’s use of χριστός and show how Paul’s attribution of it to Jesus was, despite one striking innovation, entirely consistent with the more general Jewish understanding of all that Messiah meant among the Jews of his day.

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10 thoughts on “Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3a”

  1. Well Mt does say that Jesus was called Immanuel or is that another title. It would seem from my simple limited knowledge but many characters in the OT are known by titles rather than names, Solomon being the perfect example. Many other apostles also have multiple names.

    1. Well Mt does say that Jesus was called Immanuel or is that another title.

      That’s “Matthew” proof-texting his way through the Septuagint and thinking he’d found a prophecy. I don’t think Matthew says Jesus was called Immanuel – Matthew says that Jesus’s birth fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah where there would be a boy born to a young woman who would be called Immanuel. Matthew is just latching onto the name “God is with us” in the text and ascribing it meaning retroactively to buttress his own story about Jesus. Isaiah said that the boy would be born to a virgin and called “God is with us”, Jesus was born to a virgin and was God, who was then “with us” during his lifetime. I’d call it a pun, but it isn’t even that.

      As far as the rest of the Bible goes – the books have different authors and were written in different eras. Even within roughly the same era, different writers are going to have different styles (that’s the point of the comparison between the writer of Acts and Paul’s letters that Neil put in the post). If Paul is consistent about how he uses names through all of his letters, then his use of the double name for Jesus is an interesting fact. It doesn’t really matter what the rest of the authors did – it isn’t like Paul knew he was writing letters for an eventual collection and needed to follow a particular style guide or something.

      1. Yes i am aware of Matthews creative application of any which scripture he can find, but it shows how easily the gospel writers were able and willing to apply titles or names to their Jesus character. My take is that its difficult to tell where names and titles cross in hebrew simply because so many names are titles and vice versa. Perhaps Immanuel may be a Pun but xians hardly use it in that way, and perhaps the same is true of Jesus and Christ perhaps they are titles. Perhaps the truth is we dont really know what the real name of the charater was meant originally to be. If i recall correctly Solomon is always used rather than his actual birth name. Maybe Solomon is a regal name, its hard to tell, then again maybe Jesus and Christ are titles assigned to a leader of some sort.

        1. Ah – I get what you’re saying now.

          And I’m reminded of how shocking it was when I found out that the name of the son of God (“Christ Jesus”) was actually “Anointed Savior” (roughly) when translated from the Greco-Hebrew into English. I knew what Christ meant, but finding out that “Jesus” meant “God saves” really makes it feel a bit more contrived. (And is part of why I think it’s probable that if there is a historic man behind the Jesus legends, there’s no reason to believe that his name was actually “Jesus” anyway – the name is so full of meaning that it’s a nice coincidence that the “Anointed Savior” just happened to have the birth name Jesus.)

  2. Does Novenson tackle the Marcionite designation of χρηστός? What if that was originally what Paul was writing all those times and the proto-Orthodox changed the eta to an iota? χρηστός was a well known “nickname” in antiquity.

  3. Regarding the title “Messiah” specifically, and finding in it a Jewish origin for notions of dying saviors?

    I’m taking a different tack or two, on relevant Jewish traditions on dying saviors. A different approach which apparently even critics like Thom Stark accept in part, or do not refute. http://religionatthemargins.com/2012/06/it-is-finished-for-richard-carriers-dying-messiah-part-1/

    1) First, I’m noting that the Hebrew word “Messiah” proper, as such, is only used TWICE in the entire New Testament (in John? RSV). So this particular, specific word is not so relevant as many have thought on boths sides.

    2) And the two times it is used? The word “Messiah” is introduced under a sort of cloud: it is voiced by unreliable narrators, and as hearsay.

    3) Then I suggest there are good reasons for its nonuse; until 90 AD, designating Jesus to Jews, in clear Hebrew, as the “Messiah,” was too controversial and divisive.

    4) So in looking for Jewish precedents for dying Gods, heroes, saviors? On Stark’s blog, and earlier on Carrier’s blog, I argued that we should not look so much at “Messiah.”

    5) A far, far better case for finding a matryred savior in Jewish tradition, is 2 Mac. 7. Where we see Jewish brothers dying to save their country. As heroes, martryrs.

    Therefore, to find Jewish precedents to the Christian idea of dying saviors, the generic descriptors you should be looking at, are “heroes,” and “martyrs.” “Messiah” is a red herring.


  4. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk may be a good example here. The surname means “Father of the Turk”, which he made up to reflect his mission and position as he saw them. However, almost all people, friends and foes alike, use it as just a surname.
    If I am not mistaken, modern logicians refer to this phenomenon as “use vs. mention of words”.

    1. Here’s my take on all that.

      Many words we think of as proper names, were better said in part, brief descriptions. This happens a lot in ancient writing, especially the Bible. So for example, “Theophilus.” Which just means “lover of God.”

      It might be that someone named their child this; though it might also be an assigned “name”/description; assigned by early clerics/clerks to some anonymous person.

      “Christ” of course, probably just means one who is anointed with oil, or “christen”ed. As many leaders were. In Jerusalem, there were always expectations of another younger leader, a newly “christ”ened king, to succeed the old ruler, the old king.

      Over time and in some contexts, this perennial expectation for the next prince to be christened, and to become king, I suggest, took on a particular aspect. In ancient times, Jerusalem and Israel were often defeated, occupied tributes of various empires; from the Babylonians, to the Egyptians, Assyrians, to the Greeks and Romans. But in this context no doubt the legend grew that however, some day or another, a Jewish “king” and annointed or christened savior would overthrow such occupiers; and set up a truly Jewish “Kingdom.’

      In the time of Jesus, it was hoped that a christened Jewish leader would overthrow the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. And it was hoped that Jesus would do this.

      However, Jesus was never officially christened by the Jews as their ruler or king. Instead the Jews had, at the time of Jesus, as their nominal leader and christ, Herod and his various descendants. Who however, were collaborators not interested in overthrowing Roman overlords, but who were interested in cooperating with them. In this context, the hope of a “Christ” that would save his nation of Israel, was probably hope for another, new, more nationalistic/Zionist Jewish leader than Herod. A leader who would not be a collaborator, but who would overthrow Roman occupation.

  5. “We have no reason to think that among the Jews of the day that χριστός would have conjured up the concept of one who was known only for preaching and healing. Yes, Luke 4:16-21 does make such a connection

    ‘but it is not attested widely in the early Christian sources, and much less can it be assumed to have been obvious to people who have not left us any literary record. (p. 85)’

    I’m making my way through older posts starting with those most recently posted, so I’m not aware if this comment has been noted in previous posts.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls expected a Messiah who would “heal the sick, resurrect the dead, and to the Meek announce glad tidings” (4Q521). While the Messiah wasn’t expected to only preach and heal in the Scrolls, this was an important aspect of what was expected.

    I consider the Scrolls to be the literature of the Messianic Judaism that Christianity sprang from, so in this sense they are a literary record of the earliest “Christians.”

    1. The key word in the Novenson quote is “only”: “one who was known only for preaching and healing.” Would we be surprised if there were many such people? 4Q521 speaks of the whole of heaven and earth listening and submitting to the Messiah. (Nor are there any more destitute and hungry.)

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