In the early decades, and in most places for the first couple of centuries, when the prophet from Galilee known as Jesus the Nazorean had a title or epithet affixed as a surname, it was not ‘Christos’ but ‘Chrestos’, and the followers of his teachings and those of his disciples were not called ‘Christians’ but ‘Chrestians’.
Jesus the Nazorean, or at least his later adherents, may have borrowed more from Serapis than the long hair and beard which replaced the short-haired, clean-shaven look with which he was portrayed as the Good Shepherd, or Kriophoros (‘Sheep-bearer’), also in the image of a Greek deity, or rather deities, Apollo, Hermes, and Orpheus. Admirers of the caring pastoral figure little realize than in firs conception the sheep-bearer was carrying a sacrifice. The image of Serapis dominated until the late fifteenth century when it changed to that of Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI.
Jesus as Chrestos rather than Christos
There is every reason to suspect that in the beginning, Jesus was usually surnamed Chrestos rather than Christos, and that disciples of the many variants of the religion founded in his name were much more often called Chrestianoi rather than Christianoi.
Evidence from several sources demonstrates that outsiders and even some insiders (such as, for example, Clement of Alexandria) in the first few centuries of the Common Era used the terms Chrestos (Χρηστός) and Christos (Χριστός) interchangeably, or else used Chrestos and Chrestianoi exclusively.
The word ‘Chrestos’ literally means ‘good’, and depending on the context can mean ‘the good’ or ‘good one’, or simply ‘good’ as an adjective, even, in certain contexts, ‘righteous one’ (one of the appellations of the Messiah in 1 Enoch). The feminine form is ‘Chreste’. The appellation ‘Christos’, on the other hand, is a literal translation of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘Anointed’, but was never used as a title prior to the translation of the Septuagint.
Two more Greek words closely resemble those two: ‘chrestes’ means a prophet or soothsayer, or one who explains oracles, while ‘christes’ simply means white-washer. Neither of these were ever used for Jesus the Nazorean that we know of, however.
Chrestos was frequently used as both a title and a name, as in Mithidates Chrestos, co-King of Pontus, and Socrates Chrestos, King of Bithynia. The chief pupil (Plato) of the even more famous philosopher of that same name referred to his master as Socrates Chrestos. It also came in the forms ‘Chreistos’ and ‘Christos’, particularly if used as a title, and was often used on tombs of dead humans.
There was no Latin counterpart for ‘Christos’ until the advent of the Christian era brought about ‘Christus’, but the loan-word ‘Chrestus’ had long been used as a name for slaves. Latin-speakers often employed the Latin version ‘Chrestiani’ as a slur, implying Christians were of no more worth than slaves.
In the Hellenistic Mysteries, presumably the Eleusinian Mysteries but perhaps others as well, a ‘chrestos’ was a neophyte and a ‘christos’ an initiate.
Other deities called Chrestos/Christos
Long before a wandering prophet in Galilee drafted into deity decades after his life on earth was saddled with the epithet, several Hellenistic deities were bestowed with the title, such as Osiris Chreistos, Isis Chreste, Helios Christos, Apollo Chrestos, Serapis Chrestos, Hades Chrestos, Persephone Chreste, Hermes Chrestos, Eileithyia Chreste, and Chrestos Mithras.
1 Enoch, 2nd century
This second century BCE pseudepigraphic, apocalyptic work introduces the title ‘Son of man’ as a designation for the coming messianic figure. Along with the title Eklektos (‘Chosen One’), it uses both terms with which this essay is concerned, Chrestos (‘Righteous One’) and Christos (‘Anointed One’).
Apocalypse of Elijah, 100 CE
This originally Jewish apocalypse, made Christian by copious interpolation, refers to the coming of the Chrestos, or Righteous One.
Tacitus, 116 CE
In Book 15, Chapter 44 of his Annales, Tacitus tells of emperor Nero blaming the ‘Chrestiani’ of Rome for the Great Fire, for which suspicion had fallen (almost certainly inaccurately) on him. He describes their namesake, ‘Chrestus’, as having suffered crucifixion under Pontius Pilatus. Later copies have the words ‘Christiani’ and ‘Christos’, but textual critics agree these are not original and were “corrected” by some pious scribe. In fact, manuscripts exist with copyists’ notes about this very thing.
Suetonius, 121 CE
In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius reports in Claudius 25 that the Jews were expelled from Rome because of rioting stirred up by ‘Chrestus’. In Nero 16, he echoes Tacitus’ report about the aftermath of the Great Fire, saying it was blamed on the ‘Christiani’, although this was probably a scribal “correction” for ‘Chrestiani’.
The Acts of the Apostles 18:2-3 reflects the first of these entries in describing Paul’s meeting of Aquila and Priscilla who had left Rome for Corinth after Claudius expelled all the Jews of Rome, though the passage in Acts does not give the cause. The Roman writers Cassius Dio and Paulus Orosius also speak of the expulsion.
At the time of the expulsion, Jews made up some ten percent of the city’s populace of about 850,000. The population of Alexandria then was about 500,000, of which Jews (and probably Samaritans) made up at least two-fifths.
Hadrian’s letter to Servianus, 134
Probably altered by a “well-meaning” Christian copyist as has been proven the case with Tacitus and likely with Suetonius, the extant text here uses the word ‘Christiani’, but we know from other sources that the surname epithet of Serapis was Chrestos rather than Christos, so the original form was probably Chrestiani.
From Hadrian Augustus to Servianus the consul, greeting.
The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumor. There, those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis.
There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch* himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ…
…Their only god is money, and this the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, all nations adore. And would that this city had a better character, for indeed it is worthy by reason of its richness and by reason of its size to hold the chief place in the whole of Egypt.
* “Patriarch” here refers to the Patriarch of Tiberias in Galilee, head of the Jewish religion and ethnarch of all Jews in the Empire since the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The Patriarch was also Nasi, or Prince, of the Great Sanhedrin in Palestine, probably Eleazar ben Azariah. None of the Christian prelates later known as patriarchs (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, for example) were so called at this time (that did not happen until the reign of Justinian in the sixth century).
Marcion of Sinope, 138 CE
Marcion was a presbyter of the church in Sinope in Anatolia, and founder, or at least best known figure, of one of the first major schools of Christianity called heresy by the ecclesiastic powers-that-be. The Latin version of the Evangelikon (originally in Greek) which he brought to Rome in 138 CE refers not “Iesu Christus” but to “Isu Chrestos”. The same is true for the ten epistles of Paul in Marcion’s Apostolikon.
Justin Martyr, 151 CE
In his Chapter IV of First Apologia, Justin wrote, ‘For we are accused of being “Chrestianoi”, and to hate what is good (‘chrestos’) is unjust’.
Theophilos of Antioch, 180 CE
In his Apologia ad Autolycum, the bishop refers to the discrepancy between the two words when he wrote, ‘And about your laughing at me and calling me Christian, you know not what you are saying. First, because that which is anointed is sweet and serviceable, and far from contemptible. For what ship can be serviceable and seaworthy, unless it be first anointed? Or what castle or house is beautiful and serviceable when it has not been anointed? And what man, when he enters into this life or into the gymnasium, is not anointed with oil? And what work has either ornament or beauty unless it be anointed and burnished? Then the air and all that is under heaven is in a certain sort anointed by light and spirit; and are you unwilling to be anointed with the oil of God? Wherefore we are called Christians on this account, because we are anointed with the oil of God.’
Tertullian, 197 CE
In Chapter III of his Ad Nationes, Tertullian, of Carthage wrote, ‘“Christianos”, so far as the meaning of the word is concerned, is derived from “anointing”. Even when by a faulty pronunciation you call us “Chrestianoi”. (for you are not certain about even the sound of this noted name), it comes from “goodness” You do not even know the proper name of that which you hate’.
Clement of Alexandria, 201 CE
In Book II of his Stromata, Clement of Alexandria wrote “All who believe in Chrestos (a good man) both are, and are called, Chrestianoi, that is, good men (Chrestoi).”
Phrygia, 3rd century
Several tombs having been discovered in the region bearing inscriptions of dedication to the deceased including the phrase “Chrestianoi to Chrestianoi”.
Sibylline Oracles, 3rd century CE
In the famous acrostic in Book VIII (third century CE) of the Sibylline Oracles of which the initials spell Icthus, or “fish”, the title is spelled “Chreistos” as in Iesous Chreistos Theoi Uios Soter Stauros (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Cross”). Here, Chreistos could correctly be translated either way, as “Jesus the Anointed” or “Jesus the Good”.
Lactantius, 309 CE
In Book IV, Chapter 7 of The Divine Institutes, Lactantius of Cirda in Numidia, wrote, ‘“Christos” is not a proper name, but a title of power and dominion; for by this the Jews were accustomed to call their kings. But the meaning of this name must be set forth, on account of the error of the ignorant, who by the change of a letter are accustomed to call him “Chrestus”’.
Deir Ali, Syria, 318
Formerly known as Lebaba, the town contains the remains of a Marcionite meeting-house with an inscription to “the Lord and Savior Isu Chrestos”, the oldest known inscription to him.
Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century
The Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest almost complete collections of the books of the New Testament, belongs to the Alexandrian test-type family; where the three places in the New Testament have the word ‘Christianoi’, translated into English as ‘Christians’, (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16), the Codex Sinaiticus has the word ‘Chrestianoi’. Also, the references to ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ Jesus’ are instead to ‘Jesus Chrestos’ and ‘Chrestos Jesus’ (‘Iesous’ rather than ‘Jesus’, actually, but that’s another essay)
Codex Vaticanus, 4th century
This collection, also fourth century, uses the spelling ‘Chreistianoi’ in those same three New Testament passages listed above, as well as ‘Chrestos’. While the test-type of its Old Testament varies, that of its New Testament is also Alexandrian. It and its cousin above are considered the two best and most authoritative collections of Christian/Chrestian scriptures.
Papyrus Graecae Magicae IV, 4th century
A papyrus in Greek dating to this century but with its written material probably originating in the second century, this documents of magical formulas and incantations offers the following formula for expelling ‘daimons’: Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos, the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, who is within the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until you drive away this unclean daimon satan, who is in him.
There's more, but that is the sentence topical to our subject. Being a document of Jewish magical instructions, this does not, of course, prove anything about the Church at the time, except to shows its central figure was known by the surnam ‘Chrestos’.
Codex Bezae, 5th century
The word used here is ‘Chreistianoi’ in those three passages in this collection, and ‘Chreistos’ for the central figure in question. It is the principle example in Greek of the Western text-type.
Codex Alexandrinus, 450
Dating to about 450 CE, this is the earliest surviving codex to use the word ‘Christianoi’ in the three New Testament passages instead of ‘Chrestianoi’. The codex is another example of the Alexandrian test-type.
Other codices, 6th-14th centuries
Several subsequent codices use ‘Chrestianoi’ rather than ‘Christianoi’ in those three passages ranging across the above centuries, as well as ‘Chresto’ instead of ‘Christos’.