[Texts: The New Testament Epistles]
You probably already realize that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. You may even be aware that it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” naming that Davidic, anointed-king figure who was eagerly expected to come one day and set the whole world to rights again. But you may not have ever sorted out for yourself the multiple uses and appearances of this title in the New Testament, both in combination with Jesus’ name and alone, or noticed the significance of each variation for the NT writers’ purposes. In this forest of occurrences of “Christ” (480+!), it’s easy to assume there’s only one kind of tree.
Here’s the fruit of some research that I’ve been doing in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving this fall. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, so these are some details that will mostly not be included in that little lecture on the Christ. They’re just the results of a basic tallying of the frequency of the different uses of the word “Christ” – but I find them fascinating, and maybe you will, too. I’ve included some further notes at the end for those of you who are interested in knowing the research steps I followed to these intriguing observations.*
Just considering the Epistles, it turns out that there are three main uses of the Greek title Christos with reference to Jesus, with a couple other rare ones making a cameo now and then. Each conveys a different aspect of Jesus’ identity, corresponding to the writer’s purposes in a passage. The different letter writers show individual preferences for particular uses of “Christ,” with Paul taking the lead for variety and also uniqueness in his usage of the word. My findings are sketched for you below.
Jesus Christ: Whether combined with “our Lord” or alone, this straightforward title has the most formal feel to it, emphasizing Jesus’ Lordly authority; so I’ll call it the Kingly Title. This is especially apparent in Paul’s usage, where we find it most often in the formal opening and closing sections of his letters. It almost never appears in the Gospels, except at the very start of Matthew, Mark, and John – the points at which the author is most transparently present in his text, explaining Who it’s going to be about. The Kingly Title is preferred by Peter, John, and Jude, who use it almost exclusively. Atypically for Paul, he refers to Jesus almost solely by this title in his second letter to the Thessalonians.
Christ: In our English translations, Jesus is simply called “Christ” 220 times in the Epistles (compared to about 112 for “Jesus Christ” and 78 for “Christ Jesus”).* Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews are most likely to adopt this usage. In Paul’s case especially, the single word “Christ” tends to occur in the thick of his most energetic communication, leading me to call it the Shorthand Name-Title. Where it occurs without the article (see second note below), it is most clearly being used as another name for Jesus, not so much as a formal title – as we might call our minister “Pastor,” intending only to refer to the man, not his job, even though the name could only result from his having that position. (But put “the” in front of “Pastor” or “Christ,” and the emphasis changes! See it?)
Christ Jesus: This is really my favorite discovery. You think it’s just “Jesus Christ” backwards, right, thrown in here and there to add a little variety? That might be the case if everybody occasionally used it, but in fact this one is exclusive to Paul. The one occurrence outside Paul’s letters is when Luke tells what Paul was up to in Caesarea: “After some days Felix came . . . and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus,” Acts 24:24 – which is exactly how Felix would have heard it come out of Paul’s mouth. There is a tenderness to Paul’s choice of name-title here, as if he were speaking of someone very precious to him: not only the lofty King of kings, not only the God-man who fulfilled the Jewish Messiah’s role, but also Paul’s own personal Friend and Savior. And it’s when Paul is feeling especially tender towards his readers, when he urgently wants them to know the heart of God for them, that this name for his Friend and Savior spills out of him. Though it occurs in almost all of his letters, it comes especially thick and fast when he writes to Timothy, as if he especially wants to pass on knowledge of the gracious Lord, Christ Jesus, to his dearest child in the faith. Pay special attention to this one when it occurs in Paul’s writing, recalling that Christ Jesus is our tender Shepherd, too.
*My research steps to discovering the use of “Christ” in the NT went like this (so far):
- I did a word search for the use of “Christ” in the ESV through https://www.biblegateway.com/, turning up 534 results.
- I created a table to record the reference & the text of the verses, copying and pasting the texts from the search results (dismissing those that were counted because “Christ” was mentioned in the heading!).
- I color-coded (using highlighter & font color) to show the different usages.
- I double-checked the Greek text wherever “Christ” appeared in the ESV without the article (“the”), discovering that sometimes the word “Christ” was not in the original text at all (the editors just thought we needed it, I guess!), and sometimes the word actually DID have an article attached in the Greek. (See second note, below.)
- I tallied usage according to the different arrangements of the title, keeping separate tallies of the preferences of different NT authors & Paul’s usage by book.
*Our English translations hide a couple details, though. For one, as I mentioned already, sometimes the translators add “Christ” to make sure we know who the writer is talking about (where the Greek just says “he” and leaves the identity ambiguous). Also, there is sometimes a subtle distinction between “the Christ” and just plain “Christ.” Although it’s not uncommon in Greek to add a definite article (the) before a proper noun (“the Jesus,” “the John,” etc.) without affecting the meaning, in the case of “the Christ” one of two things may be happening: either the writer is merely referring to the Savior Jesus by name-title, or he is referring to – or especially emphasizing Jesus’ fulfillment of – the specific Jewish Messiah figure. Evidently the translators voted in favor of the first option more often than the second in the Epistles (83 times vs. 7 times!). But I think quite a few occurrences of “the Christ” in Greek, translated merely as “Christ,” could arguably have possessed that specific Messianic emphasis in the original. Maybe I’ll write you a paper on this someday.