The Christ and Jesus
Éditions du Cercle d’Éducation Populaire
Translated from the French, with notes in green, by R. Salm
Priority of “Chrestos”
The most ancient inscription that we have from a church dates to 318 CE. It is from Lebaba, next to Damascus, and the church was Marcionite. The inscription addresses Chrestos (“the Good”) and not Christus (“the Anointed” or “the Messiah”). The Marcionites equally employed the word Agathos to designate the “Good God.”
Innumerable Christian epitaphs carry the name Chrestos. These are often found in Phrygia and everywhere in catacombs. In Rome, some inscriptions translate the Greek word by its Latin equivalent Bonus, thus: Eugenii spiritus in Bono (“May the spirit of Eugenius [rest] in the Good!”).
If some of the early Christians considered Chrestos as their God, they were not the only ones. Serapis was a Chrestos, and this title was also shared with Hermes, Osiris, Isis, and the gods of the Samothracian mysteries. The devotees of all these gods were no doubt also called “Chrestians.” This leads us to uncertainty whether the term, when found in texts from the second century, necessarily refers to those who later became known as Catholic.
For example, about 180 CE Celsus enumerated a great number of Christian sects—all gnostic. He did not yet know one Christianity but a multitude of Christian movements. All these did not profess the same faith but mutually opposed one another.
Towards 130–131 CE, the Emperor Hadrien wrote that in Egypt, “those who adore Serapis are at the same time Christians, and those who consider themselves bishops of Christ are devotees of Serapis… There is not a single Christian priest who does not mix his duties with those of the astrologer, the prophet, or the charlatan.” One might doubt the authenticity of the letter or might deny that the early clergy had such a self-opinion, but when viewed in light of the general syncretism of the period it is hardly exceptional. The emperor does not severely judge but is, rather, amused by the confusions and combinations of the various religions.
Now, one cannot deny that in evangelizing a pagan region Christianity was itself paganized to some extent. There are numerous examples, but we shall content ourselves with only one. Towards the year 430 a priest of Marseilles, Salvien by name, wrote (De Gubernatione Dei) that the Carthaginiens had “In the middle of their city… a heavenly goddess which I shall call the African demon… I speak not merely of the pagans… Among them are also those who profess themselves to be Christians, who worship this goddess either second to Christ, or at once with Christ, or—what is worse—before him.” Three centuries later, does this not confirm Hadrian’s earlier sentiment?
When did the name “Christian” appear?
If one were to rely only on the New Testament, the answer would be very simple: it was Jesus Christ who, towards the year 30 of the common era, founded Christianity in Jerusalem. His followers would have been known as Christians towards 60 or 90 CE. However, if one applies an objective analysis to the various texts which have come down to us, one can scarcely accept the above opinion.
It is evident that Christians existed before pagans began calling them by that name. The texts show that they had begun to use the name as a self-referent by about 150 CE. It also cannot be denied that the name would have continued on in use by some gnostic sects for a century or two. History attests that the name was finally monopolized by the communities constituting the Great Church, the others eventually being known as “heretics.” But none of this goes back to the beginnings of Christianity.
It is also prudent to beware of the tendency for sects to consider themselves old, or ancient, or of august lineage. Christians of the second century claimed descent from first century Jewish groups under the pretext that Jews rallied to Christianity after the two Jewish revolts. However, this is a simplistic anachronism analogous, say, to speaking of “French” troops fighting under Clovis.1 We will discover, rather, that Jesus Christ was unknown both to pagans and to Jews until 150 CE at the earliest.
Whence came the name “Jesus”?
From the start it has been affirmed that Jesus derives from the Hebrew Yeoshua which means “Yahweh saves”—that is, “Savior.” Specialists point to exhaustive but contradictory etymological evidence. Yet, if the origin of the name Jesus were Hebrew, then we must ask why the Hebrew form Yeoshua did not prevail and why it was entirely ignored in all of ancient Christian literature, where it does not even appear as an interpolation.
At the same time, Jesus is not called Yeoshua in the Talmud but Yesou (from the Greek Iesous). This shows that aramaic speaking Jews knew of Jesus only via Greek mediation. Even the archangel Gabriel says to Mary, “He will be called Jesus” (and not Yeoshua).
All agree that the name Jesus was first coined in Greek as Iesous and that it became Jesus in Latin. The Christian half-God was never called Yeoshua. This shows that those who derive the name from Judea have been influenced by Christian belief. It is said that Jesus is the same name as Isaiah or Joshua or Jason. This is not untrue but we cannot therefore conclude that Jason derives from Joshua. For it is clear that Jason is Greek—it is the same name as Iaso, Iasos, Iasus, Iasius. This permits the derivation of Jesus directly from Greek and not from Hebrew. One must also remember that, in Greek, the name of Jason belonged to a great number of mythical figures. Several heros with the name Iasus appear in the legends of Argos. There was also a Iaso (the “Healing”), the daughter of Asclepius or of Amphiarus and the sister of Hygie. The famous Jason received his title of “Healer” or “Redeemer” from his teacher Chiron who, being immortal, was unable to die except by ceding his right to immortality to Prometheus in exchange for the latter’s right to die. 2
We know, at the same time, that Jesus was a great healer. His apostles healed while invoking his name. Already by 250 BCE the Septuagint rendered Joshua by Jesus. According to Barnabas (XII.20, ca. 140 CE) Joshua was Jesus’ predecessor in the flesh. This was confirmed by Justin (Against Trypho, 113). Joshua was originally probably a solar deity. He begins his human career on the day fixed for the selection of the passover lamb and he ends it at Easter. He chose twelve men, like Jesus. He was considered the Prince of the Presence, the Metatron who was assimilated to the Archangel Michael—as Jesus also would be.
It is not possible to know exactly when the mythological name became the name of a man. But the name of the god was certainly anterior to the other for, though it is common for a man to be named after a favorite divinity, the opposite is much less probable. 3
We only note these difficulties in passing, in order to show the complexity of these questions and how unsatisfactory and uncertain are the customary explanations.
This name, Jesus, was associated with that of Christ (when the Jewish Christians edited the Pauline epistles), no doubt some time in the second century of our era. Out of two different entities a composite name was formed, and out of two different personages [personages] a single one. For the Christ was not called Jesus, and Jesus was not yet the Christ.
In the New Testament there are 127 instances of “Jesus Christ” as opposed to 91 instances of “Christ Jesus.” This undermines the theory that the double proper name could have been formed and accepted early. Hesitation continued for a long time until it ended with the expression “Our savior Jesus Christ,” found only in Paul’s epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles. It is lacking in the canonical gospels and dates to the time when Jesus, confounded with the Christ, became in turn “Savior.” 4
The Christ of Paul
Despite the retouches to which his writings were subjected, we can say that St. Paul know only the Christ, while the gospels subsequently glorified Jesus above all.
In length, Paul’s epistles make up less than one quarter of the gospels and Acts. However, Paul uses the expression “Christ” four to five times more often. Stated another way, the frequency of “Christ” in Paul’s writings is about twenty-fold that of the gospels/Acts. Use of the term Christ without the article belongs to Paul’s language but not to that of the Synoptics.
In the epistles we find “Christ” 117 times, particularly in Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. We find “the Christ” 88 times, especially in Ephesians, Colossians and Hebrews (this last not from the pen of Paul). In the gospels, “Christ” appears only 6 times in Mark, 10 in Matthew, 11 in Luke, and and 21 times in John. Of four appearances in the Apocalypse, it lacks the article once.
Only Paul uses the expressions “to the Christ,” “in the Christ,” and “with the Christ.” These attest to the intimate relation between the apostle and his celestial hero. Only Paul proclaims “the gospel of Christ,” that is, of God. On the other hand, a certain confusion obtains among the evangelists regarding the word “gospel” [“good news”]. At first it was the “gospel of the kingdom,” and then successively those of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. In the beginning, then, the gospel was uniquely of Christ, but this gave way to four gospels of men.
The Jesus of the gospels
Continuing our research into the name of Jesus, let us now begin a proof from the contrary direction. While Jesus is abundantly cited in the gospels and Acts, we find it only a dozen times in the Pauline epistles where, furthermore, it appears forced [maladroite]. Most often it is added to Christ in the form Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ. This fuses two distinct names to create a personage which Paul did not know. For he never writes, “Jesus said… Jesus was born… Jesus responded… Jesus of Nazareth… of Bethlehem…” Jesus does not exist within Paul’s horizons to whom, after all, it was only the Christ who appeared, not Jesus. 5
The body of the Christ
The gospels do not speak of the body of Christ. They allude to the body of Jesus, particularly at the time of his passion. Jesus says “my body” at the Last Supper, though this is pure liturgy. Yet nowhere do the gospels express the idea that the Christ could have a body. At the same time, Paul has no notion of a corporeal Jesus although he knows the meaning of the phrase “the body of the Christ.” He knows the Christ omnipresent in the multitude of believers and in each one of them. The Christians are “the body of the Christ” (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:11–13, 5:30; Rom 12:4, etc.), and that body is the assembly, the ecclesia, the Church (cf. Col 1:34).
The fusion of the Christ and Jesus
Here is an amazing revelation: it is in the writings of Paul that the transformation of the Christ into Jesus (or the reverse) was accomplished. The composite name Jesus Christ (or Christ Jesus) is virtually unknown in the New Testament outside of the pauline epistles. The fact that we find these locutions but once each in Mark and Matthew, twice in John and six times in the book of Acts shows that extensive harmonization was hardly necessary since it had been accomplished in Paul’s letters, and that such harmonization had already penetrated into belief.
But there would still have been some skeptics and contrarians to whom it was necessary to demonstrate textual witness. Hence, to the words “Mary, of whom Jesus was born” at Mt 1:16 a scribe added “who is called Christ”—which contradicts Jesus’ injunction “to tell no one that he was the Christ” (16:20).6
Jesus predicts that “many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Mt 24:5). This prophecy was of course after the fact (and came from circles which believed in a historical Jesus), but it shows that there were many Christs and that, at least for their partisans, each one was authentic. It is therefore not impossible that the gospels attributed to their “true” Christ elements which first belonged to “false” Christs.
During the passion (Mt 27:17) Pilate asks: “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” At that moment, then, everyone knew who Jesus was. There was no need to explain, especially by Pilate. Nevertheless, this useless explanation was insufficient in the eyes of the scribe who edited the text and later added again “Jesus who is called Christ” (v. 22). Such insistence is certainly suspicious.
Protestations against the assimilation of Jesus to the Christ
These initiatives with the view towards identifying Jesus with the Christ met, for a certain time, with opposition. The gospels alert us that Jesus himself did not openly accept this title—he “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ,” and he counsels them not to believe those who passed themselves off as Christs. It is therefore certain that the equation Jesus = Christ does not date to the beginnings. It is later than the time when a man Jesus would have lived and later even than the accounts of his resurrection.
When this equation was made many people opposed it.7 We read at Jn 9:22 that if anyone confessed Jesus to be the Christ then he was to be put out of the synagogue. Jn 7:41 witnesses to divisions on this matter among the people. Those who believed that the Christ was a heavenly and powerful spirit said upon seeing Jesus on the cross: “Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God” (Lk 23:35).
An entire sect—that which would eventually triumph as the “Great Church”—wanted to show that Jesus identified himself with the Christ. The only proof of this affirmation consisted in interpreting the scriptures with power (Acts 18:28). Paul (who knew nothing of this) was himself made to attest that “Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:5). The fourth evangelist candidly tells us that “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ” (20:31). Treating it as self-evident, the first epistle of John (2:22) calls him a liar “who denies that Jesus is the Christ,” showing that there were still some who were incredulous.
Transformation of the Christ into the messiah
Once Jesus was identified with the Christ—and once Paul after his death was made to conform in his own writings to this point of view—the matter went a step farther. One began, very timidly, to assimilate the Christ to the Jewish messiah. This occurred at a later stage in the editing of the fourth gospel, when a scribe glossed this equivalence in two places—the only instances in all of the New Testament where we find the word “messiah.”
Jn 1:41 reads: “We have found the Messiah.” Since the Greek reader did not understand the Hebrew word, it was explained and the scribe added: “which means the Christ.”
At Jn 4:25 the Samaritan woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming” which, in her thought does not necessarily signify the messiah of Judah but rather the Taheb, that is, the Samaritan messiah. It is curious that she, too, finds it necessary to add “who is called Christ” in order to clarify the meaning of this new word, messiah, now being introduced into the Christian scriptures.
In review, one witnesses a long evolution in the Christian religion’s central character: Chrestos becomes Christus, then Christ Jesus, and finally is confounded with the messiah.
1. Of course, Christians existed before receiving their name from pagans. The first Christians were Paul’s contemporaries. [The evidence also shows that pre-Christians were known as Natsarenes, Nasarenes, or Nazoraeans. Thus, Epiphanius writes of Nasarenes “who existed before Christ and did not know him” (Pan 29.1.6). Contrary to generally-accepted hypotheses, we think that these pre-Christians ‘before the name’ were to be found in pagan areas and were more or less impregnated with “ gnosticism.”—R.S.]
2. Strong confirmation that Jesus corresponds to Jason is found in a recent study by the classicist John Moles, “Jesus the Healer” (Histos 5:117-82. See especially pp. 127-131. My thanks to Neil Godfrey for bringing this valuable source to my attention.)—R.S.
3. In the Maccabean era four or five persons bore the name of Jason. Paul of Tarsus knew a Jason and also a Jesus-Justus.—G.O.
4. While the title “Savior” was that of the divine Christ, it became that of the supposed man Jesus, but after his resurrection. In the canonical gospels “Savior” indicates those passages which were primitively attributed to the god who descended to earth in the form of a man.—G.O.
5. Per Ory’s argument, he evidently considers Jesus at Gal 1:12 to be a secondary addition to Christ.—R.S.
6. If it was after the crucifixion that God made Jesus “Lord and Christ,” as Acts 2:36 suggests, then those words do not designate a living person but one resurrected. Furthermore, each time we encounter them in the New Testament we should consequently attribute the passage not to the man Jesus but to his post mortem apparition (Acts 10:41b).—G.O.
7. Peter’s identification of Jesus with the Christ is a turning point in Mark’s gospel (8:27-30).—R.S.