Christian by Paula Fredriksen

When do the movements that form around the memory and the message of Jesus of Nazareth become something recognizably other than, different from, and even hostile toward Judaism? Some sort of clarity on this complicated social and historical question might be gained by noting the first appearance of the word “Christian,” which occurs only in the early second century. A Latin-stem term that designates a “follower of Christ,” “Christian” rests on the Greek christos, the word for “anointed.” In a pagan context, it would connote someone, whether entering a wrestling match or exiting a bath, who would have been rubbed down with oil. Only within a Greek-speaking Jewish context would christos indicate someone with a special religious and social status as “God’s anointed one,” maschiach in Hebrew. In ancient Jewish tradition, priests and kings were anointed into office; and “God’s anointed” became especially associated with the idea of a kingly figure of Davidic lineage. Linked with the figure of Jesus, the term christos proclaimed his status as “messiah.” At what point, then, did Christ-followers start to distinguish themselves with the term “Christian”?

Was Jesus a “Christian”? Was he founding a new religion distinct from Judaism?

The word “Christian” is nowhere in the gospels. And in those texts, the figure of Jesus is nowhere depicted as standing outside of his native religion. The gospels individually vary their respective portraits of Jesus, but they all present him as someone who inhabits the world of late Second Temple Judaism. Jesus frequents synagogue gatherings on the Sabbath and the temple in Jerusalem during the pilgrimage holidays (e.g., Sabbath: Mark 1:21, Mark 1:39, Mark 3:1-2; Passover: John 2:13, John 12:12; Sukkot: John 7:2, John 7:10; “Hanukkah”: John 10:22). He wears the fringes (tzitziot) mandated in Deuteronomy to remind the wearer of God’s commandments (Mark 6:56, cf. Deut 22:11-12), and he refers to the law as the touchstone of piety and ethics (Mark 10:19, Mark 12:28-31). Jesus orders a cured leper to fulfill the rites of purification detailed in Leviticus (Mark 1:40-44); later, he enters Jerusalem in the week before Passover, presumably to undergo the purifications required for the feast (Mark 11). The meat that was the ritual centerpiece of the Passover meal depicted in Mark, Matthew, and Luke as Jesus’s “last supper” could only have been procured by a disciple’s sacrificing a lamb at the temple (Mark 14:16).  


In his controversies with scribes and Pharisees, the gospels’ Jesus offers his interpretations of ways to keep the Sabbath, to honor God, and to participate in temple worship. The parties argue precisely because they share a common commitment to what is religiously important: argument implies inclusion. Gentiles, whether sympathetic or hostile, do not loom large as a focus of Jesus’s mission, and Jesus at no point urges worship of himself. Those characteristics of later Christianity—a predominantly gentile population; a reverence for the figure of Jesus as a divine intermediary between heaven and earth; a measured hostility toward Jews and Judaism—do not appear in the gospel stories. For these formations, we must look outside of Jesus’s own lifetime and predominantly Jewish location, to the movements that bloomed, postresurrection, within diaspora Mediterranean cities.


Was Paul a “Christian”? Was he founding a new religion distinct from Judaism?

The earliest direct testimony that we have from a follower of Jesus comes, mid-first century, from the letters of his apostle Paul. Paul identifies himself as an Israelite, a Pharisee, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents, and member of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5; cf. Gal 1:14). Paul refers to ethnic Israel as “God’s people” (Rom 11:1), and he identifies this people as his “kinsmen” (Rom 9:4). In this same passage of Romans, Paul praises God for the privileges conferred upon his fellow Israelites: their sonship; the divine presence in Jerusalem (“glory” in the RSV); the covenants; the giving of the Torah; the cult of sacrifice (“worship” in the RSV, but the Greek word means “cult,” another nod to the Jerusalem temple); the promises and the patriarchs; and a blood-relationship to the messiah (Rom 9:4-5). In short, Paul thinks of himself as a Jew; and he thinks of “Israel” as Jewish Israel.

Paul’s conviction that Jesus, raised and shortly returning, was God’s messiah, compelled Paul’s gentile mission, in which he sought to turn pagans from the worship of their native gods to an exclusive commitment to Israel’s god. To this degree, Paul urged these gentiles to “Judaize”: no other gods and no idols were the first two commands of the Sinai covenant (Exod 20:11-12). Paul, like most Jews, held that circumcision and other Jewish practices were not incumbent on these gentiles. But this gentile policy tells us nothing about Paul’s own level of Jewish observance, which he himself deemed “flawless” (Phil 3:6). Finally, Paul expected that the population of God’s kingdom would contain both gentiles (“the fullness of the nations”) and Jews (“all Israel,” Rom 11:25-26; cf. Rom 15:9-12). If Jesus, then, had conceptualized his own mission to Israel as the beginning of a new religion, his apostle Paul knew nothing of this.

Paula Fredriksen, "Christian", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:


Paula Fredrikson

Paula Fredriksen
Distinguished Visiting Professor, Hebrew University

Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has authored seven books on Christian origins and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman empire and was a featured speaker in the PBS television special, From Jesus to Christ.

Christian, the term used to refer to Jesus followers, is an early second-century term.

Did you know…?

  • Within the New Testament the word “Christian” appears only in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28) and in 1Pet 4:16, both early second-century texts.
  • Though Acts ascribes use of this term to the early 40s in the city of Antioch, all of the texts containing “Christian,” including Acts and also the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, date to the early second century.
  • The word also appears in early second-century pagan texts: Tacitus, Annales 15.44; Suetonius, Claudius 25.4; and Pliny’s letter to Trajan, Ep. 10.96.
  • Jews who joined some form of the Jesus movement would have made a lateral move within Judaism: their god, their scriptures, and their practices would have remained the same as before. A Christ-following Jew, to an outsider, would seem like a Jew.
  • Pagans who joined some form of the Jesus movement had to abandon their native gods, become familiar with biblical and Jewish terms and concepts (e.g., “Abraham,” “David,” “law,” “resurrection,” “messiah”), and radically change their religious practices. A Christ-following gentile, to an outsider, would seem like a deviant pagan.
  • For these last two reasons, the term “Christian” probably arose to describe these ex-pagan, gentile members of the movement.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Refers to the fringes worn on the corner of the garment (see Num 15:38, Deut 22:12).

a person who is not Jewish

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jewish festival which recalls over an 8-day period the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. by the Maccabees who fought against the Seleucids.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

a journey, usually with religious significance

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.

Mark 1:21

The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

Mark 1:39

39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 3:1-2

The Man with a Withered Hand
1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on ... View more

John 2:13

Jesus Cleanses the Temple
13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

John 12:12

Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
12The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

John 7:2

2Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near.

John 7:10

Jesus at the Festival of Booths
10But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.

John 10:22

Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews
22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,

Mark 6:56

56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cl ... View more

Deut 22:11-12

11You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.12You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.

Mark 10:19

19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; ... View more

Mark 12:28-31

The First Commandment
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which comm ... View more

Mark 1:40-44

Jesus Cleanses a Leper
40A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched ... View more

Mark 11

Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
1When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples2an ... View more

Mark 14:16

16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Phil 3:5

5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

Gal 1:14

14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.

Rom 11:1

Israel's Rejection Is Not Final
1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe ... View more

Rom 9:4

4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;

Rom 9:4-5

4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;5to them belong the patria ... View more

Exod 20:11-12

11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and c ... View more

Phil 3:6

6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Rom 11:25-26

All Israel Will Be Saved
25So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come ... View more

Rom 15:9-12

9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your na ... View more

A first-century C.E. apostolic father traditionally understood to have been martyred and to whom a corpus of letters is attributed.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Acts 11:26

26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in ... View more

Acts 26:28

28Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

1Pet 4:16

16Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.

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