According to Acts 11.26, Jesus' disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Elsewhere in the New Testament the word “Christian” occurs in Acts 26.28 and 1 Peter 4.14–16.

The origin of the term “Christian” is uncertain. It comprises the word “Christ,” the Greek word meaning “anointed one” (See Messiah) with an ending meaning “followers of” or “partisans of.” Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah would hardly refer to Jesus' disciples as Christians—the Messiah's followers. According to Acts 24.5, such Jews referred to Jesus' followers as “the sect of the Nazarenes,” apparently regarding Christians as a Jewish group.

Because followers of Jesus used “saints” (2 Cor. 1.1; Rom. 12.13; Acts 9.13, 32), “brothers” (1 Cor. 1.10; Rom. 1.13; Acts 1.16), “the Way” (Acts 9.2; 19.9), “disciples” (often in the Gospels; Acts 6.1–2; 11.26), and other designations when referring to themselves, it is unlikely that the term “Christian” originated among Christians.

In Acts 26.28 Agrippa uses “Christian” sarcastically; in 1 Peter 4.14–16 it is a term of reproach used during persecution. Thus, the term seems to have been derogatory. The contemporary Roman historians Tacitus (Annals 15.44) and Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars 6.16) use the term that way. Tacitus refers to Christians as people hated for their evil deeds, and Suetonius calls them “a new and evil superstition.”

If first applied to Jesus' followers in Antioch, Roman officials may have coined the word to distinguish the Christian group from Judaism. Perhaps “Christian” was used to designate the Christian movement as hostile toward Agrippa. No matter where the term originated, it was first a word of scorn or ridicule. But by the end of the first century CE Christians accepted the name as a comforting sign of God's glory (1 Pet. 4.14–16; Ignatius, Romans 3.2).

Edwin D. Freed