Why I don’t call myself “Christian”

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Not long ago Charisma Magazine posted a blog I wrote on the history of the first congregation in Jerusalem. Someone wrote in the comments:

They were Christians. (see Acts 11:26, 26:28-29 & 1 Peter 4:16-17)

It didn’t fit the context of the article, as it was merely a blog about history, but it was clear from further communication that he took issue with the fact that I don’t call myself a Christian—which again, had nothing to do with the blog. Nevertheless, let’s address it. His point was that the first believers called themselves Christians, so we should too.

If this is indeed true that the preferred moniker of those who believed in the Jewish Messiah was Christian, then why do I shun it?

The Goal: Effective Communication

The word Christian today does not mean what it meant then. As a communicator, my goal is for my hearers/readers to understand me. When I say to a fellow Jewish person “I am a Christian,” they are not hearing: I am a believer in Yeshua, the prophesied Jewish Messiah. Instead they hear: I have converted from Judaism to a foreign religion—I am no longer a Jew. And this is not true.

For 2,000 years supposed Christians have been telling Jews:

  • Convert or leave our country (Inquisitions).
  • You cannot be Jewish and believe in Jesus (throughout history).
  • You killed the Christ so we will kill you (Nazis, Crusaders).

Amazingly, while not being a Christian, Hitler loved to quote Martin Luther. He was fond of saying that he was God’s servant only finishing the job that the Church had started (of killing Jews). Most of the German soldiers and many Nazis considered themselves Christians. Everyone I grew up with in Richmond, Virginia who was not Jewish, called himself or herself a Christian—no matter how unchristian they were. At best it meant non-Jews, at worst, anti-Semite.

Some of the most anti-Jewish political parties in Europe use the word Christian in their title. It is sad and dishonest, but true. The blatantly anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary describes itself as “conservative and radically patriotic Christian.” In the nineteenth century there was the Christian Socialist Workers Party that blamed the Jews for Germany’s woes.

The word Christian has lost its meaning.

I am Gay!

Imagine if I announced to my congregation (although they are Hebrew-speakers, but just play along) that I am gay! It would send shockwaves throughout the body of believers in Israel. My wife would be devastated. Emails would be sent, “Can you believe it?! Ron Cantor is gay!” I would be disinvited from all future speaking events.

But after a week or two, maybe as my elders are removing me from my position as congregational leader, I clarify, “I don’t understand? Why all this controversy just because I announced I am gay—it is true. I am a genuinely happy person.”

You see the word gay does not mean what it used to mean. Therefore, in order not to devastate my wife or lose my job, I would not use that word to describe that I am happy for the simple reason that people would misunderstand me. For the same reason I do not call myself a Christian.

No New Religion

You see, New Covenant faith is Biblical Judaism, not a new religion. Yeshua did not come from a void, but was sent as part of a well thought out plan of salvation, and God used Israel/Judaism to bring it about. Yeshua said, “Salvation” is for the whole world, but “is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22). The Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied about him. Plato and Socrates were silent. This was a Jewish movement, not a Roman/Greek one. In fact, the first disciples were so completely and utterly convinced of this, that they did not even preach the Gospel to Gentiles for nearly 10 years!

Hebraic Roots of the Word

In truth the word Christian is an exclusively Jewish word that has been highjacked. For reasons already stated, it isn’t today. Let’s dissect. Many of our Biblical English words we use today come from Hebrew, but they take a tour through Greece on the way, and we lose their Jewishness in the process. For example:

Original Greek English through Greek English from Hebrew
Yeshua Iesous Jesus Joshua
Miriam Marias Mary Miriam
Yehuda Iudas Jude/Judas Judah
Mashiach Christos Christ Messiah

(Note: Christ is not a name like Yeshua, Yehuda and Miriam are. It is a title, therefore there is no phonetic connection between Mashiach and Christos, as is with Miriam and Marias.)

When First Century Jews, like Shaul (Paul), went to Greek speaking nations to speak of Yeshua the Messiah, they would refer to Him as Iesous the Christos. To their pagan hearers this was a completely Jewish/Hebraic concept. It was merely the Greek translation for Hebrew words. When the apostles proclaimed Iesous to the Gentiles there was no doubt these were not pagan, Greek or Roman concepts. He was presented as the prophesied Jewish Messiah—even though Christos could refer to pagan gods. Thus, there was no difficulty seeing the Hebraic Roots of the faith. “The followers of Jesus became known as Christians (as in Acts 11:26) because they believed Jesus to be the Messiah (Christós) prophesied in the Hebrew Bible.”[i]

However, over the centuries the Jewish Roots were all but ethnically cleansed from “Christianity” and thus when we brought the terms to English—Christ, Mary, etc.—there was no hint of their Hebraic roots. So no longer was Jesus the Jewish Messiah but the leader/founder of a foreign religion (to Jews).

But in truth, when the believers were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26), it was meant to be connected to Judaism. It is unlikely that the believers came up with this name, as all throughout acts, 28 times, they refer to themselves simply as believers. It is more likely that the pagans nicknamed them Christians. It is commonly believed it was a slur, like calling politicians who defend George Bush or Barack Obama, Bushites or Obamites. But to these pagans, in their mind, they were merely saying Messianics in Greek.

Based on the table above the Hebrew for Messianic, Meshichim, would be in Greek, Christianous, and in English Christian. But going straight to English, we would say Messianic. Thus, Messianic and Christian are in theory interchangeable, but in actuality miles apart because of the history between so-called Christians and the Jewish people.

What Should we Call Ourselves?

Nowhere in Acts do believers call themselves Christians, or Messianics for that matter. Peter, writing in Greek uses it once, and again, in his Jewish mind, saying Christian is merely saying Messianic in Greek. Furthermore, it is unclear if Peter is embracing the word or using it as a pagan would.

“However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:16)

  1. He doesn’t write if you suffer for being a Christian, but, if you suffer as a Christian. It seems that he is borrowing the term that the persecutor would use.
  2. He ends with do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. This further shows us that the term was meant as a slur. Peter is saying, “Even though they mean it as a slur, embrace it—embrace the shame of the cross and persecution.”
  3. Nowhere else in Scriptures does any leader or even believer refer to believers as Christians.

Overtime it became the accepted word and this author has no problem with that, as for me, it is a Jewish term that was stolen and ethnically cleansed. But in the New Covenant, as stated above, they referred to themselves exclusively as believers. Five times in the Book of Acts[ii] the believers refer to themselves as members of a group called The Way. So it is clear that in the book of Acts, the followers of Yeshua called themselves individually believers, and corporately The Way.

Who are the Nazarenes?

There is one other name given to believers and possibly just Messianic Jews. In Acts 24:5, the lawyer Tertullus, in seeking a case against Paul, refers to him as a “ringleader of the Nazarene sect.” For more on the word Nazarene and from where it is derived, see my post, Was Matthew a False Prophet.

According to Epiphanius, a 4th Century theologian, all Christians were once called Nazarenes. The historian Eusebius also wrote that the “name Nazarenes had formally been used by Christians.”[iii]

In the end, it all comes back to proper communications. My friend who commented on my blog seems to feel that there is something holy about the word Christian as he exhorted me, “Good enough for Peter, and good enough for Paul [Acts 26:28], I think the Messianic movement would do well to unashamedly own this biblical name – which – after all – is based upon the blessed CHRIST himself!”

Sadly he did not respond to the fact that they were also called Nazarenes or that they called themselves believers. The word Christian is not holy. It is meant to describe someone. In its current meaning worldwide, it does not describe me.

I am trying to reach my people, the Jewish people, with the truth that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah. So why would I identify myself with a name that imposters successfully used to destroy the Jewish identity of Yeshua? Why not simply return to the Hebraic terms of the first century?

In closing, let the words of Rabbi Shmuli Boteach help you further understand why I don’t call myself a Christian.[iv]

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household, I held great antipathy toward Jesus. The very name reminded me of the suffering Christians laid upon Jewish communities for two thousand years: persecutions, forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions, false accusations, degradations, economic exile, taxation, pogroms, stereotyping, ghettoization, and systematic extermination. All this incomprehensible violence against us—against our friends and families—committed in the name of a Jew! In my neighborhood, we did not even mention his name.[v]

I hope, by the grace of God, to change this perspective.

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ

[ii] Acts 9:2, 19:9,23, 24:14, 22

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazarene_%28sect%29

[iv] I do understand that some may try and use this explanation as proof that I am simply a Christian dressed up as a Jew. I reject that. I simply am following the faith of the first century Jewish followers of Yeshua, Simon Kefa, Shaul, Jacob, etc.

[v] Kosher Jesus, by Shuley Boteach, 2012, Gefen Publishing House Ltd., Jerusalem, pg. ix

Photo from Christian Cross 42 (license)

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Ron and wife Elana make their home in Tel Aviv. He serves on the pastoral team of Tiferet Yeshua—the Glory of Yeshua—a Tel Aviv-based, Hebrew-speaking Messianic congregation. Ron is a published author with Destiny Image Publishers, having written books like “Identity Theft”, “Leave Me Alone, I’m Jewish” and “The Jerusalem Secret”. Ron is a sought-out conference speaker and shares passionately about the Jewish Roots of the New Testament and God’s broken heart for His ancient people Israel.