Did the followers of Yahusha our Messiah call themselves ‘Christians’? Religion would have you think so. But is this true? In my quest to find out, I discovered many disturbing facts about the origin of words that make up a large part of the Christian vocabulary.

Let’s begin with the name ‘Christian’

In Acts 11:25-26, we are told that Antioch is the place where the followers of Yahusha were first called Christians. The King James Bible gives us this account:

Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

But the Apostolic Bible Polyglot translates the verses this way:

And unto Tarsus Barnabas went forth, to search out Saul. And having found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass for them to be gathered with the assembly a whole year, and to teach a fit multitude. And the disciples were first treated as Christians.

Are the translators trying to say that the people who believed in Messiah were ‘called’ by the name Christian, or that they were first ‘treated’ as Christians? The question may seem a bit nit-picky, but in a few minutes, you will see where I am headed with this line of thinking.

Language Barriers

Translating words from ancient Hebrew to modern American English can be difficult. There are historical and cultural differences. There are also language peculiarities called idioms.

An example of an idiom is when you say someone is in hot water. What you mean is that person is in trouble. Or, when you say a friend just got a pink slip, you mean they just got fired.

Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) defines idiom as “the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class: dialect.”

When the King James translators wrote that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch,” did they mean there was name-calling involved? Let’s dig deeper.

According to the Farlex Dictionary of Idioms, to call someone a name means:

1. To mock or disparage one with rude or offensive names. My son is miserable because the kids at his new school call him names.

2. To speak to or about one derisively. I barely even know Lauren, so why is she calling me names to other people?

When you ‘treat’ someone as something, it’s a different story. You ‘act’ toward them in a certain way. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the origin of the word ‘treat’ back to Latin (tractare) and Old French (traitier).

What about the meaning of the word Christian?

The disciples who were taught by Messiah never used the term Christian to describe themselves. The earliest use of the term Christian as a noun to describe a believer in Messiah was in the 1520s. In a general sense, the word was defined as someone demonstrating the spiritual character of a follower of Messiah (Christ).

It is interesting to note that around the late 18th century, the Alpine word ‘crestin’ morphed into The French word ‘crétin’ meaning a dwarfed and deformed idiot. It was a condition common in the Alpines that was caused by a thyroid hormone deficiency. In Vulgar Latin you get ‘christianus’ which was a generic term that was used to imply ‘poor fellow’ around the late 1700s.

This tells me that they were calling believers ‘idiots’ or ‘cretins’ when they used the word Christian.

Did Messiah ever refer to His followers as Christians?

Yahusha was from the tribe of Judah and we can trace his lineage back to eternity (John 1:1) and to King David (Acts 13:23) in the earthly realm.

The first followers of Messiah were mostly of Shemitic heritage. They either lived in the territory of Judah or in the area known as Israel (after the Kingdom was divided). The term ‘Christian’ did not exist before or during the first century of the Common Era (CE). These Hebrews would not have referred to themselves by a term that had not yet been coined.

To find the answer to the question of how Yahusha referred to his followers, let’s rely on the Scriptures. What did the Prophets say about the coming Messiah?

YeshaYahu (Isaiah) 11:1 says…

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
KJV

And a Rod shall come forth from the stump of Yishai (Jesse), and a Sprout from his roots shall be fruitful.
The Scriptures

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Yishai, and a Netzer-Branch shall grow out of His roots.
Restoration Scriptures True Name Edition Study Bible, Volume I, 5th Edition

Zechariah 6:12:

Then speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says [Yahuah] of hosts, saying: “Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH! From His place He shall branch out (sprout up), and He shall build the temple of [Yahuah]. [1]
KJV

The Hebrew word for ‘branch’ is neser נצר (Strong’s #H5341). [2] It can mean a ‘shoot’, in the sense of green-ness; a shoot; or figuratively a descendant: — branch. It comes from the word nasar (Strong’s #H5341) a primitive root meaning in a positive sense to guard or protect, maintain, watchman, keeper, or obey. Or it can mean to conceal.

It is interesting that Yahusha grew up in a town called Nazareth located in Lower Galilee.

So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:23, NLT

Nazareth or Natsareth was a place known for its sweeping, panoramic views. This ties in with natsar which can mean ‘watchman’ in certain instances.

In the Scriptures Messiah was called a Nazarene or Natsarim. So were His disciples. Sha’ul/Paul is called the ringleader of the Natsarim in Acts 24:5, 6:

For having found this man a plague, who stirs up dissension among all the Yahudim throughout the world, and a ring-leader of the sect of the Natsarenes, who also tried to profane the Set-apart Place, and whom we seized, and wished to judge him according to our law…
The Scriptures

For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.
KJV

For having found this man mischievous and moving insurrection among all the Jews in the habitable world, and front rank of the sect of the Nazarenes.
The Apostolic Bible Polyglot

Netser and Natsar seem to be used interchangeably. In some instances meaning ‘branch’ and in another meaning to ‘watch or guard.’ Both meanings work, in my opinion.

We can be called branches, as in branches of Yahusha’s teachings (or the branches grafted into the olive tree) and watchmen or guardians of the Name and Word.

It seems more logical to apply the term Natsarim or ‘branches’ to the followers of Yahusha than the term ‘Christian’. This is made even more obvious when you read John 15:5 where Messiah is telling his disciples that He is the Vine and they (we) are the branches. You can’t get any clearer than that.

How did the Netsarim become Christians?

This is the question I’ve asked myself many times. After much research, I believe the answer can be traced back to a first century tax known as the Fiscus Judaicus. The tax was imposed on the entire Roman empire and acted like a litmus test to separate the Hebrews [3] from the secular population.

In the book “Fiscus Judaicus” by Marius Heemstra, the argument is made that this particular tax created a line of division between the two groups. It was referred to as ‘the parting of the ways.’ This line of demarcation appears to have birthed a religious identity that was separate from that of Torah observant Hebrews. This new identity apparently was a cultural construct designed to jettison the ‘baggage’ and consequences of being a part of Covenant Israel.

From torahresource.com (PDF):

Therefore, one of the unintended consequences of the Jewish Tax was that it forced the various communities to define themselves as either Jewish or non-Jewish. On the one hand there were those Traditional Jews who saw themselves as Torah observant and Covenant members of Israel and would never shrink from that identity; they would clearly pay the tax. On the other hand, there were those who, although Jewish by blood, tried to hide their Jewishness in order to prevent having to pay the tax. How would this be done? By avoiding appearances of Jewish practices such as Sabbath observances, keeping of Jewish festivals, etc. This was far more widespread than one might initially realize. For example, there were thousands of Jews who had been captured as slaves and brought to Rome during Pompey’s assault on Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E.

By Domitian’s time many of their offspring saw themselves as thoroughly Roman. They neither identified with their Jewish lineage nor its practices. Therefore, they bitterly resented having to pay such a heavy tax for what they viewed as an accident of birth. Finally, there were those who, although not Jewish by blood, nevertheless practiced the Jewish faith in both Messianic and Traditional Jewish communities. Of these two groups, the early Messianic Community found itself particularly vulnerable since these followers of “The Way” belonged to a faith that was still considered a party of Judaism, even though many or even most were Gentile believers by this time.

I believe our identity as Torah observant Hebrews has to come from Yahusha, the anointed Sovereign of Yisharal. The name Jesus is not Hebrew. None of the disciples would have known this name which a corruption of Yahusha.

Regardless of your race or ethnicity, if you are a believer in Yahusha, you are Netsar; collectively known as Netsarim — branches. We are brothers and sisters united in this belief and our love for one another.

When we were immersed (baptized) in His Name and trusted in His atonement for our sins, we became citizens of His Kingdom. Our love for one another is our greatest testimony to a dark and fallen world.

One day we will be resurrected with new bodies. In the meantime, we have work to do — proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel.

 

Photo Credit: Samuel Zeller via Unsplash

 


[1] The title ‘Lord’ is substituted with the True Name of The Most High Elohim, YHWH (Yahuah).
[2] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, 8th printing. 2017
[3] I substituted the word Hebrew for the word Jew. The word Jew is a modern-day construct. It does not mean the people who were from the Biblical tribe of Yahudah/Judah. The correct term is Yahudim or Yahudi.