I sometimes ask people what Jesus’ last name was. Usually they reply, “I guess his last name was ‘Christ’ but I am not sure”.
Then I ask, “If so, when Jesus was a little boy did Joseph Christ and Mary Christ take little Jesus Christ to the market?”
Hearing it that way, they realize that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name. So, what is ‘Christ’? Where does it come from? What does it mean? That is what we will explore in this article. Along the way we will also see where the title ‘Son of God’ comes from.
Translation vs. Transliteration
First we need to know some basics of translation. Translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially for names or titles. This is known as transliteration. For the Bible, translators had to decide whether its words (especially names and titles) would be better in the translated language through translation (by meaning) or through transliteration (by sound). There is no specific rule.
The Bible was first translated in 250 BCE when Jewish rabbis translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. This translation is the Septuagint (or LXX) and people used it widely in ancient times and even still today. The apostles wrote the New Testament 300 years later in Greek. Therefore they quoted the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Old Testament.
Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint
The figure below shows how this affects modern-day Bibles:
The original Hebrew Old Testament is in quadrant #1. Because the Septuagint was a Hebrew to Greek translation (in 250 BCE) we show an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2. The New Testament authors wrote the New Testament in Greek, so this means #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language translation of the Bible (eg English). To get this translation linguists translate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew (1 -> 3) and the New Testament from the Greek (2 -> 3). The translators must decide on transliteration or translation of names and titles as explained above.
Bibles translated in the Orthodox tradition (generally East European churches) translate the Old Testament from the Greek Septuagint. Thus, for these Bibles, both Old and New Testaments come from the Greek (2 -> 3).
The Origin of ‘Christ’
Now we follow this same sequence, but focusing on the word ‘Christ’ that appears in New Testaments.
In the original Hebrew (in Quadrant #1) the word used for Christ was ‘mashiyach’. The Hebrew dictionary defines ‘mashiyach’ as an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person. Passages of the Psalms prophesied a specific coming mashiyach (with a definite article ’the’). In the 250 BCE Septuagint translation, rabbis used a Greek word for the Hebrew mashiyach having a similar meaning, Χριστός = Christos. This came from chrio, which meant to rub ceremonially with oil.
Therefore the word Christos was translated by meaning (and not transliterated by sound) from the Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ into the Greek Septuagint to prophesy about this coming person. This is Quadrant #2. The New Testament writers understood that Jesus was this very person prophesied in the Septuagint. So they continued to use the term Christos in the Greek New Testament. (again in Quadrant #2)
Christ in Bibles of Other Languages
But for other languages ‘Christos’ was then transliterated from the Greek into English (and other modern languages) as ‘Christ’. This is the lower half of the figure labelled #3. Thus the modern ‘Christ’ is a very specific title from the Old Testament. It derives by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then transliteration from Greek to other languages. Scholars translate the Hebrew Old Testament directly to modern languages without using Greek as an intermediate language. They have used different words in translating the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’. Some transliterated the Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ to the word Messiah by sound. Others translated ‘mashiyach’ by its meaning and so have ‘Anointed One’ in these specific passages. In either of these cases we do not often see the word ‘Christ’ in modern Old Testaments. Therefore this connection to the Old Testament is not apparent. But from this analysis we know that in the Bible:
‘Christ’ = ‘Messiah’ = ‘Anointed One’
All of these have identical meanings and refer to the same original title. This is similar to how 4= ‘four’ (English) = ‘quatre’ (French) = 6-2 = 2+2. These are all math and language equivalents of ‘4’.
Anointing was the process that a king designate went through in order to become king. This is similar to how getting elected is the process by which a Prime Minister or President gains the right to rule today. We might say the Prime Minister is the ‘elected one’ in the same way we would say the king is the ‘anointed one’. So the ‘Anointed One’, or ‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’ designated a King, someone who would rule.
Old Testment prophecies of ‘The Christ’
So where does the title ‘Christ’ first come? We see it as a prophetic title already in the Psalms, written by David ca 1000 BCE – long before the birth of Jesus.
2 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
5 He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;Psalm 2: 2-7
today I have become your father.
The Anointed One is also the ‘Son of God’
Here we also see that the Lord’s decree addresses the Anointed as ‘my Son’. In other words, God calls ‘The Anointed’ his ‘son’. This is where the title ‘Son of God’ originates, from Psalm 2. Thus, it was not invented by Jesus or even by New Testament writers. It is synonymous with the Anointed One. So now:
‘Christ’ = ‘Messiah’ = ‘Anointed One’ = ‘Son of God’
The Christ anticipated in 1st Century
With this knowledge, let’s make some observations from the Gospel. Below is the reaction of King Herod when the wise men from the East came looking for the king of the Jews. This forms part of the story of the birth of Jesus. You will see ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ used here, depending on the translation. Notice, ‘the’ precedes Messiah or Christ, even though it is not referring specifically about Jesus.
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.Matthew 2:3-4
Notice that the very idea of ‘the Christ’ (or ‘the Messiah’) was already commonly understood between Herod and his religious advisors, even before Jesus’ birth. They use the title without referring specifically to Jesus. This is because, as explained above, ‘Christ’ comes from the Old Testament Psalms written hundreds of years earlier by King David. This was commonly read by Jews of the 1st century (like Herod) from the Greek Septuagint. The title existed hundreds of years before there were any Christians.
King Herod became ‘greatly troubled’ because he felt threatened by this Christ, which he understood to be a rival King. So we see in King Herod’s reaction both the meaning of Christ (a King) and its ancient roots, originating long beforehand.
Christ in Psalm 132
The Psalms had further references to this coming Christ. I put the standard passage side-by-side with a transliterated one with ‘Christ’ in it so you can see it.
|Psalm 132- From Hebrew||Psalm 132 – From Septuagint|
|O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant, do not reject your anointed one.11 The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne— …17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one. ”||O Lord, …10 For the sake of David your servant, do not reject your Christ.11 The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne— …17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my Christ. ”|
Psalm 132 speaks in the future tense (“…I will make a horn for David…”) like so many passages throughout the Old Testament. Jews have always been waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). The fact that they are waiting or looking for the coming of the Messiah is because of the future-looking prophecies in the Old Testament.
So to sum up. The following titles are synonymous and all derive from the Psalms.
Christ = Messiah = Anointed One = Son of God
The Old Testament prophecies: Specified like a lock-key system
That the Old Testament specifically predicts the future makes it unusual literature. It is like the lock of a door. A lock has a certain shape so that only a specific ‘key’ that matches the lock can unlock it. In the same way the Old Testament is like a lock. We saw some of this in the articles on Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, and Moses’ Passover. Psalm 132 now adds the requirement that ‘the Christ’ would come from the line of David. This raises the question: Is Jesus the matching ‘key’ that unlocks the prophecies?