August 29, 2005

Christos as a Proper Name in Matthew

So I was looking at the Greek text of Matthew 27 today (for those of you who have not read my posts on these subjects before, I have been studying classical Greek at Penn for two years now and have been taking some time on my own to look at the text of the NT), and I noticd that Pilate twice (vv. 17, 22) identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the phrase, Iesous hos legomenos Christos, "Jesus, who is called 'Christ.'" The reason I thought this was curious is that it lacks the article (equivalent of the English word "the"). My first intuition was that if the article was added, that is, if the phrase was Iesous hos legomenos hos Christos, then the phrase would be "Jesus, who they say is the Appointed One," and I wondered, at first, if perhaps Pilate, being Roman, didn't really understand what all this "Messiah" stuff was, and was using christos not substantively, but simply as an adjective attributed to Jesus, in which case the correct translation would be "Jesus, who is called 'anointed,'" with a "whatever the heck that means" implied by the context. However, my intuition may very well have been based on English rather than Greek (English "Anointed" vs. "the anointed one"). To research this point, I used the crosswalk.com Greek Lexicon to find all the occurences of christos in Matthew (I ignored occurrences of the phrase "Jesus Christ", assuming that that was a different case than the one I was interested in). The result was somewhat surprising. Christos occurs without the article and without the name Iesous immediately preceding or following it only four times, and three are in the phrase Iesous hos legomenos Christos (two of these are uttered by Pilate in chapter 27, the third is at 1:16, in the genealogy). The fourth usage is in 26:68 where Jesus is addressed as Christe, the vocative case of Christos. The surprising conclusion that I have come to is that Matthew is using Christos (in his own mouth in 1:16, and in the mouths of Romans in the other three cases) as a proper name of Jesus.

Perhaps this is not surprising to some people. The reason it surprises me is that I was always taught that Christ was not part of Jesus' name, but rather a title.
In fact, Matthew does not seem to use the word always this way, but sometimes seems to treat it as a surname, just as Peter was a surname of Simon Bar-Jonah. Surnames in the ancient world were primarily meaningful (in the Bible, usually very deeply meaningful) nicknames used to distinguish between people with the same first name. For instance, in a few texts of 27:16, Barabbas's first name seems to be Jesus as well, so that Pilate is asking, "which Jesus do you want me to release - the one who is called 'Barabbas', or the one who is called 'Christ?'" (As for the significance of the name "Barabbas", it happens to look suspiciously similar to the Aramaic for "son of my daddy." I don't read Aramaic, but it has been guessed that this may have been a name this bandit/insurrectionist went by to hide his identity.)

What effect does this have on translation? Well, I would suggest, first, that where Christos is used as a proper name it should always be transliterated (i.e., rendered as a proper name, "Christ" with a capital C, in English translations). Second, it seems that we can identify some cases where it is not used as a proper noun. For instance, both Matthew 22:42 and 24:5 are obvious cases where it is not a name, but a title. In these cases we should probably NOT transliterate, but render the word as "the Appointed One" (a rendering I was convinced of by my interaction with The New Testament in Plain English Blog) or something similar. Of course, the meaning of the name Christ should be footnoted at its first use in a given book. Note also that, since this is a blog post and not a dissertation, I haven't looked at the uses of the word in the rest of the NT, let alone all of early Christian literature, so I couldn't say just yet whether this should be extended to the rest of NT translation, or if it only applies to Matthew.

Anyway, for those of you who read this far in expectation of some kind of theological point, I don't really have one, I just ran across this today and thought it was interesting. I also thought that if I posted it and I happened to be greatly mistaken in this matter, someone would be good enough to tell me.

Posted by Kenny at August 29, 2005 8:56 PM
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