Posted by: chuckbumgardner | April 5, 2010

Christos = “Smeared One”?

In my reading of Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (InterVarsity, 1999), I find that Paul Barnett sets forth a striking assertion regarding Gentile perception of the title Christ, noting that the Messianic title Christos would have meant “smeared one” to Greeks and Romans, and as such would have been incomprehensible to them.  This is a repeated assertion in his writings:

Yet for Gentiles, with whom the future of the movement [of Christianity] belonged, the preaching of a crucified Jew with the incomprehensible title Christos, which meant ‘smeared one,’ was regarded as ‘folly’ (1 Cor 1:23). (Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, 19)

Because of semantic problems with ‘the Christ’ (= ‘the smeared one’), Gentiles came to refer to him not by a title but by a name, Christ. (ibid., 34)

The Roman authorities and the people at large were doubtless mystified at the identity of a leader called ‘the smeared one.’ (The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years [Eerdmans, 2005], 184)

The title ho christos meaning ‘the smeared one’ or ‘the painted one’ would mean nothing to a Gentile at that time. (

Now, I realize that christos is generally glossed as “the anointed one” and that in our literature, chriw (from which the adjective christos is derived) is generally to be understood as “anoint” (BDAG 1091d) or by extension “assign” (i.e., anoint to set apart for a particular service, cf. Louw-Nida).  In other Greek contexts, chriw has a semantic range including “anoint,” “rub,” “smear,” “color (smear with color)” (Liddell-Scott), so I can see from whence “smeared one” comes, but the question that comes to my mind in reading Barnett is whether Gentiles would truly have been mystified when faced with the title “Christ.”

I found that Barnett is not the only one who asserts this connotation of christos:

‘Christ’ is the anglicized form of a Greek word, ‘Christos.’  The Greek word is the translation of a Hebrew and Aramaic word, ‘Messiah.’  To say that Jesus is the Christ (Greek) is the same as saying Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew).  But what does Christ/Messiah mean in plain English?  When the term is translated (rather than transliterated), we have a common English word that corresponds to the meaning of both ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah,’ namely ‘smeared’ or ‘anointed.’ [footnote: ‘Like all our religious words, ‘smeared’ or ‘anointed’ were ordinary secular words before they were adopted for religious purposes and filled with religious meaning.  The words are used in the Bible [in certain passages] in thoroughly secular ways.’]  It may sound peculiar or even irreverent, but to say in English that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ or ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ is the same as saying ‘Jesus is the smeared one,’ or ‘Jesus is the anointed one.’ (M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible: A History of Disciples Biblical Interpretation in North America [Chalice, 1997], 432)

It is . . . doubtful that [Paul] could invite Gentiles to give worship to, and to risk their reputations and their lives for, ‘the Smeared One’ (as Hengel renders christos), with no particular explanation as to what this strange title might imply.  (Sean McDonough, Christ as Creator: Origins of a New Testament Doctrine (Oxford, 2009), 14)

…some people … began to talk about Jesus to ‘Greeks’–that is, to pagans (Acts 11:20). This meant talking about Jesus in a new way.  There was little to be gained by stressing the ethnic term ‘Messiah.’  It could be translated into Greek easily enough, but the translation (‘the Smeared One’) would still seem odd to anyone not well acquainted with Jewish institutions.  Explaining it would require a lengthy introduction to the Scriptures … (Andrew Walls, “Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 28 (2004): 3)

Following up on the references to Hengel, I discovered the following references:

It must also be noted that, for a Greek, Christos referring to a person would have been meaningless.  Such a usage will have communicated something like ‘[he] who has been smeared’, but this never occurs in a personal sense.  The neutral christon meant ‘rubbing ointment’, and neochristos ‘newly plastered’. [fn: ‘Liddell/Scott/Jones, 1170.’]  The title Christos as a proper name was so unusual that, non-Jews confused it, by itacism, with the common slave name Chrestos, as does Suetonius in his well-known remark on the reign of Claudius.  Tacitus likewise, in his account of the Neronian persecution, calls the Christians Chrestiani. That even the Jew Josephus refers to James as ton adelphon tou legomenou christou (Ant. 20.200), using the name for Jesus known to his Graeco-Roman readers, shows how completely Christos had  become a proper name. (Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology [T. & T. Clark, 1995],  2)

For the average devotees of indigenous pagan cults, say of Zeus, Dionysus, Serapis, the Dea Syria, or Isis, his his message would at first have been incomprehensible.  The word Christos, which in Greek did not even denote a person, literally meant someone ‘smeared’ or ‘anointed’ and was therefore, due to a simple itacism, misunderstood as the slave name Chrestos.  (Martin Hengel, “Early Christianity as a Jewish-Messianic, Universalistic Movement” in Martin Hengel and C. K. Barrett, Conflicts and Challenges in Early Christianity [Trinity, 1999], 30)

The title and name ho Christos was also totally incomprehensible for Greeks and Romans (= ‘the smeared’); the itacistic pronunciation of [eta] as [iota] gave the slave-name Chrestos. (Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity [Wipf & Stock, 2003], 167)

As far as web research has taken me, then, it appears that Hengel was the first to suggest the “incomprehensible” nature of ho Christos to the Gentiles.  I have a good deal of respect for Hengel’s scholarship, but it still seems unusual that ho Christos would have been that meaningless to Greeks and Romans.  I assume the main stay of Hengel’s argument is that he has not found ho Christos used “in a personal sense”; however, I don’t find Hengel or others quoting any Greco-Roman authors to support the “incomprehensibility” of the title in the larger Greco-Roman world, which would be a good deal more convincing.



  1. I read your article it’s very good with the exception
    That the Messiah was called the Nazarette and the Messianic believers were called followers of the Nazarette. The Jewish people did not use the word Christos it was not a part of the Hebrew Language and the Jewish people did not use the Greek Language for conversational purposes during this era.

    Paul was somewhat of a linguist and educated in the School of Hillel (He was a Pharase) so he would definately not have used the word Christos

  2. I think that the main point Barnett and the others were trying to make was that the Romans and Greeks would not have had the cultural context to understand what the title means. They would take the title literally as “the smeared one” or “the one rubbed with ointment” and not know that consecrating someone with holy oil has religious meaning in the Jewish faith. I think that there are instances of anointing bodies with olive oil before burial in Greco-Roman practice, and probably other instances in the various religious cults where olive oil in particular had a role, but that doesn’t mean that ancient Greeks and Romans would understand the title “ho Christos” in a significantly religious way. It is similar to telling someone nowadays that so-and-so is a football star, when that person has never heard of football or seen a game. The person would understand the individual words, but there would be no comprehension of the meaning of the phrase.

    • Jillian, that’s a good point. I’m not familiar with the notion of how the larger Mediterranean world would have viewed the use of (olive) oil for anointing, and that would be an interesting question to chase.

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