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.
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 BC when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is the Septuagint (or LXX) and it is still used today. Since the New Testament was written 300 years later in Greek, its writers 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 Old Testament was written in Hebrew – quadrant #1. The arrows from #1 to #2 shows its translation to Greek quadrant #2 in 250 BC. The Old Testament was now in two languages – Hebrew and Greek. The New Testament was written in Greek so it started in quadrant #2. Both the Old and New Testament were available in Greek – the universal language – 2000 years ago.
In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language like English. Typically the Old Testament is translated from the original Hebrew (going from #1 to #3) and the New Testament from Greek (#2 -> #3)
The Origin of ‘Christ’
Now we follow this same sequence, but focusing on the word ‘Christ’ that appears in English New Testaments.
The original Hebrew Old Testament word was ‘mashiyach’ which the Hebrew dictionary defines as an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person. Hebrew kings were anointed (ceremonially rubbed with oil) before they became king, thus they were anointed ones or mashiyach. The Old Testament also prophesied of a specific mashiyach. For the Septuagint, its translators chose a word in Greek with a similar meaning – Χριστός (which sounds like Christos), which came from chrio, which means to rub ceremonially with oil. So Christos was translated by meaning (and not transliterated by sound) from the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ in the Greek Septuagint. The New Testament writers continued to use the word Christos in their writings to identify Jesus as the mashiyach.
In the English Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament Mashiyach is often translated as ‘Anointed one’ and sometime transliterated as ‘Messiah’. The New Testament Christos is transliterated as ‘Christ’. The word ‘Christ’ is a very specific Old Testament title, derived by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then transliteration from Greek to English.
Because we do not readily see the word ‘Christ’ in today’s Old Testament this connection to the Old Testament is harder to see. But from this analysis we know that the Biblical ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’ and that it was a specific title.
The Christ anticipated in 1st Century
Below is the reaction of King Herod when the Wise Men from the East came looking for the ‘king of the Jews’, a well-known part of the Christmas story. Notice, ‘the’ precedes 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)
The idea of ‘the Christ’ was common knowledge between Herod and his religious advisors – even before Jesus was born – and it is used here without referring specifically to Jesus. This is because ‘Christ’ comes from the Greek Old Testament, which was commonly read by Jews of the 1st century. ‘Christ’ was (and still is) a title, not a name. It was in existence hundreds of years before Christianity.
Old Testment prophecies of ‘The Christ’
In fact, ‘Christ’ is a prophetic title already in the Psalms, written by David ca 1000 BC – long before the birth of Jesus.
The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Anointed One … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. …Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:2-7)
Psalm 2 in the Septuagint would read in the following way (I am putting it in with a transliterated Christos so you can ‘see’ the Christ title like a reader of the Septuagint could)
The kings of the earth take their stand … against the LORD and against his Christ … The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… saying …, (Psalm 2)
You can now ‘see’ Christ in this passage like a reader of the 1st century would have. But the Psalms continue with more 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. It is not that the New Testament grabs some ideas from the Old Testament and ‘make’ them fit Jesus. Jews have always been waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). The fact that they are waiting or looking for the coming of the Messiah has everything to do with the future-looking prophecies in the Old Testament.
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 posts on Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, and Moses’ Passover. Psalm 132 adds the requirement that ‘the Christ’ would come from the line of David. Here is a question worth asking: Is Jesus the matching ‘key’ that unlocks the prophecies?