Acts 11.26 and the term “Christian”

In order to take a proper look at this term, we will need to get into some first century history and what was going on “behind the scenes.” This verse does not imply that a new “religion” was being formed or that it can in any way be interpreted to mean this was the beginning of what is known as Christianity today.

There are many who do interpret this verse that way, but that is an error. Christianity did not exist in the Book of Acts and neither did the false teachings that it expounds today. Believers in the first century were Torah observant Jews and so were the non-Jews who came under the authority of the synagogues. A religion like Christianity today, with all its false teachings, would never have been allowed among these believers.

The believers of the first century did not teach that Sunday was now the Lord’s Day, or Sabbath. They observed the dietary laws (Acts 28.17; 1 Tim 4.1-5), they did not celebrate pagan festivals nor did they worship idols (Acts 15.20,28-29), and they kept the biblical festivals as long as the Temple was standing. They went to the Temple (Acts 2.46), offered animal sacrifices as prescribed by the Lord (Acts 21.15-26, 24.17) and many other things. Torah observance was expressed in many ways through the traditions and not everyone did the same thing, of course, but when it came to the commandments they did (1 Cor 7.17-19; 1 John 2.3-4).

Anyone who taught that the Torah was “not for today” and that one was “free from the Law (Torah)” would have been accused of heresy and blasphemy and possibly put to death. Stephen was falsely accused of this and was stoned, which means if he was falsely accused it meant that he did not teach these things and he was Torah observant. The writers of the Gospels and Epistles taught the Torah and had nothing good to say about those who taught a “different gospel” void of the commandments.

In the first century there were many “Judaisms” and many believed different things about the Messiah, eschatology and other things. For instance, there were many groups of Pharisees, but there were two main groups. These two main groups were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. Both groups were eschatological and believed in the coming of the Messiah and so on. They both had a high regard for the oral law, but disagreed on how to observe it. The Mishnah and Talmud contain many arguments between these two schools. One thing to keep in mind is that when the Temple and Jerusalem was destroyed, all the other Jewish sects disappeared except for the Pharisees. They wrote their doctrines down and how they saw things in the Mishnah and Talmud, but that is not how everyone believed in the first century. There is much to learn about the Temple services, the priests and Levites and other things from these writings, but it does not represent the totality of Jewish beliefs in the first century. The Pharisees just survived the destruction of 70 AD and could write their beliefs down. That is what has been passed down to today in what is called Rabbinic Judaism. Yeshua disagreed with their Oral Law in Matt 23.1-2.

Shammai was more strict than Hillel when it came to certain observances. The School of Hillel was more into the “Spirit of the Law” than the School of Shammai, which had a very strict interpretation. Paul was taught in the School of Hillel by the grand-son of Hillel, a man called Gamaliel. The Sadducees, on the other hand, opposed the Pharisees and only believed in the Torah. They did not regard the prophets and the oral law and were not eschatological nor did they in believe in a “messiah.” They were the priestly class, which is strange because the priests were to be the teachers of Israel. Many high priests were Sadducees and this explains the animosity between Annas, Caiaphas and the religious authorities against Yeshua.

The Sicarii were extremely zealous and went so far as to assassinate Romans or anyone who sympathized with them. Judas was probably from this group. His name was Yehudah ha Sicarii (Judas Iscariot). The name Sicarii means “assassins or cut-throats” because that is what they did to dispose of someone they didn’t like. The Zealot party was politically opposed to Rome but did not go as far as the Sicarii, and they were Torah observant, but were linked to the Sicarii. There was another group called the Chasdim who came from Galilee and were “pious” observers of the Torah, but not at the level of the Pharisees. The Essenes were a very zealous group who opposed the corruption in the Temple. Scholars are not sure exactly who they were, but we do know they withdrew to the wilderness and built a community in Qumran. They were very eschatological.

There was also a group called the Theraputae (“healers) and they were similar to the Essenes and were very eschatological. The Am ha Eretz were the “people of the land” or “common folk” who didn’t really study much because they were busy making a living and so on. They followed the teachings of the Pharisees and liked to be told what to believe. Most of these groups would be in the category of “Traditionalists” as opposed the “Hellenists” who were influenced by Greek thought, language and culture. This contrast goes back to the time of the Maccabee’s. The zealous traditional Jews were at odds with the Hellenistic Jews 160 years before Yeshua and this resulted in the War of the Maccabees, and the traditionalists won the war, which resulted in the extra-biblical festival of Chanukah. From that time on, the Traditional Jews looked down on the Hellenistic Jews. This animosity kept going right up to the first century, and it can be seen among the believers in Yeshua in Acts 6.1-7.

The Hellenistic Jews were divided into several groups. The Judeans were not eschatological and not very observant. The Asia Minor Hellenists were very observant but influenced by Greek culture and thought. The Alexandrian Jews were Hellenistic and were Torah observant, but they were also influenced by Greek culture and thought. The last group we want to mention were the Babylonian Jews. In the first century, the majority of the Jewish people still lived in Babylon, not Israel. These Jews were very Torah observant and stayed out of all the controversies these other groups got involved in. After Rome destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem, most of the above groups disappeared except for the Pharisees. They were spared through Yochanon Ben Zakkai, who escaped the siege of Jerusalem and impressed the Roman commander. He was given permission to take his group to Yavneh, where Rabbinic Judaism was birthed, and that is what is seen today for the most part. However, the point must be made that Rabbinic Judaism does not represent what was being done in the first century and relies on rabbinic tradition.

Yeshua’s talmidim was made up of people from these groups with all the diverse beliefs and practices to go along with that. He taught things that could already be found in these groups, but with authority. His overall beliefs were similar to the School of Hillel, but on some points he sided with the School of Shammai (divorce). His teachings on ritual hand-washing and carrying a pallet on the Sabbath agreed with the teachings of Hillel. His teachings about the spirit of the Torah agreed with Hillel, and his “do unto others” teaching was similar to the School of Hillel. The point is, there was not one “Judaism” at the time, but “Judaisms” and what Yeshua and the shaliachim (apostles) taught was very mainstream.

Each group had their own courts, elders and leaders who set “halakah” or the way they should walk out the Torah. Messianic believers had their own Sanhedrin, or council, where religious controversies could be settled, as we see in Acts 15. Yeshua’s followers differed from the other groups in two main areas: they believed he was the promised Messiah and were called “Mashiachim” (Messianics) in Hebrew, and they had to find a way of dealing with the non-Jews who were coming to faith in Yeshua as Messiah without becoming Jewish first through ritual circumcision. Up to Acts 10, Peter and the talmidim believed that a non-Jew had to obtain righteousness through circumcision in order to have a place in the Kingdom of God. That is what mainstream “Judaisms” taught. In Acts 11.18 they changed their doctrine after listening to Peter and his story concerning Cornelius.

Now, it was into this world of Traditional versus Hellenistic thought that the believers were sent into, not to mention the world of just plain paganism. So, when people from these groups began to be saved, they brought their “theology” with them, whether it was good or bad. You see the concept of ritual circumcision of the non-Jews cropping up in Acts 15 and the book of Galatians because traditionalist Pharisees from the School of Shammai began to get saved and brought this concept into the faith and their interaction with the other believers. Paul, being a traditionalist from the School of Hillel, would naturally have opposed this view and it came to a head in Acts 15 and the council of elders of the Messianic community in Jerusalem had to finally deal with it. The theme in the book of Galatians has nothing to do with keeping the Torah, everyone believed that you should. The issue was whether a non-Jew had to be ritually circumcised according to the traditionalist views of the Pharisees of the School of Shammai to be saved, according to their “18 Edicts” passed in 20 BC. It was the Lord’s plan to educate Paul in the Torah concepts of the School of Hillel all along and then reveal Yeshua to him. He was then sent out into the non-Jewish world to teach them the foundations of the faith. It is no coincidence that he wrote most of the Epistles, which are messianic commentaries on how to observe the Torah in light of the fact that Yeshua was the promised Messiah. The non-Jewish world had no concept of these things.

With that in mind, lets talk about the non-Jew who believes in Messiah. These non-Jews were to be taught the Torah and they were called “Yiray Shamayim” (fearers of heaven) or God-fearers. In Greek they were called “phoubemenoi” or “sebemenoi” which means a “worshipper or devout one.” These words are used in Acts for these people. There were several other Hebraic terms they were known by. One was a “Ger T’shav” or stranger in the land. They were believers who lived in the land of Israel, like Ruth and Cornelius. If you lived outside the land you were called a “Ger ha Sha’ar” or stranger at the gate. This designation was important because where you lived determined what commandments applied to you. For instance, if you lived outside the land you did not tithe or you could not keep Passover.

So, you must understand that there was tension between the Traditional and Hellenistic Jews in the first century, even among believers. This tension had been going on for over 150 years. Paul was a Traditional Jew from the School of Hillel before he was saved and you can see why he made war on the Hellenistic Jews, especially after some of them got saved. That is why he was going to Damascus to arrest and persecute these Hellenistic believers. There were plenty of Traditional “mashiachim” (messianic) believers in Judea (Acts 8.1-3), but he went after the Hellenistic ones in Damascus. After Yeshua revealed himself to him on the road to Damascus, he did not give up his traditional views of the School of Hillel (Acts 22.3, 23.6; Phil 3.4-5) but learned how to interpret things correctly, holding on to what was good and discarding the bad. The Lord had to send him to not only Traditional Jews outside the land, but to Hellenistic Jews outside the land in order to reach the non-Jew also.

Now to Acts 11.26. Antioch was a Hellenistic city and it was named after the Greek kings who reigned there (remember, the Maccabean Traditionalist Jews fought the Hellenists that sided with Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the Maccabean wars). So, the Greek speakers in Antioch called the “mashiachim” (messianics) “christianos” which is the Greek word for “mashiachim” or “messianics” because they were coming from a Hellenistic (Greek) mindset. This group was also called the Nazarenes and Galileans. This term was eventually used by Greek speakers to insult believers and that is why Peter said that they were not to be ashamed of being called a “christianos” in 1 Pet 4.14-16, which was just the Greek word for the Hebrew “mashiachim” or “messianics” coming from the Hebrew mindset, like Peter. This was not proof that a new religion called Christianity was being formed and it has nothing to do with what is called “Christian” today. Peter was talking to Torah observant Jews who were scattered outside of the land of Israel (1 Pet 1.1) who resided as “aliens” and he was talking to non-Jewish believers in Messiah. These believers would have never accepted Christianity as it is today. Christianity is based on replacement theology and the term “messianic” and “Christian” do not mean the same thing anymore. Messianic carries the meaning of Torah observant, and Christian means non-Torah observant basically, and it is seen as applying to the non-Jewish. This couldn’t be further from the truth as expressed in the Scriptures. That is why Jews who believe in Christianity are called “Hebrew Christians” and not “Messianic Jews.”

So, what is all this suppose to look like? When the Lord saves a Jew or non-Jew, they are part of the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2.12). We are one body and both groups were to keep the Torah as it applies (1 Cor 7.17-19). We are all part of one Bride and one olive tree (Rom 11), one congregation and one faith, following the Torah commandments because we are to follow the Messiah (1 Cor 11.1-2). We have one Shepherd, one Prince, one King and one Messiah and we follow one God. Messianic (mashiachim) is just the Hebrew word for “anointed ones” and if you said it in Greek it would be “christianos” and both words mean the same thing. That is what it is suppose to look like but that isn’t what we see today, and that is why there is so much confusion about this verse. That is why we should understand the Scriptures in the way it was understood in the first century, when the Gospels and Epistles were written. We are to reject the understandings and definitions of whatever denomination (in both Judaism and Christianity) that is contrary to the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi’im), the Writings (Ketuvim), the Gospels and the Epistles.

Posted in Articles, Idioms, Phrases and Concepts, Questions, Tying into the New Testament

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