In his monograph Chrestos: A Religious Epithet; Its Import and Influence, J.B. Mitchell describes the Jewish “agadists” who engaged in midrash or the reworking of ancient ideas and texts, remarking:
By [midrash], remove and fantastic analogies, metaphors taken literally, ambiguities of all sorts, punning included, took the place of accurate ratiocination [_____]…. among Patristic and ecclesiastical writers, whose thoughts were chiefly turned to and guided by Scripture, agadic analogy most frequently took the form of verbal ambiguity.
Between the words [get greek XRISTOS] and [XRHSTOS], when uttered according to the ancient way of pronouncing, there was little if perceptible difference. The former signified “anointed,” the latter “good, excellent, gracious.” It was consequently by the agadic method evidence that he who was anointed (Christ) was good and gracious (Chrest); and that that which the name Christian covered was good, excellent, and in truth really Chrestian. This argument is stated in at least five of the most eminent of the Church Fathers, embracing a period of 250 years at least.
At some point beginning in the second century, apparently, the “Christ” figure began to be called “Jesus the Good,” appropriate for someone who is made to say at John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” In the OT “Good Lord” Yahweh, one can see where the Chrestos followers derived their epithet for Jesus.
The evidence points to two separate strains of Christianity in this regard, of which one was based on “Jesus the Chrest,” the followers of whom were styled “Chrestians,” the term in the oldest extant manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (c. 350), used to describe those whom perceive of as “Christians,” as at Acts 11:26, 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16.
The image above is from the biblical verse Acts 11:26 in the Codex Sinaiticus, showing that the original Greek letter Η or eta was erased and replaced by an Ι or iota. The word usually translated as “Christ” in the New Testament is represented in the Sinaiticus by the abbreviations XC or XPC, which are used to denote “Chrestos” as well. Thus, the Sinaiticus could be all about “Jesus [the] Chrest,” not “Jesus Christ.” Interestingly, however, where the words “antichrist” and “antichrists” appear in the Sinaiticus MS, such as at 1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3, the relevant word is clearly christos. This fact is indicative of the separate but related factions using the two epithets at the same time, at least by the time the Sinaiticus was written.
Early Church fathers recorded that they were called “Chrestiani”:
Justin Martyr, who lived at Sichem or Shechem in Samaria, in the Second Century, declares that he and his fellow-recusants were called χρηστιανόι, or Chrestiani, and admits in so many words that the appelation was from the term χρηστός – Chrestos. “From the name imputed to us as a crime,” says he, “we are the χρηστοτατόι – Chrestatoi, the very good.” (Meta. Mag. 14:140)
Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 168-188) puns upon the name Christian. “I, for my part,” says he, (B.i, ch. 1,) “avow that I am a Christian, and bear this name beloved of God, hoping to be serviceable, (euchrestos.) In ch. 12 this punning is kept up throughout, thus:
“And about your laughing at me calling me ‘Christian,’ you know not what you are saying. First, because that which is anointed is sweet (Chrestos) and serviceable (euchrestos) and far from contemptible…. And what work has either ornament or beauty unless it be anointed or burnished? Then the air and all that is under heaven is in a certain sort anointed by light and spirit, and are you unwilling to be anointed with the oil of God? Wherefore we are called Christians on this account because we are anointed with the oil of God.”
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 189-202) in like manner says, (Misc., B. ii, ch. 4): “Now those who have believed in Christ both are and are called good, (Chrestoi.)”
Lactantius, an eminent Christian author (A.D. 301-330), says that the Greeks “were accustomed through a mistake of ignorance (?) by the change of a letter, to say Chrestus.” (Div. Inst., B. iv, ch. 7.)
Tertullian, the first of the Latin Fathers (A.D. 193-220), says:
“But Christian, so far as the meaning of the word is concerned, is derived from anointing. Yes, and even when it is wrongly pronounced by you Chrestianus (for you do not even know accurately the name you hate), it comes from sweetness and benignity.” (Apol., Sec. 3. See also Ad. Nat., ch. 3.)…
Justin Martyr, one of if, not the, earliest and best of the authenticated Fathers, calls the Christians *Chrestianoi*. Not that the word is so found in his writings; oh no! The priestly scribes have been careful to change the e to i. In his “First Apology,” ch. 4, this passage occurs:
“So far, at least, as one may judge from the name we are accused of, we are most excellent (crestotatoi) people…. For we are accused of being Christians, and to hate what is excellent (chrestos) is unjust.”
It is further suggested that the name Chrestos was favored by Gnostics.
According to G.H.R. Horsley (New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, v. 3, 133), in post-Constantinian times the “open profession of faith,” including “references to χρηστιανοι πρεσβύτεροι” or “chrestian presbyters” was not “provocative,” indicating it was common enough.
The Sybilline Oracle
Let us also not forget the interesting and famed acrostic purported to be from the Erythrean Sybil, traditionally said to date to at least the century before Christ’s purported advent:
Ιησους Χρειστος, Θεου Υιος, Σωτηρ, Σταυρος
Jesus Chreistos, Son of God, Savior, Cross
This fascinating formula was cited by Church historian Eusebius (Oratio Constatini ad Sanctorum Coetum, 18) as appearing in the works of pre-Christian Latin writer Cicero (citing De divin. 2), used by the Christian father to demonstrate that the Sybil had “prophesied” the great Christian savior. Earlier, the “oracle” is evidently the subject of interest by Justin Martyr (Add. to Greeks, ch. 38). Church father Lanctantius (c. 240-c. 320) had likewise identified this verse to have been in Cicero, while Theophilus Antiochenus, Augustine, Origen and others insist that Varro discussed the oracular acrostic as well, also in pre-Christian times. This purported Sybilline Oracle has been dismissed as a Christian forgery, but this discussion raises a number of issues, whether or not the acrostic is forged. If it is forged, it demonstrates once again how dishonest were very many of the early Christian efforts.
As concerns this peculiar spelling, Χρειστός, Irenaeus uses it several times in his Against Heresies (15). The spelling of “Chreistos,” rather than “Christos,” may be an indication that it is Pagan, not Christian. The name “Jesus,” of course, was quite common in pre-Christian antiquity; for example, it can be found throughout the Septuagint, wherever the name “Joshua” appears in the Old Testament, which is over 200 times. The phrase or concept of a or the “son of God” is likewise found abundantly in pre-Christian antiquity, in a variety of forms. For example, the Greek demigod Hercules was the son of Zeus, called “Father,” whose very name means “God” or “heavenly” (Dios). Soter or “Savior” was a common epithet in pre-Christian times, both within Paganism and Judaism.The title Soter or σωτὴρ, meaning “savior” or “deliverer,” appears dozens of times in the extant works of various ancient Greek writers, such as Aeschylus, in whose play Seven Against Thebes (520) the god Zeus is called Soter or “Savior.” The inclusion of the word Stauros or “Stave,” the exact term used for Christ’s object of execution, appears to be a Gnostic motif, as in the “Horos-Stauros” and “Jesus Stauros” of Gnosticism. This concept could be pre-Christian as well, as were many other Gnostic ideas, found in a variety of cultures, including the Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and Syrian.
All in all, if we suppose that the figure of “Jesus Christ” represents in large part a mixture of Old Testament “messianic prophecies” used via midrash as a blueprint for the awaited messiah, along with mystical ideas, spells, sacred names, puns, acrostics and so on within the Greek-speaking mystery schools and brotherhoods, it would not be entirely surprising if this Sybilline text genuinely pre-dated the supposed advent of Jesus of Nazareth and was later used in the creation thereof.
This word chreistos can also be found in the Codex Vaticanus. It comes from the same root as chrestos, and this alternate spelling evidently precedes the usage of the letter η or eta in Greek writing. The inscription accompanying this acrostic has nothing to do with Christianity [chk], a fact that would tend to confirm its pre-Christian origin.
Marcion’s Jesus the Good
Followers of “Jesus the Good” included the Marcionites, upon whose earliest extant church in Syria allegedly could be found that very phrase, Ἰησοῦς χρηστός, over the doorway, the oldest dated Christian inscription (October 1, 318 AD/CE). A contemporary of Justin, the “heretical” Gnostic-Christian Marcion of Pontus (fl. 150 AD/CE) was notorious for being anti-Judean, which may explain why he did not follow “Jesus the Messiah,” as is one translation of “Jesus the Christ.”
Some doubt has been cast on the Marcionite inscription, as it seems to have been lost. Kittel, et al. (1321), make a brief reference to it, but do not cite where it can be found. In consideration of the abundant existence of this word prior to and into the common era, as well as the focus of Marcion on the “Good God,” as opposed to the Demiurge, it would not surprise us at all if this “Jesus the Good” epithet was found within Marcionism.
In this regard, The Edinburgh Review (181.217) remarks:
Some sects called their sacred buildings synagogues. At Deir Aly (the ancient Lebabah), on Mount Hermon, a lintel-stone built in above a doorway in the Druse village preserves the memory of the famous heretic Marcion. The “Synagogue of the Marcionites” was here raised in 318 a.d., five years after the edit of toleration–that of Milan–by Paul the Presbyter, in honour of Jesus ChrEstos. Epiphanius says that in his time this sect existed in Rome and Italy, in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Syrian, in Cyprus and the Thebaid, in Persia and elsewhere. The text is older than any extant church, and terms the place of meeting a “synagogue.”
This journal cites the inscription as being published in “Inscriptions de la Syrie, No. 2558.” He then cites the inscription as reading: Συναγωγή Μαρκιωνιστων κώμ(ης) Λεβάβων του κ(υρίο)υ καί Σ(ωτή)ρ(ον) Ιησου Χρηστου προνοία Παύλου πρεβ(υτέρου) του λχ έτους. This text translates as: “The synagogue of the Marcionists, in the village of Lebaba, of the Lord and Savior Jesus Chrest [by the] forethought of Paul [a] presbyter in 630 year.” (Following Phoenicia.org; 630 represents the year of the Seleucid calendar.)
Warren cites this inscription as also discussed in “Smith and Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography, iii. 819.” Another source, saying the site is south of Damascus, cites “Waddington, Inscriptions de la Syrie…Paris, 1870, no. 2558, p. 582.” The full title of the book is Inscriptions Grecques et Latines de la Syrie by William Henry Waddington (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1870). The site of Deir Ali is some three miles south of Damascus: “The town was historically a village known as lebaba, and contains the archaeological remains of a Marcionite church. These remains includes an inscription dated to 318AD, which is the oldest known surviving inscribed reference, anywhere, to Jesus…” We are further informed that the co-author of the Syriac inscription book is Philippe Le Bas.
We also discover that some Manichaeans adopted this usage, “Jesus the Good” or Jesus Chrestos, as well. (See, e.g., Gardner, et al., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire, 167). There were many points of contact between Marcionism and Manichaeism.
Interestingly, although the extant manuscripts of the Church fathers of the second to third centuries possess the word “christos,” there appears to have been no inscriptions using the word “Christ” before the third century. Instead, we find “Chrest” and “Chreist.” Bennett (13) says that, at his time (1880), the “two earliest of all Christian inscriptions of known date are those which are numbered respectively 9727 and 9288; in the former the name occurs in the form of [XPHSTOUS], in the latter that of [XPEICTE].
“…the fact remains that during the first four centuries of our era it was the common practice of the Christians to write the name of their Master Chrest or Chreist, and to style themselves *Chrestiani*. That the non-Christian Gentiles were likewise in the habit of putting Chrest for Christ is extremely probable.”
The Gnostic amulet
In addition, in one of the catacombs at Rome appears an inscription that says “Jesus Good,” possibly either a “Gnostic amulet” or “early Christian symbol,” representing a “figure of an anchor, the upper part of which resembles the ansate cross, with the figures of two fishes, one on each side.” This confusion indicates the artifact may date from the period when Gnosticism and Christianity were not quite distinct, possibly dating to as early as the third century. [chk] This inscription uses the Greek letter ε or epsilon, rather than the η or eta of the word χρηστὸς. It should be noted, however, that these words are related, both having at root the meanings “use,” “need,” “debt” and “prophecy.”
The followers of “Jesus the Christ” would be more Jewish in their perception of this supernatural figurehead, the “Christ” being a common enough figure in the Old Testament, an epithet applied some 40 times to priests and kings, such as Saul, David and the Persian ruler Cyrus. Eventually these Judaizing “Christians” took charge of the Jesus movement, although not for centuries, as this “Chrestian” manuscript tradition attests.
Andrew Liddle on Hadrian’s letter:
…Hadrian could hardly have been referring to Greek-speaking Jews when he wrote of the Egyptian worshippers of Serapis. Besides, Chrestos was a title borne by Osiris; and, therefore, the probability is that the (Osirian) worshippers of Serapis called themselves “Chrestoi” – the “good folks,” or followers of the Good One.
iWhen the Greek conquerors of Egypt assimilated the old Osirian faith with the Greek worship of Hades in the worship of Serapis as Lord of the Underworld (the sun-spirit which, presiding over the destinies of the dead, assured their resurrection, similar to his own), Chrestos his title, as equivalent to the Egyptian *nofri*, or “excellent,” found on Egyptian tombs with the *crux ansata,* or sign life. Among Egyptians of the post-Ptolemaic period Chrestoi was equivalent to “the good, the justified.” Thus the of Serapis were Chrestoi, and Hadrian may originally so written it. But, as one-third of the inhabitants of Alexandria were Jews, it is likely that the play on words, which identified the worshippers of the “anointed” with the “good,” is earlier. Philo shows the eclecticism which was going on a century before Hadrian. The Therapeuts he describes were like the monks of Serapis, and they identified by Eusebius with the Christians. We find play on words in Romans xvi. 18, 1 Peter ii. 3, in Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian; all dated before the fourth century. The latter
says (*Ad Nationes): “By a faulty pronunciation you call us Chrestians, and so utter the sense of pleasantness and goodness.” It was natural that tomb inscriptions should retain this older and more general form. No doubt the double tended both to popularise the Christian name and to modify the character of the faith. The letter of Hadrian indicates that in the second century Christianity was allied to, or had not entirely disengaged itself from, the Egyptian faith, and suggests that it dates rather from Alexandria than Jerusalem.
In the extant manuscripts, the New Testament overtly associates only God, not Jesus with the epithet Chrestos. Yet, the references to “Christ” in early NT manuscripts such as the Sinaiticus, for one, are made with a form of the monogram XP or XPS, and we know that it in pre-Christian times these abbreviations connoted chrestos. Therefore, it is possible that one or more of these chi-rho references in the NT in actually stood for Chrestos; one would submit that it made sense that all of them were, if such was the case. [where]
Theophilus’s discussion in Ad Autolycum (12) about the word “Christian”:
And about your laughing at me and calling me “Christian,” you know not what you are saying. First, because that which is anointed is sweet and serviceable, and far from contemptible. For what ship can be serviceable and seaworthy, unless it be first caulked [anointed]? Or what castle or house is beautiful and serviceable when it has not been anointed? And what man, when he enters into this life or into the gymnasium, is not anointed with oil? And what work has either ornament or beauty unless it be anointed and burnished? Then the air and all that is under heaven is in a certain sort anointed by light and spirit; and are you unwilling to be anointed with the oil of God? Wherefore we are called Christians on this account, because we are anointed with the oil of God. (Translation by Roberts, et al.)
The original Greek of this passage reads: