The Letter of James is the only New Testament book in which praise is given to the “beautiful name” (Jas 2:7), that of “Christ Jesus,” from which the term “Christian” originates. The designation, though rare in the early communities of believers, finds its earliest historical attestation in the Acts of the Apostles: “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26).
The fact that it was at Antioch, the capital of Syria, the third largest city in the Empire, after Rome and Alexandria, that Jesus’ disciples were first called “Christians,” is of great historical significance and a crucial juncture in the formation of the identity of the early Church. This was not only because the name was a clear and definitive sign of something real, but because it is through the name that an individual or a social group becomes aware of its own existence, distinguishes itself from others and matures its own identity. According to the Acts of the Apostles (written around the 80s), the appearance of the name “Christian” places the establishment of the community of believers in Christ in a definite timeframe, perhaps 10 years, in any case less than 20 after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Until that time, there was still no official word to distinguish those who embraced the new faith; names varied. In Paul’s Letters, followers of Jesus were called “brothers and sisters,” “those who belong to Christ.” They were also called “the saints,” while those who came from Judaism were “the circumcised” (Gal 2:7-9).
Other designations are also found in the Gospels and Acts: “the disciples,” “the believers,” “the witnesses of the risen Christ,” “the Church of God” (Acts 20:28), the “Galileans” (Acts 1:11; 2:7), “those who were being saved,” “those who belonged to the Way,” with a Hebrew term of halakhic origin, understood in an absolute sense, where “Way” means “the Lord Jesus.” In the First Letter of Peter, they are called “the chosen” (1:1).
There was also another way to refer to the disciples: “the Nazarenes,” or rather “the Nazorei” (Acts 24:5). This name originates from the appellation given to Jesus, “the Nazarene,” as found in the Gospels, or “the Nazorean,” found in both the Gospels and Acts. The term indicates not only one who comes from Nazareth, but also refers to the “Davidic descent” alluded to by the prophet Isaiah when he speaks of the future “shoot” (Isa 11:1). Moreover, it is found in the notification on the Cross (the titulum crucis), which declares the official reason for Jesus’ condemnation. To this day, in modern Hebrew but also in Arabic, Christians are called notzrim. This variety of names reveals the shaping of the new faith, but also indicates the lack of an official title that publicly and widely recognized Jesus’ disciples.