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Like the Raj: What does ‘Christ’ of Jesus Christ mean?

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 that is true then when Jesus was a boy did Joseph Christ and Mary Christ take little Jesus Christ to the market?”

Put that way, they realize that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name. So, what is ‘Christ’? Where does it come from? What does it mean?  Surprising to many, ‘Christ’ is a title that means ‘ruler’ or ‘rule’.  It is not unlike the title ‘Raj’, as in the British Raj that ruled South Asia for many decades.

Translation vs. Transliteration

To see this, we need to first understand some translation basics. Translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially for names and titles. This is known as transliteration.  For example, the Kumbh Mela is an English transliteration from the Hindi कुंभ मेला.  Even though मेला means ‘fair’ or ‘festival’ it is usually brought into the English by similar sound to Kumbh Mela rather than Kumbh Fair.  For the Bible, translators had to decide whether names and titles would be better in the translated language through translation (by meaning) or transliteration (by sound).  There is no specific rule.

The Septuagint

The Bible was first translated in 250 BC when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek – the international language at that time. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it was very influential.  Since the New Testament was written in Greek, its many quotations of the Old Testament were taken from the Septuagint.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows this process and how it affects modern-day Bibles

The flow of translation from original languages to modern-day Bible

The flow of translation from original languages to modern-day Bible

The original Hebrew Old Testament (written from 1500 – 400 BC) is shown in quadrant #1. Because the Septuagint was a 250 BC Hebrew –> Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2.  The New Testament was written in Greek (50–90 AD), so this means #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language translation of the Bible.  To get there the Old Testament is translated from the original Hebrew (1 -> 3) and the New Testament is translated from the Greek (2 -> 3). The translators must decide on names and titles as explained previously. This is shown with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate, showing that the translators can take either approach.

The Origin of ‘Christ’

Now we follow the process as above, but this time focusing on the word ‘Christ’.

Translation steps of 'Christ' in the Bible

Where does ‘Christ’ come from in the Bible?

We can see that in the original Hebrew Old Testament the title is ‘מָשִׁיחַ’ (mashiyach) which literally means an ‘anointed or consecrated’ person such as a king or ruler.  Hebrew kings of the Old Testament period were anointed (ceremonially rubbed with oil) before they became king, thus they were anointed ones or mashiyach.  Then they became rulers, but their rule was to be in submission to the heavenly rule of God, according to His laws.  In that sense a Hebrew king in the Old Testament was like the former Raj of South Asia.  The Raj ruled the British territories of South Asia, but was to do so under submission to the government in Britain, subject to its laws.

The Old Testament prophesied the coming of a specific mashiyach (with a definite article ’the’) who would be a unique king. When the Septuagint was translated in 250 BC, the translators chose a word in the Greek with a similar meaning, Χριστός (sounds like Christos), based from chrio, which meant to rub ceremonially with oil. So the Hebrew ‘mashiyach’ was translated by meaning (not transliterated by sound) to Χριστός (pronounced Christos) in the Greek Septuagint. The New Testament writers continued to use the word Christos to identify Jesus as this prophesied ‘mashiyach’.

But when we come to European languages, there was no obvious word with a similar meaning so the Greek ‘Christos’ was transliterated to ‘Christ’. The word ‘Christ’ is a very specific title with Old Testament roots, by translation from Hebrew to Greek, and then by transliteration from Greek to modern languages. The Hebrew Old Testament is translated directly into modern languages and translators have made different choices regarding the original Hebrew ‘mashiyach’.  Some Bibles transliterate ‘Mashiyach’ to variations of ‘Messiah’, others translate by meaning ‘Anointed One’, and others transliterate (by sound) into variations of ‘Christ’.  One Hindi word for Christ (मसीह) is transliterated from Arabic, which in turn was transliterated from the original Hebrew.  So its pronunciation ‘maseeh’ is close to the original Hebrew, while another word क्राइस्ट is transliterated from English ‘Christ’ and sounds like ‘Kraist’.  The Nepali word for Christ (ख्रीष्टको) is transliterated from the Greek Christos and so is pronounced Khrīṣṭakō.

Because we do not usually see the word ‘Christ’ in the Old Testament, the connection to the Old Testament is not always apparent. But from this study we know that the Biblical ‘Christ’=’Messiah’=’Anointed One’ and that it was a specific title.

The Christ anticipated in 1st Century

With this insight, let’s make some observations from the Gospel. Below is the reaction of King Herod when the Magi 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)

You can see that the idea of ‘the Christ’ was well understood between Herod and his  advisors – even before Jesus was born – and it is used here without referring specifically to Jesus. This shows ‘Christ’ comes from the Old Testament, commonly read by people in the 1st century (like Herod and his advisors) in the Greek Septuagint. ‘Christ’ was (and still is) a title, not a name, denoting a ruler or King. This is why Herod ‘was disturbed’ because he felt threatened at the possibility of another King.   We can dismiss the ridiculous notions that ‘Christ’ was a Christian invention or an invention by someone like Emperor Constantine of 300 AD . The title was in use hundreds of years before there were any Christians or before Constantine came to power.

Old Testment prophecies of ‘The Christ’

The title ‘Christ’ first appears in the Psalms, written by David ca 1000 BC – far before the birth of Jesus. Let’s look at these first occurrences.

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)

Here is the same passage but based from the Greek translation Septuagint.

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. The Psalms continue with more references to this coming Christ.  I put the Hebrew-based passage side-by-side with a transliterated Greek one with ‘Christ’ in it so you can see it.

Psalm 132- From Hebrew Psalm 132 – From Greek 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.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”
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.
18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but the crown on his head will be resplendent.”

You can see that Psalm 132 speaks in the future tense (“…I will make a horn for David…”). This is important when understanding Christ. It is as clear as can be that the Old Testament makes future-looking predictions about ‘the Christ’.  Herod was aware of this.  He just needed his advisers for the specifics of these predictions. The Jews have always been known to be waiting for their Messiah (or Christ). The fact that they are still waiting has nothing to do with Jesus or the New Testament but rather has to do with these future-looking predictions and prophecies in the Old Testament.

This Christ (or Messiah or Anointed One) prophesied in the Old Testament was similar in one important respect to the former British Raj.  As the Raj ruled over the nations in British India, while still under the authority of the government in Britain, the Christ was prophesied to one day rule over ‘the nations’ (Psalm 2:1) within the authority of God.

If Jesus of Nazareth was this prophesied Christ as the New Testament declares, then there are also some important differences between the Raj and the ‘Christ’.  The Raj came in military power and enforced outward submission through greater might.  Jesus came in such humility and servanthood that the powers in his day, like Herod, were caught by surprise.  Jesus the Christ first meets our need for freedom from sin and death, and by loving us first, seeks, even still today, to win our loyalty inwardly from our hearts.  Only after he has won over people in this way to Himself from all nations will he establish his outward rule.  Jesus likened this to an invitation to a great wedding feast, and many with money and power had excuses to decline the invitation.  The poor, crippled, blind and lame would show up at this feast in great numbers (see Matthew 22).  Many of the wealthy, powerful and connected in this life will miss out on the benefits of His rule.  So the question of whether Jesus is this Old Testament Christ is important to consider.  Fortunately, the Old Testament can help us.

The Old Testament prophecies: Like a lock of a lock-n-key system

Since the Old Testament clearly predicts the future, it stands in very small company across the vast sea of human literature. It is like the lock of a door. A lock is designed with a certain shape so that only a specific ‘key’ that matches the shape can unlock it. In the same way the Old Testament is like a lock. The specifications of the ‘Christ’ are not just in these two Psalms we looked at above but also in Abraham’s sacrifice, Adam’s beginning, and Moses’ Passover.  But it is in the Prophets of the period 800-400 BC in the Old Testament that the specifications of the coming Christ become even more precise, allowing us to check whether Jesus really was this prophesied ‘Christ’ – which we do next.