Greek: Χριστός (Christos)
English: Christ, Messiah
by Jonathan W. Bryant, Senior Editor, Tyndale Bibles
The Greek word Christos appears in the New Testament over five hundred times—not surprising given the association of the term with the New Testament’s central character, Jesus. Upon seeing the English transliteration of the word (Christos), it might seem obvious that English translators would simply use the term “Christ” as a translation. But some translations, including the New Living Translation, have opted not to use “Christ” in all instances.
The term christos (originally an adjective meaning “anointed”) appears in nonbiblical Greek literature, but it took on a particular meaning in Jewish literature in relation to the Hebrew term mashiach, which also means “anointed.” This Hebrew term could be used in relation to an individual who was anointed with oil and thus set apart for a special office, such as a priest or a king (for example, David, as seen in 2 Samuel 23:1). As the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the translators employed the Greek term christos to render mashiach.
During the period between the Old and New Testaments, messianic expectations became more developed, as seen, for example, in the communities that produced the literature now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scripture passages such as 2 Samuel 7:1-17, Isaiah 11:1-5, Daniel 7:13-14, and Zechariah 3:8 offered hope that God would send a great “Anointed One” who would deliver his people. Such ideas and texts stood in the background of Jewish thought in the first century AD when Jesus entered the scene. Jesus’ early Jewish followers began to identify Jesus as the mashiach, the Messiah (see, for example, Peter’s confession in Mark 8:29), undoubtedly using the term mashiach (or the related Aramaic term meshicha). As Jesus’ followers began to record in the Greek language the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, they used the Greek term christos.
The NLT translators opted to translate christos as “Messiah” throughout the Gospels and Acts when the context assumes a Jewish audience (see, for example, Mark 8:29), while translating the term as “Christ” whenever a predominantly Gentile audience can be assumed (which is typically the case in the Letters and Revelation; see, for example, Romans 5:9). By doing so, the NLT retains the connection between the Greek term christos and the Hebrew term mashiach, treating the English words “Messiah” and “Christ” synonymously since both terms have the same meaning. There is actually a precedent for using the terms interchangeably in the New Testament itself. The Gospel writer John twice used the Greek term Μεσσίας (Messias), which is simply a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew mashiach, placed once on the lips of the disciple Andrew (John 1:41) and once on the lips of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at a well (John 4:25). In both cases, Jewish messianic expectations are in view; and in both cases, the interchangeability of Messias and Christos is highlighted.
As the Good News concerning Jesus spread across the Roman Empire, the term Christos essentially became a proper name for Jesus among his followers (who themselves came to be known as Christianoi, “Christians”; see Acts 11:26). The connection between the term christos and the expectations regarding a coming mashiach (“Messiah”) would have been clear to most Jewish believers.
As we reflect on this term, let us remember how Jesus, the Anointed One, fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. His coming was according to God’s plan, spoken through the prophets. And as the Anointed One, he perfectly fulfilled the roles of both king and priest, ushering in the Kingdom of God and allowing us access to his throne.