Little Caesars

A good (LDS) friend recently pointed out a common Christian belief that the word Christian means little Christ. He explained that friends of his had urged this meaning on him, that this explanation is everywhere, and he wanted to know whether there really was a sound Greek basis for it. I was stunned, because I’ve never heard such an idea, but when I googled

greek christian “little christ”

I got over 1200 hits, and just perusing the first couple of pages it is clear that this idea is absolutely ubiquitous. It is also absolutely wrong.

I think I can guess where it comes from. The purported translation “little Christ” means that someone is taking the word as a diminutive. And I can see the appeal of the idea over the pulpit; Christ is our model, we are to try to be like him. It could even be appealing to Mormons, since we believe we have the capacity to be like him. I’m guessing this derives from some minister’s understanding, grounded in his “baby Greek” he learned at seminary, and it found its way into devotional literature and has spread like wildfire. Anyway, here is my guess as to where this comes from:

There are a lot of diminutive formations in Greek, but the most common is io (iota omicron). For example,

pais (child, nominative)
paidos (of a child, genitive–to show the root more clearly)

The diminutive is paid-io-n, or paidion, “little
child.”

Similarly,

ornis (bird)
ornithos (of a bird)

ornithion (little bird)

aspis (shield)
aspidos (of a shield)

aspidion (small shield)

So my guess is that someone saw the form underlying English Christian as

christion

which would indeed mean “little Christ,” “little Messiah” or “little Anointed One.”

But the Greek word underlying English “Christian” acutally appears three times in the NT, and numerous times in Patristic and early Latin literature. And it’s not christion, but as follows:

In Greek:

christianos (singular)
christianoi (plural)

In Latin:

christianus (singular)
christiani (plural)

The reality is that christianus is a Latin form. This is a second declension, masculine noun, and the Greek forms are simply imitative of and adapted from the Latin. It was
common at this time in both Latin and Hellenistic Greek to use this suffix to identify the adherents of a public figure. So we have all sorts of examples, such as

Pompeiani
Augustani
Caesariani
Herodiani

These forms refer to the adherents or partisans of these men, those who belong to them or are devoted to them. So a Christian is a partisan of Christ. The above forms don’t mean “little Pompeys,” “little Augustuses” or “little Herods.”

And–with apologies to the pizza chain–Caesariani does not mean “little Caesars.”

Comments

  1. Cool, Kevin. You would think that people would naturally recognize the form of the word “Christian” as being similar to “Corinthinan,” “Ephesian,” “Roman,” “Galatian,” etc. I suspect these all have similar etymologies.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. It is interesting what people will believe (all of us) when we want to believe it, and it sounds good.

  3. Thanks for saving me from this error before I had even heard of it. I’ve been preemptively disabused!

  4. So what exactly does it mean?

    I was under the impression it is follower of… but obviously that is not an exact translation.

  5. We learned something similar in the study of medieval Russia. The Russian term for “peasant” is ????????, or krest’ian, meaning “of the cross” (?????). Now that you have brought this to my attention, I will have to revisit that long-held understanding of the term.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Jon W., if you read the OP again you’ll see that the basic meaning is something like partisan of Christ. Follower of Christ is fine.

  7. I wonder if C.S. Lewis was confused as well, or if it’s just coincidence that he said “the Church exists for nothing
    else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.”

  8. The situation is worse than you note, Kevin. If you reverse the order of your google search so that you are looking for ‘christian “little christ” greek’ you will see over 4000 hits. (Don’t ask me to explain Google’s search algorithm!) And if you leave out the word “Greek” from the google search you get 16,700 hits.

    This bizarre definition of “Christian” can often be found in “Who’s a Christian?” debates, where one “little Christ” group is smugly attempting to oust another “follower of Christ” group from the Christian fold. If this “little Christ” definition is adopted, then one can start asserting that a proper understanding of the attributes of Christ is an appropriate measure of who is and isn’t a Christian.

    Anyway, thanks for the brief analysis. I always knew it was a bad interpretation of “Christian” but my knowledge of Koine Greek and historical usage isn’t good enough to tackle it on my own.

  9. Like CE, I have always assumed Christ-ian meant the same as Ephes-ian, Paris-ian, Russ-ian, etc.

    It never occurred to me that there would be a different etymology or interpretation of this. Thanks for the information… as always!

  10. That reminds me of a joke a friend told me.
    Him: What do you call someone from Manhattan?
    Me: A Manhattanite?
    Him: Correct. Now what do you call someone from Moscow.
    Me: A Moskovite!
    Him: Yes. So… what do you call someone from Paris??
    Me: (grimace).

  11. Peter LLC says:

    Thanks, Kevin.

  12. #10

    Utah – Utahn
    Texas – Texan
    Missouri – Missourian
    Tampa – ????

  13. In the greatest mission in France (n’est ce pas, Steve Evans?) it was:

    DLness
    ZLness
    AP….

  14. Well, I’ve never heard the “Little Christs” bit before (which surprises me since I had release-time seminary)

    But, how did this thread degenerate so quickly?

    (maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t know any of these geography/mission jokes, or because I’m not smart as smart as Kevin Barney :)

  15. #14–Jess, earlier this week we learned the secret to being as smart as Kevin Barney. :-)

  16. Thanks, Kevin. I’ve heard this before and didn’t think twice about it. Just assumed it was true, I guess. Now that you point it out, I can see that it obviously isn’t. Funny the things we believe just because someone told us so, eh?

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