Translating XRISTOS

From: David Moore (
Date: Mon Sep 11 1995 - 00:35:36 EDT

        When one considers the commonly understood meaning of the word
"Christ" in contemporary English, it seems questionable whether this word
adequately translates the Greek term XRISTOS in all contexts. For many
moderns, "Christ" is understood as something like the surname of Jesus.

        Although most dictionaries define "Christ" as "Messiah", in most
contexts and for most contemporary readers, "Christ" lacks the Old
Testament connotations that "Messiah" legitimately brings with it. Part
of this problem stems from "Christ" having come into English from Greek as
a transliterated word. The problem is that the meaning which XRISTOS had
for 1st-century readers of Greek is not necessarily that which the word
"Christ" has for us. This is partly because New Testament readers of the
first century had an Old Testament context for XRISTOS since it was the
word used in the LXX to translate MA$IAX (Messiah, Anointed) and other
related terms. Today's English-language reader, however, lacks an Old
Testament frame of reference for the term. In fact, many today would say
that the use of "Christ" in reference to the Old Testament seems out of
place because it implies reading the New Testament back into the Old.

        Additionally, since "Christ" has been used almost exclusively
within a Christian context other uses of the word also carry the
connotation of the "Christian" meaning of the term. So, the second entry
s.v. in _Webster's Third New International Dictionary _ is, "One who in
his outlook or activities resembles Jesus." We also might cite such
compound terms as "Christ-like" which, in most contexts, definitely
relates directly to the person of Jesus.

        A verse from the NT that I have found useful in explaining the
meaning of "Christ" is Jn. 1:41 in which Andrew says to his Brother Simon
Peter, "We have found the Messiah." The Gospel writer adds an explanation
for his Greek-reading audience, "Which, being interpreted, is 'Christ.'"
I find that modern readers or hearers much more readily understand
"Messiah" than the transliteration of the Greek term that the Evangelist

        To illustrate that "Messiah" is, in some contexts, a better term
than "Christ" for translating XRISTOS, I'll cite a few examples from the
first of the Gospels. In Mat. 2:4 Herod is portrayed as asking the
priests and teachers of the Law where the Christ was to be born. IMO, the
substitution of the word Messiah (NIV margin) would portray his question
much more clearly. In Mat. 11:2, we may have a truly "Christian" meaning
for XRISTOS; TA ERGA TOU XRISTOU probably refers to the personal works of
Jesus rather than referring to John's perceptions of His work. But, in
Mat. 16:16, which better expresses what Peter was saying: "You are the
Christ...." or "You are the Messiah...."? And in the discussion between
Jesus and the Pharisees of Mat. 22:41ff., wouldn't it be logical to
understand Jesus, in this discussion among Jews, to be saying, "What do
you think regarding the Messiah; whose son is He?"

        Translating XRISTOS in Paul, the other epistles and Revelation is
somewhat different than in the Gospels and Acts. And, within the Greek
context of the former, the word "Messiah" would probably seem somewhat
stilted and unnatural - at least in most passages.

        Of course, if one were contemplating changes in a published
translation, the sensibilities of its readers should be taken into
account; it would be necessary to consider whether some of them might not
easily adapt to what they saw as new terminology. It may also be that the
marginal notes with the alternate translation "Messiah", as one finds in
the NIV especially in the Gospels, are sufficient to meet the need. But I
am wondering if "Messiah" might be the better translation in some

David L. Moore Southeastern Spanish District
Miami, Florida of the Assemblies of God Department of Education

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