Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Religious Titles for Jesus

Two titles conferred on Jesus by his early followers are so well known many think of them as part of his personal name: i.e., "Lord Jesus Christ."  Jesus, however, is the personal name that his mother gave him. "Christ" (χριστός, Christos) is a title coming out of the Israelite tradition meaning "anointed." Another title, "Lord" (κύριος, kurios), is a term of respect addressed to a person who commands respect or exercises authority; it is used in Hebrew Bible/Septuagint of Yahweh, God of Israel, where he was referred to as "the Lord God" and/or the "Lord." The title carries the idea of high authority.  Hence Jesus' two best known titles are "The Lord" and "the Anointed."
            An odd, little-known, title barely surviving in the New Testament is αρχήγος (archēgos), but how should it be translated?  In the Greek tradition it is used to refer to the founder of a city, among other things.  In the Septuagint it refers to political and military leaders of various sorts, both tribal and national.  In English translations it has appeared variously as beginner, leader, instigator, author, captain, chief, prince, etc.
            There are only four instances of its use in the New Testament, and all appear in confessional statements:
Acts 3:15 refers to Christ as "the Author (archēgos) of life."
Acts 5:31 refers to Jesus as "Leader (archēgos) and Savior."
Heb 2:10 refers to Jesus as "the pioneer (archēgos) of salvation."
Heb 12:2 refers to Jesus as "the pioneer (archēgos) and perfecter of our faith."
            The word also appears in 2 Clement 20:5, where it refers to Jesus as "the Saviour and prince (archēgos) of immortality."  In the Nag Hammadi writing (Letter of Peter to Philip 139:27 and 140:4) it refers to Jesus as "the author (archēgos) of our life."  In the German translation of Peter to Philip archēgos is translated as Urheber, which carries the dictionary meanings of author, creator, founder, or originator.
            George Johnston argued in 1981 that the term should be translated "Prince," and explained as a Christology viewing Jesus as "the fulfillment of the Davidic hope" (Ezekiel 34:24, 37:25; p. 384).
            From my perspective archēgos, as used in the New Testament, is a clearly secular word, which only takes on secondarily a religious sense by the word with which it is paired and the confessional context in which it appears.  A place in Hebrew Bible where an early follower of Jesus might have encountered it, while looking for messianic "prophecies," is Numbers 24:17: "A star shall rise out of Jacob, a man shall spring out of Israel, and shall crush the princes (archēgos) of Moab and shall spoil all the sons of Seth."  In the early 2nd century Irenaeus (Against Heresies 9.2) and Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, 106) cited this verse as a messianic prophecy, which Jesus fulfilled, but with no explanation as to how it applied.
            Simon bar Kosiba, the Judean rebel leader of the second Jewish revolt (early 2nd century) appealed to Numbers 24:17 to support his messianic claims.  His supporters and followers called him Bar Kohkba, "son of a star."  During his occupation of Jerusalem Simon even minted coins featuring a star.  Eusebius (4th century) said of him:
The Jews were at that time led by a certain Bar Kokhba, which means star, a man who was murderous and a bandit, but relied on his name, as if dealing with slaves, and claimed to be a luminary who had come down to them from heaven, and was magically enlightening those who were in misery. (Ecclesiastical History, 4.6.1-3)
Although Bar Kokhba may have presented himself as a messianic figure, he is clearly a military/political leader and war chieftain.  Those who view God as working in the world in a spiritual way, like Irenaeus and Justin, however, would see archēgos in a religiously spiritual sense.  Hence Jesus is the "leader" who, as precursor, first led the way in faith. He was archēgos in the sense that his faith (that is, Jesus' own confidence in God, Galatians 2:16) first established the spiritual path.  He was the pioneer, trailblazer, or archēgos of that Way of faith (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). For a more complete development of this idea see the last four paragraphs of http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2015/11/is-holy-spirit-part-of-trinity.html.  Such a secular title had little chance of succeeding, however, against early orthodoxy's idea of a crucified and resurrected Savior, and its use simply died out as too bland or clearly inappropriate for a dying and rising Savior, who was far more than simply a "leader" or "beginner" of a path of faith.
            Titles given to Jesus tell us nothing substantive about the man, however; they only tell us what early Christians thought about him.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
George Johnston, "Christ as Archegos," New Testament Studies 27.3 (1981), 381-85.


  1. I bet the prophet John would like this title (Rev 19:11-21)!

    1. Thanks Mark,
      I agree. The image of the Christ in Revelation does not reflect a shy and retiring figure. He is not "the gentle Jesus, Meek and mild"; the warlike figure is also reflected in Rev 17:12-14 and 6:12-17. These images that logically follow from archegos may be one reason why the title did not survive.

  2. What a great education, Charlie. Thanks!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  3. Charlie, a question for you. Do you think that by calling Jesus "Lord," the early followers were actually calling him Yahweh?

    I'm thinking of the quote from Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:3, "...the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord (Yahweh), make his paths straight." As used by Mark, this verse refers to John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. And the reference doesn't seem to be circumscribed by just these early verses, as it appears to be an intro to the whole gospel. And, of course, in that gospel some of what Jesus does is very Yahweh like: e.g., controlling the waters (4:39) and feeding thousands in the wilderness (6:42, 8:8), Yahweh's (Jesus') leaven being stronger than that of the Pharisees and Herod (8:14-21). Further, Jesus now speaks with the voice of Yahweh, replacing Moses and Elijah (9:2-7).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. Good question Gene,
    I think that the usual view is that "Lord" is a Hellenistic (Greek) title for the resurrected Christ. Werner Foerster in the article on Kurios in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament said "The name kurios implies a position equal to that of God," as is suggested by Philippians 2:6-11. See TDNT 3: 1086-1095. The article covers all the New Testament references to Lord as applied to the Christ,