Where did the term ‘Christian’ come from, and when was it first applied to the followers or disciples of Jesus? It was, as a matter of fact, in Antioch, as the book of Acts reports, that the term ‘Christian’ was first applied to believers:
So it was that for an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.
Curiously, this is also the first city which evidences the use of the term ‘Catholic’ to distinguish the faithful Christians from the Gnostics:
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
~Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ch.VIII
Although the term Catholic had been hinted at etymologically even in Ephesians, there’s no evidence between the time it was written and the time Ignatius wrote his seven Epistles that the term was in use – though it was so commonly used in the Fathers that it may have been more widespread than Antioch by the end of the first century. Moreover, the term ‘Christian’ was obviously commonplace very early on, and not just among the Antiochenes. For instance:
Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’
Therefore it had, within the lifetime of Paul after his conversion, already become part of recognized religious nomenclature. Peter was also using it, as is evidenced in his first epistle:
Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.
~1 Peter 4:16
What is curious is that there were other names in competition with the name ‘Christian’. For example, the New Testament evidences that an alternative designation may have been ‘people of the way’. Consider what Luke records about Apollos:
He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.
But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets.
and [Paul] asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
But Felix, who was rather well informed about the Way, adjourned the hearing with the comment, ‘When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.’
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Even as late as 2nd Peter, whenever that was composed (debate rages), this term seems to have been part of Christian vocabulary:
Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned.
~2 Peter 2:2
In fact, one early antagonist of the Christian religion named Celsus, actually wrote his treatise (a polemical philosophical systematic attack of Christian belief) and entitled it something like ‘the true word’ or ‘the true discourse’ – and perhaps implicitly – ‘the true way’; however, that is as good as hearsay on my part, since I haven’t managed to dig up any reliable source translating the title of his work that way. Moreover, the difficulty of teasing that implication out of his treatment is multiplied by the fact that we have no copies or fragments of his own writings left; they have been altogether lost to history except insofar as they were quoted at length (and definitively refuted) by Origen himself.
Obviously the term ‘Christian’ did in fact become the prevalent term, but it is worth reflecting on how odd this title’s popularity really was. We often take it for granted, but we shouldn’t. What afforded this term such currency? What might explain the strong preference for such a title? Well, for starters there is the obvious messianic implication of it, since ‘Christ’ simply is Greek for ‘Messiah’, both of which mean ‘anointed one’. However, this itself opens the door to an additional reason this name may have caught on: since Christians were anointed with the Holy Spirit, or Baptised in the Holy Spirit (and this, traditionally, was connected to the rite of Chrism, which is regarded as a sacrament in the Catholic Church).
The Gospel of Philip reads, as I quoted recently, as follows:
The Chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word “Chrism” that we have been called “Christians,” certainly not because of the word “Baptism”. And it is becausee of the chrism that “the Christ” has his name. For the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us.
~Gos. Phil. 74.11-18
Now, this suggestion is at once worth considering, and also problematic. One of the problems is that the Sacrament of Confirmation seems to have been performed, at least in its earliest stages, without any actual anointing oil. The New Testament passages in which the sacrament is in evidence seem to imply that the imposition of hands alone was sufficient for the Sacrament:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied
Therefore let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith towards God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.
And the list goes on.
However, there is still some evidence that there was a preference for the sacrament to occur by an anointing from very early on.
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge… As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.
~1 John 2:20, 27
But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment.
~2 Corinthians 1:21-22
This issue is complicated in Catholic theology, or at least in Medieval theology, by significant disagreement between eminent theologians and even doctors of the Church. For example, Alexander of Hales believed that the Church, and not Christ directly, established the sacrament of Confirmation in the ninth Century.
His disciple, St. Bonaventure, agreed in rejecting the institution by Christ or His Apostles, and in attributing it to the Holy Ghost; but he set back the time to the age of “the successors of the Apostles” (In Sent., IV, dist. vii, art. 1). However, like his friendly rival St. Thomas, he also modified his view in a later work viloquium, p. vi. c. 4) where he says that Christ instituted all the sacraments, though in different ways; “some by hinting at them and initiating them [insinuando et initiando], as confirmation and extreme unction”.
~Catholic Encyclopedia, Confirmation
However, if we are inclined to think, as is the trend today in Catholic scholarship, that the sacrament was instituted by Christ directly (or else at very latest at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit according to Christ’s promise), and practised by the Apostles, then perhaps that practice itself helps to explain the popularity of the term ‘Christian’.