Matthew’s gospel begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (ESV). Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ appears in this particular form 105 times in the New Testament. Most translations exclusively translate this as ‘Jesus Christ’ or an equivalent transliteration, as it normally functions as the name of Jesus. This construction presents no problem when looking at it in isolation. However, a look at Matthew’s broader theological purposes reveals that a simple transliteration may not be the best practice here.
Some Background on Χριστός
Χριστός is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word māšîah used in the LXX. It means ‘anointed person.’ In the OT, anointing signified the Lord’s “initiative, election, and commission” for a particular task. Most often it would be kings who were anointed, but there were also anointed priests and prophets. We see an many anointed kings in the Psalms. Interestingly, none of these passages refer to a future king who will restore or redeem Israel. What seems to have happened is that because the ideal expressed in the Royal Psalms was left unfulfilled, these passages were later interpreted to refer to the future Davidic ruler predicted by the prophets. Though the prophets never used the term māšîah in their predictions, it eventually became a title for this expected Davidic ruler.
While māšîah/Χριστός became a title, it was not widely used before the time of Jesus. In fact, expectations of a coming redeemer/deliverer/king within Judaism were by no means uniform. There was variety in the type of person or being who was expected, what their role or rule would look like, how long it would last, and what this person was called. māšîah was just one title that was used. It was the first Christians who emphasized Jesus as the Messiah.
A Name or a Title?
As Jesus became increasingly known as the Messiah, Χριστός became attached to Jesus’ name in the forms Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ or Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, whereas before, it usually occurred alone as a title, most often with the definite article.
There is disagreement about whether Χριστοῦ is a name or a title when it occurs with Ἰησοῦ. Some argue that it should be treated as a name in these places, because many of the early Gentile converts probably would have understood Χριστός as no more than a name, especially considering its similarity in form and pronunciation to the common Greek name Χρηστός. Others argue that even as a name, it still carried the meaning of “Anointed One.” According to Tim Farrell, even Gentiles would have understood its basic derivation and at least been aware of some kind of titular usage, even if they didn’t fully understand the concept. He also rightly argues that names in NT times carried much more meaning than our names today. His conclusion is that Χριστός should always be translated as a title. A meaningless transliteration is not enough.
Farrell’s assessment leaves me wondering how far he would take this conclusion. Would he advocate translating other names with obvious meanings? Would he suggest translating Πέτρος as ‘the Rock’? Always translating the meaning of names could get out of hand, drawing attention to meaning that wasn’t in focus in a particular passage. We have to consider if the meaning of the name is in focus in a particular instance. For example, in Matt.1:21, the angel speaking to Mary draws attention to the meaning of the very common name Ἰησοῦ. Most of the time, however, the meaning of that name is not in focus. Farrell argues that the meaning of Χριστός is in focus more often than we might think, but not always.
In summary, the line between Χριστός as a title and as a name is a blurry one. It may have carried more meaning to some than to others, and the meaning of the name may have been in focus to varying degrees when it was used. Therefore, many translators opt to translate the meaning of Χριστός when the title is in focus, and to transliterate when it is mainly being used to refer to someone. I think this is a decent approach, although I am left partly dissatisfied, because there is an underlying unity that is lost.
Translating Χριστός as a title
I’ve seen three basic options to translating Χριστός as a title:
1) Add a definite marker to a transliteration of Χριστός. This won’t communicate the meaning, but it may at least indicate that this is a title, not just a name.
2) Transliterate “Messiah” if that will communicate better. This is really only better than the first option if people already have familiarity with the term “Messiah” from exposure to Christianity or other Bible translations.
3) Translate the meaning of Χριστός using vernacular terms. I have seen few translators attempt this in my context, as options 1 or 2 seem to work well for them.
Translating Χριστός in Matthew 1:1
Returning to Mathew 1:1, let’s assume that we are taking the dual approach of translating Χριστός distinctly as a name in some places, and as a title in others. The presence of Χριστοῦ alongside Ἰησοῦ with no definite article might suggest that this is simply a name. However, if we remove ourselves from our tunnel vision for a moment and look at Matthew 1 as a whole, we see that the aim of this genealogy is to show that Jesus is the son of David, son of Abraham, the expected Messiah. In v. 17, we even see the definite article used with Χριστός. Clearly, Matthew is drawing attention to the titular meaning of Χριστός. R.T. France says in his commentary on Matthew, “The colorless translation ‘Jesus Christ’ here and in v. 18 in many English versions does not do justice to the excitement in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus under the powerfully evocative title ‘Messiah,’ the long-awaited deliverer of God’s people, in whom their history has now come to its climax.” The NLT shows an awareness of these issues, translating Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as “Jesus the Messiah” not only in this verse, but also in Matt. 1:18 and Mk. 1:1. In my assessment, this kind of more meaningful translation is a better option in such verses. Transliterating Χριστός as a name simply misses the primary thrust of Matthew’s argument.
‘Χριστός’ in BDAG.
De Jonge, Marinus. ‘Messiah.’ Anchor Bible Dictionary.
Farrell, Tim. “Christos – ‘Mr. Christ or the Anointed One of God.’ Notes on Translation 12:4 (1998).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.