« Prev Excursus 2. Christian Names. Next »



Does the use of Christian names taken from the Bible go back to the first three centuries? In answering this question, we come upon several instructive data.

Upon consulting the earliest synodical Acts in our possession, those of the North African synod in 256 A.D. (preserved in Cyprian's works), we find that while the names of the eighty seven bishops who voted there are for the most part Latin, though a considerable number are Greek, not one Old Testament name occurs. Only two are from the New Testament, viz., Peter (No. 72) and Paul (No. 47). Thus, by the middle of the third century pagan names were still employed quite freely throughout Northern Africa, and the necessity of employing Christian names had hardly as yet arisen. The same holds true of all the other regions of Christendom. As inscriptions and writings testify, Christians in East and West alike made an exclusive or almost exclusive use of the old pagan names in their environment till after the middle of the third century, employing, indeed, very often names from pagan mythology and soothsaying. We find Christians called Apollinaris, Apollonius, Heraclius, Saturninus, Mercurius, Bacchylus, Bacchylides, Serapion, Satyrus, Aphrodisius, Dionysius, Hermas, Origen, etc., besides Faustus, Felix, and Felicissimus. “The martyrs perished because they declined to sacrifice to the gods whose names they bore”!

Now this is remarkable! Here was the primitive church exterminating every vestige of polytheism in her midst, tabooing pagan mythology as devilish, living with the great personalities 423of the Bible and upon their words, and yet freely employing the pagan names which had been hitherto in vogue! The problem becomes even harder when one recollects that the Bible itself contains examples of fresh names being given,738738Thus in the gospels we read of Jesus calling Simon “Kephas” and the sons of Zebedee “Boanerges” In Acts iv. 36 we are told that the Apostles named a man called Joseph “Barnabas” (Saulus Paulus does not come under this class). that surnames and alterations of a name were of frequent occurrence in the Roman empire (the practice, in fact, being legalized by the emperor Caracalla in 212 for all free men), and that a man's name in antiquity was by no means regarded by most people as a matter of indifference.

We may be inclined to seek various reasons for this indifference displayed by the primitive Christians towards names. We may point to the fact that a whole series of pagan names must have been rendered sacred from the outset by the mere fact of distinguished Christians having borne them. We may further recollect how soon Christians got the length of strenuously asserting that there was nothing in a name. Why, from the days of Trajan onwards they were condemned on account of the mere name of “Christian” without anyone thinking it necessary to inquire if they had actually committed any crime! On the other hand, Justin, Athenagoras, and Tertullian, as apologists of Christianity, emphasize the fact that the name is a hollow vessel, that there can be no rational “charge brought against words,”—“except, of course,” adds Tertullian, “when a name sounds barbarian or ill-omened, or when it contains some insult or impropriety!” “Ill-omened”! But had “dæmonic” names like Saturninus, Serapion, and Apollonius no evil connotation upon the lips of Christians, and did not Christians, again, attach a healing virtue to the very language of certain formulas (e.g., the utterance of the name of Jesus in exorcisms), just as the heathen did? No; surely this does not serve to explain the indifference felt by Christians towards mythological titles. But if not, then how are we to explain it?

Hardly any other answer can be given to the question than this, that the general custom of the world in which people were living proved stronger than any reflections of their own. At 424all times, new names have encountered a powerful resistance in the plea, “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name” (Luke i. 61). The result was that people retained the old names, just as they had to endorse or to endure much that was of the world,—so long as they were in the world. It was not worth while to alter the name which one found oneself bearing. Why, everyone, be he called Apollonius or Serapion, had already got a second, distinctive, and abiding name in baptism, the name of “Christian.” Each individual believer bore that as a proper name. In the Acts of Carpus (during the reign of Marcus Aurelius) the magistrate asked the accused, “What is thy name?” The answer was, “My first and foremost name is that of ‘Christian'; but if thou demandest my wordly name as well, I am called ‘Carpus.'” The “worldly” name was kept up, but it did not count, so to speak, as the real name. In the account of the martyrs at Lyons, Sanctus the Christian is said to have withheld his proper name from the magistrate, contenting himself with the one reply, “I am a Christian!”739739Similarly Eusebius (Mart. Pal., p. 82, ed. Violet): “The confessors, when asked by the judge where they came from, forbore to speak of their home on earth, but gave their true heavenly home, saying, We belong to the Jerusalem which is above” (cp. also, in Eugipii epist. ad Pascasium, 9, how St Severin describes his origin). Augustine also is evidence for the use of “Christianus” as a proper name. Looking back on his childhood (though lie was not baptized till he was a man), he writes: “In ecclesia mihi nomen Christi infanti est inditum” (Confess., vi. 4. 5).

This one name satisfied people till about the middle of the third century; along with it they were content to bear the ordinary names of this world “as though they bore them not.” Even surnames with a Christian meaning are extremely rare. It is the exception, not the rule, to find a man like Bishop Ignatius calling himself by the additional Christian title of Theophorus at the opening of the second century.740740Other surnames (which were not Christian) also occur among Christians; cp. Tertull., ad Scapulam, iv.: “Proculus Christianus, qui Torpacion cognominabatur.” Similar cases were not unusual at that time, The Christian soldier Tarachus (Acta Tarachi in Ruinart's Acta Martyr., Ratisbon 1859, p. 452) says: “My parents called me Tarachus, and when I became a soldier I was called Victor” (“a parentibus dicor Tarachus, et cum militarem nominatus sum Victor”). Cyprian (according to Jerome, de Vir. Illustr. xlviii.) called himself Cæcilius after the priest who was the means of his conversion; besides that he bore the surname of Thascius, so that his full name ran, “Cæcilius Cyprianus qui et Thascius” (Ep. lxii., an epistle which is written to a Christian called “Florentius qui et Puppianus”). Cumont (Les Inscr. chrét. de l'Asie mineure, p. 22) has collected a series of examples from the inscriptions, some of which are undoubtedly Christian Γέρων ὁ καὶ Κυριακός, Ἄτταλος ἐπίκλην Ἡσαΐας, Optatina Resticia Pascasia, M. Cæcilius Saturninus qui et Eusebius, Valentina ancilla quae et Stephana, Ascia vel Maria. Of the forty martyrs of Sebaste two bear double names of this kind, viz., Λεόντιος ὁ καὶ Θεόκτιστος Βικράτιος ὁ καί Βιβιανός. In The Martyrdom of St Conon we find a Ναόδωρος ὁ καὶ Ἀπελλῆς. The martyr Achatius says, “I am called Agathos-angelus” (“vocor Agathos-angelus”). The change first came a little before the middle of the third century. And 425the surprising thing is that the change, for which the way had been slowly paved, came, not in an epoch of religious elevation, but rather in the very period during which the church was corning to terms with the world on a larger scale than she had previously done. In the days when Christians bore pagan names and nothing more, the dividing line between Christianity and the world was drawn much more sharply than in the days when they began to call themselves Peter and Paul! As so often is the case, the forms made their appearance just when the spirit was undermined. The principle of “nomen est omen” was not violated. It remained extraordinarily significant. For the name indicates that one has to take certain measures in order to keep hold of something that is in danger of disappearing.

In many cases people may not have been conscious of this. On the contrary, three reasons were operative. One of these I have already mentioned, viz., the frequent occurrence throughout the empire (even among pagans) of alteration in a name, and also of surnames being added, after the edict of Caracalla (in 212 A.D.). The second lay in the practice of infant baptism, which was now becoming quite current. As a name was conferred upon the child at this solemn act, it naturally seemed good to choose a specifically Christian name. Thirdly and lastly, and—we may add—chiefly, the more the church entered the world, the more the world also entered the church. And with the wofd there entered more and snore of the old pagan superstition that “nomen est omen,” the dread felt for words, and, moreover, the old propensity for securing deliverers, angels, 426and spiritual heroes upon one's side, together with the “pious” belief that one inclined a saint to be one's protector and patron by taking his name. Such a form of superstition has never been quite absent from Christianity, for even the primitive Christians were not merely Christians but also Jews, Syrians, Asiatics, Greeks, or Romans. But then it was controlled by other moods or movements of the Spirit. During the third century, however, the local strain again rose to the surface. People no longer called their children Bacchylus or Arphrodisius with the same readiness, it is true. But they began to call themselves Peter and Paul in the same sense as the pagans called their children Dionysius and Serapion.

The process of displacing mythological by Christian names was carried out very slowly. It was never quite completed, for not a few of the former gradually became Christian, thanks to some glorious characters who had borne them; in this way, they entirely lost their original meaning. One or two items from the history of this process may be adduced at this point in our discussion.

At the very time when we find only two biblical names (those of Peter and Paul) in a list of eighty-seven episcopal names, bishop Dionysius of Alexandria writes that Christians prefer to call their children Peter and Paul.741741In Eus., H.E., vii. 25.14: ὥσπερ καὶ ὁ Παῦλος πολὺς καὶ δὴ καὶ ὁ Πέτρος ἐν τοῖς τῶν πιστῶν παισὶν ἀνομάζεται (“Even as the children of the faithful are often called after Paul and also after Peter”). This is corroborated by an inscription from the third century (de Rossi, in Bullett. di archæol. crist., 1867, p. 6): DMM. ANNEO. PAVLO. PETRO. M. ANNEVS. PAVLVS: FILIO. CARISSIMO. The inscription is additionally interesting on account of the fact that Seneca came from this gens. It was then also that Christian changes742742It has been asserted that Pomponia Græcina retained or assumed the name of Lucina as a Christian (de Rossi, Roma Sotterr., I. p. 319, II. pp. 362, etc.), but this is extremely doubtful.—Changes of name were common among the Jews as well as in the Diaspora (see C.I.G., vol. iv. No. 9905: “Beturia Paula—que bixit ann. LXXXVI. meses VI. proselyta ann. XVI. nomine Sara mater synagogarum Campi et Bolumni”). of name began to be common. It is noted (in Eus., H.E., vi. 30) that Gregory Thaumaturgus exchanged the name of Theodore for Gregory, but this instance is not quite clear.743743Did he call himself Gregory as an “awakened” man? We are told that a certain Sabina, during the 427reign of Decius (in 250 A.D.) called herself Theodota when she was asked at her trial what was her name.744744Cp. Acta Pionii, ix.; this instance, however, is hardly relevant to our purpose, as Pionius instructed Sabina to call herself Theodota, in order to prevent herself from being identified. In the Acta of a certain martyr called Balsamus (311 A.D.), the accused cries “According to my paternal name I am Balsamus, but according to the spiritual, name which I received at baptism, I am Peter.”745745Three martyrs at Lampsacus are called Peter, Paul, and Andrew (cp. Ruinart's Acta Martyr., 1850, pp. 205 f.). Interesting, too, is the account given by Eusebius (Mart. Pal., xi. 7 f.) of five Egyptian Christians who were martyred during the Diocletian persecution. They all bore Egyptian names. But when the first of them was questioned by the magistrate, he replied not with his own name but with that of an Old Testament prophet. Whereupon Eusebius observes, “This was because, they had assumed such names instead of the names given them by their parents, names probably derived from idols; so that one could hear them calling themselves Elijih,746746See Mart. Pal., x. 1, for a martyr of this name. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Samuel, and Daniel, thus giving themselves out to be Jews in the spiritual sense, even the true and genuine Israel of God, not merely by their deeds, but by the names they bore.”

Obviously, the ruling idea here is not yet that of patron saints; the prophets are selected as models, not as patrons. Even the change of name itself is still a novelty. This is borne out by the festal epistles of Athanasius in the fourth century, which contain an extraordinary number of Christian names, almost all of which are the familiar pagan names (Greek or Egyptian). Biblical names are still infrequent, although in one passage, writing.of a certain Gelous Hierakatnmon, Athanasius does remark that “out of shame he took the name of Eulogius in addition to his own name.”747747Festal Epistles, ed. by Larsow (p. 80).

It is very remarkable that down to the middle of the fourth century Peter and Paul are about the only New Testament names to be met with, while Old Testament names again are so rare that the above case of the five Egyptians who had assumed prophetic names must be considered an exception to the rule. 428Even the name of John, so far as I know, only began to appear within the fourth century, and that slowly. On the other hand, we must not here adduce a passage from Dionysius of Alexandria, which has been already under review. He certainly writes: “In my opinion, many persons [in the apostolic] had the same name as John, for out of love for him, admiring and emulating him, and desirous of being loved by the Lord even as he was, many assumed the same surname, just as many of the children of the faithful are also called Peter and Paul.” But what Dionysius says here about the name of John is simply a conjecture with regard to the apostolic age, while indirectly, though plainly enough, he testifies that Christians in his own day were called Peter and Paul, but not John.748748No older evidence is available. It is no proof to the contrary of what we have said, that the father of the Roman bishop Anicetus is said to have been called “John”; for, apart from the untrustworthiness of the notice (in the Liber Pontif.), he must have been a Syrian, and certainly he was not called after the apostle. According to the Acta Johannis (Prochorus), Basilius and Charis called the child given them by means of John, after the apostle's name, but these Acts belong to the post-Constantine age. This preference assigned to the name of the two apostolic leaders throughout the East and West alike is significant,749749It is not certain that where “Paul” is found as a Christian name it must be referred to the great apostle. But “Paul” was rather more common than “Peter” even yet. We find it first of all as the name of a gnostic Christian of Antioch, who stayed with young Origen at the house of a wealthy lady in Alexandria (Eus., H.E., vi. 2. 14). Then there is Paul of Samosata, and the martyr Paul (Mart. Pal., p. 65), besides another martyr of the same name at Jamnia (op. cit., p. 86). and it is endorsed by a passage from Eustathius, the bishop of Antioch, who was a contemporary of Athanasius. “Many Jews,” he writes, “call themselves after the patriarchs and prophets, and yet are guilty of wickedness. Many [Christian] Greeks call themselves Peter and Paul, and yet behave in a most disgraceful fashion.” Evidently the Old Testament names were left as a rule to the Jews, while Peter and Paul continue apparently to be the only New Testament names which are actually in use. This state of matters lasted till the second half of the fourth century.750750The bishops who attended the council of Nicæa got their names between 250 and 290. Of the 237 names which have come down to us, six-sevenths are common pagan names; there are even some like Aphrodisius, Orion, etc. About 18 names are “pious,” but neutral as regards any distinctively Christian value, e.g., Eusebius (five times), Hosius, Theodorus, Theodotus, Diodorus, Theophilus; of these, however, Pistus (twice, both times from the Balkan peninsula) may be regarded with a certain probability as Christian. The other 19 names show Paul six times (Palestine, Cœle-Syria, proconsular Asia, Phrygia, Isauria, and Cappadocia) Peter four times (Palestine twice, Cœle-Syria, Egypt: it is interesting to notice the absence of Asia), Mark three times (Lydia, Calabria, Achaia—but it is extremely questionable, at least, if the name was taken from the evangelist), John once (Persia) and James once (Nisibis),—though in both cases it is doubtful if the apostles were taken as the originals, since Jewish names would be common in the far East,—Moses once (in Cilicia, perhaps a Jew by birth), Stephen twice (Cappadocia and Isauria—very doubtful if any reference to the biblical Stephen), and Polycarp once (Pisidia). It is quite possible that the last-named may have been called after the great bishop of Smyrna, but there was also a Polycarp among the 87 bishops of the Synod of Carthage. As for the Old Testament names, the earliest instances, which are still very rare (in the second half of the third century), are almost all from Egypt. A list may be appended here, at Lietzmann's suggestion. Hilary, in the extant fragments of his collection of documents relating to the Roman controversy (II. and III.), gives 134 episcopal names for the council of Sardica (61 orthodox and 73 semi-Arian), while Athanasius gives 284 orthodox names for the same synod (Apol. c. Arian. 50), though he has unfortunately omitted the episcopal sees. All these bishops must have got their names between 270 and 310 A.D. Among Hilary's 134, there is a Moses, an Isaac, a Jonah (?), and a Paul (the Moses in Thessalian Thebes, the Isaac in Luetum [= Λουειθά, Arab, Petr.?]). All the rest bear current and in part purely pagan names (the latter may have been quite probably Jews by birth). As for the 284 names of Athanasius, the same holds true of 270. The other 14 (i.e., only 5 per cent.) include Paul (five times), Peter (once), Andrew (once; in Egypt, possibly after the apostle), Elijah (three times, in Egypt), Isaiah, Isaac, Joseph, Jonah (just once)—all in Egypt, except Jonah. This confirms what we have just said. The pagan names have remained untouched. Only “Paul” and “Peter” (to a slight extent) have slipped in. The Old Testament names are still confined to Egypt, and even there they are not yet common. As the saints, prophets, 429patriarchs, angels, etc., henceforth took the place of the dethroned gods of paganism, and as the stories of these gods were transformed into stories of the saints, the supersession of mythological names now commenced in real earnest.751751The thirtieth of the Arabic canons of Nicæa is unauthentic and late: “Fideles nomina gentilium filiis suis non imponant; sed potius omnis natio Christianorum suit nominibus utatur, ut gentiles suis utuntur, imponanturque nomina Christianorum secundum scripturam in baptismo” (“Let not the faithful give pagan names to their children, Rather let the whole Christian people use its own names, as pagans use theirs, giving children at baptism the names of Christians according to the Scripture”). Now, for the first time, do we often light upon names like John, James, Andrew, Simon, and Mary, besides—though much more rarely is the West—names from the Old Testament, At the close of the fourth century, Chrysostom, e.g. (cp. Hom. 52, in Matth. 430Migne, vol. lx. 365), exhorts the believers to call their children after the saints, so that the saints may serve them as examples of virtue. But in giving this counsel he does not mention its, most powerful motive, a motive disclosed by Theodoret, bishop of Cyprus in Syria, thirty years afterwards. It is this: that people are to give their children the names of saints and martyrs, in order to win them the protection and patronage of these heroes.752752Græc. affect. curat., viii. p. 923, ed. Schulze. Then and thereafter this was the object which determined the choice of names. The result was a selection of names varying with the different countries and provinces; for the calendar of the provincial saints and the names of famous local bishops who were dead were taken into account together with the Bible. As early as the close of the fourth century, e.g., people in Antioch liked to call their children after the great bishop Meletius. Withal, haphazard and freedom of choice always played some part in the choice of a name, nor was it every ear that could grow accustomed to the sound of barbarian Semitic names. As has been observed already, the Western church was very backward in adopting Old Testament names, and this continued till the days of Calvinism.

« Prev Excursus 2. Christian Names. Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |