I’ve noticed a shift in the title people use for Jesus. Compare these two verses in two similar versions of the Bible. Both translations are NIV (New International Version), but the tNIV is more recent.
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham (NIV)
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham (tNIV)
The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (NIV)
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah (tNIV)
There’s a move from Christ to Messiah. It’s common apart from translations, too: in Christian books and addresses, etc. And I’m not really in favour of the shift. Here are some thoughts.
Both titles mean anointed one, and indicate a leader appointed by God. Messiah is from Hebrew, Christ from Greek. So there’s no problem with regard to the meaning they signify.
Neither of these words is a full translation: that would give ‘Jesus the Anointed One.’ They are a transliteration (that is, an Anglicised version of the underlying Hebrew/Greek word). So why the move to Messiah? It flows from lots of work done to understand Jesus in his historical setting. He was a first century Jew (as well as being God the Son!). So the Hebrew term, it is said, better fits the context of Israel in the 30s AD.
Translation & theology
I think it’s a poor translation. New Testament Greek had a word for Messiah. It also was a transliteration, and is used twice, both in John’s gospel. Note how they appear (both are tNIV):
John 1:41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).
John 4:25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
When Messiah was used, John immediately translates it to Christ. When Christ is used, it’s never explained by use of Messiah.
By the time the New Testament records were being written, it was clear that Jesus is Lord and Saviour for all – not only for those who submit to Jewish law. I think the use of the Greek expresses the universal access to trust in Jesus. And I think that a reversion to Messiah reflects an ‘I’m-really-clever’ exclusivity, an intellectual snobbery. Saying ‘Messiah’ signals to me the opposite of what ‘Christ’ indicates. It’s a theological mistake.
So I try to speak the way the New Testament does: mainly to say Jesus is Christ, and sometimes that he is Messiah.
If there was any reason to change translation, it would have to be in the direction of inclusion rather than exclusion. Perhaps drop transliteration and begin fuller translation: The start of the gospel of Jesus, God’s anointed, Son of God.