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This question is motivated by a reading of John 20:31:

SBLGNT

ταῦτα δὲ γέγραπται ἵνα πιστεύητε ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἵνα πιστεύοντες ζωὴν ἔχητε ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι αὐτοῦ.

ESV

but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name

The intended audience of John’s gospel has been much debated (Christian vs not-yet-Christian; Jew vs Gentile), and there is considerable commentary on this verse regarding the textual variant πιστεύητε (vs. πιστεύσητε), addressing the former distinction (or at least that's how I've understood it, see footnote). With regard to the Jew vs Gentile distinction, though, I’m curious what meaning the word χριστὸς might have had to a Gentile audience. I suppose Gentile Christians probably had some education about the Jewish משיח use, but was there significance of this term in Greco-Roman thought outside of Judaism?


From here, a summary of the question, "Is this a statement of an evangelistic purpose or does it center upon discipleship?" Also see Dan Wallace’s comments here.

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This question is related but doesn't answer my question. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/7639/… –  Susan Jun 5 at 7:49

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The attestation of χριστός outside of Jewish/Christian antique Greek literature is quite small. This is immediately apparent if you look at a list of all occurrences known to the Perseus corpus, as well as the citations noted in the Liddell-Scott-Jones entry.

According to Walter Grundmann, writing in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. 9, p. 495):

χριστός is never related to persons outside the LXX [Septuagint], the NT, and dependent writings.

The term outside the Jewish/Christian context carries the meaning "ointment", or "smeared on" or the like.

The short answer to the question "Was there any significance to the term χριστὸς in koine Greek outside of Judeo-Christian thought?", then, is no. This appears to be one of those Greek terms which carries a specialized meaning from the use to which it was put in the Septuagint.1


Addendum

For matters more broadly related to χριστός, the best recent treatment (which also, of course, opens a door on to older secondary literature), for my money, is Matthew V. Novenson's Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (OUP, 2012) (Google Books provides a decent preview).


Note

  1. This phenomenon has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. An appropriate search of Google Scholar gives a decent glimpse of this activity.
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There is one loose connection, which lies with parallels between the accounts of the Cyrus Cylinder and the information in the Hebrew Bible regarding the anointing of the Persian King Cyrus, who was the Lord's מָשִׁיחַ or "Meshiach" (or Χριστός, as noted in the LXX). That is, the term had significance several centuries before the writing of the Christian New Testament to refer to someone who was not only called and led by the hand of God, but someone who was to rule and judge the world.

Isaiah 45:1-3 records that Cyrus was God's anointed one: in the Masoretic Text, the word is מָשִׁיחַ, and in the LXX, the word is Χριστός.

Is 45:1-3 (NASB)
1 Thus says the Lord to Cyrus His anointed (מָשִׁיחַ - Χριστός),
Whom I have taken by the right hand,
To subdue nations before him
And to loose the loins of kings;
To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:
2 “I will go before you and make the rough places smooth;
I will shatter the doors of bronze and cut through their iron bars.
3 “I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden wealth of secret places,
So that you may know that it is I,
The Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

Please note that the text in Isaiah continues and indicates that Cyrus did not know Yahveh (Is 45:4-5), although the Hebrew Bible still indicates that Cyrus was aware of his divine appointment by Yahveh (2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1:2). Unlike Biblical Hebrew, classical Greek or even modern English, other languages do carry such distinctions between knowing about someone and knowing them in personal relationship: e.g., conocer versus saber (Spanish); connaître versus savoir (French); or kennen versus wissen (German), where such distinctions exist. In other words, Cyrus knew about Yahveh, but was not in personal relationship with him.

Thus, according to translations available online through the British Museum regarding the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus had ascribed his appointment from the King of the Gods, to whom Cyrus referred as Marduk. Marduk was "the exalted one" among the gods, who was also the Enlil, or god of breath or wind among the gods. This god took Cyrus by the hand and called him by his name in order that he, Cyrus, would rule the four corners of world.

According to both the Hebrew Bible and the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus appears to have accepted that (a) he was called by name, (b) he was taken by the hand, and (c) he was charged to rule the world by special divine appointment, which does not contradict the account found in Isaiah. The single image extant of Cyrus depicts his head with horns, upon which something rests extending from discs in heaven as if he were an anointed messenger or cherub.

In conclusion, these correlations are NOT conclusive, and are VERY LOOSE, but provides some consideration that the idea of "special appointment from heaven" had existed in the Ancient Far East with regard at least to Cyrus the Great, and therefore had some connection in the Hebrew Bible with the one who was anointed from heaven in order to rule the world; that is, the מָשִׁיחַ or "Meshiach" (or Χριστός in the LXX).

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You're right that the Cyrus Cylinder and Isaiah 45 have notable connections. It doesn't help OP, though: use of χριστός is limited to LXX, and "anointing" is not a feature of the Cyrus Cylinder (see text, [encoding there is ISO-8859-1]). It provides no evidence, then, for the semantics of χριστός outside the Jewish-Christian milieu. For latest scholarly treatment of Cyrus Cylinder, see Amélie Kuhrt, "ANE History: The Case of Cyrus the Great of Persia", in H.G.M. Williamson, Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (OUP, 2007), pp. 107-27. –  Davïd Jun 6 at 7:21
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@David - you are correct. What piqued me to write the response however was the enigmatic depiction of Cyrus, whose head appeared to be receiving rains pouring from heaven. The parallels were too striking to ignore, especially when the Hebrew Bible uses the same words to convey him as "Christos." –  Joseph Jun 6 at 13:20
    
Good connections to make, too! Certainly adds value to the Q&A thread, at a bit of a tangent, as you note. Thanks! –  Davïd Jun 6 at 13:47
    
You've also provided considerable education to this OP, and the pictures of the Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum are amazing! +1 –  Susan Jun 6 at 16:17

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