The Greek word Christos (Χριστός) and the Hebrew word Messiah (many similar words exist in related languages, and I don't claim to make an accurate transliteration of any of them) are titles used of Jesus, and they both mean "anointed". It occurred to me that I have never heard a similar title in Latin — apart from Latinized versions of these two foreign words.

My question is twofold:

  1. Was a title of similar literal meaning and of Latin origin ever used of Jesus? If yes, what was it or what were they?

  2. What would be a good classical Latin translation of "anointed" in a context like this? It may or may not be an actual title used, so I this question is not trivially equivalent with the previous one. I found some candidates, but I can't judge which would be most appropriate: unctus, litus, illitus, circumlitus, delibutus. If I had to guess, I would go with unctus.

3 Answers 3


I agree with C. M. Weimer's answer that no Latin translation of "Χριστός" was regularly used in a devotional context.

Here is a more explicitly worded Christian source from Isidore of Seville (c. 560 - 636) that translates the name as Unctus:

Multis etiam modis Christus appellari in scripturis invenitur divinis. Nam ipse Dei Patris Unigenitus filius, dum esset aequalis Patri, propter salutem nostram formam servi accepit. Proinde quaedam nomina in illo ex divinitatis substantia, quaedam ex dispensatione susceptae humanitatis adsumpta sunt. Christus namque a chrismate est appellatus, hoc est unctus. Praeceptum enim fuerat Iudaeis ut sacrum conficerent unguentum, quo perungui possent hi qui vocabantur ad sacerdotium vel ad regnum: et sicut nunc regibus indumentum purpurae insigne est regiae dignitatis, sic illis unctio sacri unguenti nomen ac potestatem regiam conferebat; et inde Christi dicti a chrismate, quod est unctio. Nam chrisma Graece, Latine unctio nuncupatur, quae etiam Domino nomen adcommodavit facta spiritalis, quia Spiritu unctus est a Deo Patre, sicut in Actibus Act. 4, 27:

'Collecti sunt enim in hac civitate adversus sanctum Filium tuum, quem unxisti':

non utique oleo visibili, sed gratiae dono, quod visibili significatur unguento. Non est autem Salvatoris proprium nomen Christus, sed communis nuncupatio potestatis. Dum enim dicitur Christus, commune dignitatis nomen est; dum Iesus Christus, proprium est vocabulum Salvatoris. Christi autem nomen nusquam alibi omnino nec in aliqua gente fuit, nisi tantum in illo regno ubi Christus prophetabatur, et unde venturus erat. Messias autem Hebraice dicitur, Graece Christus, Latina autem locutione unctus. (Isidorus, Etymologiae, 7.2)

  • 1
    After these quotes there is no doubt that Unctus would be the correct Latin translation of Χριστός although it was not used to replace the Greek and Hebrew terms. Thanks!
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 27, 2017 at 15:51

You never see it with respect to Jesus because it became a proper name by the time it reached Rome. Your intuition on which word to go with, though, is correct. Just compare Samuel anointing Saul in 1 Sam 10:

tulit autem Samuhel lenticulam olei et effudit super caput eius et deosculatus eum ait ecce unxit te Dominus super hereditatem suam in principem.

You can see the various places where unctus is used here.

  • 2
    I think further explanation is required: Christianity reached Rome very quickly, and Greek was the spoken language (cf. Epistle to the Romans). It's curious that a word with such an obvious translation "became a proper name" even though it was itself a translation of a Hebrew term.
    – brianpck
    Feb 27, 2017 at 3:58
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    @brianpck Couple notes: 1. While Greek was indeed the spoken language, it was unlikely the first language. Paul himself must have known Hebrew or Aramaic (or both), as did the first Christian communities, and an underlying Aramaic substrate for Q is often put forward (though this is contentious). This means that the earliest Greek-speaking Christians likely understood the relationship between moshiah and christos, but by the time is got to Rome, that was one step too removed. 2. Quite a few Greek terms remained entirely untranslated in Latin, despite Cicero's best efforts.
    – cmw
    Feb 27, 2017 at 4:12
  • @brianpck I'm not sure if the above is satisfying and whether you'd like a) additional explication or b) it moved to the body of the answer.
    – cmw
    Feb 27, 2017 at 4:13
  • I don't think the explanation lies in a misunderstanding of the link between Messias and Christus, which is explicit in the Gospels (e.g. Jn 4:25). More than likely this springs from the translation choices of the Vetus Latina, often followed by Jerome, but the "why" still remains opaque to me, beyond saying that "Greek terms were often untranslated." Why, for instance, was "Golgotha" translated as "Calvariae Locus", not transliterated as "Kraniou Topos"? (I don't know the answer, but it's food for thought.)
    – brianpck
    Feb 27, 2017 at 15:00
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    @brianpck. Yes, I was thinking precisely of Hippolytus, as leader of the Greek-speaking faction, who has the unique honour of being (according to the Roman Church) both a Saint and an "anti"-pope.
    – fdb
    Feb 27, 2017 at 21:52

I'd like to add just one point, which is, that translation seems to be the exception and not the rule. If you think of the name Jesus, it is actually a transliteration of יהושע, which means "Yahweh is salvation". The Greek name Ἰησοῦς does not attempt to translate this meaning. The same is true for the name John, which in Greek is Ἰωάννης. Both are based on the Hebrew name יוהנן, which means "Yahweh is gracious", and neither attempts to translate the original. These are just two examples, but there are many more.

The fact that a new name appeared, Χριστός, which is not a transliteration, but rather a translation of משיח, may have been a political choice by early Christians. A Greek translation would appeal more to gentiles who do not know the meaning of Messiah (משיח) or take part in Jewish culture.

I'm not surprised that a Latin translation of "Anointed" never caught on. Inventing a new name for a religious figure—Jesus Christ especially—is not a decision to be made lightly! It's one thing to transliterate, another to introduce a new word with completely different sounds (such as "Unctus").

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