Yeshuas followers differed from other groups they were known as the mashiachim or messianics
Q. What does Acts 11:26 mean when it says the disciples were first called "Christians" in Antioch?
A. To answer this question we will have to get into some first century history and what was going on "behind the scenes" if you will. This verse does not imply a new religion was being formed which in any way resembles what is known as Christianity today. Christianity did not exist in the Book of Acts and neither did the false teachings it disseminates.
The believers in the first century were Torah observant Jews and Gentiles who came under the authority of the synagogues. They did not teach Sunday was Lord’s Day, they did not eat pork or teach the food laws were invalid, they did not celebrate pagan festivals. So what exactly was going on? Torah observance was expressed in many ways through many traditions and not everyone did the same thing. But they all agreed about the Sabbath and the keeping of the biblical festivals, what you could eat and so on. Anyone who said the Torah was "not for today" and taught one was "free from the Law" would be accused of heresy and rightly judged and this included the writers of the New Testament who had nothing good to say about those who taught a gospel without the Torah commandments.
In the first century there were various groups like the Pharisees. There was not one group of Pharisee’s but as many as three and four main groups but two groups are predominant and they were called the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel and were very eschatological (believed in the coming of the Messiah).Both Shammai and Hillel lived in the first century. They had a high regard for oral law but disagreed on how it was observed. The Mishnah and the Talmud contain many arguments on halakah between the two schools.Shammai was more strict than Hillel. The Sadducees were more of the priestly class that opposed the Pharisee’s and believed very little. The Boethucians were rich Sadducee’s that were non-eschatological and rejected the oral law and many High Priest’s came from this class. The Sicari (cut-throats) were the most radical and would assassinate people who helped Rome. The Zealot party was politically opposed to Rome and were Torah observant. There was the Chasidim who were from the north and were pious but not like the Pharisee’s.
The Essenes were a very zealous group and we are not sure exactly who they were but they were fed up with what they felt was a corrupt priesthood and withdrew into the wilderness. They were very eschatological.
There was also the Theraputae, or "healers" and they were related to the Essenes. The Am ha Eretz or "people of the land" were the common folk who didn’t really care to study much and followed the Pharisee’s and liked to be told what to believe. Most of these groups would be called traditionalists.
The Hellenists (influenced by Greek culture) were those who were not so "traditional" and this goes back to the time of the Maccabee’s. The zealous, traditional Jews were at odds with the Hellenists and a war was fought over this 160 years before Yeshua.
The traditionalist Jews fought the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews in what was called the Maccabean War. The traditionalists won the day but they looked with contempt on anyone who was influenced by Greek culture and the feeling was mutual with the Hellenists.
This animosity and distrust permeated any interaction between the two groups.
Now the Hellenists were divided into several groups. The Judeans were not eschatological and not very observant. The Asia Minor Hellenists were very observant but influenced by Greek culture. The Alexandrian Jews of the Hellenistic sort were Torah observant but influenced by Greek culture.
The last group I want to mention were the Babylonian Jews and they were very Torah observant and did not have these other sects to deal with. After Rome destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem, most of the above mentioned groups disappeared except the Pharisee’s. They formed what is called Rabbinic Judaism and that is what has been handed down today. Rabbinic Judaism does not resemble or represent what was being done in the first century and it relies on rabbinic tradition. Yeshua’s disciples were made up of people from these groups with all the diverse beliefs and practices and He taught things that could be found already in these groups.
His overall beliefs were very similar to the school of Hillel but his views on divorce agreed with the school of Shammai. His teachings on hand-washing rituals and carrying a pallet on the Sabbath agreed with the School of Hillel.
His teachings about the spirit of the Torah agreed with Hillel and "doing unto others" is very similar to this school of thought. That is a whole study in itself but the point is there was not one "Judaism" in the first century but "Judaisms" and what Yeshua and the Apostles taught was very mainstream.
Each group had elders and leaders who set the "halakah" of that group, or how to walk before God in light of the Torah commandments. Messianic believers had a council or Sanhedrin where religious controversies could be settled (see Acts 15). Yeshua’s followers differed from the other groups in two main areas. One, they believed He was the Messiah so they were known as the "mashiachim" or "messianics" by others.
The other area was on how to deal with Gentile converts. All the groups accepted Gentile converts but some believed that they had to undergo ritual circumcision to have righteousness with God, or a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Pharisaic school of Shammai was very adamant about this. The Messianic followers of Yeshua thought that too in the beginning, but by Acts 10 and Cornelius that doctrine was dropped for the most part. Now, it was into this world of traditional versus Hellenistic thought that the disciples were sent into, not to mention plain old paganism. So, when people from these different groups began to be saved they brought their theology with them, good and bad. You see the concept of ritual circumcision of Gentiles cropping up in Acts 15 because traditionalist Pharisee’s from the school of Shammai began to get saved and brought this concept into their interaction with the others.
Paul, being a traditionalist from the school of Hillel would naturally oppose this view and it came to a head in Acts 15 and the Book of Galatians.
Galatians has nothing to do with keeping the Torah, it has to do with the traditionalist, Pharisaic concept as to whether a Gentile has to be ritually circumcised according to the halakah of the school of Shammai or not. It was the Lord’s plan to educate Paul in Pharisaic Torah from the school of Hillel and then reveal Messiah to him He was then sent out as a teacher who wrote most of the New Testament scri ptures. The epistles were Messianic commentaries on how to observe the Torah in light of the fact that Yeshua is the Messiah.
So, with that back-round let’s talk about your question. Gentiles who believed in God would be taught the Torah and were called "Yiray Shamayim" or God-fearers. There were several other Hebraic terms they were known by. One was called the "ger t’shav" or stranger in the land. They were believers who lived in the land of Israel like Ruth and Cornelius. If you lived outside the land you were called a "ger ha Sha’ar" or stranger at the gate. This was important because where you lived determined what commandments applied to you. For instance, if you lived outside the land you did not tithe. In Greek they were called "phoubemenoi" (God-fearers) and "sebemenoi" (devout ones) and these terms are used in the book of Acts. So, you must understand that there was tension between the traditionalists and the Hellenists in the first century and this had been going on for over 150 years. Paul was a traditionalist from the school of Hillel and you can see why he made war on messianic believers who were Hellenistic by influence. That’s why he was going to Damascus. There were plenty of traditional messianic believers in Judea but he went after the Hellenists. After Yeshua revealed Himself to him he did not give up the traditional Judaism he learned but now he could interpret it correctly, holding on to the good and discarding the bad. I think the Lord had a sense of humor in sending Paul the traditionalist outside the land to reach Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles. So, with all that back-round let’s get to the question.
Antioch is a Hellenistic city (remember the Maccabean traditionalists fought the Hellenists who sided with Antiochus) named after the Greek kings. So, the Greek speakers in Antioch called the "mashiachim" (Hebrew for messianics) "christianos" which is the same thing, only coming from a Hellenistic angle. This term eventually was used to insult believers and that is why Peter said not to be ashamed of being called a "Christian" (christianos) in 1 Pet 4.14-16, or "messianic" coming from a Hebraic mindset.
This was not the start of a new religion and has nothing to do with what is called "Christian" today. Peter was talking to Torah observant believers in Messiah who were Jewish and Gentile and they would have never accepted Christianity as it is today. Christianity is based on replacement theology so the term messianic and Christian do not mean the same thing anymore. Messianic carries the meaning of Torah observant which is seen as applying only to Jews and Christian means non-Torah observant and is seen as applying only to Gentiles. This couldn’t be further from the truth as expressed in the scri ptures. That is why Jews who believe are often called "Hebrew Christians" and not Messianic Jews today. So, what is it supposed to look like? God saves a Jew or a Gentile and both groups are part of one Body and both groups were to keep the Torah as it applies. We are all a part of one Bride, one Olive Tree, one congregation and we are to follow one Torah.
We have one Shepherd, one Prince, one King, one Messiah and we all follow one God. Messianic is just the Hebrew word for "anointed ones" and if you said it in Greek it would be "christianos" but both words mean the same thing. That is what it is supposed to look like but that isn’t what is out there today and that is why there is much confusion about this verse. That is why we should understand the scri ptures in the way the would have been understood at the time they were written and not according to the understanding and definitions of whatever denomination that happens to be teaching you at the time.