Until this week I had no idea that this was a controversial issue. However, with the rise of churches trying to get in touch with the Hebrew roots of Christianity it is becoming more and more popular to hear people pronounce the Jesus in a Hebrew/Aramaic form. Some people (mostly KJVO types) believe that this is from the devil. Thus, here is my analysis of the whole issue.
(If I am missing something please let me know in the comments!)
Here are the things that need discussed. 1) Language of the NT, 2) Language of the Hebrew people (Jesus was Hebrew), and 3) how languages are transliterated.
I realize that not everyone knows that the New Testament (NT) was written in Greek but it should be used as our starting point. Not only was the NT written in Greek but nearly ALL of the Old Testament (OT) quotations in the NT were taken from a Greek copy of the OT, called the Septuagint. In Bible scholar land its known as the LXX.
To be clear on this issue, Greek was the language of the land. It was the language of the common people. It was likely the language that Jesus predominantly spoke with his followers. I say that because the Bible specifically states when Jesus spoke in something other than Greek. (Example: John 20:16) So, it stands to reason that Jesus probably spent most of his time speaking Greek like the rest of the common people.
Even though Greek was so common that Paul quotes almost exclusively from the Greek OT, both Paul and Jesus could both speak multiple other languages. Jesus and Paul both spoke Hebrew and we know this from the NT itself because they read from the Hebrew scrolls in the synagogues. We k now that Jesus and Paul could communicate with the Romans so perhaps they even knew Latin (that I am less sure on).
Why does any of this matter? Because the Greek name of Jesus was not Jesus…..it was Iesous (Ιησούς). This in English would be ee-ay-sooce’ according to the Strong’s Concordance. I personally don’t use the Strong’s much but it’s helpful for pronunciation at times and it’s easily accessible on any device. The question is, then, how would have Jesus pronounced it? Would it be in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek? (Certainly not English as Jesus)
To answer that let us look to our next major point.
2. The language of the Hebrew or Jewish people
We know that Jesus and most of Judea were Jewish. The Jews descended from the Hebrew tribe of Judah (and the remnant of Israel to the north). So, all the Jews were Hebrew.
This does not mean that they all spoke Hebrew at the time of Jesus and the gospels. But the NT does state on many occasions common Jews engaging in the Hebrew language. (Luke 4:16-20, Mark 7:34, Matt.5:26; Mark 14:30)
Yet we also see much of the Aramaic in the OT and NT (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34, Mark 5:41) In addition, many of our oldest OT manuscripts are littered with Aramaic. (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Jeremiah 10:11)
Why do the Jews speak both Hebrew and Aramaic?
This is because the Jews were once taken captive by and lived with Aramaic speaking peoples for many generations. At one point Aramaic was the predominant language of the ANE. The last national super power to be in place before the Greek were the Persians and those who spoke Aramaic. This has been true for all of time. The dominant powers tend to control the language.
In fact, the Greeks and the Aramaic speaking people also had a clash of language. Many texts had to be translated once the Greeks took over. Thus, the Jews is Jesus’ day had to know multiple languages and often there were blurred lines where one stopped and another started.
3. How languages are transliterated
Not every language has a 1 to 1 comparison in its alphabet. Therefor, not every word in every langauge is going to have a direct transliteration. And just to make this clear up front, a transliteration is not the same as a translation.
A translation is when two languages both posses a word with the same meaning but different word. Just like how in English “road” is road or a path and in Spanish a path is “camino”. If Spanish did not have an equivalent word to road they could choose to adopt the English word and then they would transliterate it into Spanish by spelling it out phonetically.
We can observe this happening in our Greek NT when the name Joshua is transliterated from Hebrew to Greek (Luke 3:29, Acts 7:45 and Hebrews 4:8). Likewise, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses Ἰησοῦs for the name of Joshua.
So, what does this mean for Jesus? The original name for Jesus was likely Yeshua (ישוע, with vowel pointing יֵשׁוּעַ – yēšūă’ in Hebrew). I say this because He was Jewish and both his parents were Jewish. Even though they adopted multiple languages it does not mean that they would naturally adopt another culture’s names. This was not a Jewish thing to do.
In addition, in Matthew 1:21 the angel said to Joseph:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21 NIV)
What this tells me is that whatever name the angel had in mind, its root definition would have to do with saving or delivering. The name Joshua is a shortened form of יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshu’a) meaning “YAHWEH is salvation.” But would not the name Iesous also carry the same meaning since the culture had already adopted it to be the equivalent of Yehoshu’a? I believe so. I think using the name Iesous in the first century would have been far more common among the common people. Though, more so for the gentiles than the Jews.
What should we call him today? I am not sure it matters if you use Jesus or Joshua or Yeshua or Yehoshua. Everyone speaks a different language so I would suggest that they speak the name of our Lord in what ever it translates into in your particular language.
If you are really bent on historicity and accuracy I would go with Yeshua or Iesous.
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