Why is his name ‘Jesus?’

By | May 21, 2009

These words from the angel Gabriel to Mary is the obvious answer. This, after all, is what the Bible tells us about how Jesus got his name.


However, there has been interest in recent years about Aramaic and Hebrew versions of Jesus’ name — such as Yeshua — which make for enlightening study.

The Gospels were written down in the first century, several decades after Jesus’ resurrection. And they were written, not in Hebrew or Aramaic (which is today considered an endangered language since so few people speak it). Instead they were written in Greek, koine Greek — the everyday Greek of the time. Koine was spoken by many people in the Middle East of Jesus’ time, especially craftsmen, which Jesus was. In koine, Jesus’ name was written I?soûs. (There was no written “J” in the Greek alphabet, nor in Hebrew or Aramaic.)

When the Bible was later translated into Latin — the most common language of its day — various versions appeared. In 382 A.D., St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to make a standard Latin version of the Gospels from the original Greek. So the Greek I?soûs became the Latin Iesus. Because of the various cases in Latin, depending on the phrase, the name could also have been written Iesu or even (rarely) Iesum.

It’s important to note that written Latin did not have “J” either. Only around the late 14th/ early 15th centuries, did “J” appear in place of the “I” in certain written European languages, including Latin, and it was pronounced as a “Y” would be. This is why crucifixes bear the letters INRI instead of JNRJ — for Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaervm (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. And there was no “v” in Latin at the time.)

So from the Latin Iesus, we got Jesu and, still later, our modern “Jesus.”

However, going back a bit, what about the Jewish name from which we got the Greek I?soûs in the first place? The answer also goes back to the angel (traditionally believed to be Gabriel) who announced Jesus’ conception to Joseph: “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

In Hebrew, the word for “salvation” is shua, which also can mean “a cry for help.” This is the part that became soûs in Greek. Add to that the Hebrew name for God — which was not to be said out loud by devout Jews, but could be abbreviated as Ye or Yeho. So I?soûs was a transliteration of the word Ye-shua or Yeho-shua, which means “God saves” or “a cry to God for help (with the belief that it will be answered).” It can also mean “God heals.”

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that Yeshua was a common name in the time of Jesus, citing sources such as the Jewish historian, Josephus. It also seems that the same name was even sometimes Hellenized as “Jason.”

Two other people in Jewish history had similar names: Joshua, the successor of Moses; and Jesus, son of Sirach, author of the Book of Sirach. Whether these men had the exact same name as Jesus is debated by scholars, but there are certainly similarities.

It is important to note that, in the ancient world, a name was more than something that identified you from the person next door. In a way, you were your name, and people did not give their real names to anyone casually. Often, they went by nicknames rather than share their real name.

In fact, it was sometimes believed that letting someone know your real name meant entrusting yourself to them on a very personal level. Knowing your true name gave them power over you. It was part of a covenant relationship to exchange names.

So when the angel gave Jesus his name, we can be certain that this was meant to tell us more about Jesus than just whether his name was like Joshua’s or Jason’s. It was meant to tell us what Jesus had come to do. He had come to save us, he had come to heal us and he had come to be God with Us. And he had come to seal the New Covenant between God and us.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that the proper name of Jesus “expresses both his identity and his mission. Since God alone can forgive sins, it is God who, in Jesus his eternal son made man, ‘will save his people from their sins.’ In Jesus, God recapitulates all of his history of salvation on behalf of men” (no. 430).

What Jesus was called as a boy, or by most people who met him on the street, is not as important as what we know his name to be today: Savior.

Sources: The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Reading the Old Testament; The New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance; The New Dictionary of Theology; en.wikipedia.org and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.


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