“You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20), we hear in this Gospel excerpt from the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The angel tells Joseph to give this name to Mary’s son. The angel Gabriel also tells Mary to give this name to God’s son at the Annunciation (Lk 1:31).
Of course, back in Galilee, Jesus was probably not called “Jesus.” We have to backtrack from our modern “Jesus” through the Latin Jesu. And Jesu is really a later Latin version — since Latin did not originally have a written “J.” So the Latin word St. Jerome used in compiling the Latin Vulgate (the first Latin version of the Bible) was Iesus. That, in turn, came from Greek, the language in which the New Testament was first written. In the Greek of the day of the evangelists, the name was I?soûs.
This Greek version was a transliteration of the Aramaic of Jesus’ time for the words “God” and “saves.” Most commonly today we see this as Yeshua. This name is sometimes shown as Yeho-shua. Basically, it takes the word for “God” as in Ye or Yeho and pairs it with shua, the word for “saves” or “heals.” Shua can also be used to mean “a cry for help.” So we can see how the words “God saves” or “God heals” can be applied to the one who will save his people from their sins.”
Sometimes the name Yeshua is also translated as Joshua. While the name “Jesus” is largely unique, the name “Joshua” appears two other times in the Hebrew Scriptures:
Joshua, the son of Nun, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Hebrew people. Joshua was a warrior who led the people in the conquest of the land of Canaan — remember the walls of Jericho?
The second Joshua is the author of the Book of Sirach, written in the second century before Christ. The author is named as “Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach.” This popular book is often used in our liturgy since it contains many proverbs for virtuous living. Chapter 36 also offers a prayer to God to “come to our aid,” echoing our idea of “a cry for help” to God.
Jesus in his earthly life personified this healing and saving power of God. He literally was “God heals” to those he encountered, to those who cried out to him as he passed: from the 10 lepers to the blind man of Jericho to the woman whose daughter was possessed to the paralytic man whose forgiven sins also let him walk. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “the name ‘Jesus’ signifies that the very nature of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins. It is the divine name that along brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation” (no. 432).
Jesus himself said this was his mission as Savior when he began his public ministry in his home town’s synagogue. Reading from the prophet Isaiah — the prophet we hear from all during Advent — Jesus said that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19).
So anyone in need of help knew exactly who to turn to. As we do today when we cry out: “Jesus!”
And it was all foreshadowed in the name given by the angel.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Reading the Old Testament; The New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance; The New Dictionary of Theology; and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.