[EDITOR’S NOTE: A.P. auxiliary writer Dr. Rogers serves as Director of the Graduate School of Theology and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University. He holds an M.A. in New Testament from F-HU as well as an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Hebraic, Judaic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.]
A minority of Christian voices through the centuries have insisted on stressing the Jewishness of Jesus.1 Already in the New Testament, we learn that some Christians were retaining Jewish customs and doctrines in an attempt to create a hybrid religion. These attempts met stern apostolic criticism (e.g., Galatians 5:2; Colossians 2:16). Generally, as Christianity transitioned from a majority-Jewish to a majority-Gentile religion, these voices were steadily muted. However, a resurgence of the Jewish Jesus movement has led a number of people to allege ecclesiastical conspiracies to “cover up” the Jewishness of Jesus. Among the sensational claims is the alleged “change” of the name of God’s Son from Yeshua to Jesus.
Before we analyze the rationale and legitimacy behind the question of the name, let us affirm two incontrovertible truths. First, Jesus was a Jew. Scripture is clear that the New Covenant was not inaugurated until the death of Christ (Hebrews 9:16-17). Therefore, Jesus (or Yeshua, if you like) lived His entire life as a Jew under the Law of Moses. The name has nothing to do with His Jewishness. Second, His name in Hebrew was indeed Yehōshūa‘, or more likely in Aramaic Yēshūa‘. Growing up in the Galilee region, Jesus would have almost certainly spoken Aramaic, and He would not have heard His name as “Jesus.” Indeed, the Syriac translations of the New Testament spell the name Yēshūa‘.2 The New Testament, however, is not written in Aramaic or in Syriac, but in Greek. And the English name “Jesus” is a transliteration based on the Latin, which is based on the Greek, which is in turn based on the original Aramaic.
Alleged Reasons for the Name “Change”
“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” This maxim is taught to third-graders and college students alike. Still, it doesn’t seem to sink in. People continue to read Web sites that propagate fictional conspiracy theories to allege the name of God’s Son was changed from its pure Hebrew form to its current corruption. And here are a few of the most common reasons why.
First, it is alleged that early Christians—even the authors of the New Testament!—were racists. They wished to erase the Jewishness of Jesus from the record in an effort to make Him seem “Christian” and “Gentile.” This simply isn’t true. First, every author of the New Testament seems to possess a Jewish background of some kind, and most were born Jewish (cf. Galatians 2:15). Second, Paul can boast not only of his Jewish lineage (Philippians 3:5), but also claim, “I am a Pharisee” (present tense!) long after his conversion (Acts 23:6). Third, where there is racism in the New Testament, it is usually against Gentiles rather than Jews (Galatians 2:12-16; cf. Romans 2:14).
Second, some would never lay such an allegation as racism at the feet of the Apostles, but they have no qualms about hurling this insult at the Catholic Church. They believe the early church falsified manuscripts of the New Testament in order to erase “Yeshua” and insert the more Western-sounding “Jesus.” There is no evidence for such a claim. We have nearly 6,000 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, and approximately 19,000 New Testament manuscripts in other early languages, such as Syriac, Coptic, and Latin. In addition to these direct copies, we have tens of thousands of pages of early Christian writings, some of which are from Jewish-Christian groups. The name of Jesus occurs hundreds of thousands of times collectively in these ancient documents, and none of them speaks to a conspiratorial name change. If the “change” from Yeshua to Jesus was an early Catholic conspiracy, it is the best-executed cover-up in world history.
Third, it is occasionally alleged that the name Jesus is an attempt to insert paganism into Christianity. A few (very, very few) argue the name “Jesus” means “hail Zeus.” I suspect someone somewhere noticed the pronunciation of the name, especially in a language such as Spanish, sounds strikingly like “Hey-Zoos.” This must be a furtive nod to the chief god of the Greek pantheon, right? Not in the slightest. The New Testament was not written in English or Spanish, but in Greek. In Greek, “hail Zeus” would be chaire zeu, which bears absolutely no phonetic resemblance to “Jesus.”
How Did We Get from Yeshua to Jesus?
Although Jesus probably grew up in Galilee hearing His name as Yēshūa‘, it is not the case that the Christian world moved from Yeshua to Jesus. This is because Yeshua and Jesus are not different names, but different pronunciations of the same name. Different languages hear sounds differently. The Hebrews of the Old Testament era heard the name of the Persian king as “Ahasuerus” whereas the Greeks heard it as “Xerxes” (compare ESV with NIV in Ezra 4:6). If your name is Peter in the United States or Great Britain, you are Petros in Greece, Pietro in Italy, Pierre in France, and Pedro in Spain. Did each of these languages change your name!? No. These languages simply pronounce the same name in different ways. And so it is with Jesus. The Greek Iēsous represents the Aramaic Yēshūa‘.
But what about the meaning of the name? Those who argue in favor of the superiority of the name Yeshua insist that the Hebrew form means “salvation” whereas the Greek form is meaningless. This is true, and I believe every Christian should know the name of Jesus in Hebrew and Aramaic means “salvation.” However, Peter-Petros-Pietro-Pierre-Pedro means “rock” only in the Greek language. It is meaningless in the others; yet none of us seems bothered by this problem, and no one insists on a consistent, universal pronunciation as Petros. Second, Matthew already felt the need to explain the name of Jesus in his Gospel (Matthew 1:21). And it is routine in the New Testament to translate the meaning of certain foreign words (e.g., Matthew 27:46; Mark 5:41; John 1:38, 41). If the inspired writers were content to use the medium of the Greek language, while also providing explanations, is it wrong of us to follow their example?
Third, there is more than one “Jesus” in the New Testament. In the genealogy of Christ a certain “Jesus son of Eliezer” is named (Luke 3:29). Then there is the Jesus also known as Justus (Colossians 4:11). Finally, the Old Testament hero Joshua is known in Greek transliteration as Iēsous, his name being indistinguishable in Greek from Jesus the Christ (Acts 7:45; Hebrews 4:8, KJV).
Technically, if the New Testament were written in Hebrew or Aramaic, Yeshua would have been the form the authors used. But it wasn’t. It was written in Greek. So the authors represented the name as it was known in Greek. The name “Jesus,” in fact, was well-established in Greek transliteration as Iēsous thanks to the Septuagint, where it is found over 250 times. The New Testament authors did not change the name from Yeshua to Jesus, nor did the early Catholic Church.
Whenever modern theorists insist on the name Yeshua, they are contending for a position the New Testament authors themselves never took. The name of Jesus appears over 900 times in the Greek New Testament, every single time as Iēsous. If one travels to Israel, one will find the name of Jesus is still pronounced “Yeshua” today. But not in China, nor in Russia, nor in any European, North, or South American country will he or she find this pronunciation. The spelling and pronunciation of the name of Jesus is not a matter of conspiracy, but of culture.
1 For a convenient survey of some of the early attempts, see Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik, eds. (2007), Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
2 Syriac is an Eastern language closely related to Aramaic. The first translations of the New Testament from Greek into Syriac appear in the fourth century A.D.