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How Important are Biblical Names?

This week's question comes from the "Land Down Under." An Australian friend asks, "I have never met anyone named 'Jesus' except Jesus Himself. So, where does the name come from -- and if it was changed in the translation, what was it originally?"

During Bible times, names were extremely important -- much more so then than now. Generations ago someone's name not only designated who the person was, but suggested the traits of the person. For instance, the name Adam means human or earthling and comes from the Hebrew word that means earth or ground -- suggesting there was some correlation (like maybe being made from dust?). Indeed, the word adam is used throughout chapters two and three as a designation of "the human" and isn't used as a name until Genesis 4.25. Thus, clearly the name Adam was used not only as an appellate, but also as a description of the person.

Knowing someone's name carried with it a familiar aspect that implied that not only did you know who the person was, but that you had some power over the person. For instance, in the New Testament, Jesus asked a demon what his name was and the demon was compelled to answer, "My name is Legion, for we are many" (Mark 5.9). Jesus' interest in the name likely reflects the tradition that names are important and they carry power over the person as well.

Perhaps the best example of the power of a name is in Exodus when Moses wanted to know God's name. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, "What is his name?" what shall I say to them?' God said to Moses, 'I Am who I Am.' He said further, 'Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I Am has sent me to you"'" (Exodus 3.13-14). Virtually all scholars agree that Moses' question is an attempt to get some leverage over God by having the power of the name (and thus the commandment to not take the Lord's name in vain is a prohibition against invoking God's name inappropriately).

In any event, most biblical names carry some meaning. Names for children were chosen carefully and without regard for how other children might "tease" them. And so some of the most tragic names include Hosea's children as recorded in Hosea 1 are Lo-Ammi (not my people) and Lo-rahamah (not pitied). In difficult times people might take names to indicate their state of mind. In the book of Ruth, Naomi (pleasant) takes on the name Mara which means bitterness. During better times a new name might indicate joy or perhaps mark a great event. Abram became Abraham meaning father of a multitude after God promised he would be the father of the nation Israel (Genesis 17.5).

So, what about the name Jesus? His name came originally from the Hebrew name Joshua and means Yahweh saves. When the name was written in Greek it became Iesous pronounced "yea-soos" and also means Yahweh saves -- an appropriate title for the author and finisher of the Christian faith. However, many Messianic Jews, and others, turn to his Hebrew name and choose to call Jesus "Yeshua" (Joshua). In Greek, the names Jesus and Joshua are identical, which can cause confusion in those New Testament passages that refer to the Old Testament figure Joshua (cf. Hebrews 4.8). Eventually, when the translators put the Bible into English the name Iesous was anglicized to Jesus.

Interestingly enough, other English sounding names such as Mary and John actually came, via a circuitous route, from Hebrew roots as well. Mary came from Miriam meaning rebellious and John from Yowchanan meaning Yahweh favored. Indeed, the vast majority of New Testament names have Hebrew roots.

So much for the origins of the names. Why don't people name their children Jesus? Well, in point of fact many have and still do. In the Bible there are several Jesus' (and even more if you include Joshuas into the mix). Further, in Hispanic cultures, Jesus is a rather common name (pronounced hay-soos). However, people of European cultures seem to have refrained from naming their children Jesus, perhaps because of the holiness associated with the name. On the other hand, if Jesus means God saves, a revival of the namesake might appropriately take place.

Once upon a time names were considered much more important than they seem to be in our Western culture. Names were messages to the world -- and the message from Mary and Joseph was "God saves." A fitting message then and now.

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