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Why the Names Jesus and Christ in English? Was the New Testament Written in Hebrew or Greek?
Various groups believe that the name Jesus should not be used, but instead other pronunciations and spellings. The following article, which appeared on pages 6-9 in the July-August 2005 edition of The Living Church News by the late evangelist John Ogwyn, addresses this, as well as if the New Testament was written in Hebrew or Greek.
What Is the Savior’s Name?
In Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter declared that there is only one name “under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” On the evening before His arrest and subsequent crucifixion, the Savior told His disciples that whatever they asked the Father “in My name,” would be done (John 16:23). Clearly, the use of the Savior’s name is very important. But what is that name?
Many would consider this a foolish question, yet some sincere people are quite troubled by it. To understand the answer, we need to understand what is meant by “name.” Does it mean the phonetic reproduction, as closely as possible, of the way our Savior and His immediate disciples pronounced His name? Or does it mean something far more?
Anyone who studies the subject will see that the way we pronounce “Jesus Christ” in English is not the way our Savior would have pronounced His own name when He walked the earth as a human being. The common language of first century Judea and Galilee was Aramaic, a language very similar to ancient Hebrew. Those who consider it important to pronounce the Messiah’s name exactly as He did will argue that we should say Yeshua rather than “Jesus.” This would sound far closer to the way His name would have been pronounced in first century Aramaic or Hebrew. Why, then, do we write and pronounce it as “Jesus” in modern English? Does God require us to reproduce the sound of His name as it would have sounded in Hebrew, or is it appropriate to use the common pronunciation in whatever language we are speaking? The answer to this question can be established clearly from the Bible.
A secondary question, also helpful for our understanding, concerns why “Jesus” is spelled with “j” in most languages that use the modern Latin-derived alphabet. Since the letter “j” was not found in Hebrew or Greek—or Latin, for that matter— how and why did it come to be used in our day? Is it the result of a sinister conspiracy, or something else altogether?
The Language of the New Testament
To answer our questions about the Savior’s name, we must begin by looking at the New Testament. Most who read this article read the New Testament in English; others read it in Spanish, French, or whatever is their primary language. When we do so, however, we all realize that we are reading a translation. The New Testament manuscripts have been preserved in Greek, and all standard reference works will confirm that Greek is considered the original language of the New Testament. It is from Greek that translations such as the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Version and many others have been made.
In order to assert that the Savior’s name must always be pronounced as Yeshua rather than Jesus, one would have to dispute that Greek is the original language of the New Testament, since the Greek manuscripts render the Messiah’s name not using Hebrew, but rather using customary Greek spelling and vocabulary. If God caused the Messiah’s name to be rendered into common Greek usage in the inspired New Testament, then it is obvious that the standard English spelling of His name would not be wrong today.
In order to claim that the original New Testament manuscripts were all written in Hebrew—or written with Jesus’ name always in Hebrew—one would have to believe that God allowed every accurate copy of the original manuscript to be destroyed, and that He allowed only corrupted manuscripts to be preserved. Furthermore, one would have to explain why letters sent to congregations in Greece itself—Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica—would have been written in a language that they could not read. For that matter, the epistles of Colossians, Ephesians and Galatians, as well as the book of Revelation, were addressed to congregations in Greek-speaking Asia Minor. Had these been written in Hebrew, they would have been unintelligible to most of the intended recipients.
There is no hard evidence—only speculation—for the assertion that there were Hebrew (or Aramaic) originals behind the Greek manuscripts that have come down to us. This speculation was first advanced by Dr. Charles Cutler Torrey in the 1930s, and has since been rejected by virtually all scholars. Dr. Torrey’s idea was that there must have been an Aramaic original text, since the Greek of the New Testament was not grammatically correct, and often reflected the grammatical constructions of Semitic languages more than of classical Greek.
Nearly all scholars who have studied the subject agree that portions of certain books have some Aramaic coloring, but they say that this is to be expected of writers for whom Greek would have been only a second language.
Torrey advanced his theory before the discovery of Greek papyri from the period in which the New Testament was written. Since those discoveries, scholars have generally rejected Torrey’s theory. As Dr. Henry Thiessen explained in Introduction to the New Testament: “The discovery of the papyri has done much to undermine this theory. It has shown that practically every supposed mistranslation in the Gospels appears a regular idiom in the Greek papyri of the period; and the latter certainly are not translations from the Aramaic” (p. 35).
Not only are there no extant copies of these supposed “Aramaic originals” of New Testament books; no early writings about the New Testament indicate that such originals ever existed! Today, we have portions of second century writings by men who either knew the Apostle John or were personally taught by him. A close examination of those writings reveals no evidence of Aramaic (or Hebrew) original texts!
Some writers, such as Dr. James Trimm, have enlarged Torrey’s theories with the claim that the “early church fathers” testified to the existence of an original Aramaic New Testament text. However, the evidence does not substantiate Trimm’s claim. The “church fathers’” only relevant statements on this matter are preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, and refer to just two New Testament books: Matthew and Hebrews. Eusebius quotes Papias, Irenaeus and Pantaenus as referring to a Hebrew (or Aramaic) original written by Matthew. When read in context, it becomes clear that these authors were contrasting Matthew with the other three gospels. Papias and Irenaeus were describing the audiences for which each gospel was first intended, and the origins of each gospel, Matthew’s having been directed at the Jewish community in Judea and Galilee. Pantaenus described seeing a copy of Matthew, written in Hebrew characters, in use among the Aramaic-speaking population on the borders of India.
Only one other book — Hebrews—is described as originally authored in Hebrew (or Aramaic). Eusebius, quoting Clement of Alexandria, writes: “But the Epistle to the Hebrews he [Clement] asserts was written by Paul, to the Hebrews, in the Hebrew tongue; but that it was carefully translated by Luke, and published among the Greeks” (VI, xiv).
In short, there is simply no ancient claim that the whole New Testament was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic! In fact, there is much evidence that most (if not all) of the New Testament was originally written and preserved in Greek. As a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests, more than three centuries before the New Testament era, Greek was the common language of much of the Roman Empire. Use of Greek had been commonplace in Rome itself for about two centuries before the New Testament was written. “With the influx into Rome of many Greeks after the fall of Corinth in B.C. 146, Greek culture and Greek language rapidly came to the fore in the imperial city. All people became bilingual, speaking both Greek and Latin. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans and Clement of Rome wrote to the Church at Corinth, in Greek” (Thiessen, p. 57).
What about the Jewish community of the Diaspora? Many of the Jews who lived outside Judea and Galilee spoke Greek almost exclusively. As a result, in the second century BC, a Greek translation of the Old Testament was made, known as the Septuagint.
In first century Jerusalem there were Greek-speaking synagogues, attended by Jews who had moved there from other parts of the empire and did not speak Aramaic as a first language. Some of the tensions that existed among the two communities even carried over into the New Testament Church, as we see from Acts 6, which describes a misunderstanding between Jews who spoke Greek and other Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. Greek was the most widely used language of the first century, and was the primary language in which the Christian message would have spread outside Judea and Galilee.
Note also Acts 11:26, where we learn that the disciples were first given the name “Christian” in Antioch. Antioch, one of the three greatest cities of the Greco-Roman world, had been founded in 300BC by Seleucus I and named for his father, Antiochus. It was the capital of the Seleucid empire, and was one of the four main successor-states of Alexander the Great. Antioch became part of the Roman Empire in 64BC and remained a major outpost of Hellenistic civilization. The word “Christian” is derived from the Greek word christos, meaning the “anointed one.” This is an exact translation of the Hebrew term messiah. Clearly, these people were speaking Greek—and were using Greek terminology to refer to the Messiah.
The Origin of the Name “Jesus”
In first-century Aramaic, the Savior’s name would have been pronounced Yeshua. What is the significance of that name, and why do we spell it as “Jesus” today?
Did you know that the common spelling and pronunciation of names varied over the centuries, even in the Hebrew Bible? A case in point is the name of the Savior Himself. Realize that Joshua, the successor to Moses, bore the same name in Hebrew as did Jesus of Nazareth. Theirs was a common Hebrew name, and it was borne by many men over time, yet the Hebrew Old Testament spelled it in three different ways.
One spelling was Yehoshua “which meant “Yah [Yhwh] is salvation” according to the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament. This is the “full” spelling of the name, as found in Deuteronomy 3:21 and elsewhere. The “defective” spelling , which drops one of the semiconsonants used to mark the presence of a vowel, is found in Judges 2:7 and many other places. Centuries later, after the Babylonian Exile, the common spelling and pronunciation had changed again. In Nehemiah 8:17, and a number of other places, the spelling and pronunciation used is Yeshua . This last form was in common use among the Jews in subsequent centuries, as we can see from the inscription on the first-century ossuary said to be that of Jesus’ brother James. Despite these three different spellings, those who read the Bible in Hebrew understood that the name carried the same meaning regardless of exactly how it was spelled or pronounced.
This later spelling of the name holds the key to understanding where our use of “Jesus” in English originated, and why most English translations of the Bible render it “Joshua” in the Old Testament and “Jesus” in the New. When the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, was made in the second century BC, this later spelling of Yeshua was in common use among the Jews. When rendering into Greek the name of Moses’ successor, and that of other Old Testament figures bearing the same name, it was almost always spelled out as Iesous [Ιηζουσ]. Why?
The answer is twofold: Hebrew and Greek use different alphabets, and they have different rules of grammar. For instance, the first letter of the name Yeshua in Hebrew is the letter yod. As a semi-consonant like the letters waw and he, it can play the role of a consonant or a marker of a vowel, depending on its position in a word. Thus yod is given a “y” sound at the beginning of a word, and an “i” sound when used later in a word. It has no exact equivalent in Greek, but the iota, sounded as “i” regardless of where it is used, is the closest. In the same way, the Hebrew letter shin is sounded as “sh” but has no exact equivalent in Greek, the closest being sigma, sounded as “s.”
Why does the Greek form of this name (or for that matter any number of other Old Testament names) end in “s” rather than in “a”? The answer is found in the rules of Greek grammar. In Greek, nouns indicate case, number, and gender by their spelling. This is called declension. Depending on its use as subject or object in a sentence, the same noun has a different ending. Spelling (rather than word order, as in English) indicates how a word functions as a part of speech. Thus, in Greek, Iesous is in the nominative case (“Yeshua”); Iesou is in the genitive case (“of Yeshua”), and so on. The name in the nominative case carries an “s” so that it may be properly declined in the other cases.
Note that while spelling and pronunciation of the same names varied from Hebrew to Greek, this did not affect the meaning or significance that those names carried. Jews living in Greek-speaking areas commonly used the Greek forms of their Hebrew names. This is seen not only from the New Testament, but also from numerous ancient inscriptions and writings.
Greek-speaking Jews, as well as God-fearing Gentiles who heard the Hebrew Bible read in synagogues, would have been familiar with the Greek forms of Old Testament names. Greek-speakers would have rendered the Savior’s name the same as the name of Moses’ successor: Iesous.
Why, then, do our English Bibles (such as the King James Version) use Joshua in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament? This occurs because our Old Testament was translated from the Hebrew Masoretic Text, using an approximate English transliteration of the Hebrew letters and vowels. Our New Testament, however, was translated from the Greek, so the transliterated names found there reflect Greek spellings. Thus, where the original Hebrew is Yehoshua, Joshua was used in English translation. Where the original Greek is Iesous (or one of its declined forms), Jesus was used in English translation. Elijah and Hezekiah were used in the English Old Testament and Elias and Ezekias were used in the English New Testament for exactly the same reason. Interestingly, some newer translations have sought to minimize potential confusion by using the same spelling for the same person in both the Old and New Testaments, regardless of how the name was preserved in the Hebrew and Greek texts.
The Letter “J”
Why, then, do English-speakers spell both Joshua and Jesus with a “j” rather than a “y” or an “i”? Where did this originate? Does it represent some sort of sinister plot, as a few assume, or is the explanation far more innocent?
Notice what the Oxford English Dictionary says about the history of the letter “j”: This “tenth letter of the alphabet in English and other modern languages is, in its origin, a comparatively late modification of the letter I. In the ancient Roman alpha- bet, I, besides its vowel value… had the kindred consonantal value of modern English Y… Some time before the 6th century, this y-sound had, by compression in articulation and consequent development of an initial ‘stop’, become a consonantal diphthong… In OE, i consonant, so far as it was used, had (as still in all the continental Germanic languages) its Latin value (y)… But the French orthography introduced by the Norman Conquest brought in the Old French value of i consonant = g ‘soft’ (dsh); a sound which English has ever since retained in words derived from that source… From the 11th to the 17th c., then, the letter i represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound (dsh), far removed from the vowel.”
Throughout the medieval period, the forms of the modern “i” and “j” were used interchangeably, and both forms represented the same letter. How, then, did “i” and “j” come to be considered two distinct letters of the alphabet? “The differentiation was made first in Spanish, where, from the very introduction of printing, we see j used for the consonant, and i only for the vowel… Louis Elzevir, who printed at Leyden 1595–1616, is generally credited with making the modern distinction of u and v, i and j, which was shortly after followed by the introduction of U and J among the capitals by Lazarus Zetmer of Strasburg in 1619” (OED, “J”). The letters “i” and “j” continued for many years to be considered merely different forms of the same letter, so that as late as the early 19th century, dictionaries commonly intermingled the I and J words in one series.
Knowing Your Savior
Languages develop and change over the centuries. Pronunciations even vary within dialects of the same language at the same time. Remember the account of Peter during the early morning hours following the arrest of Jesus, where he denied any connection with Jesus of Nazareth. Those standing around the fire with him soon expressed disbelief of his denial. They observed that he too was from Galilee—where Jesus hailed from—because his speech betrayed him (Matthew 26:73). Pronunciations varied enough from Judea to Galilee that people’s origins were obvious from their accents. We, of course, notice the same thing today with people who originate in different parts of the English-speaking world.
We need to understand that it is not the phonetic sound of the Savior’s name that is essential—what is essential is understanding and knowing the One of whom we speak! The English-speaker, the Spaniard and the Frenchman all pronounce the word “Jesus” differently, according to the rules of pronunciation for their particular languages. Writers of Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic or the Latin-derived alphabet of the West will each spell the Savior’s name differently because of their alphabets’ distinctive features. Is this a p ro b l e m ? Not with God! Remember, the division of the human race into different linguistic groups originated as a miracle of the Creator at the Tower of Babel.
Nowhere in the New Testament are Greek-speaking congregations told to use the Aramaic form of the Savior’s name, rather than the Greek form with which they would have been familiar from hearing the Old Testament scriptures read in Greek in the synagogue. It simply was not an issue to the New Testament Church.
Furthermore, notice that Jesus prophesied of a future great religious deception in which many would come in His name and would deceive many (Matthew 24:5). Christ did not say that deceivers would use a different name, or that they would misspell or mispronounce His name. Most false Christians, who say that they come in Christ’s name—that is, as if sent by the authority that His name represents —have not used the Hebrew or Aramaic forms of the Savior’s name when distorting His message. Additionally, some who have spent great effort trying to pronounce His name correctly have nevertheless taught deceptive doctrines. The problem is not how they pronounce the Savior’s name, but rather that they distort the message He brought!
The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that “unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me” (1 Corinthians 14:9–11).
Plainly, the Bible does not stress the importance of which language we use to address the Savior, or on precisely how we spell or pronounce His name. These will vary with the language of the speaker. In fact, the deaf and the mute can also know the Savior and have a relationship with Him. To know His name means to understand who He is and what He taught.
Do you truly know Him and understand the good news that He proclaimed? Do you believe His message with all of your heart? If you do, it will transform your life and make it possible for you to inherit the Kingdom that He has prepared.