The name "yeshua" in hebrew (Photo: Tuvia Pollack)
I want to start with a warning. I am a bit of a history nerd and a language and grammar nerd. This question tickles both of those bones. This will be a pretty nerdy article. Sorry not sorry. Let’s get going.
If your name is Peter and you plan a trip to Puerto Rico, would you book the plane ticket and hotel room under the name Pedro? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. If you had to “translate” your name like that you would be forced to introduce yourself as Pierre in France, you would be Petros in Greece and Pekka in Finland. No one does that.
In today’s international world, we can’t imagine a system when names need to be translated like this. Our name is what it is and we carry it with us wherever we go. But it was actually not that long ago that translation was the custom. My grandfather’s name was Heinrich, and when he came from Germany to Sweden in 1939 they initially registered him as Henrik. A Swedification of his German name. Many Americans probably have stories of how their ancestors’ names were americanized as well, when they arrived to the US. It was a different world.
In the time of Jesus this was how it worked. If your Hebrew name was Yochanan, then it was Iohannes in Greek. If it was Te’oma in Aramaic, it was Thomas in Greek. And if your name in Hebrew was Yehoshua or Yeshua, then it was Iesous in Greek.
When we write Hebrew with our alphabet there is no “correct spelling.” All we can do is try to render the sounds as closely as possible. You can spell Zion as Ziyon, Tsiyyon, or Tzion. You can write Yeshua as Y’shua or Ieshuah. The only fully correct spelling is ישוע. In the Hebrew Bible there is a name which could be rendered as Yehoshua if we want to be true to the Hebrew pronounciation. Due to tradition most English Bibles nowadays call him Joshua. It means “God saves,” or “salvation of God.”
When the Greek-speaking Jews did the first ever translation around 200 BC, the translation today known as the Septuagint, they translated this name and Greekified it to Iesous. Why? Well, Yehoshua is hard for Greeks to say. They shortened it, got rid of the sh and put an s instead, since the sh-sound doesn’t exist in Greek, and they added the grammatical male suffix -ous since it was the name of a male. There. The name is Iesous. Or Iesou or Iesoun depending on the grammatical case.
As we get to the later books of Ezra and Nehemia, the name Yeshua, a shortened Arameic-ish version of Yehoshua, comes up as the name of the high priest who came to Judea with Zerubabel. Again, they write it as Iesous. Because why distinguish, it’s basically the same name. In one instance in Chronicles, Joshua is called Yeshua. In the book of Zecharia, the high priest Yeshua is called Yehoshua. Same name, different variants.
This is important to understand. When Peter said that “only in this name can we be saved,” he certainly didn’t mean that the actual saying of his name had magical power. Calling on his name is what mattered, whether you would say Iesous as the Greeks would, or Yeshua as the Jews would. The specific sound forming in your mouth do not have the power to save you. Peter said to be baptized in Jesus’ name in Acts 2:38. But the Greek doesn’t even say Jesus, it says Iesou – grammatical genitive case, i.e. “of Jesus.” The final “S” isn’t even there. How can there be any magic in those specific sounds and syllables?
When the New Testament was written in Greek, the name of the Messiah is said to be Iesous “because he will save his people.” A clear indication that the original name must have been either Yehoshua or Yeshua. Yeshua is much more likely, as it was the shortened more modern version of Yehoshua. It was also a fairly common name at the time. Can we be 100% sure? No, we can’t. But it his highly likely that Yeshua was the original name. According to wikipedia, among the archaeological inscriptions from the time we find Yehoshua 15 times, Yeshua 85 times and the Greek Iesous 48 times.
So on the one hand, his real name was very likely Yeshua. But it is also very clear that the disciples immediately started to speak of him as Iesous when they spoke to Greek people. Otherwise they wouldn’t write it in the New Testament. When they spoke Latin they probably used the Latin grammatic suffix -us, so it became Iesus. At some point in later history the I turned into a J and the pronounciation altered a bit in different languages. English speakers will pronounce it Dzeezez and Spanish speaker Haysoos. It’s still him.
“Saying Yeshua instead of Jesus is Judaizing.”
Will you then please tell me, what we Israeli Hebrew speakers are supposed to say? How should we address him in Hebrew? Do you expect us to adopt the Greekified version instead of his original name? I can agree that saying Yeshua instead of Jesus when speaking English is a bit convoluted, but come on. If someone wants to say Yeshua and another prefers to say Jesus, what difference does it make if they mean the same person?
“Jesus is a satanic Greek name which derives from Zeus”
No. You are wrong, and you are creating an unnecessary rift between yourself and billions of people who believe in the same Messiah as you do. The one reason that Zeus sounds similar to Jesus to you is because both have the Latin suffix -us at the end, which was standard for all male names.
“If you claim that the New Testament got Jesus name wrong, then how can we trust anything in it?”
They didn’t get it wrong. In fact, it would be very weird if they had written Yeshua. It was simply not done. Names were always translated. In fact, the English translations even take it a step further. Hebrew Yaakov became Greek Jacob and somehow became James in English. Yochanan became Iohannes which became John. Petros and Andreas became Peter and Andrew. Lukas became Luke. If you even translate Greek names to English, why are you complaining that the Greek translates the Hebrew names?
“The name has to be Yahshua, because Yah is God’s name, not Ye.”
Alright… this one really bugs me. Because it’s a 20th century idea that has no basis in actual history or Hebrew grammar. None whatsoever. God’s name in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH, and adding a YH or a YHW at the beginning or the end of a name was always a symbol of God’s name, no matter how it was pronounced. Vowels are not written in the Hebrew alphabet. Joshua’s name was pronounced Yehoshua, where the “Yeho” is the part that signifies God’s name (W can be pronounced as U or O). The same is true for many Hebrew names like Yehonatan or Yehoshafat. Or at the end of names, like Isaiah – Yesha-yahu, or Jeremiah – Yirmi-yahu. As you can see the vowels are a bit “free and loose” in a way. They easily switch places.
European languages normally don’t work like that. The vowels are usually a fixed part of the root of a word. A ball and a bell are two entirely different words, they are not related and don’t come from the same root. But in Hebrew Kadosh, Mikdash, and Kdusha are all related, stemming from the K-D-SH root. The vowels change when they go to different places. There are a few cases in English where this happens, such as goose and geese. But it’s not a general rule as it is in Hebrew. Normal people don’t say one moose and many meese. Only I do that.
Those who are insisting on Yahshua are therefore enforcing a European mindset on a Semitic language, ignoring Hebrew grammar altogether. Ironically, they do this by trying to be as originally Hebrew as possible.
I personally prefer to say Jesus when I speak English and Yeshua when I speak Hebrew, but I leave it up to each and every one to decide for himself. If I find myself in the right context, I might say Yeshua when I speak English.
The easiest solution is of course to skip all of this controversy by quitting English. Start speaking Hebrew all the time instead. Then you don’t have any choice. You have to say Yeshua.
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Tuvia Pollack is a teacher and translator at the Jerusalem Assembly and also an unpublished writer of historical fiction novels depicting Judeo- Christian relations throughout history. Articles published here originally appear at his blog on tuviapollack.com.