The Evolution of the Name Jesus
The Hebrew name Yehoshua
Etymology is the study of word origins and how those words change in meaning and pronunciation over time. In Jewish thought, a name was never a random combination of sounds. A name was meant to convey the nature, essence, history, and reputation of the thing named. The importance of the power in a name is illustrated when Moses asked God what his “name” was. God told Moses he was the God of his ancestors and that he would save his people from bondage. God said “I am who am” (which sounds like “Yahweh”). God then said “This is my name forever, this is my name for all generations” (Exodus 3:11-15).
The basic root name of Jesus comes from the Hebrew name HO-SH-U-A (Joshua) meaning “Salvation.” But “salvation” was only half the essence of his name. The full essence of the name Jesus comes from the story of Twelve Scouts when Moses gave Hoshea his new name “Yeho-shua,” meaning “Yahweh-is-Salvation”
“The Lord said to Moses, send men to scout the land of Caanan, which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man from each tribe, all of them princes. So Moses sent them from the desert of Paran as the Lord had ordered. All were leaders among the Israelites. By name they were … Shammua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Hoshea, Palti, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel (this quote leaves out the father & tribe names). These are the names of the men who Moses sent out to scout the land. But Ho-shea, son of Nun, Moses called Yeho-shua” (Num 13:1-16).
As you can see, Hebrew names always had a meaning and a history in the Old Testament. The early Christians pointed to Mose’s authority to “make up names” when titles and names were given to Jesus or when Jesus “made up names” for his twelve disciples (Mk 3:13-19). The genius of the Greek names of Christianity was in their hidden meaning … all the major names and titles of Jesus and his disciples were related in some way or another to the isopsephia value of Jesus.
By the 5th Century BC the name YEHOSHUA was shortened to YESHUA (see Neh. 8:17). By the 1st century AD, probably due to Greek influence, the name YESHUA was shortened twice more … first to Y’SHUA, and then again to Y’SHU. The Y’shu form seems be a deliberate attempt by orthodox Jews of that time to express their displeasure to the name of Jesus, the recently arrived Greek Christian God who was trying to seduce Jews away from their religion.
The Greek name Ihsous
When the Greeks wanted to turn a Hebrew name into a Greek name there were two ways to bring it across the language barrier. One way was by translation, which tries to capture the meaning of a word … but in the process, loses it’s sound. The other way was by transliteration, which tries to capture the sound of the Hebrew word … but in the process, loses it’s meaning.
Let’s look at the most probable scenario of how the four Hebrew letters in the name Y’-Sh-U-A (Yod-Shin-Vav-Ayin) were transliterated to Koine Greek.
The first Hebrew letter YOD has a “YE” sound. Unfortunately, the Greek language does not have a letter nor a diphthong that has the “Y” sound as in YES! The Greek solution was to pair the two letters IOTA-ETA to produce the sound “EE-AY” which was deemed to be close enough to the Hebrew sound “YE.”
The second Hebrew letter SHIN has the “SH” sound. This was an even bigger problem because the “SH” sound does not exist in Greek. The Greek solution was to employ the “S” sound made by the letter SIGMA.
The third Hebrew letter Vav has a “U” sound. The Greek diphthong “ou” OMICRON-UPSILON is an exact match because it has the same “OO” sound.
The fourth Hebrew letter AYIN has the “AH” sound. According to the Greek rules of grammar, masculine names never end in a vowel sound, and when they do, the name should always be closed with the letter “S” whenever possible. The Greek solution was to drop the final “AH” sound and close out the name with an “S.”
These four steps produce the name “Iesous” (IhsouV) which is pronounced “EE-AY-SOOS.”
Joshua is mentioned two times in the New Testament (Acts 7:45; Heb 4:8), and in both places the Greek text spells his name “IhsouV” … the same as Jesus. The original Hebrew translation of the name of Yeho (Yahweh) – shua (saves) is alluded to in the following gospel passage where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph what to name his future son: “you are to name him Iesous because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). This passage shows Matthew knew that the first two vowel sounds (ee-ay) in the name of Jesus were meant to be a transliteration of the vowel sounds in the name Yahweh, the almighty monotheistic God of the Hebrews. The gospel of John echoed that knowledge by having Jesus say “I come in the name of my Father” (John 5:43). The last syllable in the name of Jesus (eeay-soos) was probably recognized by the Greeks for it’s similarity to the name Zeus (dzoos), the most powerful God in the polytheistic Greek pantheon. Putting the two word plays together, the name Ee-ay-sous oozed with supernatural power because that name implies “Yahweh-Zeus.”
“This happens to be one of the reasons I don’t use the name Jesus anymore, the most important being I prefer to call my Savior, by His Given name.” (Scott Prentice)
The Latin name Iesus
The entire New Testament was written in “KoinÃ©” or common Greek, but as the gospel spread into areas where Greek was not spoken, missionaries made translations in other languages such as Coptic, Slavic, and Latin. By the end of the second century many different Latin versions were in circulation. In 382 Jerome translated a standardized Latin Bible called the “Vulgate,” or common Bible. The Latin Bible transliterated the Greek name of Jesus by bringing across all of the Greek sounds in his name. His name was written as “IESUS.” The Latin spelling differed from the Greek because the two alphabets are not identical. The Latin pronunciation however was still identical to the Greek “ee-ay-soos.” Theodosus made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in 391. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate soon became the undeclared “official” text of the Roman Church. The Council of Toulouse in 1229 made the Latin Bible official by “expressly forbidding it’s translation into vulgar tongues.” In 1234 the Council of Tarragona declared: “No person except a cleric may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments and if anyone is found to possess them he must be turned over to the local bishop so that he may be burned at the stake” The Latin spelling and pronunciation of Iesus dominated the Western Christian world for almost 1,000 years.
The English name Jesus
The Norman invasion of 1066 introduced the letter “j” to England but the sound of the letter did not exist in the Old English language until the early 1200’s. Over the next 300 years the hard “J” sound started to replace male names that began with I or Y because it sounded so masculine. Names like Iames became “James,” Iakob became Jacob, and Yohan became “John.” During the time the letter J was starting to gain acceptance, John Wycliffe became the first person to translate the New Testament from Latin into English in 1384. He preserved the Latin spelling and pronunciation of IESUS but his translation was unread by the common man because only a few hand-written copies of his Bible were produced which were quickly banned by the Church.
When Gutenburg invented the printing press the Latin Vulgate Bible became the first book ever printed in 1455. The first printed bible in a foreign tongue was the German Mentel Bible of 1466 followed by the Martin Luther bible of 1522.
After William Tyndale was denied permission to print an English bible he went to visit Martin Luther and completed his translation of the New Testament in 1525. Tyndale had 18,000 copies printed at Worms and smuggled into England of which only two copies survive. After printing his revised edition of 1534 he was captured in Belgium, tried for heresy by order of the pope, and put to death in 1536 by strangulation after which his body was burned at the stake.
By the year 1611 the letter “J” was officially part of the English languge and the King James Bible was printed along with pronunciation guides for all proper names like Jesus, Jew, Jeremiah, Jerusalem, Judah, and John. The name “Jesus” has been in use ever since.