Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky

Name of Jesus

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I wonder sometimes. Genealogists are supposed to use the earliest attested name. The rule is often glossed as requiring genealogists to use the “birth name“. We had a debate on Geni.com a while back about the name of Jesus. I still don’t feel comfortable with the result.

The Messianic Jews argued stridently in favor of Hebraicizing his name. The Christians argued just as stridently in favor of continuing the Grecized versions of his name common in different European languages.

Here’s the basic issue.

The common language of Palestine in Jesus’ time was Aramaic, while the commercial language was a dialect of Greek called Koine. The New Testament was probably written in Greek. The surviving Aramaic version of the New Testament is probably a translation from the Greek. Probably. A minority of experts believe the Aramaic version came first and the Greek version is the translation.

The name of Jesus in the earliest Greek version is Ιησους – that is, Iēsoûs, the name that became both Jesus and Joshua in European languages. In the Peshitta, an Aramaic text, Jesus’ name is ܝܶܫܽܘܥ – that is, Yeshuwe. In Jesus’ time the normal Hebrew version of his name was ישוע‎ (Yeshua), a shortened form of יהושע‎ (Yehoshua, Joshua), while the normal Aramaic version is argued to have been Yeshu.

It’s not such a complicated landscape. None of this is obscure or surprising to experts in the field.

What surprises me is that some amateur genealogists think it’s necessary to weigh the evidence and make a decision on a subject where even the experts are split.

And worse: the debate is driven by unacknowledged ideological baggage.

The name Yeshua is closely associated in modern times with Messianic Judaism. Indeed, the original debate on Geni.com began when a particular user demanded that Jesus’ name be changed to Yeshua, while traditional Christians wanted to keep the familiar forms of his name in their respective languages.

At the same time, the preferred Jewish form of Jesus’ name is Yeshu. Jesus is invariably called Yeshu, while other men with the same name are called Yeshua. In fact, in the Jewish tradition the form Yeshu seems to be unique to Jesus. There are no undisputed Aramaic or Hebrew texts as referring to anyone except Jesus.

I wouldn’t say the original name of Jesus is unrecoverable. Almost certainly it was some form of Yeshua, but in my opinion there are methodological problems with trying to be more exact than the evidence allows. It’s the genealogical sin of inventing information.

I would have preferred in this case to keep the earliest attested form of his name, with a short commentary.

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Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky
Justin Swanstrom

Justin Swanstrom

Made in America. Retired attorney. Bookseller at Shining Lotus. No Nazis in Valhalla. He/him.

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