You’ve likely heard of Jesus Christ. But what about Ἰησοῦς? How about Yeshua? What’s the difference, and how important is the sound our vocal cords make when talking about the Son of God?
As a child I was under the impression that Jesus had a full name and that name was Jesus Christ. First name, last name. Fortunately I had some patient and knowledgable people around me to help me understand that’s not exactly what is going on with the name Jesus Christ. Christ is just an English way of saying the Greek word “Cristos”, which means “anointed.” In the Old Testament there were three categories of people who were anointed: prophets, priests and kings. Whenever a person was chosen by God to fulfill one of these offices, they would be anointed with oil as a symbol of God’s Divine favor being poured out on them. There is another word in the Hebrew language that means the same thing as Christ. The English way to say that word is Messiah. You may have heard Jesus referred to as the Messiah or you may have heard Him called Jesus Christ. Either way, this is a descriptive word, more like a title than a formal name. Jesus is the anointed one, God’s anointed. The way we would say this today is something like Jesus the Christ or Jesus the Messiah. This explains a lot, but there are still several other questions about the name of Jesus that are worth exploring, like whether or not His name is actually even Jesus.
Before we dig into the question of whether or not Jesus is actually named Jesus, we probably need to spend a few minutes explaining some things about how names were used in Bible times, the ancient languages that the Bible is written in and how translating those languages into English works. Let’s start with names in general.
I can remember the first time I learned that names actually had definitions and meanings just like every other word. I was looking in a baby name book and found my name and read that it had origins in Celtic and Old English. The Celtic origin meant “prince or king” and the Old English meant “broom covered hill.” Guess which definition I preferred. Different families and cultures place different values on choosing names. Some people choose a name because it is a family name, or to name a child after another person, or simply because they like the way the name sounds. Some cultures place great significance on choosing a name, believing it plays a role in shaping the destiny of the child or is a description of the child’s physical appearance, personality or some other characteristic. The culture into which Jesus was born was just such a culture.
The father of the Jewish people was a man named Abraham—well, actually, his name was Abram, but then God changed it to Abraham. Abram means “exalted father”, although ironically, he was an old man and had no children. God promises Abram that he will have children and that his descendants will become an entire nation of people. As a sign of His promise, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.” As you continue through the Old Testament, reading the account of this ever expanding family, you quickly discover that they place a very high priority on what they name their children. Abraham has a son whom he names Isaac, meaning “laughter”, because that is what his wife Sarah did when God told her she would have a child in her old age. Isaac would have twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Jacob means “one who grabs the heel”, which seems to be linked to the nature of his birth where he grasped the heel of his twin brother who was delivered first. As you follow the account of Jacob and Esau it becomes clear the name seems fitting of his character as well. Another way to define the name Jacob is “supplanter”, as in one who takes the place of another. Jacob will eventually manipulate and deceive to take the birthright from his older brother, supplanting him as rightful heir to the head of the family. Many years later, a very humbled and very different Jacob will have an encounter with God where his name will be changed to Israel, meaning “prince who has power with God”, as an indicator of his favored status with God as the eventual namesake of the nation descended from Abraham. Generations later, another Israelite will be given the name Moses, which means “drawn from the river”, because this was how he came to be a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. In time, many Israelites gave their children names that honored past heroes and heroines (Judah, Joseph, Miriam/Mary, etc) or names that honored God Himself (Elijah = Yahweh is my God, Joel = the Lord is God, Ezekiel = strength of God).
In addition to forenames, surnames and place names were often applied to further describe a person or tell where they were from. Abraham is first referred to as “the Hebrew” while he is dwelling in the land of Canaan (Genesis 14:13). The word Hebrew means “to pass over” and is believed to refer to the fact that Abraham was a stranger in their land who came from beyond the Jordan River. He was the one who came from across the river. This is an example of attaching the name of a place to a forename. His name was Abraham (forename) and he was called the Hebrew (place name). You see this pattern with other biblical figures like Uriah (forename) the Hittite (place name) in the Old Testament and Saul (forename) of Tarsus (place name) in the New Testament. Another identifier is the use of paternal names. Jesus had a very well known disciple by the name of Simon bar Jonas. His forename was Simon and his surname was bar (Hebrew for “son of”) Jonah. In a world where many Jewish men may have borne the name Simon, the surname “son of Jonah” could be helpful in narrowing down which Simon you were referencing. There are also nicknames in the Bible, with Simon being called Peter by Jesus. Peter is the English version of the Greek word “petros” which means “a stone.” Jesus nicknamed Simon, the son of Jonah, Simon “the rock.” There are also descriptive terms that identified someone based upon their occupation, like Simon the Tanner. Many of these identifiers are used in relation to Jesus. In the Bible He is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth (the town where He spent most of His childhood and early adult life), Jesus the carpenter and Jesus the carpenter’s son.
What about languages and translations?
Generally speaking the books of the Bible were written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Hebrew is the native tongue spoken by the descendants of Abraham. Virtually all of the Old Testament was written in this language, with a few exceptions being written in Aramaic, which came to be the dominant language of commerce amongst the Jewish people around the time of Daniel and into the time of Jesus. The New Testament was written almost entirely in Greek, which was the dominant language of commerce beginning with Alexander the Great and continuing well into the Roman Empire. This is why Jesus is sometimes called the Messiah and other times called the Christ. Messiah is the Hebrew term for the anointed one and Christ is the Greek term. Technically, both of these are the English pronunciations of these words, because we are, after all, dealing with translations and transliterations from ancient languages to a modern language. Here’s where we really start to dive into the name we pronounce as Jesus.
You may have come across those who insist that pronouncing the name of the Messiah as “Jesus” is wrong. Instead, they assert, we must use His Hebrew name Yeshua, or something like that. Is that what the Bible actually says? No. The Bible does not emphasize the sounds our vocal cords make when addressing God. In fact, the first thing the Holy Spirit did when Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was preached was change the way it sounded when it was preached! In Acts 2, when the apostles began obeying the Lord’s commandment to make disciples of all the nations, the Holy Spirit equipped them to preach the gospel in different languages and dialects. That would have required changing the way certain words, including the name of the Savior, to sound.
Let’s work from the present day backwards in time. Jesus is the English pronunciation of the Greek name Iesous. If your name is Steven and you traveled to a Spanish-speaking country you would likely be called Estaban in Spanish. Or if you traveled to Greece, you’d be called Stephanos. Keep this in mind as we examine how we got to Jesus. His name in Aramaic, which was the common language spoken amongst Israelites in first century Judaea, was Isho. The Hebrew pronunciation for His name was Yeshua, which translates to Joshua in English. The meaning of the name Yeshua is “savior.” Before the Christ child was born, the angel of the Lord told His surrogate father Joseph that he was to name the baby “Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21). Although He is not formally given this name, He is identified by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Matthew as Immanuel, which is translated “God with us.” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23), because Jesus was God in the flesh. The same thing you see happening with the name of our Lord, you see happening with the names of Old Testament characters when they are spoken of in the New Testament. The Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jonah become Esais, Jeremias (or Jeremy) and Jonas in the Greek New Testament. So, what should we call the Christ? The one we call Jesus would have answered to Yeshua when talking with Hebrew speakers, Isho to Aramaic speakers and Iesous when talking with Greek speakers. Any of them are fine, but since it is likely that most of us aren’t Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek speakers, then the English version is equally fine, which is Jesus.
How you pronounce the name Jesus isn’t the focus of the gospel. What is the focus is “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Calling on the name of Jesus is not actually fulfilled by speaking His name out loud. We know that because Jesus Himself says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Calling on the name of the Lord has to do with understanding your power and authority are nothing, so you must submit to the authority of and live under the name of Jesus, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). To learn more about that, explore the conversion of Saul here.