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And you shall call His name…Jesus? Part I

    The old spiritual hymn says, "Jesus, the sweetest name I know." And, to countless millions of Christians through the centuries, the name of Jesus is indeed the most treasured name ever known. Unfortunately, most Christians do not realize that Jesus is a translation. In fact, it is a translation of yet another translation. In fact, once we trace the name back to its origins (i.e. Jesus' original given name), we will find that it has a much richer meaning than the one we have come to know and love so well.

    Liberal scholarship has made some unfortunate erroneous assumptions as to the origins of the Gospels and the language of the Jews, including Jesus, during the first century. Most scholars agree on either a Greek or Aramaic origin of the Gospels and assert that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Also, it is assumed that New Testament records and the teachings of Jesus were based on faulty transmissions of oral reports recorded by a Greek-speaking church far removed from the Judean and Galilean scene. All of these assumptions have greatly influenced the largely uneducated evangelical church and are so deeply ingrained that to challenge this approach is considered heresy. The majority of scholars for the past 200 years have favored Aramaic origins of the Gospels. However, when the evidence is examined, we learn that there is no strong evidence for that conclusion. In fact, there is a much stronger case against Aramaic origins.

    According to the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrius and the Codex Bezai, three of the most ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, it is stated that the inscription, "This is the King of the Jews" over Jesus' cross was written in "Greek, Latin and Hebrew." These manuscripts date back to the fourth and fifth centuries; so, isn't it significant that they would infer Hebrew to be more popular than Aramaic?

    Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek has stated, "The question of the spoken language (during the Second Temple period) is especially important for understanding the doctrines of Jesus. There are sayings of Jesus that can be rendered both in Hebrew and Aramaic; but there are some that can only be rendered in Hebrew, and none can only be rendered in Aramaic."

    Also, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947), even the leading proponents of the Aramaic theory have begun to modify their view. In Matthew Black's third edition of his book, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, he remarks, "…the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has now placed at our disposal information of a highly interesting and relevant nature…we must allow more than has been done before for the use of Hebrew in addition to, or instead of, Aramaic by Jesus himself (Black, 1967)". It should be noted that during the Temple Mount excavations in recent decades, coins and other artifacts found at the site have only Hebrew, Greek, and a few Latin inscriptions. None are Aramaic.

    It is tragic that our seminaries and Bible colleges focus attention on Greek and Hellenistic theology. Their students are not given the proper tools for doing serious Biblical study. The Greek of the New Testament manuscripts is not only poor but most expressions in the New Testament are meaningless in Greek. For example, Matt. 6:22-23 literally reads: "The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is good, your whole body is full of light; but if your eye is evil your whole body is full of darkness…" Greek has no such idioms, nor does English. However, the expressions "good eye" and "bad eye" are common Hebrew idioms for "generous" and "stingy". This expression of Jesus is meaningless in both Greek and English but actually makes perfect sense in Hebrew. A much more detailed analysis of this can be found in the work of David Bivin and Dr. Roy Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (highly recommended reading), published by The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies in Dayton, Ohio.

    There is evidence beyond the Biblical references that point to an Hebraic origin of the Gospels-the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus, the early Church Fathers, coins, and inscriptions on other artifacts from the period, to name some. The Dead Sea Scrolls include close to 600 partial manuscripts (Biblical and non-Biblical) indicated by some 40,000 fragments. All of the Biblical manuscripts were in Hebrew and only one of the non-Biblical documents was in Aramaic, the Genesis Apocryphon. It should be noted that Aramaic was a spoken language until 167 B.C.E. It was then that the Maccabean Revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had desecrated the Temple, sparked a revival among the Jews and Hebrew became the official national language. (Also, Hebrew became the national language of the Jews after the statehood of Israel was established in 1948.)

    The writings of the early Church Fathers (pre-325 A.C.E.) are indisputable. They are important because they carry us back to the earliest centuries of the Church. Men such as Papias (150 A.C.E.), Irenaeus (120-202 A.C.E.), Origen (early 3rd century), Epiphanius (approx. 300 A.C.E.), and Jerome (died 420 A.C.E.) contradict the Aramaic theory, which developed no earlier than the Middle Ages. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, mid-second century, states: "Matthew put down the words of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and others translated them as best they could (Ecclesiastical History, ch.3, p. 39)". Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in France, states, "Matthew, indeed, produced Gospel written among the Hebrews in their own dialect (Ecclesiastical History, ch.5, p. 8)". Origen, in his commentary on Matthew, states, "The first Gospel, composed in the Hebrew language, was written by Matthew for those whom came to faith from Judaism (Ecclesiastical History, ch.6, p. 25)". Eusebious, Bishop of Caesarea, (325 A.C.E.) writes, "Matthew had first preached to the Hebrews and when he was about to go to others, he transmitted his Gospel in writing in his native Hebrew language (Ecclesiastical History, ch.3, p. 24)". Jerome, who composed the Latin Vulgate directly from Hebrew, which to this day is the authoritative Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, writes concerning Matthew's Gospel, "Matthew was the first in Judea to compose the Gospel of Christ in Hebrew…who it was that later translated into Greek is no longer known with certainty. Furthermore, the Hebrew text itself is still preserved in the library at Caesarea which the martyr Pamphilus assembled with great care,"(DeViris Inlustribus, ch.3).

    Again, artifacts discovered in archaeological expeditions provide a rich source of evidence for the use of Hebrew during the time period. In fact, the Hebrew name for Jesus was found on an ossuary (a small casket representation for the bones of a loved one recovered one year after burial) in a rock cut tomb near Jerusalem. The inscription is pronounced Yeshua (English transliteration) from which we derive the name, Jesus.

    The question remains, why is this important to us today? The answer is, because this is our heritage in the faith. Paul tells us that we are "heirs together with Israel" (Eph. 3:6), that "our forefathers were all under the cloud and…they all passed through the sea" (1 Cor. 10:1), that we as "wild olive branches" were "grafted into the natural olive tree" (Rom. 11:17), and that the root of that tree supports us, not us supporting the root (verse 18). Episcopal Bishop John Spang clearly stated, "The Bible is a Hebrew book, telling the story of the Hebrew people. Jesus was a Hebrew Lord. If the Bible is going to be properly understood, we must develop 'Hebrew eyes' and 'Hebrew attitudes' toward life." New Testament scholar Stuart Rosenberg reminds us "before one can become fully Christian, one must also know what it means to be a Hebrew," and, "…the stronger a man's faith, the more Hebraic he will regard himself."

    So, we must emphasize this point: the Bible reflects a view of reality that is essentially Hebraic. Indeed, for the earliest church, to think "Christianly" was to think "Hebraicly." This becomes very significant to us when we realize the name, Jesus, is the western, Anglican rendering of the Hebrew name Yeshua. It is unfortunate that the people of the church never thought to wonder if the name "Jesus" might have been derived from another, more appropriate, name or if He may indeed be unlike the man we see depicted in paintings hanging in our homes and churches.

    So, how do we get Jesus, the name we see in our Bibles? As stated, His Hebrew name is Yeshua (English transliteration). In Galilee, where He lived, the 'a' at the end was left silent so the pronunciation would have been Yeshu, in that region. Of course, as we have seen, the Hebrew story of the life of Jesus was very soon, after His death and resurrection, translated into Greek. In the translation, Yeshu(a) became Iesus. In Greek, there is no 'sh' sound thus the 's' in the middle, and in the Classical period, it was typical to add an 's' to the end of male names, thus we get the Greek pronunciation easoos (Iesus). From there it is easy to see how we get Jesus as a transliteration of Iesus. The 'J' corresponds to the 'Y' in Hebrew and the 'I' in Greek. For example, the Hebrew name Yeramiah becomes Jeremiah in English or Yahweh becomes Jehovah. So, Jesus is the name we have come to love, but His given name was actually Yeshua, and perhaps it is this latter name on which we should focus.

    This is important for us because Hebrew is the key to becoming more authentically Biblical. In Hebrew, the phrase,"and she shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins," is actually a play on words. "…and she shall call His name Yeshua for He will yoshea His people…(Matt.1:21). Both are derived from the root "yesha", to save. So Yeshua means savior, the implications of which are astounding.

    To grasp the full depth of meaning, we must research the Biblical text from the beginning and what we will find is the redemptive plan of a loving and gracious G-d. This we will attempt in Part II. Shalom.

1:Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. David Bivin and Dr. Roy Blizzard Jr., Ch. 2, pp. 25-26.
2:Ibid, p. 30.
3:Jewish Sources in Early Christianity. Prof. David Flusser, ch. 1, pg. 11.
4:Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, ch.5, pp. 46-47
9:This Hebrew Lord, New York Press, 1974, p. 31
10:The Christian Problem: A Hebrew View, 1986, pp. 222-223.
11:Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Dr. Marvin Wilson, ch. 1, p. 12.