Was Jesus a Common Name Back When He Was Alive?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 24 2008 7:17 AM

Happy Birthday, Dear Yeshua, Happy Birthday to You!

Was Jesus a common name at the beginning of the first century?

Jesus Christ
Painting by Ary Scheffer, 1851.

Photo courtesy Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Christians will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Was the Christian Messiah the first to have that name, or were there a lot of Jesuses running around back then?

Many people shared the name. Christ's given name, commonly Romanized as Yeshua, was quite common in first-century Galilee. (Jesus comes from the transliteration of Yeshua into Greek and then English.) Archaeologists have unearthed the tombs of 71 Yeshuas from the period of Jesus' death. The name also appears 30 times in the Old Testament in reference to four separate characters—including a descendent of Aaron who helped to distribute offerings of grain (2 Chronicles 31:15) and a man who accompanied former captives of Nebuchadnezzar back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2).

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The long version of the name, Yehoshua, appears another few hundred times, referring most notably to the legendary conqueror of Jericho (and the second most famous bearer of the name). So why do we call the Hebrew hero of Jericho Joshua and the Christian Messiah Jesus? Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. Greeks did not use the sound sh, so the evangelists substituted an S sound. Then, to make it a masculine name, they added another S sound at the end. The earliest written version of the name Jesus is Romanized today as Iesous. (Thus the crucifix inscription INRI: "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum," or "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.")

The initial J didn't come until much later. That sound was foreign to Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Not even English distinguished J from I until the mid-17th century. Thus, the 1611 King James Bible refers to Jesus as "Iesus" and his father as "Ioseph." The current spelling likely came from Switzerland, where J sounds more like the English Y. When English Protestants fled to Switzerland during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I, they drafted the Geneva Bible and used the Swiss spelling. Translators in England adopted the Geneva spelling by 1769.

In contrast, the Old Testament was translated directly from the original Hebrew into English, rather than via Greek. So anyone named Yehoshua or Yeshua in the Old Testament became Joshua in English. Meanwhile, the holy book of the Syrian Orthodox church, known as the Syriac Bible, is written in Aramaic. While its Gospels were translated from the original Greek, the early scribes recognized that Iesous was a corruption of the original Aramaic. Thus, the Syriac text refers to Yeshua.

Bonus Explainer: What was Jesus' last name? It wasn't Christ. Contemporaries would have called him Yeshua Bar Yehosef or Yeshua Nasraya. (That's "Jesus, son of Joseph" or "Jesus of Nazareth.") Galileans distinguished themselves from others with the same first name by adding either "son of" and their father's name, or their birthplace. People who knew Jesus would not have called him Christ, which is the translation of a Greek word meaning "anointed one."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Joseph P. Amar of the University of Notre Dame and Paul V.M. Flesher of the University of Wyoming.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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