What a name we have in “Jesus”.

In modern English, the Christian saviour is given the name “Jesus”. The origins of how the English came to use and spell the name in this fashion is a fascinating story. It involves several rounds of translation and transliteration covering almost three thousand years. First we have the Hebrew bible. Here the name occurs in two forms: in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Aramaic version occurs because the later parts of the Hebrew Bible date to the Persian exile and afterwards when the language became the common day-to-day language of Jews (and others) in the middle east. This was the language spoken in the time of Jesus and so would have bene the main language used by him and his Apostles as well as John the Baptist.  However, a couple of centuries before Jesus, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX). Alongside Aramaic, after Alexander the Great the Hellenistic influence challenged the previous Persian dominance and Greek also became spoken by many Jews, particularly those living in modern day Turkey, Greece, the Levant and Egypt. Indeed, the original Hebrew language would probably have been largely unused except as a “hieratic” or liturgical language of some priests and religious scholars in the time of Jesus. The New Testament gospel writers and early Christians were clearly familiar with the Septuagint Greek Old Testament rather than the original Hebrew.  

In the late 4th Century, there was the translation of the old and new Testaments into Latin by Jerome, who used both the Greek and Hebrew texts. There had of course been translations into Latin before Jerome, but these were partial and often not very accurate, which is why in 382 the Bishop of Rome Damasus asked his friend and scholar Jerome to write an authoritative and comprehensive Latin translation which came to be used by the Western church into modern times. There was a further development towards the end of the first millennium. The original Hebrew of the bible was written without vowels: Hebrew consisted only of consonants.  By the 7th century CE, many Rabbis were concerned that the pronunciation of the biblical text had become corrupted and uncertain. They therefore developed a system of adding symbols (dots and dashes) to make the vowels explicit and these have become the standard version of Hebrew bibles in modern times (and also modern Hebrew revived as the official language of Israel). This is the “Masoretic” version of the Hebrew bible. It was this Masoretic version of the Bible that renaissance and Protestant translators used for their translations into various languages (including the King James bible).

So, now how can we interpret the evolution of the name “Jesus” through the last 3000 years? First we have the Hebrew of the Pentateuch or Books of Moses. Let us say for the sake of argument that they date to 800 BCE. Here we have the name Yehoshua. This means something like “God saves”. In English translations of the Old Testament this is translated as “Joshua”. This was the name of the successor to Moses amongst others.  In later Aramaic sections of the bible, this name appears as Yeshua.  This was most probably the name for “Jesus” used when he was alive. The Septuagint translators of Hebrew bible translated both of these names using the same name in Greek, which is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. This can be written using Latin script as IESOUS. This is pretty close to the Aramaic Yeshua, except that there is no “sh” sound in the middle and an extra “s” on the end. The “s” at the end is because in Greek male names (usually) end in “s”.  There is no “sh” because there is no “sh”! Greek does not have this sound and the translators opted for a simple “s”.  Note that in the Septuagint some but not all Hebrew names are treated in this way: thus for example Moshe becomes Moses with the extra s at the end and the s replacing the sh as in the case of Jesus.

The Latin translations stuck with the Greek sounds for the New Testament, which were translated as “Iesvs.  Clearly, when Jerome was writing the Latin Vulgate at the end of the fourth century, the pronunciation of the name would have been well established and it would not have been desirable to alter the way everyone was used to speaking. However, for the old Testament, Jerome used the name “Iosue”.  Jerome was probably aware that of the Hebrew pronunciation of “Yehoshua” or “Yeshua” and chose to write it in this way.  Like Greek, Latin did not have a “sh” sound, so “Iosue” was as close as it could get. Unlike Greek, however, there was no need for an additional “s”.

We can move forward to the early second millennium and we have the first instances of the name in English.  The first instances are from the 12th Century where we read about “IESU” or (as in Wycliffe’s Bible) “IHESU”.  The “s” has been dropped from the Latin, probably because of the French influence where the “s” would have been silent. The letter “I” could stand for “Y” or “I”, and the letter “I” could also be written as a “J”. The use of “J” to be an unambiguous “jay” sound did not happen until more recently. Hence there is some uncertainty about exactly how the word “IESU” or “IHESU” would have been pronounced (Yesu or Jesu or possibly like the Mexican “Jesus”). The modern English pronunciation of Jesus probably emerged in the 17th Century.  However, there would have been considerable variation in dialect. Turning to the Old Testament, the Vulgate was followed and we find for example in Tyndale’s bible the spelling “Iosua” which later morphed into “Joshua”, probably as later Protestant bible translators using the Masoretic Hebrew texts realised the “s” should in fact be a “sh”.

Pronunciation is an issue that goes back in time. The way letters and words are pronounced changes over time.  This applies to Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic as any other language. The Hebrew pronunciation in the first millennium BCE or the Greek of the first millennium CE is not known with certainty. Names of such antiquity as “Yeshua” cannot have an unambiguous reading soundwise, particularly when the contemporary way of writing the name was without vowels. However, as we know from the history of English, namely the “Great Vowel Shift” in the period 1400-1700, even the way vowels are pronounced can shift over time and of course at any one time can be subject to considerable regional variation. 

We can trace the written name Jesus back in time: from contemporary English as Jesus and Joshua, back to Latin IESU and IOSUA and the Greek ΙΗΣΟΥΣ and further to the “original” Aramaic and Hebrew (in both its Masoretic and original form).   This is a story of almost three millennia and whilst other names have long pedigrees, few have been subject to such reverence.  

PS After writing this I read about a high priest Jeshua who was the first high priest of the second temple built after the return from the Babylonian exile (around 500 BC). His name appears in both forms as Yehoshua and Yeshua, and was written as “Jeshua” in the academic article I read on the topic of the dynasty of high priests he founded. Spelling it in this way bought out the links between the different but related versions that became “Jesus”.