Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jesus Revealed: The Challenge of Naming

There is a connection between baptism (as in the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate this week) and birth/re-birth, naming/re-naming. This is Part II of an introduction to a 12-week sermon series based on Jesus Revealed, a book by Dr. Mark D. Roberts.

The subtitle of the book makes clear the guiding impetus for this study: we want to "Know Him Better to Love Him Better." In the Preface (p. xiii), the well-known song from Godspell ("Day by Day"), originally attributed to St. Richard of Chichester, gives voice to this overwhelming longing we have to know Jesus better, and to this irrepressible desire we have to love him more. Our prayer of supplication is that we be able to follow Jesus as his disciples, as nearly as we are possibly able to follow:

Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

(Image source,

The focus of chapter 2 of Jesus Revealed is "Unpacking 'Jesus'." In other words, the first title or name we will study in depth is the primary one, "Jesus." What does it mean that the messenger of God tells the adoptive father, Joseph, to name the baby "Jesus"? You might say that Joseph has been given a divine assist in one of the more challenging aspects of pre-fatherhood, the question what sort of name to give the kid. Go wrong and you could scar the child for life, as in "A Boy Named Sue." Often these days parents will spend months deciding what to name their baby, not with divine aid, although some prayers may be offered up, but with the aid of a book of baby names to guide them on their quest. These baby name guides often provide variant spellings and other information for 100,000 or more names, citing the relative popularity of the name, along with something about the origins of each name and its meaning.

But the messenger who came to Joseph provided all the information that was needed for this naming: call him Jesus, "for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).

My own name, Gregory, peaked in popularity in the decade 1960 to 1970 as #23 on the list of 1,000 most popular names for a boy. It is a Greek name that means "watcher," but it is used mostly in English speaking countries. By the end of 2008 it had slipped to #454 on the overall list of 1,000 most popular baby names. Maybe that is because after Gregory Peck, the list of famous people with the name diminished significantly. Who can you think of today with this name? Gregory Goyle (Harry Potter) and Gregory House (the TV series "House"). Even the original namesake, Pope Gregory, has lost some cachet. Who wants to be named after the patron saint of students? (Source, Nickelodeon: Parents Connect) Much better now to be called "Barack," "blessing," a Swahili name, from an Arabic root, sometimes confused with the Hebrew name Barak (baraq, "lightning"). The actual Hebrew equivalent of Barack is Baruch or Beracha ("blessed," "blessing"). (Source, Namipedia, the Baby Name Wizard.)

According to the Social Security Administration report of most popular baby names, Jesus ranked #79 out of a 1,000 in 2008 of popular baby names in the U.S. (a Spanish name, it ranked #35 in Spain). Gregory, #236. Barack, #12,535 (2007) and #2,409 (in 2008; doesn't even make it into the top 1,000, though the projection for 2009 was that it would rank well up in the list [Barack climbs the list.]). And Joshua, the un-shortened English equivalent of the Hebrew-to-Greek-to-Latin name for Jesus? #4 in 2008. There is a Facebook app that has been very popular among my "friends" the last couple of days that answers the question "How original are my parents?" It claims that it will find out how original your parents were in naming you. It gives letter grades: A+, A-, B-, D. I've never seen an F on any of the names of my friends in Facebook, but Mary and Joseph might have gotten an "F" for originality in naming Jesus.

There is an astounding debate (internet chatter) these days about the appropriateness of giving a baby born now the name Jesus: for example, one reader says "I dont think that anyone wants to name their child Jesus (as in Christ) that would be saying that your child is Jesus and there was only ONE" (; see also the reader comments at As Dr. Mark Roberts points out, "We tend to hear the name Jesus with sacred overtones" (p. 15), so we English do not tend to use that name for our babies, for fear of committing some sort of sacrilege.

But there were many, many babies, both before and after Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus the Christ), who had the Hebrew name Yehoshua. The name was formed from the combination of the Hebrew name for God (YHWH, or Yah, Yahu, Yahweh) and the word for salvation (Yeshu`ah). Sometimes the generic word for God ('el) was used instead of Yahweh, as in the name Eliysha` (Elisha) to mean the same thing: "God is salvation." Before the exile of Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon, these names appeared commonly in Hebrew with great variation: for example Yesha`yahu (Isaiah), Yesha`yah (grandson of Zerubbabel; name occurs in Ezra and Chronicles), and Hoshea` (the original name for Joshua). When the name of God (Yahweh) was added to the front of the word for salvation (rather than after the word, as it was in the previous examples above), the spelling and pronunciation of the name would undergo contraction, especially in later usage: for example, Yehoshua` (Joshua), through contraction becomes Yeshua` (still Joshua) in Hebrew/Aramaic, especially in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

So how do we get the name Jesus? It comes to us via Greek. The name Joshua (in both forms, and also the name Hoshea`) was translated in the Septuagint (the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in Alexandria, Egypt, by the exilic Jewish community in the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C.) as 'Iesous. 'Iesous is the Greek name for Jesus in the New Testament. It arrives in our English Bibles via transliteration of the name from Greek into Latin as Iesus. But Jesus and Mary and Joseph probably spoke Aramaic, as is clear from some of the direct quotations of Jesus in the New Testament (for example, his use of the words mammon, talitha coum, and most famously, abba). As Dr. Armstrong (my Aramaic teacher) used to say to his students, "Aramaic is like Hebrew, only different." You can think of Aramaic as related to Hebrew in the same sort of way that French is related to Spanish. So, when Mary was happy she probably called for Yeshu' or Yeshua` and when she was angry for Ye-ho-shu-a` bar Yo-sep! (Though it must be used with care, Wikipedia has a fine article on the name Yeshua.)

What is the point of all this naming? There are several:

  • Jesus was a common man, an ordinary man. He carried a common name, one of the most common in the Second Temple period. (For a notion of the commonality of the name, see Pfann's article on the recent controversy over the so-called Jesus tomb.). Jesus was a carpenter; he must have occasionally hit his thumb. It hurt. He must have known what it is to suffer a headache. To cry. Many of us want to respond to such a description of Jesus like this: "Jesus most certainly was not ordinary!" (p. 17) If we aren't careful, we will begin to think that Jesus only pretended to be human or "seemed to be" human. Like the docetists, heretics of old (maybe not so old), we will begin to deny that Jesus ever really knew what life as a human being is like. We'll deny that he wept or was ever angry or ever really sick. We'll say that it wasn't really a struggle for him to obey God, that he could not ever have faced real temptation. (Hebrews 4:15) But this naming allows us to see Jesus' "ordinariness" and to establish a closer relationship with him. After all, I'm ordinary. I have a common name like Jesus. It is the sort of relationship Joseph Scriven writes about in the second verse of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," a friend who "knows our every weakness," who has experienced our trials and temptations.
  • Jesus was a Jewish man. His name brings us back to his circumcision, Torah school, and Kaddish. It brings us especially to the meaning of his "people," who aren't Christian or gentile, but Jews, whom he came to save.
  • Finally, as Dr. Mark Robert suggests, Jesus is a surprise. He was certainly a surprise to Joseph, and if we get to know him well he might just be a surprise to us.

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