His Name in Hebrew

I like learning languages; I am a bit lazy when it comes to it, though…. I could be a lot better with the ones I’ve picked up if I spent more time with them. But one thing I try to learn early is what Jesus is called in that language.

It might be surprising that I would have, after at least a year, still be giving this thought: What is His name in Hebrew? After all, He was Jewish and we’d expect that His name would have survived in the language that He probably used a lot (well, He may have spoken Aramaic, which was related to Hebrew anyway).

So, what’s the problem? Ignoring the pseudo-Hebrew (and, as far as I can tell, historically unfounded) names for Him, Hebrew-speaking Christians call Him יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua; yeh-SHOO-ah); Jewish Hebrew-speakers (well, basically, non-Christian Hebrew-speakers) call Him יֵשׁוּ (Yeshu; YEH-shoo). If you look in a Hebrew dictionary, it is the second one you’ll see. Is any more legitimate than the other?

Well, as I read around, trying to figure out the reason for these two different names, I found that ישו (Yeshu) has a negative connotation:

It is apparently an acrostic/abbreviation for a Hebrew phrase that means “May his name be blotted out.”*

(yemach shmo vezichro) ימח שמו וזכרו

So, Hebrew-speaking Christians tend not to use “Yeshu”; for obvious reasons. But I wondered if this connotation was just added later and that “Yeshu” happened to be his name nonetheless. The relevant passages of Scripture (New Testament) that mention Jesus by name are, unfortunately, written in Greek, so we have to use these passages as clues.

In Greek, the name of Jesus is written as Iesous (pronounced yeh-SOOS, I think). There was no ‘sh’ sound in Greek, and so that sound was represented by ‘s’; and there tended to be an ‘s’ at the end of their names. It was a convention/rule like in English, names are spelt with the first letter as a capital letter. Given these details, Yeshu seems a good fit, doesn’ it?

But then here comes the surprise: in the Septuagint, the Greek Scriptures translated before Jesus was born, the name of Joshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ; Yehoshua; y’hoe-SHOO-ah) is written the same way.

(If you have Greek font available:)**

Exodus 17:9 ειπεν δε μωυσης τω ιησου … [Joshua]
Matthew 1:1 Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ. [Jesus]

So… there’s another name pulled into the equation. I once asked by Israeli (Hebrew-speaking, not Christian) friend about this. Her answer was:

ישו is the Aramaic version of יהושע (=Joshua).
In Ancient Hebrew שוע meant dignified individual, noble.
יה= the lord
[shoo-ah, I think] שוע= dignified
[Yeshu] ישו= the lord is dignified, noble.

“Joshua” is translated as “Jehovah is salvation” usually, or something like that.  “Yeshua” means (as my Strong’s dictionary tells me) “he will save”. (Not to be confused with [יְשׁוּעָה, y’SHOO-ah], a feminine noun that means “salvation”/deliverance”.) If my Israeli friend is right, then “Yeshua” would have come about more recently; and it does make sense since that the name of Joshua son of Nun would be called “Yeshua” down the line as Aramaic infiltrated (as in Neh 8:17; if you’re using a Christian English Bible, it might not show up unless you look at the KJV). And the name would probably be ever more common around first century Jewry.

There is a clue as to what Jesus’s name means found within the book of Matthew.

Matt 1:21 – And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Okay, so here we see that both Joshua or Yeshua seem to fit here. The implication is often missed on us as English-speakers, but I think the scholars say that Matthew had been writing to a Jewish audience and some even say he wrote this Gospel in Hebrew; so, we can guess that original his readership would have understand that there was a connection to the name and an act of salvation.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not “Yeshu”; it seems to have no connection to the meaning attached to the name. And here comes my own bias/speculation: I am leaning towards Yeshua. Why? Well, first of all, it is short for Joshua; so, it can work legitimately even if His Hebrew name is Joshua. Second, Yeshua is also written the same way in Greek as Joshua, Iesous. No surprise there, I’d guess. Third, take a look at the verse again:

Matt 1:21 – …and thou shalt call his name JESUS [He will save?]: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Yeah… so…

אני קורא לו “ישוע” בעברית.׳

Hope that was at least interesting. 🙂 It ended up being longer than I expected.


**Online Septuagint available at: http://bibledatabase.net/html/septuagint/index.htm; online Greek New Testament available at: http://www.greekbible.com/

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