The Sacred Name

The etymology of the name Jesus. From Hebrew Yeshua to English Jesus.
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When Paul wrote to his non-Jewish followers across the Roman Empire, he didn't call himself "Shaul." He called himself Paul. He didn't call the Messiah "Yeshua haMashiach." He called him "Iesous Christos."

It's ok to use transliterations, abbreviations, and even translations to refer to Yeshua/Jesus, especially when trying to communicate with non-Hebrew speakers. It's ok to use Hebrew names too. Just make sure you are using them in such a way as to teach the truth, not as stumbling blocks that drive people further from the truth.

Our Messiah's name isn't a collection of letters or sounds. Those things are just convenient labels. His name is the whole picture of who He is: Redeemer, Savior, Wonderful, Counselor, Anointed, Son of the Living God, the Word of God, the Law Giver, our Passover Lamb, our Atonement, High Priest, the Rock that Saves.

Some believe that the introduction of the letter J represents some kind of corruption or conspiracy to keep people from pronouncing the name of Yeshua. The letter is only 400 to 600 years old, and Hebrew has no J at all, so how can "Jesus" possibly be the Messiah's name?

There are two objections raised here.

The Letter J Is Only 400 Years Old!

The letter J wasn't invented to keep people from pronouncing the name correctly. The reality is exactly the opposite. J was created to show when the letter I was being used as a consonant, such as in the words "job" and "majesty". Before the letter J was invented, both of those words were spelled with I instead of J.

Every language that adopted the letter J into its alphabet pronounces it differently. Germans pronounce it like an English Y. Spanish speakers pronounce J like H, Y, or Kh, depending on regional dialect.

Have you ever heard someone from Mexico pronounce the English word "yes" as if it began with a J, like "Jyes"? Evidently, English speakers used to pronounce a consonant I with a J or Zh sound, exactly as many (not all!) Spanish speakers pronounce Y today.

English already had the letter Y, so why didn't they use that for consonant I? Two reasons:
  • The letter Y was already doing double duty as a Th sound, as in "ye olde shop", which would have been pronounced as "THE old shop", not "YEE old shop". 
  • Some consonantal Is that were pronounced like Y, evidently did get the Y letter at some point. I don't know if that was before or after the shift to J or if there was a rule about whether the letter was at the beginning or end of a syllable, followed by one or another vowel, etc.
Sometime in the mid to late Middle Ages, Latin speakers began to pronounce consonantal I (especially initial consonantal I) with a J sound. This pronunciation was picked up by French and other speakers long before King James commissioned his Bible. I'm not sure if Medieval Latin adopted this pronunciation from English speakers or not, but I suspect that English adopted it from Celtic languages and not from Latin. 

At some point, Latin scribes began adding a tail to the letter I when it was pronounced like J, and this new letter was also adopted by other European languages, even when those languages didn't have the J sound. When Iesus became Jesus, the pronunciation didn't change. Spanish speakers continued to pronounce it as Hay-soos, Germans continued to pronounce it as Yezus, and English speakers continued to pronounce it as Gee-suhs, just as they had when it was still spelled with an I.

The change to J didn't change how anything was pronounced. It reflected a pre-existing reality of regional accents. The English took the J sound from the Celts and the J letter from European scholars of Latin.

There Is No J in Hebrew

If you didn't already pick this up from my discussion of the invention of J, let me spell it out for you: All letters were invented at some point and no Latin letters exist in Hebrew. There is no Y, I, E, S, U, W, or A in Hebrew. Those are letters from the Latin alphabet and Hebrew uses the Hebrew alphabet.

What people should actually be saying is that there is no J sound in Hebrew, but even that depends on how you pronounce the letter J. If you speak Spanish or German, then there is definitely a J sound in Hebrew.

In fact, the Latin letter J is a descendant of the Hebrew letter yod, or I should say they are both descendants of a common ancestor. The paleo-Semitic/Hebrew yod became the Greek and Latin I and the (slightly more modern) Hebrew yod י. Then the Latin I became the I, J, and Y.

Saying that Hebrew has no J is like saying that English has no י. Of course, it doesn't, because English and Hebrew use completely different alphabets.

Philologically speaking, though, J = I = י. So, in a way, Hebrew does have a J. It's just shaped differently.

If you don't like the way Jesus is pronounced by English speakers, then pronounce it the way a German would, which is probably much closer to the Greek form used throughout the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Apostolic writings of the New Testament: Ἰησοῦς.

If you feel that the Apostles were wrong to write his name using Greek characters and grammar, then spell and pronounce it in the Hebrew manner. I prefer to use the form Yeshua, myself, but I'm not about to use the Hebrew characters in my English articles because I'm trying to communicate with people. Your priorities might be different, and that's certainly your business.

(Updated November 19, 2019.)
(Updated September 9, 2020.)

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