Monday, May 13, 2013

Jesus' Name

This controversy is so cringe-inducingly stupid that I might never have thought of blogging about it, except that it seems to be rather widespread. This post is not so much about the name of the the possibly nonfictional Jesus of Nazareth as about many people's ignorance about some very basic aspects of language.

So. Some people -- a lot of people, apparently -- insist that it is wrong to refer to Jesus as Jesus, that his real name is Yeshua. Or sometimes they insist that his real name is Yahushua. And already the discrepancy between Yeshua and Yahushua tells us something, something shockingly obvious many others of us have already known for a while: that translation is never perfect. Because both Yeshua and Yahushua -- along with Yashua, and (surprise!) Joshua, and no doubt some other variations still, each one of which has its adherents who insist that it and it alone is the "true" name -- all of those are translations, into English, of ישוע‎. Jesus comes from the Greek Ἰησοῦς -- because the New Testamentis written in Greek -- which comes from יְהוֹשֻׁעַ.

Now, if these maniacs want to learn Greek and Hebrew, more power to them. Being a polyglot is a good thing. But obviously they don't. They're not even particularly interested in attaining a good command of English, because no one language can be at all well understood without knowing a lot more about the relationships between different languages than these people seem to want to know. With some of them the difficulty is not merely linguistic, it's theological: they insist that there is some magical power in saying -- take your pick, Yeshua, Yashua, Yahushua, whatever -- and claim that all those who do not speak the true name are not leading truly Christian lives. These people need a really good psychiatrist. I'm merely someone who knows a few things about language. One of those things, it seems to me, ought to be really obvious to almost everyone without my having to point it out: that people who insist that Jesus is not the correct name of Jesus are treating the word Jesus differently than every other word in the Bible, unless they're also odd when it comes to Jehovah. (Yahweh. What-EVER.) It's hard for me to imagine that these people are anything other than severely monolingual. You would think that living in the US would have accustomed them to the phenomenon of names changing from one language to another, because Los Angeles means The Angels, San Francisco means St Francis, El Paso means The Pass and so forth. San Jose is St Joseph, San Antonio is St Anthony. The other day I heard someone accuse the Turks of having changed the named of Constantinople after having conquered it in 1453. Apparently it eluded him that Istanbul is Turkish for Constantinople. Or should I say, for Κωνσταντινούπολις. I probably shouldn't, because for all I know Κωνσταντινούπολις takes another ending in the accusative. (Don't worry if you didn't get that, that was for people on Level 2.) My name is Steven. (How do you you do.) Steven, Stephen, Esteban, Stefan, Stephan, Στέφανος, Étienne, István, Kepano, סטיבן and many other variations are all the same name. I may look down in discouragement in situations like this, dealing with people talking about Jesus' "true" name, and massage the bridge of my nose in an attempt to ward off a migraine while muttering something like "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" A person whose native language is Spanish might mutter "iJesus, Maria y Jose!" while massaging the bridge of his or her nose in exactly the same sort of situation, while a person whose native language is German might well mutter "Jesus, Maria und Joseph!" All three time Jesus is spelled the same, but it's pronounced three different ways. Joseph is written the same in English and German but pronounced differently.

There has been a growing effort among the speakers of many different languages, over the past century or so, to write and pronounce words from other languages more in the idiom of those languages. I have nothing at all against this effort, it's just that I think we should keep in mind how half-assed it is. Let's look at the German Kaisers, for example, Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II. Wilhelm means William. Germans tend to refer to the present-day English Prince William as William, but they call the 17th-century King William III of England Wilhelm, just as we call many past Germans William even though they called themselves Wilhelm. We say William the Conqueror, they say Wilhelm der Eroberer, and William the Conqueror called himself, I'm guessing, Guillaume or Willelmus, depending upon whether he was using French or Latin. Actually, in Latin he might have said or written Willelmus or Gulielmus. But that still isn't unclear enough, because 1000 ago people weren't nearly as concerned about standard spelling as we are today. And let's regard the German word Kaiser. We call Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II of Germany Kaiser, but we call the Holy Roman Emperors Emperors, while the Germans call them Kaiser. They also call the ancient Roman Emperors Kaiser, and ya know what? Kaiser is exactly the correct Latin pronunciation of Caesar. (All c's in Latin are hard c's.) That's where the Garmans got the word Kaiser. We pronounce Caesar incorrectly. And Tsar means Caesar too, except of course that the Russian write царь.

So when you're talking about something or someone -- Jesus, for example -- and you're wondering whether you should say Jesus or Yeshua or something else, keep in mind that the very idea of there being one and only correct name for anyone or anything is pretty ridiculous. If the person you're talking to knows whom or what you're talking about, you're doin it right.

I'm sure that many of you already knew every bit of all of that, I hope I didn't bore you unduly. But keep the catastrophic linguistic implications in mind whenever someone insists that Jesus wasn't named Jesus. And the others of you, I hope you learned something. (I hope you want to learn. Just like the one child in "Family Affair.")

Oh, and lest I forget: those people who claim that there never was such a Hebrew name as Jesus, that the name Jesus never existed before the Greek New Testament, and that only after the New Testament existed was the name translated from Greek into Hebrew (and that therefore, for example, we don't not know what His name really was) -- they are wrong. Jewish Jesuses existed for centuries before Jesus of Nazareth. For example, there is Jesus ben Shirach, the author of a book named after him which is included in some versions of the Old Testament and is relegated by some to the status of apocrypha.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, thank you. I tried to tell someone today (actually discussing the name of Jesus) that if your parents had named you something else, it wouldn't change who you are. I have several titles and variations of names based on my name; Teacher, Mother, Grandma, Sue, Suzie, Susan....but I'm still me. Call me whatever you want to call me.... just please call me! :)