Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502) (WikiArt).
One of the most common and insistent tropes of the “Hebrew Roots” movement is the claim that the majority of Christians in the world are “saying Jesus’s name wrong” — that the name “Jesus” itself is improper, a Westernization and a corruption of the Messiah’s true name. The true name of our Lord, the proper way to address Him, these people argue, is by His original Hebrew name, ישוע (yēšūʿa) — most often rendered in English as Yeshua.
Make no mistake: It’s quite true that the original, Hebrew and Aramaic name of Jesus was probably ישוע, a variant of the name of the Hebrew leader and hero יהושע (yəhôšūʿa), meaning “The Lord is salvation.” And if you’d like to call the Lord that, then more power to you. But before you go around condemning traditional Christians who hail our Lord Jesus, here are a few things you should consider:
- There is nothing “traditional” about calling the Lord Yeshua (or Y’shua, or Yah’shua, or any variant).
- There is nothing “improper,” no form of syncretism or invention or corruption, in the traditional name Jesus.
- To insist that Yeshua is the only proper name by which to address our Lord is, in fact, to reject the entire received Christian tradition, to disown the Apostles and Evangelists, even to deny Scripture itself — and to contradict the very message of the Gospel.
An Invented Tradition
Proponents of “Hebrew Roots” often support their arguments with claims that they are returning to the “authentic traditions” of the first Jewish Christians. But is this really true?
Tradition means what has been handed down. And the truth is that there is no tradition — no writings, no hymns, no inscriptions, no traditional teaching or custom — of our Lord being addressed as Yeshua, passed down by the earliest Christians or by anyone else at all, until the beginnings of the “Messianic” movement in the nineteenth century.
Proponents argue that the name Yeshua is what the Apostles themselves would have called the Lord; and that might very well be true. But they left us no record, no tradition of it. Historians believe that Jesus and the Apostles probably spoke Aramaic as their primary language — not Hebrew. Yeshua is a modern reconstruction, based not on Aramaic but on Hebrew pronunciation.*
* Jews wrote Aramaic with the Hebrew script, but pronounced it differently than the biblical Hebrew language. Our transliteration of Hebrew is based on the rabbinical pronunciation of the biblical texts. The original Hebrew texts had no vowels; the system of vowels and pronunciations we have of ancient Hebrew today was passed down (and in some cases made up, or at least formalized) by rabbis. So a rabbi reading ישוע in a biblical text would pronounce it completely differently than a first-century Jew on the street speaking Aramaic, reading the same characters. Syriac Christians (see below), whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as it would have been spoken in the first century, pronounce these same characters, ישוע, not as “Yeshua” but as “Isho.”
On top of this, there is the matter that Hebrew and other Semitic languages can only be transliterated incompletely into English, which lacks both the phonemes and the graphemes to fully express those languages’ sounds and meanings. Even presuming the rabbinic tradition of pronunciation — Yeshua, like any other rendering, is at best an approximation. Rather than adhering to the “true” name of the Lord, proponents of this are just as guilty of “translating” His name into their own language as the early Greek Christians were in calling Him Jesus.
There are in fact Christians who have been speaking Aramaic for the past two thousand years, since the time of the Apostles, who have passed down the Christian faith in what can be called its native language: the Syriac Christians, whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as Jesus would have spoken it — but they pronounce the Lord’s name not “Yeshua,” but “Isho.” Yeshua was passed down by nobody at all, but invented from imagined traditions in modern times.
What the Apostles did pass down to us, the earliest written records preserved of the Christian Church, are the New Testament Scriptures — written not in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, but in Greek.
The Name of Jesus
Contrary to arguments I am hearing increasingly from “Hebrew Roots” proponents, the name Jesus is not a late, syncretistic introduction by “Rome,” nor a “corruption” of the true Hebrew teaching, nor any other attempt to pull true Christians away from the “Hebrew Roots” of Christianity. When the Apostles and their associates wrote the New Testament Scriptures in Greek — under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit — they wrote His name as Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous). Every manuscript of every book of the New Testament attests to this.
And this was not a novelty, even for the first Christians. The name Ἰησοῦς had already been extant in Greek for several centuries, as the standard transliteration of the Hebrew name (commonly transliterated in English) Joshua. In the Septuagint, the classic translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, which can be dated as early as the second century B.C., Ἰησοῦς was used as the name of Joshua, both the man and the book. In applying that name to the Christ, Greek-speaking Christians were following conventions established long before His coming.
When the Apostle Paul, the first great missionary, carried the Gospel of Christ beyond Judea and Palestine, he carried His name not as Yeshua but as Ἰησοῦς. The name Iesus is a natural transliteration of the Greek name into Latin, and thence, with the translation of the Bible into English, Jesus. Is Scripture itself, then — the divine foundation that even “Messianic” Christians claim — compromised, or corrupt, or flawed? Were the Apostles agents of syncretization or dilution, of leading the people of Christ away from His “Hebrew Roots”? This is in effect what these arguments entail. Clearly, if there were any problem, any heresy or corruption or dilution, in translating the name of the Lord into the native tongues of each of His peoples, then the Apostles themselves would not have done it.
Every Tongue Shall Confess
Resurrection (c. 1892), by Mikhail Nesterov.
St. Paul himself tells us, in fact:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)
“Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” — declared in Greek, what was then the lingua franca of the civilized world. The word tongue in Greek, γλώσσα or glōssa, could also refer to language, as with the Latin lingua, and as we continue to use tongue in English. Was “every tongue” to confess the Lord, but only as Yeshua? Plainly not: in that very sentence, Paul hails Him as Jesus in Greek.
Arguing that only “Yeshua,” or any other rendition of the name, is the correct and proper address for our Lord, denies the entire received Christian tradition, the handing down of the faith to every people as the Apostles and their spiritual descendants have done. Just as the Greek people received the name of the Lord as Ἰησοῦς, the English people received Him as Jesus, the Spanish as Jesús, and so forth:
Names of the Lord in Various Languages
… I think you get the idea; and I’m having far too much fun with this. This is only a random smattering of just a few languages, pulled from Jesus’s Wikipedia article.
The point is this: Are any of these languages “wrong”? Were the apostles, missionaries, evangelists, and translators who carried the faith of Christ “to the ends of the earth,” to each one of these peoples, “wrong”? To argue that there is only one name by which Jesus can properly be addressed is to deny the universality, the catholicity, of Christ’s message of salvation; to cast aside the very message of the Gospel, of forgiveness and acceptance and inclusion into Christ for all peoples. Is Jesus a Savior for the Jews only? Or did He come for the lost sheep of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue? The greatest danger of the “Hebrew Roots” movement, I fear, is that it in effect recycles the heresy of the Judaizers, in arguing that the only true way to be a Christian is to be a Jew — an argument that Scripture rejects again and again.