A major theme throughout the New Testament revolves around the power of Jesus’ name. Demons flee, the sick are healed, all of creation bows down in worship, all at the name of Jesus. From a linguistic standpoint, the name of Jesus carries a lot of deep meaning in its original culture, both in the Greek and in Hebrew languages.
Jesus’ name in English comes from the Latin Isus, which is a transliteration of the Greek Iesous, which is a transliteration of the Aramaic name Yeshua, which comes from the Hebrew Yehoshua, or Joshua. The name comes from the Hebrew verb yasha, which means “he saves,” and the proper name “Ya,” which is short for the name Yahweh. Put together, Jesus’ name in its original languages means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”
Keep reading to learn more about the linguistic shift from Yehoshua to Jesus, and why we say “Jesus” today and not “Joshua.”
From Joshua to Yeshua: Jesus’ Name in His Native Tongue (Aramaic)
As a second temple Jewish man growing up in early first century Israel, Jesus’ native tongue would have been Aramic. As such, his actual birth name would have been Yeshua, which is simply the Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew Yehoshua (Joshua).
At some point in the Hebrew language, the consonant -h was dropped from the name Yehoshua, leading to the spelling Yeshua. This spelling seems to be preferred in later Hebrew, and it’s the spelling that made its way into Aramaic. Thus, Jesus’ birth name. But how did we get from Yehoshua and Yeshua to Jesus? Well for that, we have Greek and Latin to thank.
From Yeshua to Iesous: Jesus’ Name in the Langua Franca (Greek)
While Aramaic would have been Jesus’ native tongue, he definitely would have understood and spoken Greek, as it was the lingua franca of the day. In other words, Greek is the global language that would have been spoken by everyone in the Mediterranean region for commerce and other social purposes.
It’s highly unlikely that Jesus would have been called Iesous by anyone, even by Greek speakers. People probably still referred to him as Yeshua. However, when the New Testament writers put quill to papyrus, they wrote in the Greek language. This means they were limited to the Greek Alphabet. And in order to spell Yeshua in Greek, the writers would have had to make a few concessions.
The first three letters make sense. There is no aspirated -sh sound in Greek, so the name had a soft -s sound. The last three letters take a bit more explanation.
Without getting too deep into linguistics, something you have to understand about Greek is that its nouns decline. This means the ending of the noun changes depending on its case, or its function in the sentence. Neither Aramaic nor Hebrew nouns decline in the same way. So to put the Aramaic Yeshua into Greek, you can’t simply transliterate. You have to give it a declension structure.
So Yeshua then became Iesou + the Greek masculine noun ending -os.
As a second declension noun, the final -s in Iesous isn’t always there in the text. Sometimes Jesus’ name is spelled Iesoun or Iesou. It all depends on if the name is a subject, an object, a direct object, etc. That said, the nominative case, or the default case of the Greek spelling of Yeshua had the final -s and Yeshua was mostly spelled Iesous.
From Iesous to Jesus: Why We Don’t Call Him Joshua
After the Greek Iesous came the Latin Iesus, from which we get our spelling Jesus.
To understand why we spell and pronounce certain names in the Bible the way we do, we first have to understand a bit about where our Bible came from. At first glance, the answer seems pretty simple. Our Old Testament comes from the Hebrew Bible and our New Testament comes from the Greek documents of the early church. Well, yes. But the problem is, we don’t have the original documents. What we have are the copies of copies of copies of the originals. And even then, the earliest documents we have we only have in pieces.
Our most modern translations, like the NIV or the ESV, go back as close as possible to the original documents, using a discipline called textual criticism to determine what the original texts most likely said. This discipline examines all the textual evidence that we have for a particular section of scripture and try to figure out which pieces we have are more likely to be original.
But for hundreds of years, that’s not how Bible versions worked. Take the KJV, for instance, which is based upon a text known as the textus receptus, a group of Byzantine Greek writings that was accepted by the majority of the church before the discipline of textual criticism. The textus receptus was largely influenced by the Latin Vulgate. As such, many of our English spellings and pronunciations favor the Latin transliteration of the Greek over the Aramaic and Hebrew transliterations and pronunciations.
To point out another example, our English New Testament has the name “James” from the Latin Iacomus instead of “Jacob” from the Hebrew Ya’aqov, even though it could have branched off either way from the Greek Iakob.
This is why our English Bibles favor the Latin spelling Iesus over the Aramaic spelling Yeshua or the Hebrew Joshua.
At the end of the day, regardless of how we say the name, it still has the exact same meaning: Yahweh saves.
A Rose By Any Other Name
This has been a rather nerdy post about one of my favorite subjects. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether we say Jesus or Joshua. What matter is that Jesus’ name, his entire identity, is built upon the fact that Yahweh is a God who saves. Yahweh is a God who is defined by salvation. That is the name given to Jesus by the angel and by his parents. That is the identity taken on by God in the flesh. And that is the name to which every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. That is the name that every tongue will confess to be Lord. And that is the name that we as Christians are invited to carry with us every day of our lives.
With such a complex topic, I know this is an oversimplification. Let me know in the comments below if I’ve left anything out!