Have you ever known somebody that you called one name for years only to find out later it was their middle name? Or maybe, like me, you had a nickname that almost everyone called you. My nickname was Dink. (It still is to some people). That name was so pervasive that at my high school graduation several friends didn’t know my actual name when they heard it announced. It followed me for years after high school. I had to move to another state to finally be rid of it.
The origin story is that it’s a shortening of my last name. It’s not a big leap when you think about it chronologically. I remember the process quite well. During fourth grade everyone called me by my last name, Drinkwater. That’s to be expected with a surname like mine. It’s playground comedy at it’s finest. It stayed like that for months until it took on a life of it’s own. Drinkwater devolved into Drinky. After a bit Drinky became Dinky (thank you Mike Lancaster for that one). Finally, after several more weeks of name calling, we landed on Dink. I’m pretty sure I protested, but once you have a nickname you’re stuck with it.
This leads me to the most famous etymological origin that nobody remembers. It’s probably my favorite ice breaker (also, I’m great fun at parties, and family gatherings). I usually start this particular “Adam’s Fun Facts” like this:
“What name did Jesus’s mother call him?”
Now, for the clever Christians among us this tends to be an opportunity to say Immanuel. But, that’s incorrect. Besides, there’s no place in the Bible that we read of anyone actually calling him Immanuel. That name only appears two times in our English translations. It’s something the prophet Isaiah says to King Ahaz as an encouraging sign that the armies who are attacking his country will soon be gone. The author of Matthew repurposes the verse as part of an angelic prophecy, fulfilled 800 years later, about the baby of a craftsman’s pregnant fiancé.
First of all, Mary, Joseph, and the lower classes of ancient Palestine definitely spoke Aramaic. Not Hebrew, and definitely not English. In the northern region of Israel, north of Samaria, in the very remote hills of Galilee his name would have been Yeshua. That’s the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua. The meaning of which is the Lord is Salvation, or YHWH Saves. This is the name the angel tells Joseph to give the baby, and “He will save His people from their sins”. In English we’d simply call him Joshua.
Unfortunately, for Yeshua all of the books that are written about him were penned in Greek. Which in this context is unexpected. His family, his disciples, and almost everyone around him were illiterate, Aramaic speakers (see Acts 4:13). For the first thirty-ish years of Christianity the stories about Yeshua circulated by word of mouth. The only people who were educated enough to read or write about him were mostly living in major Hellenistic cities. Eventually, these very educated converts, like the Apostle Paul, wrote the traditions down in Greek. The Greek form of Yeshua/Joshua is rendered Iésous (pronounced: ee-ay-sooce’).
As the Hellenistic, Greek world was swiftly overtaken by the Romans the books of the Bible were translated into Latin. Here is where we land on the transliteration from Iésous to Iesus. The Roman Catholic Church wins the day (and the West), and Yeshua is forevermore known as Jesus. Throughout the Western world the latin text was the only version taught from the pulpit. For many hundreds of years it remained this way until a gusty, somewhat unstable, German monk decided to translate the New Testament into the vernacular of the people in 1522. The first English version of the Bible was completed in 1535.
So, for most of the Western world the only name they’d ever heard their Lord, and Savior called is the latin Jesus. Just imagine taking your modern English version of the Bible and replacing the name Jesus over 900 times with Joshua. Then, imagine trying to convince your local church, friends, and family to start calling Jesus, Joshua. Then everyone else in the country, the church leaders, and oh yeah the King. Good luck with that. Jesus it is!
Seriously, it’s not really a big deal. Jesus. Joshua. Potato. Potato.
But, in a way it is a big deal. Imagine a future world where George Washington is known as Apu, and Barak Obama is called Nick. Names are more than just letters, or sounds. They create meaning, and context. They are boxes that form our comprehension. They have power over thoughts. Replacing Yeshua (or Joshua) with a Latin name strips him of cultural identity, and context. As Jesus, he can be molded into whatever we want. Without context, he can be a blonde haired, blue eyed European with a well manicured beard.
The hard truth is we prefer it this way. We would rather stick with what we know, than what is true. For my high school friends it feels weird to call me Adam, and my southern family to call me Dink. It’s out of balance. The contra name doesn’t match the residual image they have of me. This is why I’ll continue to write Dink on my name badge at all future high school class reunions. And, it’s why we’ll stick to our collective memory of Jesus. Because it’s just easier.
Sure, most people will probably be fine with the idea that we call Jesus the wrong English name. But, it’ll get tucked away in this weird space in our brains. You know the one. It’s the place where we hold onto contradictory ideas, and keep moving forward like everything is fine. We’re so good at hiding things here that we forget it’s even there.
But, what if you personally remembered that his name is Joshua? Does your revised image of him look like the brown skinned, blacked haired, middle-easterner that he was? Would it change how you treat strangers, and foreigners? Does Joshua inspire you to live out his message of looking after the poor, and oppressed? Would it encourage you to love others, and do good deeds? Would it change the meaning of praying in his name? Does it make you wonder what else you might be missing?