Stupid Question ™
Feb. 15, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Is “Jesus” a name or a title, and what does it literally mean?
A: The moniker of Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity, is a handy encapsulation of his followers’ belief that he was man and God rolled up into one.
“Jesus” was simply a common, everyday name. “Christ” is a title of divinity.
“Christ” comes from the Greek Khristos (an adjectival noun meaning “anointed”), which is a translation of Hebrew Masiah—meaning “messiah,” the Lord’s Anointed of Jewish tradition. According to the Bible, Jesus never explicitly declared himself the Messiah, but his followers did—as did mocking Romans.
“Jesus” is simply a Late Hebrew or Aramaic version of the name Joshua. This name goes back to the prominent biblical figure Joshua, who after the death of Moses led the Israelites into the Promised Land and renewed their relationship with God.
It was common in early Hebrew to devise names that were compounds of Yahweh, or “God,” and “Joshua” is one of them. Built from yshusah, “Joshua” literally means something like, “God is salvation.”
Jesus has been called “Jesus” only since about 1600. We got the name from Old French, via the Church Latin nominative form Iesus/Iesu, from the Greek Iesous/Iesou, from the late Hebrew/Aramaic Yesua (or Yeshua/Jeshua), which derived from Joshua (or Yehousa/Yhoshua/Jehoshua).
As a speaker of Aramaic, Jesus probably called himself “Yeshua.”
Many early Christians found symbolic and prophetic significance in Jesus’ name, both in its literal meaning and in its connection to the biblical Joshua. In the book of Matthew, the angel of annunciation orders Mary to name her baby Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins.”
However, biblical names of all kinds—including “Jesus”—were very popular in Jewish culture from the post-exile nationalist fervor of c. 500 BC onward. Indeed, the Christian Jesus’ name was common enough in his own day that he had to be distinguished as “Jesus of Nazareth” and other distinctive titles.
And the only biblical author whose name we know for certain is named Jesus—Jesus ben Sira (or Sirach). He wrote the apocryphal book of Wisdom around 200 BC—a book the Christian Jesus surely knew well, as it was in the Hebrew Bible of his day.
Thanks to Christianity, “Jesus” became a taboo and/or unpopular first name by around AD 100. (English Bibles only used mystical abbreviations of the name until around 1500), though it remains relatively common among some Hispanic cultures that have a more intimate concept of human relations with Jesus.
Meanwhile, as Christian power and anti-Jewish agitation grew, Jewish culture dumped the name Jesus and went back to the classical form Joshua. It remains one of the most popular Jewish names.