A couple of days ago I asked, Does it matter how we pronounce Jesus’ or God’s name? My answer was a qualified “No”, and that
when speaking English, we would do best to stick with “Jesus”.
But I realised as soon as I had written this that there were good reasons for making exceptions to this rule, in English and in other languages which already have a well-known pronunciation of the name. And those exceptions are basically when that well-known pronunciation is somehow unacceptable or scandalous to the particular audience it is being used to address.
This is presumably a large part of the reason why Messianic Jews, when speaking English, tend to avoid the name “Jesus”, and use instead the Hebrew form “Yeshua” or some variant. People who have been brought up as Jews have been conditioned to have a negative reaction to the name “Jesus”, so often used by their persecutors. So it is not surprising, and very sensible, that believers in Jesus from this background prefer to use a different form of the name, which is less of a stumbling block for them, and for the unbelieving Jews they seek to witness to. I have no objection to this practice – as long as there is a recognition that they are believers in the same Jesus as all true Christians, just using a different name.
In practice Messianic Jews, and others influenced by them, tend to use Hebrew forms not only of the name of Jesus but also of other biblical characters. Thus Jacob in the Old Testament and James in the New both become “Ya’akov” or similar. There are several versions of the Bible in English which use Hebrew names in this way: Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible which I know slightly; the Hebrew Names Version of the World English Bible, which in fact doesn’t use Hebrew names for Old Testament characters, only for a few New Testament ones including “Yeshua”; and others which I found mentioned at a Wikipedia page.
This principle which applies to Jews and Jewish background believers applies also to adherents and former adherents of other religions – and especially to Muslims and Muslim background believers, an issue mentioned on this blog in this recent comment, and in this post and this one from over a year ago.
Muslims have a high regard for Jesus Christ, considering him to be a prophet second only to Muhammad. But most of them know him under the name “Isa (al-)Masih”, an Arabic form clearly derived from the Hebrew and Greek for “Jesus the Messiah”. However, other forms of the name “Jesus” are known and used by Christian minorities in some Muslim majority countries, for example, Yasu among Christian Arabs, a similar form among Urdu-speaking Pakistani Christians, and the Russian Iisus in Central Asia. Also of course in other countries, in Europe, North America etc, Muslim minorities using the form “Isa” live among nominally Christian peoples using the local form of “Jesus”. These Christian forms of the name are not recognised or accepted by Muslims as referring to their Isa, but instead are understood as referring to one of the idols (i.e. statues or icons) which traditional Christians are understood to worship.
It is therefore for very good reasons that Muslim background Christian believers often prefer to use the Islamic form “Isa”, rather than the form of “Jesus” used by traditional Christians in their language. This is especially helpful for them in their conversations with Muslims – including in protecting them from persecution for becoming “idolaters”.
In several languages used in Muslim majority countries special editions of the Bible have been prepared, or are in progress, which are designed to be acceptable to Muslims. For example, The Eastern Russian Scriptures Translation, published in 2003, was
designed for Central Asians and other nationalities of the former Soviet Union who read best in Russian and belong to ethnic groups traditionally considered Islamic.
Among the distinctives of this translation was
the careful attention given to the … forms of the names of central figures.
Not surprisingly one of the many resulting changes is to use Isa rather than Iisus for Jesus.
I don’t know if there is a similar Bible in English designed for a Muslim audience. But I suspect that Christian witness to many of the millions of English-speaking Muslims around the world would be considerably enhanced if the name “Isa” were used instead of “Jesus”.