When it does matter how we say "Jesus"

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”.

0 thoughts on “When it does matter how we say "Jesus"

  1. Thanks for this and your earlier related post, Peter. Willis Barnstone has been saying for a long time that “Jesus” is problematic. He writes: “Yeshua should not appear as Jesus, his Hellenized name, any more than the Greek Zeus should appear as Roman Jupiter.” And in one of his beginning effort to translate the New Testament he says: “In the same way that the Homeric names Zeus, Athena, and Artemis are finally heard in twentieth-century translations and no longer romanized as Jupiter, Minerva, and Diana, so, too, the Jewish names of Yaakov, Yeshua, Yosef, and Yohanan are used here rather than their irrelevant and misleading Greek or Anglicized forms.” Throughout Barnstones writings, he claims that there have anti-Semitic tendencies or worse intentions in much Bible translation that motivates using an anglicized name for the one whose name, even in earlier English, is the same as Joshua. In his now complete “Restored New Testament,” Barnstone translates as “Yeshua” not only the one “worthy of greater glory than Moshe” but also Moses’s assistant (in Hebrews 3:3 and 4:8). He adds a long footnote worth reading at the end of the latter verse; it starts “Joshua. The name of Joshua of Jericho and Jesus of Nazareth is one and the same in Hebrew (Yeshua), Jesus (Latin through the Greek), or Joshua (Elizabethan)….”

    And in “chapter I” of a long blogpost of mine, I get into some of the wordplay in / around this name.

  2. Thank you, Kurk, especially for reminding me that Barnstone’s translation takes a similar approach to names to the Messianic ones I listed. Would Barnstone consider himself “Messianic”, in the sense of believing that Yeshua is the Messiah?

  3. Peter,
    Barnstone is not a Mesianic Jew in the sense you describe. It is clear, nonetheless, that he and those you mention (who identify Christians as brothers and sisters) have similar sentiments and practices around the name Yeshua. Barnstone’s concerns are literary, much as Robert Alter’s are; translation of Semitic forms with respect to the Jewish community at large is of more interest to them, it seems, than any (particular, religious) beliefs that would factor in the translating.

  4. Thanks for this post and the link to your earlier one which I had not yet read. Thanks also to Kurk for your very interesting thoughts here and in your blogs. Some have argued that Isa is unusable (another Jesus) to refer to the Christians’ Jesus (Yeshua) since the Islamic theological understanding of Isa is not in line with Christian tradition. That however is no different from the use of Jesus in numerous “chrisitan” groups who hold heterodox views. So the Jewish translators who translated the Hebrew scriptures to Greek decided to translate/transliterate Joshua יהושׁע and Jeshua הושׁע to Ιησους. In transliterating this name, as well as all the other names, the NAME becomes more important than the meaning of that name. So what is more important, the NAME, or the meaning? or is there some other choice, a combination of both or somewhere between? Do all those English speaking folks chanting “Jesus saves” need to know that this saying is redundant “Jehovah saves saves” in order to be saved? “Whoever calls upon the name of the LORD (Jehovah? or the Joshua of Heb 4:8, not 3:3) will be saved.” Indonesian Christians worship Yesus and Allah, but yet they understand that the Isa of their Muslim neighbors, who also worship Allah, is referring to the same person. The Thai Christians worship พระเยซู pra-yesu, the divine-Yesu and the Thai Muslim respects the Lord’s prophets Musa (Moses) and the Isa without a divine “pra” prefix.

  5. Thank you, Jay. I’m sure it’s not the form of the name but the meaning that matters. But the story of the sons of Sceva, in Acts 19:13-16, shows that there is power in using the name of Jesus, with obvious reference to the same Jesus of Nazareth. So it’s not the form of the name that counts, but who it refers to. These sons of Sceva probably didn’t believe much orthodox teaching about Jesus, but the appeal to his authority was recognised.

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