How Yeshua Became Jesus – the Journey of Language

Guest blog by Jeroen Amador

How did Yeshua become Jesus? Anyone who speaks more than one language or has done work in translating knows that names can pose a particular challenge.

Most often, when it comes to names, they are transliterated (which means the sounds of the original word are carried over as closely as possible using the letters of the new language) rather than translated (where a word in the new language that expresses the meaning of the original word is substituted). An example of transliteration would be Moshe becoming Moses, Ya’akov becoming Jacob. Yet Ya’akov has also undergone metamophosis, becoming James in English, Santiago in Spanish, and Jacques in French!

We will now see how the Savior’s given name, Yeshua, became Jesus.

In first century Judæa and Galilee, the name Yeshua (pronounced ye-SHOO-ah) was very common, and shared fifth place with El’azar (Lazarus) in popularity as a name for Jewish men. The most popular male names at that time were Shim’on (Simon), Yosef (Joseph), Yehudah (Judah or Judas), and Yochanan (John).

In the Holy Land at the time of Messiah, Aramaic had replaced Hebrew in everyday conversation, although Hebrew remained Lishon HaKadosh (the Holy Language), and was used in worship and daily prayer. The two languages were related, as close as Italian is to Spanish.

The modern day Hebrew alphabet is actually the Chaldean or Babylonian letters, which replaced the Paleo-Hebrew script after the captivity. (Interestingly, at the time of Jesus, the Paleo-Hebrew characters were used to write in Aramaic!).

Yeshua was the Aramaic version of the Hebrew name Yehoshua (Joshua), and means “Yahweh saves.”

By the time of Nehemiah, Joshua was known as Yeshua, the son of Nun (see Nehemiah 8:17, KJV).

Throughout Messiah’s lifetime in Galilee, Samaria, and Judæa, of course, the name Yeshua presented no problem for those who spoke Aramaic and read the Bible and prayed in Hebrew. But outside of the Holy Land, it became a different story as the Good News spread. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language, or has heard foreigners speak English, knows how difficult it can be to pronounce a foreign language correctly.

Different languages have sounds that others do not have, such as the sh sound in English does not exist in Spanish, and Americans have difficulty learning how to roll their rr’s in Spanish. The Gentiles of the Roman Empire spoke Greek and Latin, and simply could not pronounce Yeshua.

It contained sounds that did not exist in their language.

Limited sounds in Greek

When the Gospels were written in Greek, therefore, the Evangelists had a real problem regarding how they might render our Lord’s name into acceptable Greek. The initial Y (Hebrew and Aramaic letter yod) was easy. The Evangelists could use the Greek letter iota, written I, since it was pronounced like the y in yet.The next sound was a vowel, and that was a little more difficult.

Unlike the Greek, all the letters of the Aramaic-Hebrew alphabet are consonants. The
marks for the vowels were not invented by the Masoretic scribes until some centuries after Messiah, and were simple dots and dashes, placed above or beneath the letters. The first vowel on the Saviour’s name was pronounced like the e in yes, and the Evangelists believed they could approximate that sound by using the closest Greek letter eta, which had an ei sound like the a in gate. (The capital Greek letter looks just like our English letter H.)

Then followed the first of two almost insurmountable problems with Hebrew and Aramaic pronunciation. There was no letter for the sh sound in the Greek alphabet. Such a familiar name as Solomon was actually Shlomo in Hebrew; Samson was Shimshon, and Samuel was Shmuel. Like the Greek translators of these Old Testament Hebrew names, the Evangelists used the Greek sigma (s) for the Hebrew shin (sh) when rendering Messiah’s name.

The next letter in the Aramaic name Yeshua was the Hebrew letter waw (Modern Hebrew’s vav), which here represents the sound oo as in too. It was easy for the Evangelists to duplicate this sound in Greek. It takes two letters, however, the omicron (o) and the upsilon (u). But that easy substitution was followed by the biggest problem of all: the final a sound. In Greek, there was no substitute for the Hebrew letter ayin.

Though the ayin has no sound of its own, it controls a vowel sound. In this case, the uh sound at the end of Yeshua was easily sounded in Greek or Latin as the a in father. A final a on a name, however, was most commonly feminine in both Greek and Latin (as in modern day Spanish). Thus it was decided to drop the Hebrew ayin completely, and replace it with the final Greek sigma (s), which most often indicates the masculine gender in the nouns.

They followed this protocol throughout the New Testament, changing Mashiach (Messiah) to Messias, Elijah to Elias, Jehudah (Judah) to Judas, etc. Throughout the Roman Empire, then, Yeshua had become the Greek name Iesous, pronounced yay-SOOS. And this remained Messiah’s name throughout the Roman Empire so long as Greek remained the dominant language.

But after some centuries Greek lost its favoured position and Latin took its place.

In the last quarter of the fourth century, the Bible was translated from Greek into Latin by Jerome, who had no trouble rendering the Greek Iesous into Latin: it became Iesus.

The emphasis was placed on the first syllable and pronounced YAY-soos, since the Romans liked to accent the second from the last syllable.

Where did the J come from?

In about the 14th century, in the scriptoria of monasteries where Bibles were copied by hand, monks began to elongate the initial I of words into a J. The pronunciation remained the same—like the y in yet—but the monks thought a J looked better. Probably the first monks to do this were German, because the letter j in that language sounds the same as the y in English, as still seen in their language today (German ja is pronounced yah). The name Iesus, consequently, evolved into the familiar written form of Jesus by the 17th century.

Everyone still pronounced it YEE-sus, however, and the official liturgical Latin its pronunciation remained YAY-soos. A copy of the original 1611 King James Bible renders Jesus as Iesus, and Jeremiah is spelled Ieremiah. Way back in the fifth and sixth centuries, some pagan Germanic tribes, called the Angles and the Saxons, invaded England. Augustine of Canterbury converted them to Christianity in 596 A.D. Of course, Augustine established Jerome’s Latin translation as England’s official Bible. The Anglo-Saxons learned that the Saviour’s name was Iesus. Naturally, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons converted the initial Latin I into the German J. They pronounced the name, however, as YAY-zoos, since a single s between two vowels is sounded like our z in Germanic languages (like the English measure and pleasure.)

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought with them the French language. Since neither the Anglo-Saxons nor the Normans would surrender their language to one another, the two became wedded, and eventually evolved into Modern English. The Normans influenced the pronunciation of the first letter of names beginning with the stylized I which looked like our modern J. They brought the French pronunciation of j (zh), which evolved into our English sound of j. When the commission was given for the first official translation of the Bible into English in the early 17th century, the Latin Jesus was carried over unchanged into the new English Bible. The average English citizen of the day probably pronounced the name JAY-zus, which ultimately evolved into our Modern English JEE-zus.

The long process was now complete.

A name that began as the Aramaic Yeshua, would remain written in English as it was in Medieval Latin, but now would be pronounced in English-speaking countries as the familiar name Jesus.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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