For the past several weeks I’ve been brushing up on my Biblical Greek so that I can supervise an independent study this winter. I’ve been struck by the significance of the names in the New Testament and the way that traditional English translations have obscured their meanings. I’m thinking in particular of New Testament names that are translated differently from their Old Testament counterparts. Jesus had a disciple named Jacob and two disciples named Judah. The Old Testament echoes are clear and illuminating. But due to various twists and turns of tradition, we know these disciples instead as “James” and “Judas,” and miss the resonance.
Most signficant in this regard is the name of Jesus himself. His name is actually Joshua. The Greek is Ιησούς, “Iesous.” This is the Greek rendition of the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ , “Yehosua” – the name most English-speakers know as “Joshua.”
I’ve seen attempts to recapture the Jewish-ness of Jesus’ life and times by translating His name as “Yeshua,” a variant of that name. I appreciate that approach in that “Yeshua” is a more accurate pronunciation, but by trading one unique name (Jesus) for another (Yeshua) that remains unique for most English readers, it misses something important: Jesus’s name was a common one, the same as that of the Old Testament warrior from the book of Joshua and the prophetic High Priest from the visions of Zechariah, as well as countless other ordinary Jews. When the angel said to Mary, “You shall call His name Jesus [or Joshua], for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), I wonder if it was more than a reference to the meaning of the name as “Savior.”
It’s startling for me to think in those terms. We rightly pay reverence to the name of Jesus. But letting myself think of Him as Joshua challenges me to go beyond the name to what it actually means. When I pray to Joshua, I need to be specific about which Joshua I’m praying to – Joshua the Messiah, the Christ. It forces me to think of His specific characteristics rather than just a unique name. And it calls me again to know Him as Human as well as Divine.
In all honesty, I don’t think I’ll make a full-time switch – I know Him by the name of Jesus too well to say “Joshua” un-self-consciously. But thinking of His name this way from time to time helps jar me out of the rote-ness of “the name of Jesus” and to remember that it’s not the name itself that is unique, but the One who bears it.
(Image is “Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon” by John Martin – http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.129865.html, Public Domain, Link)