BabyCenter.com has announced their “Most popular [American] baby names of 2021.” This isn’t the official list of names from the Social Security Administration, just a list of trendy and trending names compiled by the kind of website that’s interested in what’s trendy and trending in the world of baby names.
One clear trend spotted by these trend-spotters is the waning popularity of biblical girls names as opposed to the massive popularity of biblical boys names. The Top 50 list for girls includes only a sprinkling of biblical names. The boys list reads like a Sunday school teacher’s collection of flannel-graph cut-outs. Only seven of the Top 50 girls names are biblical, and most of those are odd variations of those. More than half of the names on the boys list are extremely biblical.
What does that tell us? No idea. It probably means something, but I don’t know what.
Anyway, musing about the sometimes strange preferences for biblical names is something I occasionally do when I’m otherwise too tired to think straight. Like now.
Here’s the girls list:
Sophia (No. 5)/Sofia (No. 22) — from the Greek for wisdom, and thus, in the LXX of the book of Proverbs, a name for God.
Mia (No. 8) — a pet-name form of “Maria,” or Mary, which is the name of Jesus’ mother, and also the name of one of his most loyal disciples, and also the name of one of Jesus’ closest friends, and also apparently the name of a large but indeterminate number of other women in the Gospels.
Chloe (No. 25) — a prominent leader in the early church in Corinth and one of the few people there that Paul doesn’t seem angry with or disappointed in.
Abigail (No. 29) — a “clever and beautiful” woman who spares her household from David’s wrath in 1 Samuel 25, then marries the king after her foolish drunk of a husband dies and David divorces his first wife. “Abigail got up hurriedly and rode away on a donkey; her five maids attended her. She went after the messengers of David and became his wife,” 1 Samuel 25:42 says. That’d be kind of a romantic story if not for the following verse: “David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives.”
Zoey (No. 33) — from zoe, Greek for “life,” and sometimes used as a name for Eve. The form trending — “Zoey” — is more likely a Salinger reference though. I like that Salinger book, but if you like it too then Zoey probably no longer counts as a “biblical” name choice.
Grace (No. 50) — the attribute and gift of God that made Jonah so furious he wished he was dead. A divine trait described as so overwhelmingly boundless that theologians have had to expend centuries of effort trying to constrain, limit, and constrict it into something more comprehensible and finite. Also a popular name for female symbolic plot devices in books by male authors writing about male characters in need of redemption.
And here are the boys:
Noah (No. 2) — the second-coolest person named Noah in the Bible was a guy who built an ark, then built a still, got hammered, and passed out naked. (Yes, a still, because you can’t make wine in one day after a months-long salt-water flood has destroyed all the vineyards.) The name Noah comes from the Hebrew for Utnapishtim.
Elijah (No. 4), Elias (No. 42) — a major prophet in the biblical histories of the Hebrew scriptures (but not one of the Major Prophets of the Hebrew scriptures). He was kind to widows, was fed by ravens, called down fire from heaven, and rode a fiery chariot. Definite Top-10 biblical prophet. He’s been dead (maybe? the whole chariot thing is ambiguous) for nearly 3,000 years and everybody is still saving a seat for him at Passover.
Lucas (No. 5), Luke (No. 32), Luca (No. 38) — Luke is the most aggressively class-conscious of the New Testament evangelists and the only one who gave us a sequel, the radically inclusive book of Acts. Acts is where we meet the relatively minor character of Luke, the companion of Paul to whom authorship of those books is attributed. Did Luke write “Luke”? Maybe? But the book itself never says so, and there are numerous reasons to guess that he didn’t. But either way, those books are named after Luke, and they’re really good books, thus establishing that naming books and or little boys after Luke seems like a good choice.
Levi (No. 6), Asher (No. 8) — two of Jacob’s 12 sons from the book of Genesis. Levi was born to Jacob’s wife Leah and Asher was born to Leah’s slave Zilpah. (The names of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, have dropped out of the Top 50 girls names. The names of the slaves who bore him sons, Zilpah and Bilhah, were never on that list.)
Levi and Asher are also (sometimes) included among the names of two of the 12 (sometimes) tribes of Israel. Levi is the name of the priestly tribe (which isn’t always portrayed in the most flattering light), while Asher is the name of the tribe allotted land in what was mostly Philistine territory, where that name would’ve seemed oddly familiar. (Genesis 30:13 tells us that Asher means “happy,” and that it has nothing to do with the name Asherah, nothing at all, don’t even think such a thing.)
These are the kind of “biblical names” chosen because they sound cool, rather than because parents want their children to learn from the stories of the biblical characters who bear those names.
James (No. 9) — the name of two of Jesus’ 12 apostles and also the name of his brother. One of those Jameses was the leader of the pre-“church” church in first-century Jerusalem and one of them is purported to be the author of the New Testament epistle that says stuff like “Is it not the rich who oppress you?” and “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” Fine choice of name even if its enduring popularity is probably more due to James T. Kirk or some relative named Jimmy.
Ethan (No. 10) — “Ethan the Ezrahite” is named as the composer of Psalm 89 and may or may not be the same person as one or more of the other Ethans briefly mentioned in the Bible. Ethan the Ezrahite was also apparently famous for being the wisest of wise men up until Solomon claimed that title. It’s a good name, even if it may doom your little boy to one day getting bogged down trying to sort out the Ezrahites and Zerahites and the garbled lineage of the various Ethans and Hemans.
Mateo (No. 11), Matthew (No. 50) — Mateo is Spanish for Matthew, the name of the tax collector who became one of Jesus’ disciples and also the name of the evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Matthew who was maybe possibly the same person but almost certainly not.
Jack (No. 13), John (No. 48) — “Jack” is a hypocoristic of “John” (and also, oddly, of “Clive Staples”). There are at least five people named John in the New Testament, or up to 10, depending on how you count. Five books of the New Testament were written by guys named John — at least two different ones, maybe more, or maybe guys not named John but members of a “Johannine community.” (Even the adjectival form of the name John is cool and makes me jealous. There is no adjectival form of Fred.)
Prince John is the villain in Robin Hood stories, and if Prince John were the only play Shakespeare had written then you’d probably never have heard of him. But here we’re just concerned with the biblical Johns, and they’re pretty terrific: John the Baptist is unambiguously cool. Jesus’ disciple John is beloved. John of Patmos was, and still is, a dangerous revolutionary.
(Three names in the Top 15 here are from characters in the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. The names of the other three characters in that story — Peter, Moses, and Jesus — didn’t make the list at all.)
Benjamin (No. 14) — the youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons in the book of Genesis but not the name of any of the (sometimes) 12 tribes of Israel listed elsewhere in the Bible. (Benjamin received a “double blessing” and was thus the father of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, although Ephraim doesn’t seem to have benefitted much from that whole “double blessing” thing.)
Daniel (No. 23), Alexander (No. 25) — Daniel is the name of a book we Christians count among the “Major Prophets” of the Hebrew scriptures even though the Hebrew scriptures themselves don’t do that. Daniel himself was not really a prophet, just a guy navigating life in exile who disappears for whole chunks of the story in the book that bears his name. He also does a terrific Columbo impression in the apocryphal sections of Daniel. The nominal setting for the story of Daniel is the Babylonian exile, but its really about life in Israel under the cruel rule of the Greek Seleucids. That’s the main reason Alexander is a biblical name — because without Alexander the Great there wouldn’t be any book of Daniel.
Alexander the Great shows up quite a bit in the apocryphal/deuterocanonical book of 1 Maccabees, and he’s almost certainly the namesake of a handful of inauspicious characters in the New Testament. “Alexander” is someone that the author of 1 Timothy calls a shipwreck who “rejected conscience” and is “turned over to Satan.” The author of 2 Timothy mentions an “Alexander the coppersmith” who “did me great harm” and is therefore due for divine payback.
Ezra (No. 26) — iconic biblical villain and ethnic-cleansing rat-bastard. According to some traditions, Ezra is the author of numerous biblical books and was possibly even the first compiler/redactor of what became the canon of the Hebrew scriptures. I doubt that, because Ezra’s canon would never have included Ruth — a book whose entire thesis is “Wow. Ezra couldn’t possibly have been any more wrong than he totally was.” That Ezra ranks high on the list of boys names while neither Ruth nor Naomi appears in the girls list is Not Good.
Michael (No. 28), Gabriel (No. 36) — two biblical “archangels.” There are scads of “Michaels” in the Hebrew scriptures, but none of them is noteworthy until we get to the weird, apocalyptic literature — Daniel and Revelation and Jude — where we’re suddenly told that Michael is the name of an “archangel.” That’s not quite what Daniel says, but it’s what Revelation and Jude tell us, and their “Michael” is clearly based on whatever it is that Daniel is referring to as “Michael.” Daniel is also the book that gives us the angelic “Gabriel,” who shows up again in Luke’s version of the Christmas story. Unlike Michael, Gabriel just seems to be a messenger and never gets to fight a dragon with a sword, which is probably why the name “Gabe” isn’t quite as cool as “Mike.” (Apologies to any Gabes reading this, but you knew this already.)
Samuel (No. 33) — biblical prophet who features prominently in the biblical book of 1 Samuel. Somewhat confusingly, Samuel is also traditionally attributed as the author of 1 Samuel, which includes an account of his death, and of 2 Samuel, which picks up the story from there. Samuel warned against crowning kings because, he said, even having a Good King is a Bad Idea. He also personally anointed a king. (Twice.) Samuel gets mentioned a lot in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament and nobody had anything bad to say about him. Solid choice of name, I think.
Jacob (No. 34) — the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, Jacob is one of the founding patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures. That makes him a hero, sometimes, but in the weird way of the heroes of stories set in prehistory. He’s a perpetual trickster, but there’s plenty of blessing to be found in the stories about Jacob, you’ll just have to wrestle a bit to claim them.
David (No. 40) — warrior-poet king whose reign is described as the start of the brief Golden Age of biblical Israel. Remember that warning from Samuel about even a Good King being a Bad Idea? That’s David. There’s some debate as to whether the “Psalms of David” were written by David or written for David. Either way, those songs are still being sung 3,000 years later. That’s David too.
Josiah (No. 41) — the boy king of Israel when the long lost scrolls of the Hebrew scriptures were rediscovered, i.e., the king during whose reign a big chunk of the Hebrew scriptures was written. Bracketing a bit of zealous, um, human sacrifice, Josiah was mostly a Good King and thus I think Josiah is a good name. (Partly that’s because it lets you call your son “Joe” or “Joey” without the unpleasant associations of “Joseph,” see below.)
Isaiah (No. 46) — a major prophet and a Major Prophet and the source of one of the oldest books of the Bible. I suspect the popularity of Isaiah, like that of most of these names, is mainly due to it just sounding cool, but in this case I also genuinely hope that boys being named “Isaiah” will grow up to read the book they’re named after, because it’s really a great book.
Eli (No. 47) — Eli was the high priest of Israel when the prophet Samuel was born. He’s portrayed as a good-hearted, but somewhat hapless man whose sons turned out to be horrible. So before choosing the name “Eli” for your little boy you might want to think about what this says about your possible future grandsons.
Joseph (No. 49) — the husband of Mary and father of Jesus in the New Testament and also the cruelly monstrous organizer of totalitarian tyranny and mass-enslavement in the book of Genesis. In the Gospels, Joseph the carpenter is portrayed as a virtuous man. Weirdly, so is Joseph the oppressive right-hand of the Pharaoh in Genesis. But that earlier Joseph was very, very, very much not a a virtuous man, so the enduring, centuries-long popularity of the name “Joseph” seems deeply confused.
A third Joseph is referred to in the Bible but never mentioned by name. Joseph A. Durick was the Catholic bishop of the diocese of Mobile and Birmingham who signed the white moderate “Call to Unity” that prompted MLK’s epistle. I realize that many Christians are still dragging their feet when it comes to accepting the Letter from a Birmingham Jail as scriptural canon, but that’s their problem, not mine. It is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, and for instruction in justice. Those who have ears to hear, etc.