How the name Yeshua became Jesus

by Scott Nelson

The name, Yeshua

Did you know that if you could go back to the time of the twelve apostles, if you walked up to Peter and said, "Please, take me to see  Jesus Christ", Peter would get a puzzled look on his face and say the equivalent of, "Who, or what is that?"  Did you know that no one who followed Jesus was capable of accurately pronouncing in English the name "Jesus"? The truth is, if you  could go back in time, Peter would probably say something more like, "Come, let me introduce you to  Yeshua the Messiah."  

When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she was going to have a son and what the child's name was to be, (Luke 1:31) the sound of the name that Mary heard come from Gabriel's lips was very close to, if not exactly... "Yehoshua" pronounced  Yeh-ho-shoo'-ah.  In modern Hebrew script, "Yehoshua" looks like  and is read from right to left. This name is the blending of two Hebrew words. The first part, "Yeh-ho", is part of God's name that is sometimes used at the beginning or end of a Hebrew name.  The second part of the Messiah's name, "shua", is the Hebrew word for deliverance meaning, "saves".  The name "Yehoshua" literally means God-saves The name Yehoshua was then shortened for everyday use the same way a name like Barbara is often shortened to Barb (see the name parable), and the four syllable name Yehoshua was shortened to three syllables, Yeshua.       

The translation process....  Hebrew to Greek

Early on, when the Gospels were being written and the story of Yeshua the Messiah was spreading to the Gentile nations, the story had to be translated to Greek. There are two ways a Hebrew name can be brought across a language barrier. Hebrew names always carry a meaning, and one way is to  translate the name, which is bringing across the meaning of the name. The other method is the most common and is called a  transliteration, which is the bringing across of the sound of the name. If the translators of the Gospel story had  translated Yeshua's name down through history, we might well know him as "God-saves" today because that is what his name means.  

In the case of the name "Yeshua", the Greek speaking world did the best they could to transliterate his name. Usually, this involves a relatively easy process of swapping like sounding letters so a reader would end up making the same sound when pronouncing the name. In many cases this is not a problem. But in the case of the name "Yeshua" there are four problems in bringing it across to Greek. Two of them are the fact that the ancient Greek language did not contain two of the  sounds found in the name Yeshua. This may come as a surprise to English speaking people, but the fact is, the ancient Greek language did not contain any "y" sound as in "yes", nor did it have a "sh" sound as in "show". The closest sound a Greek speaking person could come to making a "y" sound was by putting the two Greek letters  Iota and Eta together and coming up with an "ee-ay" sound. And the closest a Greek speaking person could come to making the "sh" sound was the "s" sound made by the letter Sigma. With these two changes, "Yeshua", pronounced by a Greek speaking person would naturally come out sounding like  "ee-ay-soo-ah". The third problem with transliterating "Yeshua" is the fact that traditionally, masculine Greek names never ended in a vowel sound. Those that did were generally given the letter  Sigma or "s" as a suffix. This tradition might well have been derived from the fact that the name of the Greek god  Zeus ended with Sigma. This tradition is seen in familiar Biblical names, where  Judah became Judas, Cephah (which means "rock") became Cephas, Apollo became Apollos, Barnabie became  Barnabas, Matthew became Matthias and so on. So "ee-ay-soo-ah" needed to become "ee-ay-soo-ah-s". The fourth problem is that the two vowel sounds before the "s" do not flow and are virtually never seen in Greek. So the last vowel sound was dropped as it was in other names and we were left with  "ee-ay-soos".  Aside from the added tradition of giving the name a masculine sound, this is the closest a Greek speaking person could come to  transliterating the name Yeshua. By this point, the name Yeshua had lost all of it's meaning and 75% of its sound. The last vestige of it's sound was found in the "oo" (as in "soon") sound.  Yeshua was known as "ee-ay-soos" to the Greek speaking world for nearly 400 years. In Greek script, "ee-ay-soos" looks like , and like English, it is read from left to right.

Continuing the translation process....  Greek to Latin

Around 400 A.D. the Latin language became the predominate language of Christianity and the Greek versions of the New Testament were translated to Latin. The Latin Bible, or  Vulgate as it is called, also transliterated  what was left of Yeshua's Greek name by bringing across the same sound of "ee-ay-soos". This was easy, because all of the Greek sounds in this name are also made in Latin. The letters of the Latin alphabet are different from that of Greek but virtually identical to English. The new transliteration of  the Greek name "ee-ay-soos" became written as and was identical in pronunciation to the Greek name. This Latin spelling and on-going pronunciation dominated the Christian world for nearly 1,000 years.  

The final translation....  Latin to English

Meanwhile, the English language was still evolving.  Before the 12th century, the letter ( J ) did not exist in the Old English language. The sound the letter ( J ) makes has never existed in the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin languages. This fact is why no one in Yeshua's day could have accurately pronounced the English name Jesus. Sometime during the early 12th century, ( J ) began showing up in some obscure dialects of the Middle English language. Over the course of the next 500 years, infatuation with the new sound caused letters like ( I ) and (Y) in the English language to be replaced by a ( J ). This was especially true of male names that began with ( I ) or (Y) because the hard sound was, again, considered more masculine. Names like Iames  became "James", Yohan became "John", and so on.  During this period, in 1384  John Wycliffe translated the New Testament to English for the first time. His only source was the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe continued to use the Latin spelling and pronunciation of Iesus. The printing press had not yet been invented and only a few hand-written copies of Wycliffe's Bible were produced. In the 1450's, Gutenburg invented the printing press. Then in 1526 William Tyndale translated the New Testament to the English language from the Latin Vulgate along with the additional help of some ancient Greek manuscripts. Tyndale wanted the Bible translated into the language of the common people and many copies of his translation were printed with the help of the printing press. Tyndale was the first to use the letter ( J ) in the spelling of the name . This new spelling in the hands of many marginally-literate English commoners soon became pronounced by the general public as "Jee-zuz". By the 17th century, the letter ( J ) was officially part of the King's English and in 1611 the most renowned English translation of all, the  King James Bible, was put into massive print, complete with pronunciation helps for all proper names including the name of Jesus as we pronounce it today. Every name in the Bible that begins with the letter ( J ), has come to us this same way.  Names like "Jeremiah", "Jerusalem", "Judah", "John" and "Jew" are only a few examples. At no time in history when these people and places were being written about did there exist in their language the sound of the letter ( J )! 

With the new official English pronunciation of the name "Jee-zuz",  the last remaining sound found in the name "Yeshua", (the oo as in "soon" sound), had vanished. Nothing in this name remains recognizable in either the sound or the meaning of the name Yeshua. It should also be pointed out that the word "Christ" is not a name but a title. It is basically a Greek  translation of the title Messiah and means "anointed one". So all that is left of the sweet gentle sound of Yeshua the Messiah is the series of phonetically harsh sounds "Jee-zuz Chr-i-st", which no doubt has lent this name to the abuse it has suffered. At one time, I believed the name Jesus Christ is commonly used in cursing because Jesus is his name and God-less men hate it. But in all my research, I have been unable to find one other language in which his name is used in a similar cursing manner. No other language renders the Lord's name with the phonetic harshness as does the English language. One exception would be the near identical way "Christ" in pronounced in French, and interestingly enough, it too is regularly used in French cursing!  Considering the indisputable fact that for nearly fifteen hundred years after Yeshua walked the earth the world never heard the name "Jesus", I can only conclude that the English version of his name is abused solely because of its harsh sound Remember, the name Jesus has existed for only a few hundred years.     


See The Name Parable for a touching illustration of how this name change must appear to Yeshua.

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