Jesus Christ is the central person in the Bible. It is crucial to know Him and acknowledge Him as our Lord and Savior. Every Christian will agree on that (otherwise they wouldn’t call themselves Christians). However, some people claim His name was not actually ‘Jesus’, but ‘Yeshua’, and that it’s important to use the right name. Let’s see what this discussion is all about.
Jesus’ name was not unique
The Bible makes it clear that Jesus Christ is absolutely unique. He is the Son of God, the Messiah. He is the Savior of the world. Philippians 2:9-11 says, “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” However, this does not imply that the name ‘Jesus’ in itself was unique. The supreme name that Jesus received, is the title ‘Lord’. When God gave Him this name, it was a sign of Jesus’ absolute lordship as King of the universe.
The name ‘Jesus’ was actually a common name in biblical times. In Hebrew, it is spelled יְהוֹשׁוּעַ or יֵשׁוּעַ and it means ‘the Lord is salvation’. We can read about several people with this name, for example in Numbers 11:28; 1 Samuel 6:14; Haggai 1:1 or Ezra 2:40. When an angel announced the coming of the Messiah to Joseph, he said: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). So, when the Son of God was born as a human baby, He received a common name that fit Him because of its meaning.
Pretty often in the Bible, the name Jesus is combined with another name or title, like ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘the Lord Jesus’. People referred to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (see John 1:45) to distinguish Him from other people with the same name.
Pronouncing and translating names
As I said before, the original name is יֵשׁוּעַ . Since most of us don’t know Hebrew, we need a transliteration in order to pronounce this name. For English readers, this would be something like ‘yeh-shoo’-ah’. Even with transliterations, people across the world will pronounce it slightly differently since every language has its own unique sounds.
This is not unique to Jesus’ name, of course. Let me give an example from my own family. My husband’s official name is ‘Johannes’. In daily life, this is abbreviated to ‘Johan’. In Dutch, this is a common name that’s easily pronounced. However, when he moved to an English speaking country as a child, it didn’t take long for his name to be transformed into ‘John’. It’s the same name, but spelled and pronounced a little differently.
Years later, we moved to Germany. Whenever I was introduced to people, they had a hard time remembering and pronouncing my name. Sometimes we just settled with something similar like ‘Greta’ to avoid awkward situations. My husband’s name was not that problematic. Most people would pronounce it correctly, since it’s almost the same in Dutch and German. However, they would add an extra -n to the end, since ‘Johann’ is a common name in German speaking countries. We didn’t feel the need to correct them. This solution worked great for most practical purposes. In a similar way, the names of our children would be pronounced ‘in a German way’, a little different than we were used to. This was just one little adaptation we made when living abroad.
Pronouncing and translating the name of Jesus
Within the Bible, we see a similar process. Whereas the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek. So when the words of the angel in Matthew 1:21 were recorded, the name יֵשׁוּעַ was written Ἰησοῦς . Greek does not have the same ‘sh’ sound as Hebrew does, so it could not be copied literally. Moreover, in Greek, masculine names typically had a final ‘s’ (and this suffix could change when the name was used in another case, e.g. as an object, which would change it into an -n). Later on, when the Greek texts were translated into Latin, the name was rendered ‘Iesus’.
Similarly, every other language the Bible was translated into, had to choose some spelling that made sense to the readers and was able to be pronounced by them. Some languages sticked closer to the literal spelling, others adapted the spelling a little more to match the original pronunciation.
Let me give one last example to clarify this:
- In English, we write ‘Jesus’. In phonetic spelling, this is [ j EE – z uh s ]. That’s how English speaking people pronounce it.
- In Spanish, the spelling is very similar: ‘Jesús’. But the pronunciation is different from the English. The second syllable is stressed instead of the first. The ‘j’ sound is more like the ‘h’ in ‘hat’ and the ‘ú’ sound like the ‘oo’ in ‘food’. You can try it for yourself on this website.
- In French, we write ‘Jésus’. The sounds are similar to Spanish, but French stresses the first syllable, like English.
I could continue this list to compare many more languages, but the principle remains the same. Different languages have different ways of writing and pronouncing words, including names. But they all mean the same thing or person.
Is it important how we spell and pronounce Jesus’ name?
The Bible tells us to “call upon the name of the Lord” to be saved (Acts 2:21). But it is not at all important in which language we do so. God will save “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). These people don’t have to learn Hebrew first. In fact, the New Testament was written in Greek instead of Hebrew because this had become a more common language, which shows that language and spelling is not important to God. The message of the Gospel is! This is also confirmed by the story about Pentecost in Acts 2:1-11, where the apostles spread the good news about Jesus in people’s native languages, so that all could understand it clearly.
Whether you speak English, Dutch, German, Hindi, Hebrew or Chinese – you are called to bow your knees at the name of Jesus and confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).