An Introduction to the Names Yehoshua/Joshua, Yeshua, Jesus and Yeshu

by Kai KjaerHansen | March 23 1992

My interest in JESUS — i.e. in the name of Jesus — dates back to 1976-78, when I lived in Jerusalem:

  • While being a Danish pastor in Jerusalem in those years I tried to read up on modern Jewish research on Jesus. My attention was caught by various derogatory epithets which were used in diverse Jewish contexts, either in connection with the name of Jesus or as a substitute for it. This in combination with my interest in New Testament Christology made me turn my attention towards the name of Jesus in a Jewish and Hebrew context.
  • In conversations and sermons in Ivrit a choice had to be made between Yeshu and Yeshua. I had become used to the former form through Ulpan studies and lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I met the latter form in Christian Ivrit-speaking congregations.
  • An experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the autumn of 1976 whetted my curiosity about the problem. Here I witnessed an episode with a man with an American accent and dressed like a John the Baptist” in a heated argument with some Orthodox Jews about Jesus. This person not only possessed the ability to spit — he also exercised it when he, in English, said “Jesus”. Nevertheless, he defended Yeshua energetically. Unfortunately, from my position on the fringe of the debating crowd, I was unable to make out what this person thought of this Yeshua, except that he strongly emphasized the difference between the English and the Hebrew forms of the name.
  • Although preliminary inquiries with competent Jewish scholars concerning the relationship in Ivrit between Yeshu and Yeshua did not animate me to pursue the matter further, my suspicion had been aroused that at least there was a problem. For I did not find their answer very satisfactory: “Jews say Yeshu, Ivrit-speaking Christians say Yeshua. Zehu! That’s it!” A conversation with the Swedish professor Gösta Lindeskog in the autumn of 1977 in Jerusalem gave me the decisive push to work with the question. Which is what I did.

The result was a doctoral dissertation in Danish entitled Studier i navnet Jesus [Studies in the Name of Jesus] Aarhus 1982. Four sections treat of the following themes:

  • I. The name of Jesus in a modern Israeli context
  • II. The name of Jesus in Jewish and Christian nomenclature
  • III. Hebrew name forms applies to Jesus of Nazareth
  • IV. Matthew’s work with the name of Jesus

In this article I shall begin by sketching the name forms of Jesus of Nazareth which are relevant in an Ivrit-speaking context in Israel today. After that I am going to deal with the question: what was the Hebrew name for Jesus of Nazareth? Finally I shall describe the change from Yeshua to Yeshu — and now I have already revealed that in my opinion Jesus of Nazareth was called Yeshua!

But before that, a few theoretical observations about names and our attitude to names.

Section I. What’s in a Name?

Modern onomastics warns against a dilettantish approach to the subject that is only interested in the meaning of a name and its etymology. The meaning of a name is conditioned by a number of factors, historical, religious, cultural, sociological, political and social, and the naming custom of the milieu in question. This applies to the name-giver’s motive as well as to the surrounding community’s response to the name. Add to this a number of collective and individual emotional, psychological, aesthetic factors, and local naming traditions.

We must assume that roughly the same factors were in force in a Jewish milieu in the centuries about the beginning of our era. While etymology, in a modern context, often plays a very secondary part, there can be no doubt that it is much more important in a Jewish context about the beginning of our era. The rabbis have much to say about this. And yet the etymological and lexical approaches must be supplemented by other approaches.

The name-bearer’s history is one of these. The response to a given name is definitely determined by the history of the name-bearer. In May 1945 no child was given the name of Adolf! In the case of Jesus we may assume that his disciples’ relationship to him influenced their relationship to his name. I know it is difficult to argue when we are talking about emotions, but there is no reason to consider the people of the first Church to be more blunted than others. It is difficult to imagine that the name of Jesus should have been a neutral name to those who came to faith in him as the resurrected Lord.

Also the context plays an important part. For example, if it is possible, in the New Testament, to find semantic fields and compounds where the name Jesus appears in a position which, according to the Old Testament’s linguistic pattern, is reserved for JHWH, it becomes possible to understand the theological value of the name of Jesus, the Christological overtones which are associated with it in the New Testament, and the connotations in the minds of the Christians of the first century. We haven’t got time to deal with this in this article.

Instead of beginning way back in history, we’ll first zoom in on the name of Jesus in an Israeli context today.

Section II. What is Jesus of Nazareth called today in Ivrit (Hebrew)?

The answer to that question depends on whom you ask. This already suggests that there may be a problem and that there are more than one current forms of the name. This is first and foremost a problem to non-Messianic Jews. Most Messianic Jews use the form Yeshua, and if there are individuals among them who use the form Yeshu, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

If one takes the lexicographical approach and consults easily accessible dictionaries, the tendency is the following: If one looks up JESUS in a diaspora language, the answer is: Yeshu. If one chooses the opposite approach, i.e. from Ivrit to a diaspora language, some dictionaries refer the reader from Yeshua to Yeshu, others from Yeshu to Yeshua. In the appendix to Milon Hadash (under the heading “Names and their Meaning”, Jerusalem, 1958, p. 182) A. Even-Shosan writes: “Yeshua, that is Yeshu HaNotzri…” Then follows an explanation of the name of Jesuits, which is spelled with an Ayin: Yeshuai’im.

When it comes to school books, the answer depends on whether one settles for Pinchas Lapide’s article “Jesus in Israeli School Books” (in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 1973, pp. 515-531), or whether one examines the school books oneself. Lapide says (pp. 516-517):

Seven books call the Nazarene “Jeshu”, which is both historically and philologically correct and also corresponds to the contemporary usage in Israel for the name Jesus. The effect is to “associate” Jesus with, and place him on the edge of, Judaism. Only three books call him “Jeshua”, which not only corresponds to the then current biblical name of “Josua”, but also is as good as identical with “Jehoshua”, a popular name in Israel today.

A first-hand examination of the material does not give the result 7-3, which Lapide maintains, but rather 10-0 — for Yeshu. The form of Yeshua is mentioned in five books, but in none of them is it used generally, which Yeshu is. It is not clear what Lapide means when he says that it is “both historically and philologically correct”. In practice the form Yeshu dominates the school books, even if it is mentioned that there is another form, Yeshua.

Yeshu is not written with abbreviation signs: it is not regarded as a “Roshei Tevot” word, where the three consonants are meant to form the formula: Yimmach Shemo Wezikro, i.e.: May his name and memory be blotted out — a curse known from, for example, the so-called Toledoth Yeshu literature. This spelling (with abbreviation signs) is still found in some Ultra-Orthodox newspaper, but not in all Orthodox papers. Generally speaking the curse is not known in Israel and does not appear in school books. The form Yeshu is not in itself negative. According to an Israeli statistics of names, which I consulted in 1979, no one bore the name of Yeshu, which was hardly to be expected, but 29 persons were called Yeshua!

It can be noted that in New Testament quotations, either from Delitzsch’s translation or from translations which rely on it, the school book material has examples of Yeshua being replaced with Yeshu.

The same is often the case in David Flusser’s work in Ivrit when he quotes from the New Testament, although the form Yeshua does appear. The difference does not seem intended. But it does not change the fact that Yeshu is the preferred form in Flusser’s work in Ivrit. When Flusser writes in a diaspora language — or is translated into it — that language’s form of Jesus is used, of course. In his Jesus in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbeck bei Hamburg, 1968, pp. 13-14) Flusser says about the name that Jesus is the common Greek form of the name Joshua, and that in Jesus’ time the name was pronounced Yeshua and so we often find Jesus of Nazareth named in ancient Jewish literature. There he is also often named Yeshu. That, almost certainly, was the Galilean pronunciation. I shall return to this later. The English translation by Ronald Walls (Jesus, New York, 1969, p. 13) has a blatant mistake. The sentence, “There [i.e. in ancient Jewish literature] he is also often named Yeshu“, has disappeared. Consequently, Ronald Walls’ translation says that Yeshua was the Galilean pronunciation! Which is nonsense. And which was not what Flusser wrote.

When Joseph Klausner wrote in Hebrew, he also used the form Yeshu. Considering the influence of Klausner’s book Yeshu HaNotzri (1922, Ramat Gan 1969), I do not think it is going too far to say that if Klausner had dared to restore the form of Yeshua — which he did not do — today, the form of Yeshu would only be used by the Ultra-Orthodox.

It is not an ill-founded assertion. It is based on what a man who was no amateur in this field did with the name. In his prolegomena to Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis (Jerusalem, 1940, pp. 215-216), Elieser Ben-Yehuda, the father of Ivrit, deals with the name of Jesus. Here the name of Jesus is mentioned explicitly at least 8 times, and every time the form Yeshua is used.

So generally speaking, Yeshu — the historically incorrect form of Jesus put forward by Klausner, the historian and theologian — defeated Yeshua, the correct form of Jesus, supported by Ben-Yehuda, the linguist.

When I say this, I want to emphasize that I am speaking in general terms. With names there are always exceptions. What I am saying is that generally speaking the form Yeshu is the one used in Ivrit today. And that leads to another observation, namely that the so-called Jewish “Heimholung” of Jesus, the reclamation of Jesus, the scientific attempt to bring Jesus back to the Jewish people, does not generally include a reclamation of the name of Yeshua. But as already mentioned there are exceptions where Ivrit-writing Jewish scholars use the form Yeshua.

Let us leave the historians and theologians for a moment. Without going into details it is possible for us to demonstrate that several Jewish novelists use different forms, Yehoshua, Yeshu, Yeshua, to indicate the attitude of their characters to Jesus of Nazareth. This is for example the case of the following novelists who all write in diaspora languages: Franz Werfel (Paulus unter den Juden, Berlin, Wien, Leipzig, 1929), Max Brod (Der Meister, Gütersloh, 1952), and Louis de Wohl (Longinus der Zeuge, Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau, 1978). Among those who write in Ivrit, some use Yeshu (e.g. A Hameiri, Ch. Hasas, J. Mosinson), others use Yeshua (e.g. N. Bistritzki). In Scholem Asch’s The Nazarene, both in the Yiddish original and in the Hebrew translation (by David Zion, Jerusalem, 1953), the form Yeshua is used. Yeshu does not occur. However, in Asch’s introductory reflections another form is used: “If you insist on knowing the name, I will pronounce it: Yeshua of Nazareth, he who is called Jesus Christ” [in Ivrit transcribed Yezus Kristos, p. 25). In translations into other languages the Hebraicized form Yeshua is kept. It may be noted that Chaim Lieberman’s refutation of Asch’s book uses Jesus in the English original (The Christianity of Sholem Asch, New York, 1953), while the Hebrew translation (Natzruto Shel Salom Asch, Tel-Aviv, 1954) has Yeshu. In a New Testament quotation, verbatim after Delitzsch’s translation, Yeshua has been replaced by Yeshu. Technically this is no different from what, for example, David Flusser sometimes does and what happens in school books. But since one’s response to a name to a very large degree depends on the context of that name, we have to consider this when we want to appraise the change from Yeshua to Yeshu.

However, it would be jumping to conclusions if we simply said that the more polemic the text, the greater the efforts to hide the fact that Jesus’ original Hebrew name was Yeshua. An example of this can be found in Jakob Zurischadaj’s Habrit (Jerusalem, 1970) from the traditional Jewish refutation literature. The procedure in this book is first to adduce a New Testament quotation and then to refute it. In the quotations from the New Testament the form Yeshua occurs about 50 times, and only once the form Yeshu occurs, which may be a lapse. Zurischadaj himself uses Yeshu. The pun in Matthew 1:21 is rendered correctly: Yeshuayoshia [Jesus will save …]. M. Bazes’ book Jesus the Jew — The Historical Jesus. The True Story of Jesus (Jerusalem, 1976), written in English, also belongs in the refutation group. He concedes that Jesus’ historical name was “Yeshuah“. But Christianity’s “deification of Jesus” (p. 46) influenced the relationship of Jews to the name of Jesus. Bazes writes (p. 47): “It is no wonder that Jews considered the Christian belief as simple idolatry and felt obligated to apply the Law in Exodus 23:13: “Make no mention of the name of other Gods” to the name, Jesus. Naturally, the name of one of the truest and best Jewish teachers had to be shunned.”

This — and other circumstances — lead me to the assertion that today, and down through the ages, the Jewish refutation literature has helped to preserve, among Jews, the memory that Christianity’s Saviour was called Yeshua. While the polemic literature has primarily used the form Yeshu, there has all along been an awareness that this was not Jesus’ original Hebrew name. Maimonides appears to have used the form Yeshua in several writings, e.g. in his “Epistle to Yemen”, even if the tradition of the text also has the form Yeshu, which has to be regarded as the secondary form (cp. A.S. Halkin (ed.), Moses Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen, New York, 1952, p. 12). Subsequent Jewish authorities refer specifically to Maimonides and claim that Jesus’ original name was Yeshua, and then they go on to explain why they do not use it, none the less. Whatever reservations one might have towards J.A. Eisenmenger’s book Entdecktes Judenthum (Königsberg, 1711) from the beginning of the 18th century, it cannot be denied that he gives a good summary of the reasons why Jews do not use Yeshua but have cut off the letter Ayin and call him Yeshu instead. By “good” I naturally do not mean that all Jews always and everywhere thought that they smeared the name of Jesus by using the form Yeshu. By “good” I mean that, in different Jewish sources, there is evidence for what Eisenmenger mentions, (Vol. I, pp. 64-67). He adduces five explanations, which can be summed up in this manner:

  1. Jews do not recognize that Jesus is Moshia; therefore they do not say Yeshua but Yesh.
  2. Jesus was not able to save himself; therefore the Ayin is left out.
  3. Jews are not only permitted to mock false gods; they are commanded to change and defame their names.
  4. With a reference to Ex 23:13 Jews are forbidden to mention the names of other gods.
  5. With a reference to the Toledoth Yeshu literature, Yeshu is interpreted as Yimmach Shemo Wezikro. The pronunciation Yi instead of the expected Ye(shu) is designed to clarify the connection to “Yimmach“.

If again we turn to Israel and examine the forms of the name in newspapers, we shall see that Yeshu is the most commonly used form, but Yeshua does appear. Now and then Messianic Jews are quoted for having used the form Yeshu, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. In articles written in Ivrit by Christians there are a few examples of Yeshu. In sections of the Orthodox press Yeshu without abbreviation signs is used. The organization “Jews for Jesus” is normally referred to as “Yehudim Lema’an Yeshu”. On TV Yeshu is most often used but Yeshua does appear. In concert programmes for Christian classics there is the same alternation between Yeshu and Yeshua — sometimes both forms can be found in the same programme. And if the name of the conductor happens to be Jesus Lopez-Cobos, his name is not transcribed with Yehoshua, not with Yeshua and not with Yeshu, but with Chet as the initial letter: Chesus — which gives it the right Spanish sound. The name of examples is legion.

Let us sum up:

The form Yeshu, rather than Yeshua, enjoys a special position in Israel today. To non-specialists, i.e. to the Israeli in the street, Yeshu is the name of the founder of Christianity. Most people do not know the imprecation formula Yimmach Shemo Wezikro. In various ways the awareness that Jesus of Nazareth has another name than Yeshu is kept alive. So does a modern Hebrew refutation literature. One’s response to the name can at best be described as a negation: it is the absence of the potentially positive overtones of the form Yeshua. The response to the name — be it Yeshu or Yeshua — is determined by the context in which it appears. If the context is negative, i.e. if what is said about the person Jesus is negative, it may well influence one’s response to the name. If, however, the context is positive, it may also influence one’s response to the name.

As I said before, I find it noteworthy that that section of Israeli research which attempts to reclaim Jesus has not reclaimed Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yeshua. In this respect they generally follow the Jewish tradition and use the form Yeshu. When I say that it is noteworthy, I imply that it is possible to say what was Jesus’ Hebrew name in the first century. That requires a few explanations.

Section III. Yehoshua/Joshua — YeshuaYeshu

Let me give you a brief sketch of the relationship between the forms Yehoshua/Joshua and Yeshua, and after that the relationship between Yeshua and Yeshu in the centuries before and after the beginning of our era.

1. Yehoshua/Joshua vis-à-vis Yeshua

Yehoshua is formally a theoforic name with the abbreviated tetragrammaton JHWH as its first element. The first man to bear the name is bin Nun, who was first called Hoshea. The change from Hoshea to Yehoshua (Num 13:16) was easily effected: it only took the prefixing of the little Yod. With a stroke, the letter Yod was given satisfaction. When the name Abram became Abraham (Gen 17:5) and Sarai became Sarah (Gen 17:15), the letter Yod was split up into two He’s (2 x 5 = 10), which the letter Yod complains of to God (according to Midr Gen R XLVII,1). But with the name Yehoshua Yod gets satisfaction: “Hitherto thou wast in a woman’s name and the last of its letters; now I will set thee free in a man’s name and at the beginning of its letters.” The story is sweet and gives us an example of the rabbis’ work with and interest in names. Apart from bin Nun a few others in the biblical tradition bear the name of Yehoshua, among them Jozadak’s son who, together with Zerubbabel, returned to Palestine from Babylon. Both are positive figures in the biblical tradition — and therefore their names are also “good”. Both these Yehoshuas are mentioned by the long forms of the name, Yehoshua, in the prophets Haggai and Zechariah while Ezra and Nehemiah use a short form, namely Yeshua, and what is most remarkable is that in Neh 8:17 the short form Yeshua is used about bin Nun, which is clear evidence that the long form Yehoshua is being replaced by the short form Yeshua. In times to come this short form was to become the dominant one.

In my judgement we have reason to believe that in New Testament times the short form Yeshua replaced the long form Yehoshua. I dare not claim that the long form cannot have been in use as a personal name in New Testament times. In the case of names, never say never. What is safe to say is that inscriptions and discoveries of ossuaries from Palestine show that the form Yeshua was a quite common personal name, and that this Yeshua corresponds to the Greek “Iesous”. Philo is familiar with the factual meaning of the Greek form, which he renders “soteria kyriou” (the Lord’s salvation). In Josephus this Greek form is used about bin Nun as well as about almost 20 people from the end of the era of the Second Temple. I have not been able to trace an inscription from New Testament times which has the long form Yehoshua.

Of course the literary name Yehoshua was not forgotten by those who were familiar with the biblical scriptures. But in this connection it may also be mentioned that the Qumran scrolls have examples of bin Nun’s name being rendered Yeshua (e.g. Testimonium 4QT 21). If we move on to the time of Bar Kokhba, the rediscovered correspondence material shows that several of the leading people among Bar Kokhba’s followers bore the name of Yeshua. One of the less known is Yeshua ben Yeshua ( Y. Yadin, Bar Kokhba. The rediscovery of the legendary hero …, Jerusalem, 1971, pp. 270-271; 222-253).

Taken together, our evidence clearly indicates that the name of Jesus of Nazareth was Yeshua and not Yehoshua. The name had an Ayin at the end. Further, it is worthy of note that over the first 100 years after Yeshua of Nazareth it is not possible to demonstrate any significant change of the Jewish nomenclature as to the use of Yeshua and the corresponding Greek Iesous. Later, after the middle of the second century A.D., a change occurred resulting in a return to the long form Yehoshua — but that is a matter which I haven’t got time to touch upon here. But the return to a situation when Jews begin to use the long form Yehoshua again might be explained by the fact that Christianity’s Saviour was called Yeshua, though other factors may also have been relevant. If I am right in my suppositions, it follows that I question whether those people mentioned in Mishnah and Talmud whose names are written Yehoshua and who lived before the time of Bar Kokhba, were really called by that name by their contemporaries, or if it is not more probable that their name was Yeshua.

2. Yeshua vis-à-vis Yeshu

A very hypothetical possibility that the form Yeshu existed as a personal name in the first century can be found in an inscription published by E.L. Sukenik in 1931 (Jüdische Gräber Jerusalems um Christi Geburt, Jerusalem, 1931, p. 19). The missing Ayin may be explained through lack of space, a hypothesis mentioned by Sukenik himself, although he also says that perhaps this is an instance of the short form which is otherwise found in talmudic literature. Side by side with this uncertain Yeshu is the name Yeshua — with an Ayin. Yerushalmi Fragments from the Genizah (ed. L. Ginzberg, New York, 1909) mentions a few unique examples of the disappearance of the final Ayin, referring to one “R[abbi] Yeshu, the southerner”. E.Y. Kutscher (Studies in Galilean Aramaic, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 80-81) tries to explain this as a linguistic weakening of Ayin. But then it is interesting that the form Yehoshua with the Ayin is found in the same context.

Various explanations have been offered as to why Jesus is called Yeshu in the rabbinic tradition. In passing it may be mentioned that Yeshu is not the sole form: Tosefta Hullin 2,22.24, for example, has Yeshua. Also D. Rokeah thinks that the original version of B Sanh 43a read Yeshua, which he bases on the fact that Ms Temani has Yeshua (in Tarbiz, 1969-70, p. 11).

It is characteristic of most of the modern solutions offered in explanation of the development from Yeshua to Yeshu that they are of a philological nature. S. Krauss says in so many words that Yeshu instead of Yeshua is an example of the most natural development in the world (Das Leben Jesu nach Jüdischen Quellen, Berlin, 1902, p. 250). Often the development from Josef to Jose is mentioned.

In J.Z. Lauterbach’s work Jesus in the Talmud (in Rabbinic Essays, Cincinnati, 1951, pp. 473-570), however, there are nuances of meaning. He does not commit himself on the issue but his comments on it are valuable. In a comment on Baraita Sanh. 107b he says (p. 482):

The name Yeshu by which Jesus is here mentioned is probably merely a shortened form of the name Yeshua (the abbreviation sign on top is a later addition). But since such an abbreviated form of the name is not used in any other case of a person named Yeshua or Yehoshua, but persistently and consistently used when the name refers to Jesus, it may be assumed that this shortening of the name was probably an intentional mutilation by cutting off part of it. The rabbis mention other instances of the names of persons being shortened because of their misconduct, but here in the case of the name Jeshua there may have been an additional special reason for shortening it into Jeshu.

Instead of giving a survey of the different hypotheses which have been put forward I shall restrict myself to mentioning the hypothesis which has met with most sympathy as an explanation of the development from Yeshua to Yeshu. It is connected to David Flusser’s name, but A. Neubauer (“Jewish Controversy and the ‘Pugio Fidei'”, in The Expositor, no. 7, 1888, p. 24) is entertaining the same idea when he says that the orthography of Yeshu in the Talmud and early rabbinical writings is according to the pronunciation, in which the guttural Ayin was not pronounced. Hugh J. Schonfield is on to something similar when he says that Yeshu is actually the north-Palestinian contraction of the Hebrew Yeshua, where the letter Ayin was not sounded. J. Jeremias (Neutestamentliche Theologie, Gütersloh, 1973, vol. I, p. 13) is among those who agree with Flusser that Yeshu is the Galilean pronunciation of Yeshua. This is the explanation in Flusser’s Jesus book (English translation, p. 13). In Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (Tel-Aviv, 1989, p. 15) he writes the following:

The Hebrew name for Jesus, Yeshu, is evidence for the Galilean pronunciation of the period, and is in no way abusive. Jesus was a Galilean, and therefore the a at the end of his name, Yeshua, was not pronounced. His full name was thus Yeshua. In the Talmudic sources, which are from a later period, there is reference to a Rabbi Yeshu, who is not to be confused with Jesus.

Flusser’s hypothesis is that the final Ayin was not pronounced in Galilee. In Studies in Galilean Aramaic (pp. 67-70; 80; 89-96) E.Y. Kutscher draws attention to the fact that in most places in Galilee and the rest of Palestine Jews were able to pronounce the gutturals even if these gutturals, in a few places such as Haifa, Beisan and Tibon, were not pronounced. Thus Flusser may be right but his hypothesis should not be put forward as the most obvious thing in the world. But Flusser does not place this question in a larger context, e.g. Christians’ interpretations of the name of Jesus and speculations over it. Such interpretations and speculations appear as early as in the Epistle of Barnabas, and there are many instances of them in the writings of the Church’s theologians. I cannot here touch upon that issue but it is a relevant one. The form Yeshu might be a reaction to such speculations.

Flusser does not comment on the relationship between pronunciation and written fixation. In my opinion this is the greatest weakness about Flusser’s hypothesis. For irrespective of what was pronounced, it may be assumed that what is not pronounced is, nevertheless, still written — at any rate in the initial phase. Add to this the observation that the names Yeshua and Yehoshua were actually written with the final Ayin in contemporary sources when the names referred to everybody else but Jesus, Flusser’s hypothesis seems to crumble.

My own hypothesis is not above criticism. The issue is far too complex for that, and we lack some historical data before we can conclude anything with certainty.

I do not imagine, of course, that the rabbis should have dictated the spelling for the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Not because the rabbis were not interested in Jesus, but because other mechanisms are at work. Nor do I imagine that a written change of name should have taken place already at the time of the New Testament. In any case, there are no sources to support an understanding like this. It is, however, not impossible that the beginning of that change of the name, which was not effectuated in writing until later, may have been there already at the time of the New Testament. This means that we shall have to consider a rather long process.

In the first oral phase of this process I assume that some have sneered at the name of Yeshua. Such sneer is in itself a common phenomenon which cannot be ignored even if it is difficult to prove it on the basis of written material. This sneer was not registered in writing at once. It may have been there already at Jesus’ time and may have accelerated concurrently with the Christians’ emphasis of the meaning of the name of Jesus. Furthermore, it is possible that some of Jesus’ Galilean followers did not pronounce the name Yeshua with an a, i.e. they pronounced it Yeshu, but none the less wrote it with an Ayin. When religious leaders who did not believe in Jesus sneered at his name, it is natural to imagine that they used exactly this form. By using a dialectal pronunciation like Yeshu, the religious leaders and others who did not themselves have difficulties with the gutturals were able, thanks to a discreet psychological device, to distance themselves from the Galilean Messiah pretender: Yeshu — just a man from Galilee.

By using Yeshu it became possible, at the same time, to stamp out some soteriological connotations of the form Yeshua. Matthew 1:21 is evidence that there were such connotations. It is a generally accepted assumption that underlying the Greek text there is a Hebrew pun which does not come out in the Greek rendition.

It is difficult to say when this alleged oral sneer was fixed in writing. If I am right in presuming that we are dealing with a process, it is quite probable that both spellings – with and without the Ayin – existed side by side. As mentioned earlier Yeshua is used in Tosefta Hullin. In Talmud it is most often written Yeshu. I therefore assume that the oldest written fixation of the name for Jesus of Nazareth, in the rabbinic material, was Yeshua and that the written form of Yeshu is later. Later on the form Yeshu became the dominating one.

On the basis of such and other observations I conclude that generally speaking the Yeshu form is not a good Jewish name and that it can hardly be considered a neutral name in a Jewish context in its written form. While the oral form may have been the normal pronunciation of Yeshua in a few places in Galilee, the form Yeshu did not only undergo a change of value in its written form but also in its oral form if, as I presume, non-Galileans sneered at it. Furthermore, when the Tosefta material uses the form Yeshua and when the major part by far of the manuscript tradition and the printed editions of Talmud passages which contain the name of Jesus evidence the form Yeshu, then the attentive Jewish reader has been informed, in his own scriptures about Jesus’ original Hebrew name. This may have influenced his response to the form Yeshu even if it has not been accompanied by a negative explanation like the one which is found in certain Toledoth Yeshu versions.

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the Toledoth Yeshu literature. Suffice it here to say that in several versions Jesus is given the name Yeshua or Yehoshua at his birth. After his mother has declared him a bastard, the rabbis, according to this literature, dictate a change of name to Yeshu and let the following explanation accompany it: Yimmach Shemo Wezikro. In other words: Even this polemic genre preserves the memory of Jesus’ historical name Yeshua.

3. What – if anything – has all this got to do with Jewish evangelism?

Since Jesus has got quite a lot to do with Jewish evangelism [sic], I suppose his name also has!
Matthew 1:21 and the nature of the salvation Jesus brings

Above I have referred to Matthew 1:21 a couple of times and to the underlying pun: Yeshua… yoshia (Jesus will save…) This verse is crucial to an understanding of who Jesus is and what his work is. To Matthew the name of Jesus remains a personal name, but it is a personal name with soteriological connotations. Therefore, I think, it must be included in the New Testament Christo logy, although it is not a Christological term as such.

Here I just want to make the following observation: Matthew’s interpretation of the name of Emmanuel (Matt 1:23) is, philologically and etymologically, more accurate than his interpretation of the name of Jesus. He does not just say: Jesus will save, or: Yeshua means the one through whom the Lord saves. He makes an important addition. Yeshua is going to save his people from their sins. It is my belief that the interpretation of the name of Jesus is superior to the interpretation of Emmanuel. When Matthew does not restrict himself to giving an etymological or philological interpretation of the name Yeshua but makes an addition, this must be considered important. By his addition Matthew defines the nature of the salvation which Jesus brings. From the very beginning of his gospel Matthew makes it clear that as the Lord in the past took away the sins of his people and through the forgiveness of sins created a new relationship between himself and the people on basis of the covenant, so will Jesus realize this in the new era. This has got something to do with Jewish evangelism!


The wish to have a historical basis for what one says has also got something to do with Jewish evangelism. Irrespective of what one might think of the hypotheses about the development from Yeshua to Yeshu – my own included – it is reassuring to know that there are good, indeed very good arguments for the form Yeshua being the Hebrew name for Jesus of Nazareth. It is not those who use the form Yeshua who have a problem. Problems arise when one attempts to describe the change from Yeshua to Yeshu, not when it comes to determining what was his Hebrew name.

In an Ivrit context the name Yeshu is dominating. A Jesus-believer who uses the form Yeshua is therefore faced with a choice in conversation with a non-believer. Should he oblige the other person – and if so, how much? I am sure there is much to say about this question. Allow me to give a few keywords. I can see no reason why the Jewish believer in Jesus should renounce the form of Yeshua. It carries with it good connotations of salvation. But an analysis like the one above gives an insight which forbids him to claim that the other person’s use of the form Yeshu should contain the imprecation formula Yimmach Shemo Wezikro. The fact that the two of them use different names about the same person provides the Jewish believer with a fine opportunity to explain, in a natural way, why he uses Yeshua and not Yeshu. In that way it becomes relatively easy to tell him what is central in our faith in Jesus. I have a personal experience of how a person I talked to, in the course of the conversation, changed from Yeshu to Yeshua. Without the other person coming to faith in him! Let that serve as a reminder to us that faith is something different and more than being able to say the name of Jesus in Hebrew!

As we all know, it has become more and more common for Jesus-believing Jews in a diaspora context to use a Hebraicized form such as Yeshua or Yeshua in one’s diaspora language. There are many good – and understandable – reasons for that. And if Jesus-believing Jews are attacked for this, I am going to defend them. But I would like to add two things. I fear that an exaggerated use of this and similar terms towards Gentile believers and the Church may be counter-productive, or perhaps seen as a linguistic abnormity. I call in question whether Jewish believers using Hebraicized terms when addressing Gentile believers succeed in communicating what they intend to communicate. My second addition is that the use of the form of Yeshua is no guarantee that what is said about him is biblically sound and that it is understood correctly. I have two examples to illustrate this. In Morris de Jonge’s Jeschuah, der klassische jüdische Mann (Berlin, 1904), which is little more than a curiosity, there is a description of a Jewish writer who rediscovers the Jewish form of the name, which he writes Jeschuah, and where he contrasts “the classical Jewish man” with “Kirche-Jesus” (“Church Jesus”). Having given a caricature of various people’s views of Jesus, Morris de Jonge says (p. 441):

Jesum? What does that mean? John, the apostle, might have asked these confessors. Was my dear master Jeschuah a Roman whose name was declined according to the fourth declination: Jesus, Jesu, Jesum, Jesu? No! He was a Jew! Jeschuah was his name! And as certainly as the first Jeschuah, little Jeschuah ben Nun, was honoured, loved and respected as the leader of his people and therefore was able to lead his people into the Promised Land, as certainly also Jeschuah the Great, the Only One, will be recognized as the master and the one who leads into the Promised Land of recognition of God, if he is introduced to his people as a Jew!

Certainly, Morris de Jonge’s book is a curiosity but it reminds us that the correct Hebrew form for the name of our Saviour is no guarantee that what is said about his person is biblically sound. The other example with which we are going to conclude this is taken from a book by Moishe Rosen (with W. Proctor: Jews for Jesus, Bristol, 1974, p. 30). The example is not only a humorous one, it also shows that the use of Yeshua can lead to problems:

The fallacy of using a formula was brought home to me early in my ministry. I was then always careful to use only the prescribed language I had been taught in a certain Jewish evangelism class. I always referred to the Saviour as Yeshua Hamashiach (the Hebrew translation) rather than “Jesus Christ”, and the hymnal we used in our meetings was in Yiddish, with English translations on the opposite pages. One lady was very faithful in attending our weekly meetings over a period of six months. She loved singing the Yiddish songs, but I don’t think she ever read the English translations. She even stood up in the meeting and told how much she loved Yeshua. Then one day she found out that Yeshua meant Jesus, and she never came back! Now, I am not against using the name Yeshua as a missionary technique, but the Jewish person must understand that we are talking about Jesus!

In Jewish evangelism we are talking about Jesus of Nazareth – the friend and Saviour of sinners. That is what his name – Yeshua – means, and that meaning can become clear even if one uses JESUS in a diaspora language. Anyway, this is what Matthew did.

This article was originally presented at the Ninth North American Coordinating Committee Meeting of the LCJE, Los Angeles, California, 23-25 March 1992.