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What's In a Name

by Tim O'Hearn

Why do we not find any non-Hispanic men named Jesus? There are a lot of people named Jesus (hay-SUS) in Spanish, but none in English. Many people name their children after people in the Bible. I know of people named Isaiah, Nathan, Mark, Matthew, Mary, Hannah, and many other biblical names. I take pride that both my given names, Timothy James, are prominent in the New Testament.

Sometimes we name children because we like the sound of the name, regardless of its history. Thus we find people named Jude, although rarely in its other form of Judas. History has a noted Queen Isabella, although most people would not use the version of that name found in the King James Bible—Jezebel. (Next time you meet an Isabel or Isabella call her Jezebel and see if you don’t get slapped.)

Sometimes we name children after people we admire or wish to honor. That may be why there are so many people named after people in the Bible. Sephardic Jews often name a child after one they wish to honor, but will not name a child after a living relative. Ashkenazic Jews, on the other hand, often name children in honor of living relatives. The Russian practice is that the “middle” name, or patronymic, is that of the father. (Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky would have had a father named Ilya.)

Some men are named Joshua. A few may even be named Hosea. So why don’t we use the other form of that same name, Jesus? In some cases it is clear that the parents who name the child do not honor Jesus. They may claim to believe. They may even attend assemblies of the church regularly. But their lives show that they don’t honor Jesus. Naturally they are not going to use his name for their child. Still others may choose not to name their child Jesus because they are afraid of the confusion or hurt that the child may eventually feel when those around him are using his name as an expletive.

Perhaps the principal reason most non-Hispanics do not give their children the name Jesus is because they hold it in especial reverence. Since at that name “every knee should bow” (Php 2:10), many may feel that giving a child that name would be to give him too much to live up to. After all, this is the savior of the world, the King of Kings. Nevertheless, many will name a child Christian, which is just as difficult a name to live up to.

Jesus took a man named Shimon (Simon) and renamed him Peter. Some say that Peter became the rock he was because he had been given the name. If this is so, then maybe we should name our sons Jesus. If Peter could live up to the name given him, then maybe we should encourage our children to live up to the name Jesus.

It used to be that names had meaning. Today many people make up names for their children, or use names (like Wendy) that were invented by writers. Except for a few names whose meanings are obvious (Stella=star, Grace, Mercy) most people couldn’t give the original meaning of someone else’s name. They don’t know the meaning of Agatha (virtue) or Anastasia (resurrection), or that some names are forms of each other (Jacob/James, Jesus/Joshua). In a society where names no longer have meaning, it is unusual that the name of Jesus is not more common. On the other hand, maybe it is because one who bore that name was so uncommon that we reserve it only for uncommon uses.