How did Jesus pronounce his own name?
Every language today has their own way of saying the name ‘Jesus’—English speakers say Jesus, Spanish speakers say /xeˈsus/, German speakers say /ˈjeːzʊs/, French speakers say /ʒe.zy/, Chinese speakers say 耶穌 yēsū, Korean speakers say 예수 [je̞sʰu], and Arabic speakers say يسوع [jasuːʕ]. But how was it pronounced in the first century? Or, in other words, how did Jesus pronounce his own name?
I remember many years ago encountering certain websites that claimed that the pronunciation of Jesus was a corruption of ‘Zeus’ and that we should go back to the original Hebrew pronunciation of it, seeing as it is a Hebrew name. Now, many years later, it turns out that my field of expertise is actually the pronunciation of Hebrew in the Roman period as it is reflected in Greek writing. So, now that I have the tools to get at this question myself, I thought I would make a video to clear up a bit of this misinformation out there, both about how Jesus’s name was pronounced originally and how it came to be pronounced the way it is in English and other modern languages. Spoiler: it has nothing to do with Zeus.
Now the name of Jesus of Nazareth is recorded for us in the Greek New Testament as ἰησοῦς. So the first question we have to answer is: what is the Hebrew name underlying the Greek name ἰησοῦς? The name ἰησοῦς is obviously a Greek version of the Hebrew name and not the Hebrew name itself.
If you look at the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the earliest parts of which were translated about two hundred or more years before Jesus of Nazareth was born, you will find that the name ἰησοῦς appears 272 times. In every case, it corresponds with one of two names: יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua), which in English Bibles is translated as Joshua, or יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua), which in English Bibles is translated as Jeshua. (Note, however, that the vowel pointing and pronunciation reflected in the previous sentence is not necessarily identical to the ancient pronunciation.)
For an ancient Hebrew speaker, these were really just two different versions of the same name. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua) was the more original and longer form of the name, and יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua) was a shorter and later form of the name. My friend Benjamin Suchard suggests that the latter might have developed as a result of dissimilation after the elision of the guttural: i.e., something like */jəhoːʃuːʕ/ → */joːʃuːʕ/ → */jeːʃuːʕ/. The sequence of /oː/ and /uː/ vowels do dissimilate from one another elsewhere in Hebrew, as in the word תִּיכוֹן tiχon (from */tuːkoːn/) and אָנֹכִי ʔanoχi (from */ʔanoːkuː/), so this explanation is plausible.
However we explain the change, however, the chronology is what is important. Indeed, in all the early books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, stories of Moses and Joshua, the name you find is יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua). It is not actually until some of the later books of the Bible, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, that you find the shorter form, יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua). So it seems that the shorter form did not actually develop until a later stage of the language, probably around the time of or after the exile. Now after the shorter form had developed, both names existed side by side and you might even think of יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua) and יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua) as something like Joshua and Josh, though it is not entirely clear if one person would have been called by both names in different contexts. It’s hard to know from the evidence that we have.
So, then, which of these two names, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua) or יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua), or both, was likely the name of Jesus of Nazareth?
Well, to answer this question, we have to turn to some inscriptions and papyri from the time and place in which Jesus was born, grew up, and lived.
The name יהושע (Yehoshua), whether in Hebrew or Aramaic texts, does not appear very often in inscriptions from Judaea-Palestine. There are a couple examples I could find, both dating from the 3rd c. CE or later:
The name ישוע (Yeshua), on the other hand, appears many times (maybe around 15), and almost all of them are dated to the first century (CIIP 109; 156; 195; 206; 239a; 260; 320; 473; 474; 489a-b; 531; 546; 547; 3295; 3872):
Also, in a collection of Papyri letters and contracts from around the Dead Sea from around the early second century CE, we don’t find the name יהושע (Yehoshua) at all but we do find the name ישוע (Yeshua) about 9 times. For example:
And in these contracts from around the Dead Sea, you often find a Greek version of the contract and then a short version of the contract and/or signatures written in Aramaic. So these give us a good chance to see the coordination of the names. And in each case, the name ἰησοῦς (or a variant ἰησοῦος) in the Greek version of the contract will correspond with ישוע (Yeshua) in the Hebrew version of the contract.
As you can see in the example below, you get βησας ιησουου–a slight variant in the declension but still the same basic shape as ιησους–and in the Aramaic section, בסא בר ישוע (Besa bar Yeshua):
So it seems pretty safe to say that the Hebrew underlying the name ἰησοῦς in the New Testament is יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua) rather than יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua), since the former was just so much more common in this later period than the latter. And, in fact, I think this is probably what is going on in the Septuagint as well. It is not that ἰησοῦς in the Pentateuch is a true transcription of the name יהושע ‘Joshua’, but it is regarded as the Greek equivalent of the name familiar to those speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic living in the Hellenistic period. After all, many Jews living and interacting with Greek on a regular basis would have had a Greek version of their name alongside the Hebrew version of their name to use in Greek-speaking contexts. Note that the early Jewish-Christian apostle שָׁאוּל (Shaʾul) went by the name Παῦλος ‘Paul’ in Greek-speaking contexts.
Now the Greek version of the name is clearly based off of the form ישוע (Yeshua), which was much more popular in the Hellenistic period, rather than יהושע (Yehoshua), since its phonological structure corresponds as much as it could. There is an initial iota corresponding to the י /j/ sound, an eta corresponding to the long ֵ /eː/ vowel, a sigma corresponding to Hebrew שׁ /ʃ/, and then an omicron upsilon corresponding to the Hebrew long וּ /uː/ vowel. And then, finally, you just add the Greek nominal inflection -ς on to the end of the name. A name like יהושע (Yehoshua), if it was truly transcribed into Greek, would look different. And we know this because there was a tradition of transcribing the Hebrew Bible—(and not just names)—into Greek later on in the Roman period, and in that tradition the name יהושע (Yehoshua) ends up being written as ιωσουε (in the Greek transcribed list of Hebrew Bible book names attested in Origen, Eusebius, etc.).
So now that we have determined that Greek ἰησοῦς ultimately corresponds to Hebrew ישוע (Yeshua), there are just a couple pronunciation questions we have to point out about the first century pronunciation of Hebrew.
First, unlike Modern Hebrew, which does not have long and short vowels and only has a single e-vowel, Hebrew of the first century had two e-vowels, one long and one short. It is probable that the longer one was pronounced with a slightly more tense pronunciation (i.e., /eː/ = [eː]) and the shorter one with a slightly more lax pronunciation (i.e., /e/ = [ɛ]). The long vowel is what is represented by the η eta in Greek and then eventually by the vowel sign ֵ ṣere in the Tiberian tradition of Hebrew. Similarly, the final /uː/ vowel is pronounced long, even though you don’t have long vowels in Modern Hebrew.
Now the last remaining question concerns what is written as ʿayin in Hebrew. Historically ʿayin was pronounced as [ʕ], which pronounced in the pharynx while vibrating the vocal cords. It’s not a sound we have in English. Now over time, already starting in the ancient period, these types of sounds–known as gutturals–started to fade away. As they got weaker in pronunciation, sometimes vowels would be added to preserve their pronunciation better. In the Tiberian tradition of Hebrew and in Modern Hebrew, for example, a short [a] vowel is added just before a final /ʕ/ to make sure it is pronounced. That is why in Modern Hebrew we say יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua). Now we know that this weakening of gutturals was going on during the Roman period, as it is mentioned in Rabbinic literature.
So, because we know that this guttural weakening was already occurring in ancient times, we have to ask the following question:
Which of the following was the most likely pronunciation of the name Jesus? …
• [jeːʃuːʕ] (with the final guttural strongly pronounced)
• [jeːʃuː] (without pronouncing the final guttural)
• [jeːʃuːa(ʕ)] (with an added vowel to help pronunciation of /ʕ/)
So what was likely the case in Nazareth—in the Galilee—where Jesus grew up? The weakening of the gutturals in the Second Temple period is generally thought to have been brought about by Greek influence, which means it would have impacted urban areas and the educated classes first and foremost (Kutscher 1959; Kutscher 1977; Mor 2013).
In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is in the south, in Judea, there is clear evidence for the weakening of gutturals, where guttural letters will be omitted or written in the wrong place:
The same is true of some inscriptions from Judaea around the same time:
Most of our epigraphy from Galilee, on the other hand, comes from a later date. At that point, there are two groups: (i) inscriptions from Beth Sheʾan, Ṭivʿon, and Ḥaifa show a lot of guttural weakening (Mor 2013), but (ii) other inscriptions show very little guttural weakening. This is confirmed by multiple passages in Rabbinic literature:
Bab Tal Megilla 24b
אָמַר רַב אַסִּי: חֵיפָנִי וּבֵישָׁנִי — לֹא יִשָּׂא אֶת כַּפָּיו. תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי: אֵין מוֹרִידִין לִפְנֵי הַתֵּיבָה לֹא אַנְשֵׁי בֵּית שְׁאָן וְלֹא אַנְשֵׁי (בֵּית) חֵיפָה וְלֹא אַנְשֵׁי טִבְעוֹנִין, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁקּוֹרִין לָאַלְפִין עַיְינִין וְלָעַיְינִין אַלְפִין
‘Apropos the previous discussion, Rav Asi said: A priest from Haifa or Beit She’an may not lift his hands to recite the Priestly Benediction, as he does not know how to properly pronounce the guttural letters. This is also taught in a baraita: One may not allow the people of Beit She’an, nor the people of Beit Haifa, nor the people of Tivonin to pass before the ark in order to lead the service because they pronounce alef as ayin and ayin as alef, and they thereby distort the meaning of the prayers.’
The William Davidson Talmud (Koren – Steinsaltz) – Sefaria.org
Palestinian Talmud Berakhot 4d
רִבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר חֲנִינָא בְשֵׁם רִבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חוֹשֶׁךְ. דְּלָא יֵימַר יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא נוֹגַהּ. רִבִּי חַגַּיי בְּשֵׁם רִבִּי אַבָּא בַּר זַבְדָּא שָׁם שָׁרוּ לָךְ דְּלָא יֵימַר שָׁם הַלְלוּ לָךְ. רִבִּי לֵוִי רִבִּי אֶבְדִּימָא דְחֵיפָה בְשֵׁם רִבִּי לֵוִי בַּר סִיסִי צָרִיךְ לְהַתִּיז לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ. רִבִּי יוֹנָה בְשֵׁם רַב חִסְדָּא צָרִיךְ לְהַתִּיז כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. תַּנִּי אֵין מַעֲבִירִין לִפְנֵי הַתֵּיבָה לֹא חֵיפָנִין וְלֹא בֵּישָׁנִין וְלֹא טִיבְעוֹנִין מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהֵן עוֹשִׂין חֵיתִין הֵיהִין וְעַיְנִין אָאִין. אִם הָיָה לְשׁוֹנוֹ עָרוּךְ מוּתָּר.
‘Rebbi Samuel bar Ḥanina in the name of Rebbi Hoshaiah: “He Who forms light and creates darkness”; one should not say: “He Who forms light and creates radiance.” Rebbi Ḥaggai in the name of Rebbi Abba bar Zavda: “There they sang for You”, one should not say: “There they praised You”. Rebbi Levi, Rebbi Eudaimon of Haifa, in the name of Rebbi Levi bar Sisi: one has to pronounce tizkeru voiced. Rebbi Jonah in the name of Rav Ḥisda: one has to pronounce ki lĕ‘ôlām ḥasdȏ voiced. It was stated: One does not take as reader anyone from Haifa, Beth Sheän or Tiv‘on since they read ח like ה and ע like א. If his pronunciation was orderly, it would be permitted.’
The William Davidson Talmud (Koren – Steinsaltz) – Sefaria.org
The fact that these cities known for guttural weakening were near Greek centers, especially Beth Sheʾan, is consistent with the hypothesis that Greek influence is responsible for the weakening of gutturals. Indeed, in other inscriptions from Galilee that were not under heavy Greek influence, weakening of gutturals is minimal.
Given Jesus’s background, then, growing up in a rural village of about 500 people, i.e. Nazareth, it is unlikely that his version of Hebrew or Aramaic would have been heavily influenced by Greek.
Therefore, he probably pronounced the guttural ʿayin as a strong guttural /ʕ/.
It is thus most likely that when Jesus, his family, and his disciples said his name, they pronounced it as …
When he travelled to other places, however, for example the Decapolis, it is possible that those more heavily influenced by Greek pronounced it as [jeːʃuː]. In Jersualem, where there would have been both Greek and Hebrew in heavy supply, the guttural might have weakened but not elided entirely. Those residents might have pronounced it but with a helping vowel, as [jeːʃua(ʕ)]. Indeed, we actually find two pieces of epigraphic evidence that support this point.
In a first century inscription from Jersualem, we find the name spelled as ישועה in Hebrew with a final ה, indicating an [a] vowel, and as ιεσουα in Greek on the same inscription:
This almost certainly indicates something of a helping vowel to pronounce the ayin.
And from the early second century CE, we find the name spelled as ישועא with a final ʾalef in a papyrus from around the Dead Sea:
And we know that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek were all strong in that area in the first and second centuries CE.
So it is probably the case that all three pronunciations, [jeːʃuːʕ], [jeːʃuː], and [jeːʃuːa(ʕ)] existed in the first century CE. But when Jesus, his family and friends, and disciples from his region pronounced his name, it was probably with a strong /ʕ/ as ….
So how do we get to the form in English?
The Hebrew form [jeːʃuːʕ] goes into Greek as ιησους. This gets picked up in Latin as iesus, which eventually comes into English as Jesus, since Latin i before vowels often ends up as j in English. Nothing to do with Zeus, just normal language development.
Not every language, however, got the name Jesus through Greek. Take a look at Arabic, which pronounces the name as يسوع [jasuːʕ], keeping the final ʿayin sound.
So, if you speak a language other than English, maybe you can explain in the comments down below how to pronounce the name Jesus in your language and maybe think of how it ended up being pronounced that way.
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