Is the Name "Jesus" Pagan?
by Caleb Hegg
In our modern times there is a growing movement of believers coming out of the Church and into a new understanding of biblical truth. The rise of Christians turning to the Torah as a means for the believer’s sanctification seems to be growing rapidly. Those coming out of the Church are usually struck at some point with the realization that they should be keeping the Sabbath, or that the Torah as a whole is something God wants them to be doing. Those who awaken to this new found understanding often feel an overwhelming clarity in re-reading their Bibles, but many tend to fall into what I will call the “Christian Lies” syndrome. Many believers find their pastor’s lack of understanding when it comes to Torah keeping, not only disconcerting, but a blatant disregard for the truth of the Word. They feel lied to, and begin to have suspicions about many things “Christian.” This is almost a natural instinct, as so many things begin to change at once. Sunday gatherings are now on Saturday. Christmas and Easter are replaced with the appointed times of the Lord. Titles like “Christian” are replaced with “Hebrew Roots,” “Messianic,” and the list goes on.
Within this change many things become suspect. And with no lack of self-made internet scholars to guide the newly awakened believer down the path of ignorance, many missteps are made. Recently I saw some comments on a Facebook post that claimed several points. First, the term Christian was never used by first century believers, and second, the name Jesus was a pagan name. When I searched a bit further in this post, I found a common belief within the Hebrew Roots movement that goes something like this.
1) Yeshua is the name of the Messiah. The name “Jesus” is an invention of Satan, put in place through the Church in order to take us away from the true Messiah. The name “Jesus” is really a code for “Hail Zeus” and when used, is invoking a pagan deity. The English letter “J” didn’t come around until the 16th century. How could this have anything to do with the real name of Yeshua?!?
2) The Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament) were written in Hebrew or Aramaic and therefore the term “Christian” is a translation of what would really be a semitic word translated into English as “Messianic.” The label “Christian” is Greek and would only be used by pagans. Therefore, the term “Christian” or even the title “Christ” is pagan in origin.
To many, these claims not only seem plausible, but likely. So lets take a look at these claims one by one.
The Name “Jesus” is a Pagan Name that Comes from “Hail Zeus”
This claim was first presented in a book by Alexander Hislop titled Two Babylons, published in the 1800’s. Even though Hislop’s work was quickly exposed as false by scholars, it didn’t go away. More recently a man by the name of Lew White published a book leaning heavily on Hislop’s work titled Fossilized Customs. Although Hislop’s work has been shown to be misguided and at times that he even seems to make things up, many in the Hebrew Roots movement still use it as a go-to source. The notion that the name “Jesus” comes from “Hail Zeus” not only shows a lack of understanding of language as a whole, but literally has zero historical evidence to back it up.
With Hislop and White’s work set aside, we are left with the claim that the name “Jesus” is an invention of the Church, and proof of this is that the letter “J” didn’t come into existence until the 16th century. So lets investigate this claim.
As everyone will admit, language is something that evolves over time. This is true not only for English, but also for the semitic languages. Those who claim the name “Jesus” comes from pagan origins do so on the basis of the changes that have come through Greek, French and German creating what was the basis for our modern English language. What these folks seem to forget is that Hebrew and Aramaic also evolved over time. A perfect example of this would be the Hebrew letter ayin (ע) which is also represented in ancient semitic languages such as Ugaritic. As in Ugaritic, the Hebrew letter ayin originally had a deep guttural sound that was made in the back of the throat. Over time the Hebrew language changed and now the ayin is a silent letter. We still see evidence of this change in words like עמרה. For those who know a little Hebrew, you can see this word starts with an ayin, but in our English we still call this place “Gomorrah.” The ayin still retains a “G” sound like it originally did. Does this mean that when we read the Hebrew from a Torah scroll today, we aren’t really reading the Bible because the language changed? Of course not. This is the evolution of language, which is a natural thing.
So is it true that the letter “J” wasn’t part of the English language until the 16th century? Yes, that is true. Originally, J in the Roman alphabet was another form of the letter I. The letter I had the sound of our modern Y. During the 16th century in the romantic languages, the I and J shifted and split. The J began to be used for the sound “jeh” and the I shifted to a vowel. Because of cursive writing the J and the I became distinguished and the shift took full form.1 This split into our modern English form of J is important for understanding the name Jesus as we have it today. To understand how we get “Jesus” from “Yeshua” we will need to look at the Hebrew and Greek.
The name Yeshua in Hebrew and Greek looks like this (remember Hebrew reads right to left):
י ש ו ע ι η σ ου ς
a u sh Ye Y e s oo s
The “Y” sound in Hebrew (י) can only be represented in Greek with the iota and eta diphthong. The “e” sound we hear in “Ye” does not come through in Greek quite the same, but is represented by iota and eta diphthong as well. In Greek there is no “sh” sound, so the Greek speaker came as close as possible with the sigma which has the “s” sound. The long “oo” sound we have in the Hebrew does have an equivalent in Greek, and that is the omicron coupled with the upsilon, which placed together make the “oo” sound the translators were looking for. Finally, we come to the “ah” sound at the end of the name. The obvious question would be, how did the translators mess this up so badly? Contrary to the belief this comes from the name Zeus, this is exactly how it should be. In Greek, names always take what is called the nominative form. Greek uses case endings to alert the reader as to what form a word is in. The first thing a Greek student will learn is the nominative form as this is going to be the subject of a sentence as well as the base form for someone’s name. The other major difference in Greek from English is that of gender. Greek assigns one of three gender choices to every word. Male, female, or neuter. And this is where our change at the end of the name comes. In the nominative form, the male case ending is a sigma, σ and a female case ending is an alpha α. The only way the translators could have put an alpha on the end of Yeshua’s name to represent that last “ah” sound, is if they wanted to tell their audience He was female. Obviously, this would not work, and thus the male nominative case ending, sigma, was attached to the end of the name since Yeshua was in fact a man.2
With the change in language to the I and J which I mentioned above, the Greek name “Iēsus” was changed to “Jesus” as the J was seen as a consonant and not a vowel. The name “Jesus” is nothing more than a perfectly natural transliteration of the Greek name “Iēsus,” which in turn is the best possible transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yeshua.” The notion that the name “Jesus” comes from “Hail Zeus” or that this name carries with it some form of paganism is extremely ignorant and has no factual evidence to back it up.
Yet, some might argue that the Apostolic Scriptures were written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and therefore, this name is once again taken from a Greek culture and somehow carries with it pagan roots. For this, we will now turn to the next objection.
The Apostolic Scriptures Were Written in Aramaic/Hebrew
Among the Hebrew Roots and Messianic circles many consider this to be a fact. Most people will argue that Yeshua and His disciples were Jews living in Israel, and of course they were speaking Hebrew. Is there truth to this? Yes, there is some truth in this. Yeshua most certainly did speak Aramaic and we see this from the Scriptures themselves. It is likely that He spoke Hebrew as well, but evidence shows that Hebrew was mostly used in the Synagogues for liturgical purposes within Judea and for reading Torah, but not much beyond this. The bigger question is this: “Were the Gospels written in Hebrew or Aramaic?” To this we can most certainly say no. I am fully aware that there is mixed perspectives on this within scholarship, but the vast majority of scholars agree that the Gospels were written in Greek. How can this be?
First, there is literally zero evidence of any Gospel be penned in Hebrew or Aramaic.3 The earliest manuscript that we have of a New Testament book in Aramaic is the 13th century C.E. (or later), almost 1200 years or more after the Gospels were written. We do have plenty of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century manuscripts written in Greek.
Second, we know that Greek was the lingua franca of the day, even within Israel. In the Gospels themselves we can see that Yeshua and Nicodemus were speaking Greek and not Aramaic. Nicodemus is called “The teacher of Israel” and certainly Yeshua could have spoken Aramaic, but they spoke Greek with each other.4
Third, Yeshua tells His disciples to make disciples of the nations (Matt. 28:19). Hebrew and Aramaic were prevalent within Judea among the Jews, but even the Jewish people in the rest of Israel spoke Greek. Writing in Hebrew would be the last thing a person would do in order to reach people outside of Judea.
- There is a fascinating history of this shift and the history of the letter J in the Oxford English Dictionary, p. 1496
- (Editorial Note: It has been pointed out that there are names that end with alpha in the masculine form. For instance, Eliah comes into Greek as Elias. Although there are several reasons why Greek might have dropped the alpha on the end of the name Iesus, any suggestion I could make would be speculation on my part, as the New Testament writers were not the ones to make these decisions. The transliteration of these names goes back to ancient Jewish Greek centuries prior to the writing of the NT. The name Iesus has a sigma in the nominative form, but not in other forms such as the genitive. Although there is no alpha present in the transliteration of the name Yeshua, there would still be a sigma on the end of the name in the nominative form.)
- I know many will turn to the references to a Hebrew Matthew or a Hebrew Gospel, I will touch on this below.
- For a full treatment of this argument see Rob Vanhoff’s article “Did Yeshua Converse with Nicodemus in Greek?”: https://www.torahresource.com/pdf-articles/did-yeshua-converse-with-nicodemus-in-greek.pdf (Last checked 8/22/17)