Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 22, 2013

Contemplative Linguistics, Lesson 2 – The Name of Yeshua

yeshua- callig-hebrew mod & 2nd temple era words

T0day, in honor of the Redeemer Church “Jesus Through the Eyes of a Jew” event tonight with Justin Kron, I’m excerpting and commenting upon some material here from an interesting site I found, http://jesusisajew.org.

The name Yeshua was one of the most common male names in that period, tied with Eleazer for fifth place behind Simon, Joseph, Judah, and John. Nearly one out of ten persons known from the period was named Yeshua.

I don’t have much to add to the above. It’s pretty self-explanatory, even though it was mildly shocking to me to read the actual statistics. I knew He wasn’t the only one. I just didn’t realize He had the name of one of the “regular joes”, or that every town or synagogue of even moderate size would have had several Yeshuas in their midst.

I actually use this Hebrew form of Jesus’ name as my sacred word when I am doing centering prayer. Y’shua: meaning “God saves”, or “Yahweh’s salvation”. If I am getting distracted, letting too many extraneous or worried words tumble ’round in my noggin, I just go back to silently repeating “God saves” for awhile in Hebrew. I pay attention to my breathing while I say/think it, and soon I calm right back down and settle into the blessed and deeper silence that was my intended destination in the first place. Or I might actually speak the word awhile, breathing in on the ” Y’  “, and out on the “shua”.

Y’shua,

Y’shua,

Y’shua

Okay, I’m back now. Sorry. I went to my “happy place” for a moment, which is fine, but we’ve still got work to do here.

So check this item out, from the opening section of the “Yeshua” page offered by jesusisajew.org :

The first letter in the name Yeshua (“Jesus”) is the yod. Yod represents the “Y” sound in Hebrew. Many names in the Bible that begin with yod are mispronounced by English speakers because the yod in these names was transliterated in English Bibles with the letter “J” rather than “Y”. This came about because in early English the letter “J” was pronounced the way we pronounce “Y” today. All proper names in the Old Testament were transliterated into English according to their Hebrew pronunciation, but when English pronunciation shifted to what we know today, these transliterations were not altered. Thus, such Hebrew place names as ye-ru-sha-LA-yim, ye-ri-HO, and yar-DEN have become known to us as Jerusalem, Jericho, and Jordan; and Hebrew personal names such as yo-NA, yi-SHAI, and ye-SHU-a have become known to us as Jonah, Jesse, and Jesus.

The yod is the smallest letter of the alphabet, which is why Yeshua used it in His famous saying in Matt 5:18: “Until heaven and earth pass away not one yod (“iota” in the Greek text) or one kots will pass from the Torah.” For emphasis, Yeshua incorporated in this saying a well-known Hebrew expression: lo’ yod ve-LO’ ko-TSO shel yod, “not a yod and not a ‘thorn’ of a yod,” i.e., not the most insignificant and unimportant thing. When Yeshua declared that heaven and earth might sooner disappear than the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or the smallest stroke of a letter, He was simply saying that the Torah (“Law” or “Teaching”) of Moses would never cease to be.

Now I know the above material may be a little dry for some readers, but I for one am consistently fascinated by this discussion of language changes through history, and how the meaning of actual words can get lost or changed by mispronunciation or bad transliteration. Hebrew to Greek to English (or whatever modern language you speak) is not a simple 1=1=1 process. Entire world views of various cultures tend to gradually shift based on small things, subtleties buried in our languages [as if the “yods” of our communications actually matter to God… which I think they sort of do, not that God –who judges the heart– splits hairs over semantics or who is using the right or wrong word] . Once the “explosion” of language variations got started (at the tower of Babel?), the Pandora’s box of potential miscommunication was opened, and our species has never been the same since. Have you used the word “gay” lately to mean happy? Not likely, which is part of my point.

Some of us may not enjoy this kind of study or discussion, all this stuff about word origins and what happened four thousand years back. That’s fine. But we should still do it once in awhile, and I really wish we spent more time teaching it in the schools (my son is getting etymology training in a “gifted program” and likes the concepts, but it’s not something the average teacher or student spends much time on anymore).

All I’m sayin’ is: it’s okay to look at process as well as product, at form as well as content, with regard to language. I think it’s the responsible thing to do. Especially with our sacred texts.

For instance, do you ever wonder about the presence or absence of a certain sound or accent symbol or historical referent in a person’s name, whether in your daily life, in the news or in the Bible? Take my name: Mark, from the Roman god Mars. Simple enough on the surface. But dig deeper and we may find something to contemplate awhile: like the fact that as a pacifist, it bugs me a bit that I’m named after the god of war. It happened for a reason, or probably several good reasons, but it remains a sort of mystery to me why Mom, Dad, and/or God wanted me to have this name, among all the possibilities.

Or, what does “Dalai Lama” actually mean? That’s not the name he was born with.

Or here’s a trickier one: how much power/credibility/self-interest does a translator culture have in relation to the culture that speaks the language being translated. I don’t write or speak Arabic, but if I leave the accent mark off of the word “Shiite” (already an Anglicised compromise), am I being politically incorrect –or even blasphemous– to a practitioner of that religion?

Here’s another example from history: I live in the U.S. state of Illinois. The pre-existing Native American tribe that occupied a large portion of this territory were called the Illini tribe, pronounced sort of like ill-EYE-nie. But then the French fur traders and settlers started showing up, and we get the introduction of such French oddities as the unpronounced “s” on the end of a word, or how a certain language does its pluralization. In the case of French, the “ois” was probably the plural form of Illini– but the full word would have been pronounced ill-in-WAH. (I’m not 100% sure on this point, but probably my ten-year-old son knows: he watches History Channel shows about how the states got their names –or shapes– all the time.) So now we have a word going from its Illini origins, through French, and then 75-100 years later it passes across lazy English-speakers’ lips. Speakers who didn’t bother saying the “WAH” of the French pronunciation because they don’t like the French anyway, so who says they are the geography bosses? (British colonist: “The French are soooo 1675. We’ve moved on now…”) But unwisely, the English speakers still kept the “s” on the end, and opted to keep it silent, even though they messed up the previous vowel sound, making it the totally annoying sound “OY” instead of “WAH”. And that’s what we’re stuck with now: ill-in-OY. Unless you pronounce the “s”, …in which case you’re an idiot.

Oy vey, are you still with me?

I’ve gotten so far from the name Yeshua, where I started, that I wouldn’t have blamed you if you stopped reading by now. But, hey, you’re here, and we’re done. So let’s leave together.

By the way, what’s your name?…


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