The name “Jesus” is the English transliteration of the Greek name “Iesous” (Ἰησοῦς), which itself is the transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yeshua” (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” So why don’t we call Jesus by his Hebrew name Yeshua instead of the Greek and English versions?
There are a few reasons:
- The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The writers of the New Testament used the Greek name Iesous to refer to Jesus. Since English translations are based on the Greek text, the name Jesus was carried over into English.
- Jesus’ native language was likely Aramaic, not Hebrew. The name Yeshua is the Hebrew version of his name, while Yeshu is the Aramaic version. So technically neither Hebrew or Greek perfectly captures his original name.
- The name Jesus has a long tradition in Christianity, dating back to the earliest Greek texts. Changing such a fundamental name would cause unnecessary confusion.
- The meaning behind the name is what’s most important, not the pronunciation. Yeshua, Iesous, and Jesus all mean “Yahweh saves.”
- The New Testament authors saw significance in Jesus’ name meaning “Yahweh saves.” For example, Matthew 1:21 says “…you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The meaning of the name took precedence over the pronunciation.
- Jesus is the name most familiar to English speakers today. Using a foreign pronunciation like Yeshua could cause distancing and lack of familiarity for those who don’t know the history behind it.
In summary, the New Testament consistently uses the Greek Iesous for Jesus’ name, following the Greek translation tradition of the Old Testament. English translations have carried over that Greek name. The meaning “Yahweh saves” is most important, remaining constant across the linguistic translations. And Jesus has two thousand years of tradition reinforcing its use in Christianity.
However, while Jesus is the common English name, Yeshua can be used as well to emphasize the Hebrew background. Some Messianic Jewish groups prefer Yeshua, and many Christians are familiar with Jesus’ Hebrew name from seeing it in the Old Testament. So Jesus, Yeshua, and even Yeshu are all legitimate names that point to the same Savior.
The Greek Name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς)
Let’s take a deeper look at why the New Testament authors used the Greek name Iesous for Jesus instead of his Hebrew name Yeshua. First, we have to understand the history of the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint.
In the 3rd century BC, Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek for Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt. This translation is called the Septuagint, meaning “seventy” since according to tradition 70 or 72 Jewish scholars worked on it. The Septuagint contains the first recorded use of the name Iesous in place of Yeshua.
Since the Septuagint was such an influential translation, New Testament writers followed its tradition of using Iesous for Yeshua. The writers of the New Testament were influenced by the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. For example, the prophecy in Zechariah 6:11-12 about the “Branch” is translated using the Greek word Iesous:
Take silver and gold, and make a crown, and set it upon the head of Joshua [Yeshua] the son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh of hosts: “Behold, a man whose name is Branch [Iesous] shall spring up out of the ground.”’” (Zechariah 6:11-12, Septuagint)
This example shows why the New Testament authors preferred the Greek name Iesous even when directly quoting a passage that used Yeshua in Hebrew. By using the Greek, they connected Jesus more clearly to the Messianic prophecies in the Septuagint.
What Was Jesus’ Native Language?
But some claim that Jesus’ original given name wasn’t even Yeshua, but rather the Aramaic form Yeshu. Aramaic was the common language of Jews in first century Judea, while Hebrew was used mainly for religious purposes. So Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, as his daily language.
In Aramaic, Jesus’ name is written as Yeshu. Linguistically, the Hebrew Yeshua became Yeshu in Aramaic. Some scholars argue Yeshu was in fact Jesus’ original name, with Yeshua being the Hebrew rendition of the same name. Others argue Yeshua was still his given Hebrew name. Either way, both Yeshu and Yeshua were used to refer to Jesus in different linguistic contexts.
This shows that neither the Hebrew Yeshua or the Aramaic Yeshu perfectly capture Jesus’ name. Jesus didn’t actually have an English name, but his name was rendered differently based on the language of those referring to him. Iesous is the Greek counterpart to his Hebrew and Aramaic names. All three languages were attempting to convey the same original name.
Yeshua and Other Bible Characters
Adding to the complexity, the Hebrew name Yeshua was used for several different biblical characters, not just Jesus. While connected linguistically, these individuals all had distinct Hebrew names:
- Yeshua son of Nun – Usually called Joshua in English, he was Moses’ successor who led the Israelites into the promised land.
- Yeshua the high priest – He was the high priest during the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra’s time (Zechariah 3:1-10).
- Yeshua the Messiah – The human name of Jesus of Nazareth.
To distinguish between these Yeshua figures, writers had to specify “Jesus [Iesous] Christ,” “Jesus [Iesous] of Nazareth,” etc. The Greek name helped distinguish the New Testament Jesus from the Old Testament figures with the same Hebrew name.
The Meaning Behind the Name
While Jesus’ original name wasn’t pronounced perfectly in any case, the New Testament authors were most concerned with preserving the meaning behind his name. Yeshua means “Yahweh delivers” or “Yahweh saves” in Hebrew, pointing to Jesus’ role as Savior. The meaning of the Messiah’s name was more important than debating its exact pronunciation.
This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where an angel tells Joseph:
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The writer specifies Jesus is the appropriate name precisely because it means “he will save.” The name’s significance mattered more than debating its linguistic background. Jesus (Iesous) effectively captured Yeshua’s meaning in a Greek context.
Likewise, retaining a foreign pronunciation like Yeshua in English would lose the connection between the name Jesus and its meaning for most readers. The meaning gets obscured by the foreign term, despite accurately capturing the Hebrew pronunciation.
The Name Jesus in Early Christianity
By the second century AD, church leaders were using the Greek Iesous exclusively for Jesus’ name, even when writing in Latin. The early church could have rendered his name back to Yeshua in the Latin Bible, but instead retained Iesous in the Latin form Iesus.
Church father Tertullian (AD 155-240) directly addressed why Jesus’ name was not translated back into Hebrew or Aramaic, but rendered in languages familiar to the target audiences:
“The Savior Himself maintained the designation [Iesus] in the language of the country: for no other word exists of more importance than that which brings salvation to men…And throughout all nations, the appellation of this name in the mouth of believers carries salvation with it.” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 14)
By translating Jesus’ name, its meaning could be conveyed to each culture. Pronouncing foreign names meant little to the average believer compared to knowing what the name Jesus signified. Thus, Jesus’ name was adapted linguistically for each culture that received the gospel.
The Tradition of Jesus in English
In English translations of the New Testament, the Greek Iesous was rendered as Jesus in English. By the time the Bible began to be translated into English in the 14th century AD, the name Jesus had already been firmly established through centuries of Christian tradition.
All major English Bible translations have used Jesus’ name, from Wycliffe’s 14th century translation to the Geneva Bible to the King James Version of 1611. There was no consideration of using anything but Jesus, since that name had been entrenched for over a millennium going back to the Greek texts.
While Yeshua is linguistically closer to the original Hebrew, the name Jesus has two thousand years of Christian tradition establishing its use. The meaning rather than the pronunciation has dominated Jesus’ name in Christianity from the beginning.
Using Yeshua along with Jesus Today
As we’ve seen, Jesus’ Hebrew name Yeshua has valuable meaning for Christianity. English speakers can certainly use Yeshua as well as Jesus when talking about the Son of God.
Some believers prefer using Yeshua to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish identity and connection to the Old Testament. Using Jesus’ Hebrew name can open up fruitful conversations about the unity between the Old and New Testaments.
However, problems can arise when the pronunciation Yeshua is promoted as the only correct name, somehow superior to the traditional Jesus. Demanding others use Yeshua can come across as legalistic, divisive, and disregarding church tradition.
It’s perfectly legitimate for English speakers to use both Jesus and Yeshua when talking about Christ. Different terms can be useful in different contexts. But insisting on Yeshua fails to follow the New Testament example of adapting the name based on each language and culture. The meaning remains the same in any pronunciation.
The New Testament used the Greek name Iesous (Jesus) for Yeshua because it effectively conveyed the meaning “Yahweh saves” in a Greek context. English translations continued the tradition of the Greek, following centuries of established use. While Hebrew and Aramaic forms like Yeshua have value, the New Testament authors’ precedent was to render the name based on the language of their audience. The meaning of the name took priority over the exact pronunciation.
So Jesus remains the common English name, while Yeshua can be used appropriately as well. The key is recognizing that both terms refer to the same Messiah, the Son of God who gave his life for our salvation. Any pronunciation of His name honors Christ as long as it’s done in reverence of who He is.