Spend enough time among diverse Christian groups, you’re bound to encounter some who refer to Jesus by the term Yeshua. Those individuals (a minority among Christians) will explain that Yeshua was Jesus’ “real” Hebrew name, and some (a minority of the minority) will go so far as to claim that using any other word for His name is unbiblical or ungodly.
In the extreme, such individuals may claim that your English use of “Jesus” is improper. They might drop subtle hints that your entire faith could be in question, since only those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (see Romans 10:3).
WHERE DOES THE WORD YESHUA COME FROM?
Those who call Jesus Yeshua do so because they believe they are using the word Jesus’ contemporaries used when they addressed him. They believe that the name “Jesus” is overly modernized, and that it might even be inappropriate.
Yeshua is a modern transliteration of the Hebrew name we usually render as Joshua, and Joshua was, in fact, the root of Jesus’ name. By “transliteration,” I don’t mean “translation.” In many ways, transliteration is the opposite of a translation. It’s an attempt to show the original sounds of a foreign word without using the written form of that original language.
Chances are you’ve seen examples of Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic. Those languages have a completely different script from English, which uses Roman-style letters. To show you how to pronounce a word in one of those languages, I have to Romanize the word – give you the approximate sounds in letters you can read and practice for yourself.
Therein lies our first major problem. Some languages have sounds that aren’t used in other languages, or at least not used in the same way. The buzzing sound you hear at the start of the French phrase Je t’aime is the same sound English puts at the end of the word garage, but English never starts a word with that sound. Likewise, the breathy, guttural rasps in the Hebrew toast l’chaim and the Spanish name José have no equivalent Romanized letter that is helpful for English speakers. Still other languages have oddities that can’t even be reproduced in Roman letters – the Tsou language of Taiwan, for example, has variations for /f/ and /h/ that are made by inhaling air rather than exhaling air, sounds linguists call pulmonic ingressives, but which few in the Western world can make.
So when someone claims that Yeshua is the real name of Jesus, they don’t seem to realize that their spelling of it in Romanized letters is only an approximation, and more important, that their pronunciation of it is only a ballpark attempt to mimic the sounds of an ancient language no one had the technology to record.
This explains why a Google search of “What is the real name of Jesus?” produces so many variations on that “real” name, both in Romanized spelling and the suggested pronunciations: Yeshua, Yahushua, Yesua, Yehoshuah, and more.
WHAT LANGUAGE DID JESUS SPEAK?
Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew.
The second major problem with calling Jesus by the Hebrew name Yeshua is that it’s highly unlikely Jesus spoke Hebrew. By the time He was born, the daily languages of his province were common Greek and Aramaic. Latin was spoken by top politicians. Hebrew was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, although even for those Aramaic had taken over in most synagogues. Aramaic was a Semitic language, like Hebrew, but the two were as mutually unintelligible as French and Latin are today, even though French evolved from Latin. If Jesus’ household spoke Aramaic on a daily basis, his name would be better transliterated as Eashoah, more nearly approximating the ancient Aramaic lettering.
Jesus spoke Greek.
However, it’s certain that Jesus spoke Greek as well. Greek had been the common language of the area for almost 400 years, and Jesus' people were multilingual. In fact, He may have used Greek as his primary language for teaching, evidenced by the fact that whenever he lapsed into Aramaic, the Gospels make a point of translating the Aramaic words he chose to use. The New Testament was written entirely in Greek, even the Gospels. Those who prefer the term Yeshua will sometimes claim that the Gospels were first written in Aramaic. They are certainly mistaken, based on the Bible text alone. Why would a Gospel writer composing his text in Aramaic go to the trouble of telling readers the translation of an Aramaic word? Mark offers repeated translations of Aramaic (in 5:41, translating Talitha kum into Greek for his audience; in 7:34 translating Ephphatha; in 15:34 translating Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”). Matthew provides similar acts of translation to Greek, and John goes to pains to explain in Greek what rabbi and messiah mean in the language his readers understood.
(1) The Gospel writers wrote in Greek. If they had been writing in Aramaic, they would not be pausing to provide Aramaic translations for their audience, no more than I would write here, “The word audience translates to ‘audience’.” You don’t translate a word from the language you’re already writing.
(2) Furthermore, the fact that the Gospel writers broke from their narrative to point out that Jesus had used Aramaic words at some points in His teaching is pretty strong evidence that they saw that switch to Aramaic as unique and noteworthy ... as if it were something outside the norm of the way He taught. Chances are that when they mention, “And then, in Aramaic, he says ...” it’s because He hadn’t been speaking Aramaic up to that point. The language switch jumped out at them, and they noted it.
(3) The Gospel writers called our Lord Iesous, Jesus. They saw no need to translate that name, or to point out that it was a poor Greek variation on a better Aramaic or Hebrew name to call Him. They’d already shown elsewhere that they had no hesitation pointing out important translations. Matthew even went to the trouble to decode a title accompanying the name of Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us. But at no point did these Greek-writing, Holy Spirit inspired authors go to the trouble of saying, “We all really called him Yeshua,” or “Make sure you don’t use the Greek for that when you’re getting saved, though.” They liked the name Jesus. In the New Testament Scripture we have – written in its original Greek – there is no other name by which they called Him. Nor by which Greek-writing Paul called Him. Nor Peter. Nor Jude. Nor James. Iesous, Jesus, was the preferred name.
AHA! BUT HEBREW HAS NO LETTER “J”!
This is almost too small a point to bother with, but since it’s likely you’ll run into it, you may as well have it resolved right now.
Many promoters of the name Yeshua claim that Jesus can’t possibly be the name of the savior because the letter J didn’t even exist until the 14th century, almost a millennium and a half after He lived.
This is absolutely true and absolutely meaningless, for one simple reason: Letters are not sounds.
The letter J didn’t exist in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, and neither did the letters Y, E, S, H, U or A. However, the sound represented by the modern letter J most certainly existed, and it exists in nearly every language we know. Representing it as a Y is little different from representing it as a J. I’ll prove that. Say the following word:
Now say it 20 times fast without inhaling.
YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY
Did you feel the J sound forming? Most likely you did ... in fact, I’m told that it hurts to keep the Y as a pure Y sound once you hit the tenth or twelfth YAY. If you do the exercise in the other direction, repeating the word JAY, you’ll find your mouth slipping toward the Y of YAY as well.
The sound represented by an initial J in Jesus is nearly identical to the sound represented by the letter Y, just with the slightest of friction or buzz added. There are many letters with such tricks (say “a little Tylenol” and notice how the two Ts in little are more like Ds than the initial T in Tylenol). The letters J and Y are, in this case, the same essential sound. There is no vast conspiracy to hide the true name of the Lord.
Here endeth the J lesson.
SO ARE THEY WRONG TO CALL JESUS “YESHUA”?
Am I saying that those who refer to Jesus as Yeshua are wrong to do so? I’ll answer that with a hearty, confident, “It depends.” Are the Spanish wrong to call Him by something that sounds to English ears like, “Hey, Zeus!”? Are the Russians wrong for Isus? The Chinese wrong of Yesu? Punjabi speakers wrong for Yisu ne? The Azerbaijani wrong for Isa? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this: If Jesus was called Eashoah by his Aramaic-speaking mother, but Iesous by Paul and the Gospel writers, then the first act of transliteration was performed by the Holy Spirit, and I shouldn’t question the legitimacy of accommodating other languages. The Christ who rose is the Christ who rose, and by any other name He is as sweet.
However – if the devotee of the name Yeshua begins to insist to you that his use of the name is more proper, more biblical, or more holy than your own use of “Jesus,” it may be time to discern the motivation behind the attitude. Scripture warns us numerous times to avoid putting on airs, and there is something about pretending to have a special, secret name for God that smacks of something less than humility, more like Gnostic secrecy. Real love does not put on airs.
If you hear your preacher or teacher or prayer leader suddenly bursting forth with declarations of “Yeshua ha Maschiach!” and Hebrew is not their native tongue, ask yourself what the speaker or pray-er’s motivation might be. To invoke God with a better language? To use a more powerful version of the name, as if it were a magic spell? To stand out from others who don’t use those words, thus appearing to be more in tune with God? To lead you to notice that they are unique, using special vocabulary, worthy of your focus and attention?
I can’t answer that for anyone, since it’s situational. But pray for discernment, and always test the spirit of those who would try to get you to buy in to the idea of secret words and special knowledge.
And if they bring up the Letter J thing, just roll your eyes at them.
Marana Tha (that’s Aramaic for either “Our Lord is coming” or “Our Lord has come”!),