“Is it true that we should use ‘Yeshua’ not ‘Jesus’, because ‘Jesus’ is a pagan term which was contrived to make us worship Zeus?”

Advocates of the Yeshua doctrine argue that because a name of a person is a proper noun it cannot change when spoken in another language. So, although the New Testament was written in Greek and the Messiah’s name was in Hebrew, it has to be written and pronounced in Hebrew. It is further argued that the letter “J”, or the sound it represents, never existed at the time of the Lord, and so no one could have called Him by the pronunciation with a “J” sound. Extremists further claim that Iesous, the Greek rendition of the name Yeshua, from which the English word Jesus was derived,  is a compound word consisting of  names of pagan gods –  IEU and SUS (Zeus). Here a conspiracy theory is at play to suggest an evil scheme by Bible translators. And talking about conspiracy theories, the Internet is so full of them. Unfortunately, many Christians (including preachers) get whatever they find exciting on the World Wide Web, without carrying an objective analysis of facts.

A simple study on challenges of translation shows various difficulties that are often encountered when translating proper nouns from one language to another. The translation process of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English presents a typical example of this.

Translation & Transliteration

It is important to note that there is translation and there is also transliteration.

The aim of translation is to ‘transfer’ the meaning of words from one language to another. Here a challenge rises when there is an objective to let words be pronounced correctly in the target language. This is achieved by transliteration.

Transliteration involves changing letters of a word in one language into letters of the alphabet of  the target language in order to preserve its pronunciation. This may seem a simple process when dealing with sentences but problematic when you encounter proper nouns.

How Yeshua became Jesus

Note that Yeshua was transliterated as Iesous in Greek to preserve its pronunciation. But when further translated into English a completely different pronunciation came up. How did this happen? Was it a conspiracy to make people worship a pagan god? Not so. Let us look at the history of how Yeshua became Jesus.

  1. The name Yeshua is a Hebrew transliteration which begins with the sound of “Y” as in the word “Yes”.

Note: The New Testament was written in Greek. In this language the “Y” sound is represented by the letter “I”. So, in order to convey the same pronunciation in Greek, Yeshua had to be transliterated starting with the letter I and hence the name Iesous.

2. In the name Yeshua, after the “Y” sound comes the “e” sound, as in “Yes”. There was no problem in transliterating this sound as there was an equivalent letter in Greek to represent it, Iesous.

Note: The “e” in Yeshua is pronounced as in the word “Yes”, not as in “See”. However, when the name was transliterated into Iesous and then into Jesus, English speakers pronounced the “e” as in “See” and hence the modern mispronunciation of Jesus. Even so, a number of languages have retained the correct pronunciation of the name.

3. Next we come to the “sh” sound in Yeshua. This is where translators encountered a problem because whilst this sound exists in Hebrew it does not exist in Greek. So, translators went for the letter in the Greek alphabet which is close to the “sh” sound and that was the sigma which gives an “s” sound as in “Sad.

Note: If the English Bible translators had transliterated the name Jesus straight from Hebrew, the name would have maintained the “sh” sound found in Yeshua because English language has the “sh” sound. But they transliterated Jesus from the Greek Iesous and hence the disappearance of the “sh” sound in English.

4. The “u” sound in Yeshua is the same as in “rule” or “true”.

Note: The English language provides two ways of pronouncing the sound of letter “u”. It can be pronounced as in the word “true” or as in the word “cut”. In Iesous it is correctly pronounced with the “u” sound as in “true”. But English speakers mispronounced it as in the word “cut.

5. The asound at the end of Yeshua is replaced with the “s in Iesous.

Note: The Greek language has genders for nouns so that all names that end with the letter s are male names. It is for this reason that although Iesous was an attempt to transliterate the name Yeshua, it never ended with an usound (as in the word true) but with  s to denote its masculinity. An example of this in the Scripture is how the Hebrew name Isaiah appears as Esias in the New Testament (Luk.4:17). Note that the New Testament was written in Greek.

6. When translating Iesous into English, the “Y” sound of “I (as in Yes) was at first retained but  later was lost to the “J” sound as in Jam.

Note: Letter J at one time was just another style or shape for writing letter I.  In Roman numerals it was used to show the end of a series of Is. For example, number 13 when written as a Roman numeral is XIII but would be written with the last I having a serif tail, XIIJ.

In the alphabet the two letters “I” and “J” were also used interchangeably and were both pronounced with the “Y” sound as in “Yes” so that a Hebrew name with the “Y” sound like Yeshua became Iesous in Greek or Iesus in English. This can be seen in the Tyndale version of the Bible, known to have been the first English translation. A verse in this Bible reads: “She had brought forth hir first sonne and called hys name Iesus” (Mat.1:25).

In later English versions of the Bible names starting with the Y-sound were transliterated with letter J because then it had the Y-sound. So words such as Yerushalaim and Yarden became transliterated as Jerusalem and Jordan respectively.

It was in the year 1524 when  an Italian scholar, Gian Trissino (1478–1550), distinguished the two letters to represent two different sounds so that J now had the ‘dg’ sound as in the word “Jam. However, the English language Bibles were never updated to take into account the new sound of J. Gradually the Y-sound was lost to the new J-sound. Over  the decades and a century people became used with reading and pronouncing “J” as in “Jam” . Thus, words like Jerusalem and Iesus were now pronounced with the ‘dg’ sound as we know them today. In the year 1611 a new version of the Bible, the King James Version, had the objective of acknowledging the vulgar (common) pronunciation of words. The purpose of this was to use words in Scripture that people were familiar with. As noted in the Britannica Encyclopaedia:

An elaborate set of rules was contrived to curb individual proclivities and to ensure the translation’s scholarly and nonpartisan character. In contrast to earlier practice, the new version was to use vulgar forms of proper names (e.g., “Jonas” or “Jonah” for the Hebrew “Yonah”).[1]

In the book of Acts we read about a group of young men who saw apostle Paul casting out demons and they started imitating his ministry. They started a ‘deliverance ministry’ and were using the Jesus-Name formula to pray for people. (Isn’t this typical of many young people today who have enthused themselves into starting ministries which the Lord has not commissioned?).

The sons of Sceva began to pray over people “in the name of Jesus”. One day things didn’t go well when an evil spirit spoke from a man asking, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?” (Act.19:15).

Now, what pronunciation did this demon use when speaking the name “Jesus”? Well, whatever it was, whether  in Hebrew as Yeshua or in Greek as Iesous, one thing should be certain: the demon was not afraid to speak the name! That tells you and I that the power of the name of the Lord does not lie in speaking or mentioning it as is commonly believed among many Christians. However, there was something different when Paul mentioned “in the name of Jesus.” Demons trembled. So, what was the difference?

The difference was that when  Paul addressed the demons by saying, “I command you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, to come out of the man”, he truly was speaking  in the name of the Lord. God sent him and His presence accompanied him and that was what evil spirits feared. To do things in the name of the Lord is to perform them in accordance with His will and power.

When you pray to God, He does not sit still waiting to hear if your vowels and consonants are coming out right.  What God is able to do when we pray is not a question of whether we pronounce the name of Jesus Christ correctly but whether we have the power of Christ inside our hearts – “Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” (Eph. 3:20).

[1] Britannica Encyclopaedia (2016). King James Version Sacred Text.[Online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/King-James-Version [Accessed 17th November, 2016].

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