Turning to a genuine work of scholarship in biblical studies, even one 80 years old, can be such relief after enduring time in search of a stimulating and challenging argument among so much contemporary theological debate with apologetics always lurking in the subtext. One theologian has scoffed at mythicism by glibly asserting that no-one would have made up a saving deity and given him such a common name as “Jesus”. No research required, no argument necessary, it is enough to bounce off one’s mouth whatever falls off the top of one’s head.
But one scholar did give this matter of the name “Jesus” some serious thought. Unfortunately, perhaps, this scholar was (a) French and (b) not at risk of confusing his academic integrity with a defence of his personal faith. His scholarly interests were entirely secular and rationalist. Some might like to be reassured that he was also a defender of the historicity of Jesus, attacking mythicist arguments with bitter sarcasm. In all of these he could be seen to be following Alfred Loisy’s footsteps.
Charles Guignebert, Professor of the History of Christianity in the Sorbonne, did see “a problem” with the name “Jesus of Nazareth”, and not just with the “Nazareth” epithet.
Granting the historical existence of Jesus, we are at once confronted with the problem of his name, Jesus the Nazarene. (p. 76 of Jesus, English translation 1956 but first published in French in 1933. My emphasis)
Before I continue with the reasons Guignebert finds a problem with the name “Jesus the Nazarene”, I must refer once again to a contemporary scholar, a classicist, who has approached the name of Jesus from a perspective of the wider classical literary and mythological world from which the Gospels emerged. John Moles has written an extensive article titled Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity for the online journal of ancient historiography, Histos. I have discussed some aspects of his article in Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names (compares the meaning and role of the name Jason) and Creativity with the name Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark. Of course Jesus was not an uncommon name as we learn from Josephus, but anyone who attempts to dismiss the name of Jesus merely as a common name (that by mere lucky coincidence happened to prove apt for the one who was exalted to divine status by his followers) needs to tackle the article of John Moles and the literary evidence that testifies otherwise.
But back to Guignebert now and why he finds the simple explanation so often parroted as the reason for the name is “suspicious”. read more