Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names

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by Neil Godfrey

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keep...
Jason (=Jesus to the Greek) being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

Last year I posted an amateurish discussion about puns in the Gospel of Mark. During my recent break from blogging I stumbled across a classical scholar’s discussion of puns in the Gospels in an online scholarly journal. The subject is far richer than I had ever imagined. There are possibly major implications for our understanding of both the ways in which the Gospels have been composed and also for what the authors and readers thought they were doing when writing and reading/listening to the narratives.

The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.

The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?

Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns.

Moles analyses the Gospels as literary products of their time: that is, as documents that necessarily can be expected to share the traits of contemporary literature.

Much scholarship over the last four decades has demonstrated the importance of puns and name puns in Classical societies, cultures and literatures, including historiography and biography. (p. 125)

Professor Moles treats the Gospels as biographies. (I think the biographical genre is only superficially apparent in the Gospels, but Moles says that classicists are not so hung up about the finer points of exact definitions of genre as New Testament scholars are. I think this is a loss for classicists and fails to take account of the contributions genre studies can make to ancient literature. Mikhail Bakhtin I’m sure would agree.) But that is neither here nor there compared with the principle thrust of his discussion.

Of the many levels at which puns work in classical literature Moles addresses four at work in the Gospels.

  1. Bilingual punning
  2. Punning by synonym (with synonyms or synonymous phrase rather than interacting with a cognate)
  3. Divine names are of enormous significance and are often understood to have more than one meaning
  4. Assonance and alliteration are used to assist the pun.

Jesus-Jason, the Saviour-Healer

But the central pun that Moles addresses in this article is the pun on the name of Jesus that embraces the concept of saviour and healer. We know that Jesus is the Jewish-Greek form of the name of Joshua which is apparently derived from Yahweh or Yah saves. But the straight Greek equivalent of Joshua is Jason and Jason means “healer”. Jesus is Jason:

[F]rom a Hellenistic Jewish perspective, they are actually the same name . . .  (p. 127)

Moles discusses the evidence for ancient myths that portrayed Jason as a healer and dying and rising god, or at least one who entered the bowels of a serpent and returned again to the land of the living. These myths have not survived in the literature, however.

In the following I square bracketed words I have substituted for Moles’ Greek text.)

[I]t derives from the pagan goddess of healing who is called [Jaso] . . .  Thus on the Greek side [Jason] is a human name derived from a god’s: a theophoric name, just as on the Jewish side [Joshua] is a human name derived from ‘Yahweh’. Furthermore, for the early Christians, this [Jesus] is in some sense, and to some degree, himself a divine figure. There is also a simple matter of sound. [Jesus, Jason and Jaso] not only look very similar: they sound very similar. And the sound of names is very important. There is also a matter of extended meaning. There can be important links between ‘saving’, the basic meaning of ‘Joshua’, undeniably punned on in the NT, and ‘healing’, both at the levels of divine and qausi-divine and alike in medical, religious/social and political contexts. Given these links and the sound factor, one even wonders whether the many Greek speakers who knew that the Jewish god was denoted by ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yah’ could also ‘hear’ both [Jesus] and [Jason] as ‘Yah saves’ directly, because [sus] and [son] could evoke [sozo] and [sos], and whether bilingual speakers could even regard the Greek [sozo] and the Hebrew verb as cognates.” (pp. 127-8)

So where do the puns on Jesus’ [=Jason’s] name enter?

Moles analyses pericopes involving healing acts of Jesus and draws out the impact of understanding that f0r Greek audiences the name of Jesus is the very antithesis of “disease”. He shows the creative ways in which the name of Jesus is woven through the puns on healing (iaomai), cleansing (katharizo), saving (sozo) and tending (therapeuo). Tending is important

in order to open the possibility that Jesus’ ‘tending’ of the sick links to his role as ‘servant’ or ‘attendant’, in the same way as outsiders could view the Therapeutai as both ‘attendants’ and ‘healers’/’medical attendants’. (p. 131)

More interestingly Moles also argues that the climactic crucifixion and resurrection scene — again with its many punning artifices and links to earlier narrative puns — was originally crafted as the greatest healing act of all. The word puns in these final scenes evoke the healings and raisings performed by Jesus up to that dramatic moment.

Even Mark’s apparently simplistic Greek finds a new meaning:

Mark’s general treatment of Jesus’ ‘healing’ acquires extra force from a special feature of his narrative technique: his very extensive use of present tenses, which also occurs in healing contexts. Jesus’ healing in all its aspects remains ‘present’ to all readers and ‘present’ both in space and time. Thus Mark integrates the puns on the name of Jesus into the most essential Christology . . . .

Although the Greek of Mark, himself apparently bilingual in Greek and Aramaic and perhaps even also Latin-speaking, is certainly rough enough . . . its creativity qua Greek should also be recognized, and Mark’s deployment and exploitation of the [Jesus-healer] pun (and of related puns) is an excellent example of this. . . .  (pp. 135-6)

There is much, much more that I cannot do justice to in just this one introductory blog post. Other Gospels subsequent to Mark have their own particular punning skills to enhance their own dramatic and thematic interests. (And I like Moles’ acceptance of Luke as the last written of the Gospels, too!)

It is natural to ask whether the name of a healing Jesus is naturally going to find itself bound in a cluster of related words so what need is there to suggest that there is any deliberate punning happening, or why think the authors are merely taking advantage of what comes naturally at hand in the first place.

Some of the examples Moles draws to our attention do surely go beyond mere happenstance. I’ll like to look at a few more from time to time in posts here as exercises in “thinking aloud” about specific cases. But anyone interested can read ahead and start thinking about the possibilities for themselves.


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names”

  1. George Howard points out that “Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew is characterized by literary devices such as puns, word connections, and alliteration. These are numerous -the text is saturated with them, far beyond what appears in the Greek- and belong to the very structure of the Hebrew text”: (Hebrew Gospel of Matthew p. 184).

    I’m familiar with the lateness and uncertainties surrounding Shem Tov’s and other Hebrew Matthews, and I know you are fousing maninly on Mark, but when you mention puns in the gospels, the Shem Tov Matthew comes to mind, and I think it’s at least a peculiar and interesting ingredient in the overall Christian soup. I wonder how much of these word plays are entirely medieval, or how they might tie in with the idea of Q or an ancient Hebrew ‘sayings’ source. I don’t know.

    1. That’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for it. I gather that there are Aramaic puns in the Old Syriac and Peshitta, but I don’t know if they are similar to the ones in the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew. Your question makes me wonder to what extent puns are in Stern’s Hebrew NT, and how they might differ from the ST. Perhaps punning is just a natural part of any Hebrew composition and the ones in the ST don’t necessarily point to there once being an original Hebrew Matthew or sayings source.

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