Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?

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by Neil Godfrey

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”.

The suspiciously simple explanation

Why not simply accept what most surely consider the simplest explanation? Surely it is easy enough to accept that his name was, well, Jesus and that “the Nazarene” supplement was tagged on to indicate his birthplace or at least his place of origin?

Sleuth Guignebert is suspicious because he remembers that

ancients in general, and the Jews in particular, attached to names, both of men and of things, a peculiar value, at once metaphysical, mystical, and magical.

Names were believed to express the special power or virtue of whatever it was they designated. Recall the potency of the name of the Jewish God.

The true name of a god, for example, whose revelation to the initiate or the believer endowed him with knowledge (gnosis), was supposed to contain, so to speak, the essence of his divine being.

We have the words of a worshiper of a pagan god beginning his prayer with: I know thy name, Heavenly One.” The Bible speaks of God naming before they were born certain persons who were destined for great things. Josephus makes the same point. The Rabbi Eliezer cited six persons who received their names before they were born:

  1. Isaac
  2. Ishmael
  3. Moses
  4. Solomon
  5. Josiah
  6. the Messiah

The name of the Jewish Jahweh was well known as imbued with powers in magical incantations in the wider world (beyond Israel). In Israel the name was the centre of a cult. In the Pauline community the cult of the name of the Lord was substituted for that of the name of Jahweh among the Jews. Guignebert need refer to only one passage to illustrate the point, Philippians 2:9-10:

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those in hell. 

Guignebert’s comment:

In other words, the name of Jesus has a peculiar power over the whole of creation, so that the spiritual beings of the world, who rule the elements and the stars, prostrate themselves at the sound of it.

Origen further reminds us (Contra Celsum 8:58) of the power of the name of Jesus over demonic powers and spirits.

Thus warned . . .

The above references only touch on the question of the importance of names, and in particular the name of the Messiah and of Jesus, and Guignebert will elaborate on them in the coming pages. Though brief, they are nonetheless

sufficient to warn us against any purely human, obvious, and popular interpretation of the name of Jesus the Nazarene. The most reasonable and probable explanation, if we reflect for a moment, is that the original followers of Christ, those, that is, who first recognized him as Christ, the Messiah, gave him a name which set him above humanity and expressed his divine nature. (p. 77)

Paul certainly understood the name of Jesus in this light. And if the later authors or redactors of the Gospels did not appear to have this view “it is perhaps because they belonged to an environment in which the meaning of the Aramaic had been lost.”

Note also that according to Paul the followers of the Lord Jesus are “those who call upon his name” — 1 Cor. 1:2.

To the author of John 1:12 those who are given the right to become children of God are those who “believe in his name.”

The Greek Ἰησοῦς

The Greek word in our Gospels and Paul “is only the transcription of the post-exilic Hebrew word, Jeshuah, which is derived from the more ancient form Jehoshua, or Joshua, the Joshua of our Bibles.” In the Greek Bible Ἰησοῦς is used for Joshua (Exodus 17:10), Jehoshua (Zechariah 3:1) and Jeshuah (Nehemiah 7:7; 8:7, 17).

The old name, after a long period of obsolescence, reappeared in its new form about 340 B.C., and became very common towards the beginning of our era. Its original, etymological meaning is “Jahweh is help,” or, “the help of Jahweh”; obviously, for a prophet, a vessel of the Holy Spirit, a name preordained. So thought, certainly, the editors of Matthew and Luke, both of whom attributed the choice of this name to the will of God, and associate it with the divine work which he who bore it was destined to accomplish. (p. 78, my emphasis)

Note the way “Matthew” introduces the name:

The angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “. . . . You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

In the Gospel of Matthew, then, the name is pre-ordained and its meaning (i.e. Saviour) is given special emphasis.

Compare Luke 1:30-32:

The angel said to [Mary] . . . “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

For this author, “it is the quality of Son of God which is in some way implied by the name Jesus.”

And Emmanuel (“God is with us”)

It is to be observed that Matthew (i.23), citing in reference to Jesus the passage of Isaiah (vii.14) which prophesies the birth of a miraculous child who shall be called Emmanuel (“God is with us”), betrays no surprise at the divine command which assigned to the son of Mary a different name, from which it is to be inferred that he regarded Jesus and Emmanuel as equivalent.

Guignebert anticipates the argument that this mention of Emmanuel actually is an indicator that Jesus really was given the name of Jesus at his birth.

Otherwise, had his followers christened him, they would have sought to make the application of the prophecy more direct by calling him Emmanuel rather than Jesus. The answer to this is that the Christians were not immediately aware of the use to which the text Isaiah could be put, and that apparently before they discovered it, the name Jesus had already become established as signifying the Messiah, the Soter, and, in Paul, the great Instrument of God’s work. (pp. 78-79)

It is very probable

We cannot say positively that [the substitution of a sacred name for his human one] did take place, but it is very probable.

It would be perfectly consistent with the process of “mythication” which the whole figure of Christ underwent, and which is already manifest in the Gospels.

From its very beginning, the tradition tended to efface the facts of the life of Jesus prior to the commencement of his mission. (p. 79, my formatting and emphasis)

Guignebert is using here an argument that is consistent with what has since been formulated as a “criterion” of authenticity. CG is pointing out the reason we should doubt, or certainly question and only accept tentatively, the authenticity of the name “Jesus”.

Robert Funk’s second criterion by which we might assess the authenticity of some detail in the Gospels states:

On the other hand, anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction. It is clear that the authors of the passion narrative had searched the scriptures for clues to the meaning of Jesus’ death and had allowed those clues to guide them in framing the story: event was made to match the prophecy. (p. 223 of The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus)

Paula Fredriksen expressed the same principle in another context this way:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jew)

In other words, if Joseph and Mary really did give the name Jesus to their baby it was a stroke of good luck that the name proved to be so apt for one who, after his death, was thought to be the Son of God, Saviour, Healer of mankind and suitably named successor to the Mosaic order. On the other hand, it would be perfectly consistent, whether one believes in the historical Jesus or not, for the name to have been especially chosen and applied to the one who was to be signified as Saviour, Healer, successor to the Mosaic cult, etc.

And the Nazarene?

A full discussion of this (and related) terms is not part of my agenda for this post. I will sketch only a few points.

There is no doubt that the authors of the Gospels (at least those of Matthew, Luke and John) indicated to readers that “Jesus the Nazarene” meant that Jesus came from Nazareth.

But Guignebert is thoughtful and reluctant to jump quickly to the “obvious” conclusions.

The first disturbing observation which forces itself upon the scholar is that no ancient pagan or Jewish writing mentions Nazareth. The pagan texts may readily be disposed of, for since the straggling little Galilean village neither played an important part in the Jewish rebellions, nor attracted Greek or Roman colonists, the obscurity which surrounds it is hardly surprising. But with regard to the Jewish texts, there is no such explanation, yet the name of Nazareth is to be found in the Bible, nor in the Talmudic literature, nor in works of Josephus, though the latter is particularly well informed on Galilean affairs, and enumerates a number of towns and villages in that country.

The damaging effect of this unanimous silence may be mitigated, but it cannot be entirely done away with. The mythicists have naturally made the most of it . . .  Their argument, however unconvincing [Guignebert wrote before the publication of Salm’s study of the archaeological reports of the area], has at least performed the service of stating the problem and illuminating its various aspects. (p. 80)

It is refreshing to read a scholar intellectually honest enough to concede an argument of the mythicists points to a genuine problem in the evidence instead of knee-jerking from any side that opposes a point made by mythicists almost on principle.

Guignebert discusses the various arguments that have been used to mitigate the silence of the name in Jewish literature and comes to this conclusion:

In other words, there still remains room for doubt as to its existence in the first century. (p. 81)

This is a refreshingly honest grappling with the evidence. Nor is it what some might today call “hyper-scepticism”:

Doubt, however, is not conviction. Moreover, in default of external evidence we still have that of the New Testament, which is not to be despised. Here Guignebert raises as another problem the fact that the name appears only in Acts and the Gospels and nowhere else in the canonical literature. This would be strange if any of the epistles really were written by Galilean followers of Jesus (though CG acknowledges this is most unlikely) but Paul’s reluctance to use the term is strange if he knew of it.

Derivation of the word?

Guignebert from here moves on to the philological discussion of the derivation of the term we generically cover by “Nazarene”.

Could it apply to one from a town called Nazareth?

First of all, assuming that the name of the town was really Nazareth, none of the three forms in question [Nazarenos, Nazoraios, Nazorenos] seem capable of being derived from it. . . .

The smaller the town the bigger the question

But now we come to a most significant question that must bear a crushing weight even if Nazareth was a Galilean town in the time of Jesus:

If it is conceded, as it must be, that Nazareth or Nazara was, at the time of Jesus, an obscure little town unknown and unnoticed, the question arises why a surname derived from it should have seemed so characteristic as to become attached to the name of Jesus in the gospel tradition. To indicate the country of the prophet it would have sufficed to call him Jesus the Galilean, just as the first leader of the Zealots was called Judas the Galilean . . . . To distinguish a certain Simon, it is quite natural to call him Simon of Cyrene (Mark xv.21 . . . ) for everyone had heard of Cyrene. But a reference to Nazareth conveys no information. Simon or Andrew are not designated as “of Capernaum.” (p. 83, my emphases)

Strong indicators Nazarene did NOT refer to a village

i. Mark 1:21 ff and 5:7

There are passages in the Gospels where the expression “Jesus of Nazareth” simply does not sound like it refers to a town. Guignebert cites Mark 1:21 ff where the demons confronting Jesus cry out to him, “What is there [in common] between thee and us, Jesus the Nazarene? Dost thou come to destroy us? I know who thou art: the Holy one of God“.

Now compare that passage with Mark 5:7 in which another demon cries out, “What is there in common between thee and me, Jesus, Son of the most High God?

[W]e shall notice, first, that the expression, “Son of the most high God,” stands in the same place in the second passage as “the Nazarene” does in the first, and seems to be equivalent to it; second, that “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” express similar conceptions, which shows that the former is simply and expansion of “the Nazarene.”

CG continues:

It looks very much as if it were a kind of Greek gloss, introduced by the editor for the benefit of readers ignorant of Aramaic. It must not be forgotten that Mark i.21 ff. is recounting the first miracle of Jesus, his début, as it were, in the rôle of lord and master of evil spirits. This is the first act of hostility against the Enemy who rules over the terrestrial world. Hence it is natural, and even necessary, for the all-powerful name to be announced, or more accurately confessed, at the very beginning, by the one who is to be defeated by its supreme power. This name is essentially bound up with the divine mission to which the new prophet, “son of God” like all prophets, is dedicated. It would be contrary to all custom to hail Jesus by a name signifying nothing but his place of origin, while, on the other hand, it seems as if he must necessarily be given, on such a momentous occasion, the title expressive of his true nature and function. (p. 84, my emphasis)

This is not completely removed from my earlier claim that religious cults are simply not named after the birth-places of their founders.

ii. John 18.5 ff

In John 18’s presentation of the arrest of Jesus the soldiers come to arrest him and he pre-empts them by asking: “Whom do you seek?” They reply, “Jesus, the Nazarene.”

[It is] as if the surname possessed a kind of official value and was not to be detached.

The scene continues with an even more dramatic demonstration of the power of one confessing the name. Jesus met them with the answer, “I am he”, causing them all to fall back,

as if the avowal of the personality expressed by the name in some way at once actualized its inherent power.

Guignebert takes the time to think this through.

It is not easy to see how a mere mention of the town of Nazareth could account for this. To oppose Jesus the Nazarene is “to oppose his name,” (c.f. Acts 26:1) and his supreme name displays its irresistible power at his will. (p. 84)

True, the author of this gospel (at least one of them) acknowledged elsewhere that Jesus came from Nazareth. Nevertheless, the scene narrated here informs us that the memory of the original tradition in which “the Nazarene” evoked something more than an obscure Galilean village was not forgotten.

iii. Other

Guignebert refers to other passages that he says point to the same conclusion:

Mark 16:6 in which “the angel” in the tomb tells the women they are seeking Jesus the Nazarene;

Luke 24:19 where one of those who went to Emmaus uses the name Nazarene as if it expressed a personal and essential characteristic of Jesus;

Acts 2:22, with Peter in his preaching using the name in the same way;

Acts 22:8, where Christ himself speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus, ditto.

iv. The magic formula of the name

Acts 3:6 and Acts 4:10 clearly “exhibit the miraculous power of the sacred name in action.” Peter declares to the lame man, “In the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, arise and walk.” Then in justifying his miracle before the Sanhedrin Peter declares: “In the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified and God raised from the dead, behold him before you, whole.”

It is of no importance in this connection whether the events actually occurred as related in Acts, and Peter really uttered the words that are put in his mouth. The interest of the two passages lies in the fact that they exhibit an ancient Christian spell, full of beneficent magic power, for it is the formula itself which is supposed to have performed the miracle. It is composed of the name of Jesus, the title Christ, which proclaims the Messianic rank of the Lord, and the surname, the Nazarene. The power of these three words is, so to speak, united in an inseparable combination. Clearly the market town of Galilee has no relevance here. (p. 85, my emphasis)

Guignebert even suggests that if the epithet did refer to Nazareth originally, that understanding of its origin must quickly have been lost and it came to much more intelligibly indicate a surname expressing a significant quality of Jesus.

Probability is on the side of the oldest form of the name being an Aramaic equivalent of the Greek Nazoraios and indicating a special quality of Jesus. Only after the meaning of this word was lost among Hellenistic Christians did it come to be associated with the town and took the form of “Nazarene”. (Perhaps, but I also wonder about the possibility that the original meaning was also suppressed by the evangelists.)

At this point I am short-circuiting Guignebert’s discussion. I bypass his explorations of the various possible meanings of the original Aramaic word. These have been addressed in many other places. Do a word search in the Freethought & Rationalism Discussion Board, for example.

Perhaps I can make a separate post of this another time. (CG sees the Aramaic Christian communities continuing with the name of “Nazarenes” while the Greek speaking churches called themselves “the saints” or “Christians”.)

Name and surname: what they meant to the first Christians

All, then, that we venture definitely to conclude, is that the first followers of Christ, when they called him by his name and surname, Jesus the Nazarene, did not signify by it Jesus of Nazareth, but an all-powerful divine name accompanied by a distinctive epithet, which meant approximately, “the One sent by Jahweh,” “the Holy One of God.” (p. 89)

Sure the simple and generally accepted explanation is possible, but given the above considerations, is it the most probable explanation?

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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?”

  1. There is nothing but endless confusion surrounding “the name of Jesus”, and “the Word” as supposedly the Bible. If one were to become familiar with OTHER mystic traditions, particularly a more recent one, one would become familiar with the concept of “Name” and “Word” as ETHERIC labels upon the entity of the Holy Spirit, or, God the Father in “action” mode. In Sant Mat, the current preeminent mystic movement in the world, the “Name” of Jesus is now called “Shabd”, or “Nam” (Sikh tradition). Read the entire Bible with this in mind and a whole new world opens up. The scrolls and Nag Hammadi likewise.

    1. Robert, your interest is quite different from mine. I’m only interested in the evidence we have for the origins and meanings of the name from the perspective of historical reconstruction. It’s a historical inquiry, not a spiritual one.

    1. Mark 1:9 does not use the title or name “Jesus of Nazareth/the Nazarene” so it does not come into the discussion. I imagine it would fit the same point he makes about John’s Gospel: the use of the name in chapter 18 strikes the reader as having overpowering ramifications, but he observes that elsewhere in John we find reference to Jesus coming from Nazareth, too.

      His point as I understand it is that the evangelists were making use of the name in ways that connote spirit/magic power and status while at the same time making use of more recent notions that Jesus came from Nazareth, too. Whether this was because the original Aramaic meaning and associations were lost or being suppressed I don’t know. CG suggests they were lost by among the Hellenistic Christians.

  2. I firmly believe that careful reading of all relevant NT passages leaves little doubt that “Nazarene” refers to a sect or a religion, not a town. CG made many excellent points in this regard.

    It should be noted that the Qur’an never uses “Christianity”, even though it refers to the religion and the “Messiah” many, many times. This is also true for Christian Arabs in Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere, before and after Islam. Only in recent centuries, under the influence of Western culture, have they been calling themselves “Christians”.

    The Arabic words are:

    (1) Nasrani (a single person).
    (2) Nasara (people). Arabic is inflictive, so the second “n” is typically dropped here.
    (3) Nasran (people-rarely used).
    (4) an-Nasraniyah (the religion).

    Arabic and Aramaic are cousins, and Arabs almost certainly borrowed these word from Aramaic long before Islam.

    On the other hand, Nazareth the town is totally absent from the Qur’an and all Muslim tradition.

    I also have a hunch, based on Arabic etymology, that “Nazareth” may be the infinitive from the same root.

  3. Exactly. An-Nasraniyah is THE Arabic word for Christianity. It is still widely used by Muslims, but in modern times Christians and liberal Muslims have opted for “al-Masihiyah”. Please see: Hans Weir, A Dict. of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd ed. (1975), p. 970 (left col.) [ISBN 0879500018]

  4. You might want to consider the writing of E.W. Bullinger’s “The Witness of the Stars” in referring to “the branch” (http://philologos.org/__eb-tws/chap11.htm#coma (see connection to Isaiah 11:1 in that text and note that the root word “neser” used there is it is elsewhere attributed as the root of Nazarite)) in reference to “the prophets” of Matthew 2:23, and possibly a relevant input into your reasoning.

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