Could a common name like Jesus really be “a name above all names”?

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is a modified form of an exploratory essay I posted at another forum. It was in response to the question raised by the “Philippian Hymn”: was the name of Jesus itself “the name above all names” that was bestowed on God’s Son after his exaltation after crucifixion?

6 [Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.  (NIV)

That looks like Jesus is the name that is “above every name”. But that seems so strange. We know the gospels tell us that Jesus had the name from birth. Besides, the name was the sixth most common male name at the time according to Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names (part 1, Palestine, 330 BCE – 200 CE, p. 56)

1 Simon 257
2 Joseph 231
3 Judah 179
4 Eleazar 177
5 Yohanan 128
6 Joshua = Jesus
7 Hananiah 85
8 Johnathan 75
9 Mattathias 63
10 Menahem 46

According to Wikipedia’s lists of most common given names in the last 100 years in the UK, Australia and USA, the equivalent would be Harry, Thomas and Benjamin.

We certainly don’t expect a “name above all names” to be a very common personal name, but then we don’t expect a very common personal name — the name itself — to have magical power when associated with a particular deity, either. Yet we do find the name of Jesus itself being chanted as having a magical power. From The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation:

Place olive branches before him, I and stand behind him and say:

“Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos,
the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, / who is within
the Seven. Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until
you drive away this unclean daimon Satan, who is in him. I conjure you, daimon, —- p. 62

After placing [the patient] opposite [to you], conjure. This is the conjuration:

“I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, / Jesus, IABA IAE ABRAOTHA ….. etc. p. 96

A phylactery for fever:

“SARICH “Of Jesus Christ, son of IAO (?),
AORKACH quickly, quickly,
/ ROUGACH heal!…”

……………. p. 323

Ditto in Acts 3:16 — healing was performed by or in the name of Jesus

It is his name—that is, by faith in his name—that has healed this man whom you see and know. (ISV)

But in Acts 19:13 some mere nobodies or charlatans tried to use the name of Jesus to perform a miracle but they were punished and made to look complete idiots. The magical power of the name only worked if deployed by people with the right credentials.

Then some Jews who went around trying to drive out demons attempted to use the name of the Lord Jesus on those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by that Jesus whom Paul preaches!”  Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit told them, “Jesus I know, and I am getting acquainted with Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit jumped on them, got the better of them, and so violently overpowered all of them that they fled out of the house naked and bruised.

Otherwise it was nothing more than a powerless common name.

Matthew and Luke tell us that the name was assigned even before birth of Jesus. So we see here a paradox. Why would a common everyday name be selected to be assigned prior to birth unless there was something else associated with that name when assigned to a person with a particular role?

In John Jesus said he performed miracles by the power of his father’s name. So a name itself has power — but not absolutely. It only has power in the hands of a rightly credentialed user. Otherwise the demons will get ya — as we see in Acts.

Such a paradox is addressed by John Moles, a classicist, who wrote a lengthy article arguing why such a common name as Jesus (or in Greek, Jason) could indeed, in the gospels and letters of Paul (Paul speaks of doing or saying things “in the name of Jesus”) be found to have a distinctly special power:

But it was even more than a divine name: for the early Christians the
name ‘Jesus’ was a ‘transcendental signifier’.189 The early Christians ‘knew’
that Ἰησοῦς would ‘heal’ (and ‘save’) everything and everyone. They also
‘knew’ that the curse of Babel would finally be undone by universal acceptance,
and proclamation, of the name of Ἰησοῦς (cf. Philippians 2.9–10). ‘Jesus’
was the ‘name’ above all names; ‘Jesus’ was also the incarnate ‘word’ of
God; ‘Jesus’ was the sound that would resolve all discord. Again, the totalising
linguistic unity of ‘Jesus’ as supreme ‘name’ and ‘Jesus’ as logos generated
a religious energy and intensity quite unavailable through ‘Yahweh’ or
through Greek or Latin words for ‘G/god’.

Consequently, ‘Jesus’ had irresistible ‘healing’ power to ‘heal’ the Jews
beyond their historical rejection of him, beyond their rejection of the renewed
Jesus movement, beyond their punishment in the Jewish War, beyond
all their future rejections of him. Thus the early Christian historiographical
theodicy of the Jewish War is both like and distinctively different
from the theodicy of Josephus, Jewish historian and (eventual) supporter
of Rome.190

All of the above observations are the more paradoxical for the very
commonness of ‘Jesus’ as a male Palestinian Jewish name.
This paradox itself

requires explanation. The explanation must be that those of his followers
who accepted Jesus’ resurrection (some, of course, did not) found in it decisive
validation of his entire healing ministry.

So much for the significances of the pun on the level of meaning. But the
phenomenon also illustrates things on the level of praxis.

Not least is the effect of the sheer repetitiveness of the naming and the
associated punning: like Classical education, Jewish and Christian education
emphasised the importance of memorising tags as a way of dinning in basic

Of course, none of the above addresses the question of how that name happened to be assigned after the resurrection of this person.

For that we have Guignebert concluding that Jesus was not the name of our hero at all in his lifetime; he was assigned the name Jesus posthumously:

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. . . .

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. . . . .

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. . . . . (p. 77ff)

Or as some mischievous ne’er do wells are wont to say, the man we know as Jesus wandering around healing and preaching in a pre-resurrection state was a late invention.

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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “Could a common name like Jesus really be “a name above all names”?”

  1. I assume that the fundamental mechanisms underlying “magic,” whatever they happen to be, are no more changeable than gravity. If that’s the case, one could probably learn a lot more by talking to current practitioners than trying to decipher ancient manuscripts. They’re around. They just consider it a waste of time to talk to people who won’t do the first thing to learn how to actually do it, or who turn pale and run at the first sign that “magic” actually exists and violates their hard-core materialist worldview.

    One clue: the name is irrelevant. What’s important is the internal representation in the mage’s mind when ce does the invocation. That has to be sufficiently detailed to pick out the being wanted and no other.

  2. Or – Jesus was a name used by the early historicists to pin a suitable name on their saviour. They then went on to interpolate every document they could find including Paul’s letters. Paul never knew of a man called Jesus but he did know a heavenly christ-like figure.
    This is all speculation of course because all the earliest documents we have refer to Jesus.
    It sounds like one of those crazy conspiracy theories and may be dismissed as such – but I wonder if ‘Paul’s’ essays, like Theophilus’ writings ever used the name above all names.

  3. Is there any merit in thinking that the name Jesus was given to identify Christ’s solidarity with the common man? There’s the Gospel-Christ’s self-identity as “the son of man” that might be trying to achieve the same thing. Might this and the book of Daniel’s, “One like the son of man”, demand a common name grounding that had other supporting reasons as well? Zechariah’s Jesus may have given impetus to using this common name also.

    I also note, on the Hebrew name popularity list, that Moses (Moshe) and Abraham are not represented. Could it be that these were somewhat taboo names due to their sacredness? Sort of like the name, “Jesus”, is among those in the English speaking world. It would be sort of like naming your kid, “God”. And then we need an explanation as to why “Jesus” is conversely such a common name in the Latino world…

    1. You’ve prompted an interesting thought.

      My suspicion is that “identification with the common man” would be somewhat anachronistic for the day. If Philippians 2 contains one of the earliest statements about Jesus (being pre-Pauline as some scholars believe) then if “Jesus to be” identifies with anyone it is with slaves, an “inferior” class of humanity.

      The Son of Man concept in Daniel (on the basis of some of my reading of Hengel et al) might rather be associated with the image of God and martyrs dying for God rather than a notion of “the common man”. Son of Man is advanced as a metaphor in opposition to wild beasts representing godless kingdoms. The Maccabees represent the people of God, Man being the image of God.

    2. “Is there any merit in thinking that the name Jesus was given to identify Christ’s solidarity with the common man?”

      There is commentary by Irenaeus, I think (in Adv. Haers, I think), that essentially says Jesus had to be made man (ie. human) to give man (ie. humans) the same hope of salvation [and an associated eternal life] by resurrection.

      1. Yes, and as such he is given the appropriate name of Adam; Paul speak of the Second Adam for that reason. But I don’t see that “anthropological” idea to be related to our ideological idea of “the common man” — an idea I don’t think existed in ancient Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, especially slave, societies.

  4. It’s almost as if Philippians 2 is either (a) building up to to vv. 10 and 11 –

    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    or (b) is reverse engineered.

    If one looks at Phil 2: 7-9 with this emphasis –

    7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.

    8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
    even death on a cross!

    9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,

    Phil 2:1-18 could even be chiastic.

    1. But that’s the point. The name per se is not magic. It is a very common name. Yet it paradoxically has magic power among certain persons with certain qualifications because of its assignment to one who has the very nature of God.

      1. Incidentally Christianese dogwhistle is built around overloading ordinary words with magical meaning. Christianity doesn’t use a special magic vocabulary.

  5. Jesus as the second Moses would naturally have the name Joshua (who followed Moses in the myth). Also others did heal in the name of Jesus. See: On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Matthew 7:22, Also: John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Mark 9:38-39. The name had power around the empire because people believed that a powerful person called Jesus had come. Note also that the reported deeds of power are heavily weighted towards healing psychotraumatic conditions, such as demon possession, traumatic blindness, paraplegia etc. Vespasian performed similar cures. The deeds of power never heal a broken leg or arm.

    1. The significance of the names and sequence of Moses-Joshua is bound up with original story itself. Moses not only refers to being drawn out of water as an infant, but proleptically to the leader who drew Israel out the sea; Joshua, of course, naturally follows as the one who brought them to the promised land, thus saving them in the end.

  6. I talk about this very issue in NAILED, and mention that French mythologist Paul-Louis Couchoud in the 1930’s was the first to
    conclude: “The God-Man does not receive the name of Jesus till after his crucifixion. That alone, in my judgment, is fatal to the historicity of Jesus.”

    But, that said, a Christian friend made the excellent point that the “name above all other names” is more likely referring to the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), and what is meant here is that Jesus has been granted the name of Lord, that is, has been able to “borrow” the Sacred Tetragrammaton. He added “That’s what it looks like with the emphasis on the word KYRIOS at the end of the passage…”

    My response to him was:
    It’s certainly possible. And I do think you’re right that Paul – or more likely, the Kenosis
    hymn’s original author – is alluding to the Tetragrammaton. But one problem I see with
    the idea that the emphasis is on the word KYRIOS (unless I’m missing something, which
    is also certainly possible!) is that in the Greek, the emphasis isn’t being placed on the
    word KYRIOS here, but on all three words KYRIOS IĒSOUS CHRISTOS (ΚΥΡΙΟΣ
    ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, not ΚΥΡΙΟΣ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ) – and that kind of emphasis wouldn’t
    have been present in classical Greek, which makes the whole idea that kyrios is being
    emphasized here moot, too.
    I think a stronger point in your favor is the use of the word ἐχαρίσατο/echarisato
    (“graciously given”, “granted”) as opposed to a word like, say, δίδωμι/didómi, that would
    make me more inclined to say we’re talking about the Christ getting the name Jesus only
    after he had died and been exalted.”

    By the way, there are other strange features to the Kenosis hymn in Phil. that make more sense under mythicism than historicism…

    1. On the other hand, the sacred tetragammaton is condensed within the name of Jesus itself. It is Yah who saves.

      If Jesus was believed from the earliest to have been given the name YHWH at his ascension, is it not surprising that we find no evidence for this — apart from a reading of an ambiguous line in the Philippians Hymn? Even if it was considered sacrilegious to pronounce the name we would expect to find some reference to Jesus that indicated as much. (“He with the sacred name…” etc)

      Yet it does appear that Jesus per se is stressed in Philippians 2. After the introduction we would expect, I think, at the very least something like “at the name of Christ (or Christ Jesus) [or, at the new name of Christ Jesus] every knee should bow” if there had been any worry about ambiguity.

  7. Having said all of that, the reason I introduced my post as an “exploratory essay” is because I do not consider the views set out as my final ones, not by any means. Merely exploratory.

  8. Certainly the ministry of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, was to champion the poor and weak (common man) against the rich and powerful. But that is not much seen in Paul.

  9. Interesting that the Greek Magical Papyri refers to Jesus Chrestos. Apparently Chrestos was a common Greek name at the time (Just as Jesus was a common Jewish name) and is different from the term Christos,” anointed one”, used to describe Jesus. Thus the controversy over whether Suetonius was referring to Jesus when he used Chrestos.

    1. “In the ancient Mystery language of pre-Christian times, and with the Gnostics, and in the ‘Arcane Discipline’ of the church, Chrestos meant a Disciple, whilst Christos was one anointed, purified, and accepted. Boeckhos, in “Corpus Inscriptionem,” shews that it was an epithet applied {134} to the departed, or the saved and redeemed, of pre-Christian times, Aeschylus speaks of the Manteumata Pythocresta, or oracles of the Pythoness, in which Chrestos becomes the expounder of Oracles. Justin Martyr, in his Apology, speaks of Chrestians, and Lactantius (iv. c. 8) says that ‘it is only through ignorance that men call themselves Christians, instead of Chrestians’.”

      ^from https://hermetic.com/yarker/the-arcane-schools/philosophy-in-relation-to-masonic-rites?s%5B%5D=chrestos


      “Synesius, Bishop of Cyrene, and a pupil and life-long friend of the unfortunate Hypatia, who was torn to pieces by a Christian mob before the very altar, continued a Platonist to the last; and he bitterly reproaches one of his friends for having lightly betrayed to uninitiated Auditors a part of the Secret doctrines of the Philosophers. The contest between the Roman Church and the Gnostics, broadly speaking, resolves itself into this: first, the historical Jesus, the Christ of the Church; and second, the ancient Crestos of the Serapian Culte, the good god, with a Spiritual Cristos to be developed within each Perfected Gnostic. The former view was that of Peter and the Judaising Christians; the latter that of Paul, Origen, and the British Culdees. The Arcane Discipline was the union of the two, in which the literal history was taught Exoterically, and the spiritual version Esoterically; in the end the Church sought to teach both Exoterically.”

      ^from https://hermetic.com/yarker/the-arcane-schools/the-mystic-and-hermetic-schools-in-christian-times

  10. The eleventh verse refers to the Book of Isaiah, the bead-and-butter prophet of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Therein, God announces that to him every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear.

    According to Isaiah, God is called Adonai Sabaoth. Adonai (Lord) is a standard reference to the Tetragrammaton. According to Jean Magne’s Origine Chrétiennes: Logique des Dogmes, Isaiah is one of the few places where the term Sabaoth, meaning something on the line of almighty, is left untranslated in the Greek version, whence it might appear as a proper noun, which it is not.

    The NHL text Hypostasis of the Archons sees Sabaoth as the son of chief archon Yaldabaoth, a term which makes no sense in Hebrew and which certainly does not appear in the Old Testament. Yaldabaoth commits arrogant things and is punished therefore by Sophia, whereas Sabaoth remains humble and is therefore exalted above the heavens, earning all honours described by various prophets, especially Isaiah and Esekiel, as God’s virtues.

    The hymn is partly a Christianization of the Yaldabaoth/Sabaoth-myth.

    The splitting of the OT god into Yaldabaoth and Sabaoth provides a way to pick the raisins from the OT and apply its prophecies to the redeemer figure one wants to have, at the expense of traditional Jewish theology. Marcion’s version cannot have contained the verses nine through eleven, who should be seen as neither Marcionite nor (Trinitarian and co-substantialist) Roman Catholic, but belonging to yet a different tradition.

    The expression “The Name” can be understooid as a translation of yet another popular synonym for the Tetragrammaton; the same is valid for “Glory”.

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