Category Archives: Guignebert: Jesus


Was the name “Jesus” too common to belong to a deity or archangel?

by Neil Godfrey

….. In surveying references to angels during this time, one of the most common features in the names of angels is the appearance of the element of ‘el’.53 This survey reveals that the most common angelic characters of this period were named Michael, Gabriel, Sariel/Uriel, and Raphael.54 In other words, a prosopographical analysis of the names of the particular angels known to Jews in the Second Temple period shows that the name Jesus does not conform to the way angelic beings were designated as such. Because the name Jesus is never associated with an angelic figure, nor does the name conform to tropes of celestial beings within Judaism, Carrier’s assertions are unconvincing.55

Furthermore, studies of Second Temple names found in Jewish texts, ossuaries, and inscriptions only associate the name Jesus with human figures. The name Jesus was so common and widespread it was one of the six most popular names for Jewish males.56 This commonality is particularly on display when Josephus distinguishes between the different Jesus figures of the period, such as Jesus, son of Gamaliel, who served as high priest during the Maccabean period, as well as Jesus, son of Daminos, who served as high priest in 62-63 ce, only to be succeeded by Jesus, son of Sapphias, who served from 64-65 ce. Similarly, within early Christian literature, Jesus’ name and the power associated with it is presented as Jesus the Christ (Ιησούς Χριστός)’, likewise distinguishing him from the other Jesus figures of the time.57 Carrier’s argument does not adequately explain why an angelic figure would have a name so commonly associated with human beings, let alone one which does not conform to typical angelic naming conventions. At no point does an angel or celestial being called Jesus appear within Second Temple Judaism, and Jesus’ exhibits all the signs of a mundane name given to a human Jewish male within the period.

Gullotta, D. N. (2017). On Richard Carrier’s Doubts. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 15(2–3), 310–346. pp. 326-328

That sounds like a reason to be very cautious about accepting a hypothesis that a divinity would be named Jesus but it is also a double sided coin. The fact is that Jews did accept the name Jesus for a divinity or supernaturally exalted being worthy of worship. We know early Christians were quite capable of assigning a new name to a person to indicate a significant change of role or status. What if the historical Jesus had been named Simon (the most common male Jewish name of the time) or Joseph or John? How likely are they to have felt comfortable singing the praises of Dear John or Joe, John Christ, Simon Christ? If we imagine that living with even more common names than Jesus identifying their heavenly Christ then what are we to make of them sticking with Jesus even though that was one of the top half dozen most ordinary names known?

John Moles

Sometimes a discipline can benefit from injection of new ideas from another field of study and I think a way out of the above conundrum is to be found in a 2011 Histos article by the classicist John Moles, Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity

I have discussed Moles’ article before at


The full text of the 66 page article is available at the above link to the title Jesus the Healer.

The classicist was not a mythicist, but in the abstract to his article he did talk about the mutual benefits of closer interdisciplinary efforts between the Classics and Biblical Studies departments:

Abstract. This paper argues that the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles contain sustained and substantial punning on the name of ‘Jesus’ as ‘healer’ and explores the implications for the following: the interpretation and appreciation of these texts, including the question of whether (if at all) they function as Classical texts and the consequences of an affirmative (however qualified): present-day Classicists should be able to ‘speak to them’ and they in turn should ‘respond’ to such Classical addresses, to the benefit not only of New Testament scholarship but also of Classicists, who at a stroke acquire five major new texts; the constituent traditions of these texts; the formation, teaching, mission, theology, and political ideology of the early Jesus movement, and its participation in a wider, public, partly textual, and political debate about the claims of Christianity; and the healing element of the historical Jesus’ ministry.

Jason being regurgitated by the snake: Image via Wikipedia

I won’t repeat the detail I covered in my earlier posts but will mention just a few items that hopefully will encourage interested readers to consult the originals. Moles points out the importance of puns in this context:

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)

Moles discusses in some detail the significance and role of the god and hero Jason in Hellenistic Greek culture. Jason was a healer and a type of dying and rising (through the mouth of a serpent) god. Jesus is the Jewish equivalent the name Jason:

The Palestinian Jewish Jesus bore the very popular name ישוע (‘Joshua’), which means something like ‘Yahweh [or ‘Yah’—shortened form] saves’.45 The Jewish-Greek form of the name, found in the NT, is ‘Ιησούς, whence our ‘Jesus’. Bilingual and etymological puns on the meaning of ‘Joshua’/’Ιησούς as ‘Yahweh saves’, alike in the Gospels and Acts (as we shall see), and in the letters of Paul and of others in the NT, are clear and acknowledged in some of the more linguistically alert scholarship.46 But there is a crucial additional factor: Jews who bore the name ישוע and wanted a straight Greek equivalent chose ‘Ιάσων (Ionic form Ίησων, modern ‘Jason’): an equivalence attested in official and governmental contexts.47 This Greek name actually means ‘healer’ (~ ίάομaι) and readily produces etymological puns.48 Jews who adopted Greek names generally tried to adopt ones nearest in form and meaning to the original. So not only do Ιησούς, the Greek-Jewish form of ‘Joshua’ and the name of a renowned Jewish ‘healer’, and ‘Ιάσων, the Greek form of ‘Ιησούς/’Joshua’ and a name which actually means ‘healer’, look similar and mean similar things: from a Hellenistic Jewish perspective, they are actually the same name, as any Jew with a modicum of Greek would have known.49 For us it is of course completely immaterial in this sort of context whether they are actually the same name.

Not only was ‘healing’ by ,Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period.50 Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer Jos.
. . . . Not only was ‘healing’ by ‘Ιησούς a central part of his ministry, there was a much larger Jewish healing context in the period. Solomon had a great first-century reputation as a healer . . . The Essenes—frequent comparators of Jesus in modern scholarship—were celebrated as healers . . . , which their very name may mean. While ‘Therapeutae’, the name of the Egyptian Jewish women philosophers, probably means ‘attendants’, both the Jewish Philo . . . and the Christian Eusebius . . . readily connect it with ‘healing’ (which the Therapeutai certainly practised). A few years after Jesus, the Galilaean charismatic Hanina ben Dosa performed similar healings to Jesus’. The Qumran community . . . expected an ‘anointed one’ who would ‘restore sight to the blind, straighten the bent …, heal the wounded, and give life to the dead’ . . . The ‘healing’ of ‘Ιησούς is thus writ all the larger, because he was certainly the greatest Jewish ‘healer’ of the time, and because from the Christian point of view, from the very beginning, and ever afterwards, he was the greatest healer of any race or culture at any time.

There are also wider considerations. . . . (p. 127)

There is an inevitable link between the concepts of saving and healing, and Moles has much to say about the two names together. Example,

[Jason] derives from the pagan goddess of healing who is called Ίάσω (Ίήσω in Ionic) . . .  Thus on the Greek side Ίάσων is a human name derived from a god’s: a theophoric name, just as on the Jewish side side ישוע 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. Ιησούς, Ίάσων and Ίάσω 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 Ίη/σούς and Ίά/σων as ‘Yah saves’ directly, because -σοΰς and – σων could evoke σώζω and σώς, and whether bilingual speakers could even regard the Greek σώζω and the Hebrew verb as cognates.” (pp. 128-9)

I cannot set out all the detail here. Read the article. Except just one more, a gospel read through a classicist’s eyes:

Many Classicists nowadays, I think, would already feel that Mark’s dramatic and emphatic foregrounding of Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is underpinned by the very name of Jesus, which seems to be deployed both strategically (1.1, 9, 14, 17) and locally (1.24–5; 2.5, 8) in a telling way. The logic would be that the combination of Jesus’ much-repeated name, which means ‘healer’, with the lexicon of ‘tending’ and ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ effects ‘punning by synonym’, a process further helped by the intrinsic importance attached to names (both of exorcist and demon) in exorcisms, whether Jewish or pagan. Certainly, in Mark, as in the others, use of Jesus’ name increases—sometimes dramatically—in healing contexts. By comparison with Classical texts (with which, as we have seen, Mark has some affinities), such punning would be quite elementary, naive even, by comparison with a text such as Pindar’s Fourth Pythian, which puns in subtle and allusive ways on ‘Jason’ as ‘healer’.

Back to our conundrum. . . . read more »


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

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”. read more »


Why Gospel Contradictions Really Do Matter

by Neil Godfrey

Once more from “my author of the week” secular rationalist historical Jesus scholar Charles Guignebert (1933), this time addressing the logic of those who tolerate the contradictions among the Gospels in their empty tomb and resurrection accounts by claiming they are irrelevant to the question of historicity – – –

First, a recap of some of the contradictions:

  • In Mark the women discover a young man sitting in the tomb;
  • In Matthew as the women arrive at the tomb an earthquake hits and an angel descends, rolls away the stone then sits on it, and Jesus appears to them as they leave;
  • In Luke the women find the tomb empty but while they are trying to make sense of this two angels appear to them;
  • In John Mary arrives before sunrise, sees the open tomb, runs to Peter, Peter and John run to the tomb and see clothes lying there, Mary sees two angels in the tomb then sees Jesus behind her.

And Matthew’s bribing of the guard story (to have them spread the rumour that the disciples stole the body) is clearly added to address a later allegation that this is exactly what Jews were saying had happened.

And of the resurrection contradictions G writes: read more »


Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

by Neil Godfrey

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments "tools"?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status. read more »


Critically evaluating Paul’s claims about Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)

It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:

The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)

No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).

So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”? read more »