I am currently working on a short novel fictionalizing the birth of Christianity as it might really have happened, stripped of the mythology that strangles our common understanding of the event. It started as a short story, but as I have written more and studied more, I have decided that it would serve me better as a short novel. There’s too much I want to dramatize to fit it all into a short story.
In writing the book, I have decided not to use the common English names that we normally use to refer to the various main characters in the biblical stories. Thus, you won’t see names like Peter, Andrew, and Jesus in my story. Instead, in order to better ground the story in historical terms, I am using the characters’ transcribed Aramaic names. The apostle John, for instance, wasn’t really called “John.” That’s just an English version of his real Aramaic name. Aramaic, of course, does not use the Latin alphabet like English does (it was based on the Hebrew alphabet and was derived from Hebrew), so in order to write the real Aramaic names in English, I have to transcribe them into Latin characters. So while the spelling isn’t historically accurate, the way the name sounds will be as close to historical as I can get it. This involves not only researching the etymology of all the names of all the characters, but also coming up with a reasonable English spelling of the Aramaic name.
In doing this research, I’ve come across some fascinating tidbits. I’ll outline these below:
As much as we identify with the name “Jesus,” this was, of course, not his real name – which sort of makes hymns like “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know,” seem rather silly. If you listen to certain hymns, and listen to the way some people talk about Jesus’s name, it seems that a lot of people actually hold the name “Jesus” as somehow holy and spiritual. This sort of devotion to the name “Jesus” is reemphasized when we warn against “taking the Lord’s name in vain” or ending our prayer’s with “in Jesus’ name, a-men.” Indeed, Jesus’s name is an important and integral part of mainline Christian theology. Because of this, we easily forget and/or gloss over the fact that the enunciated name “Jesus” was not what Jesus was called. In fact, his real name doesn’t sound like “Jesus” at all. To his ears, the name “Jesus” would as been as foreign as calling him Billy or George.
In Aramaic, Jesus’s name was “Yeshua” – pronounced “yesh-wa.” That’s an English spelling, of course, but “Yeshua” is how it would have sounded to Jesus’s own ears. You can see that there is very little similarity between the two names. The interesting thing is that Jesus appears to have been named for the Old Testament figure of Joshua. Joshua was the successor of Moses, and is the one who actually led the Israelites into the Promised Land. As such, he is an important figure in Jewish history. In Hebrew, Joshua’s name was “Yehoshua.” When the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the 1st century (1,200 years after the time of Joshua) wanted to name their child for this important Jewish figure, they used the Aramaic version of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” and called their child “Yeshua.” Basically, they simply dropped the second syllable. So Jesus, then, was most likely named after the ancient Jewish military leader who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Bearing that in mind, it is interesting that we end up calling the two figures by different names in English. The Hebrew “Yehoshua” leads us, etymologically, to “Joshua,” while the Aramaic “Yeshua” leads us to “Jesus,” despite the fact that the two names were linguistically equal.
Next to Jesus, Peter is probably the most important figure in the New Testament. Roman Catholics revere him as the first pope, and all Christians revere him as Jesus’s number one guy. Most biblical scholars agree that whatever the resurrection was, Peter was probably the first to recognize it and the first to spread the message to other people. If we have Jesus to thank for the message, we have Peter to thank for determining that the message was important enough to pass on after Jesus’s death.
The etymology of Peter’s name is interesting. “Peter,” as most of us familiar with biblical passages will know, was actually a nickname. His birth name was Simon – or, in Aramaic, “Shimon” (pronounced “shee-mone”). However, according to the Gospels, at some point during his ministry, Jesus gave Simon a nickname. Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus decided to call Simon “the rock” because he would be the rock upon which the church was built (thus the Roman Catholic claim to apostolic succession). This is how Simon ended up being called Peter.
The New Testament, despite describing people who were Aramaic-speaking Jews, living in Roman-controlled Palestine, was written entirely in Greek. “Peter,” then, is an English transliteration of the Greek name “Petros.” “Petros,” on the other hand, was a Greek translation of the original Aramaic nickname. In Aramaic, the word for “rock” was “keef” (again, that’s an English spelling...but it shows how the Aramaic word would have been pronounced). Thus, when Jesus decided to call Simon “the rock,” he began calling him Keepha (or Kifa, or Keefa, or any of another dozen ways you could spell it in English). The New Testament, as I said above, was written in Greek. So in a few places, the Greek writers of the New Testament transliterated “Keepha” into Greek, thus calling him “Cephas.” If you’ve ever heard of the name “Cephas” before, and wondered why that was an alternative to Peter’s name, this is why – it was a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic nickname (my grandfather had a brother named Cephas). However, in many places in the New Testament, the writers simply translated (not transliterated) the Aramaic nickname into Greek. Since “petra” is the Greek word for “rock,” they called him Petros, to denote that it was a male name. And then, from “Petros,” we transliterate it into English as “Peter.”
When you look at the etymology of this name, you begin to realize that “Peter” is probably the most nonsensical choice – historically speaking – of names to call this apostle. As illustrated above, it is a transliteration of a Greek translation of an original Aramaic nickname. It would make a lot more sense to simply call him “Petros,” using the translated Greek name that is most often used in the original language of the New Testament, call him “Keepha” in order to stick to the actual Aramaic name, or, at the very least, translate the name from Aramaic directly into English, instead of first going through Greek.
Of course, if we did that, then the father of the Catholic Church, and Jesus’s closest apostle, would be Pope Rocky.
Bartholomew is one of the lesser known and lesser illustrated apostles in the New Testament. Other than being one of Jesus’s named apostles, very little is known of him or his life. In Aramaic, his name was “Bartolmay” – or, more accurately “bar-Tolmay.” That name literally means “Son of Ptolemy.” This was the form 1st century Jews used for their surnames. Jesus’s full name, for instance, would have been “Yeshua bar-Yosef.” In other words, Bartholomew is referred to in the New Testament only by his last name, for some reason. Perhaps it’s a situation similar to ones we have today – some people, for whatever reason, get called by their last name more than their first name. I have a friend who, to this day, I call almost exclusively by his last name. It just fits him. Perhaps that was the case with the apostle Bartholomew. Either way, its curious that we don’t ever get a clear picture of what Bartholomew’s first name was.
In the Synoptic Gospels – that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Bartholomew is listed as one of the 12 disciples. Additionally, most every other reference to him in those gospels always has him paired with the apostle Philip. Thus, we have a lot of references to “Philip and Bartholomew.” Apparently they were bosom buddies – maybe even relatives – who both decided to follow Jesus around Galilee, but tended to stick together. In the Gospel of John, however, there is no reference to Bartholomew. This, by itself, is not necessarily noteworthy, as John never gives a complete list of the apostles, and there are several others who are never mentioned as well. However, there are a couple of references to someone who appears to be an apostle, and whose name is Nathaniel. There are no references to an apostle called Nathaniel in any of the Synoptic Gospels. The interesting thing is that John’s references to Nathaniel always pair him with Philip. Thus, stories about “Philip and Nathaniel.” This leads many scholars to think that “Nathaniel” may have been the first name of the apostle Bartholomew. If this is true, it means that Bartholomew’s Aramaic name was something like “Natanel bar-Tolmay” – that is, “Nathaniel, son of Ptolemy.”
Andrew is noted in the gospels to be the younger brother of Simon Peter. Together, Peter and Andrew were fishermen in Capernaum, and both were called by Jesus to be apostles. The New Testament writers – writing, of course, in Greek – called Andrew “Andreas.” “Andrew,” then, is simply our English transliteration of the Greek name “Andreas.” However, it is almost certain that Andrew’s real name was not “Andreas” – a 1st century Palestinian peasant Jew, with a brother given a good Jewish name (“Shimon”), would almost certainly not have been given a Greek name. So while it is possible that Andrew’s real name was the Greek “Andreas,” it is unlikely. The problem, however, is that scholars apparently don’t know what the equivalent Aramaic name would have been for Andrew. I don’t know if this is due to etymological discrepancies with the Greek name “Andreas,” or some other reason, but it appears that his real Aramaic name has been lost to history. As such, unless I can do some more research and uncover something, Andrew will be the only character in my story whose Greek equivalent name is used, as opposed to an Aramaic name.
5. Judas Iscariot
There is a lot that can be said about Judas, even down to whether or not he was a real historical figure or a literary construct used in the Gospels to represent the Jewish people as a whole, but none of that is relevant to this discussion. Judas’s name in Aramaic was “Yehuda,” and it was a name that was basically equivalent to the name of the Jewish nation. It would be like someone in the United States being named Americus, or a British person being named Britannia (this, along with a number of other clues, is one of the reasons some scholars postulate that Judas was not a real person, but rather a metaphorical representation of the Jewish nation – that is, those who betrayed Jesus – thus, the derogatory idea of the Jews as “Christ-killers”).
The more confusing name is the surname – “Iscariot.” No one is quite sure exactly what this means. In 1st century Palestine, Jews didn’t just have random surnames that held no relevant meaning, the way people may have surnames now that don’t necessarily hold any relevance. The surname for a 1st century Palestinian Jew was a means of saying who they were, who their father was, what group or profession they belonged to, or what town they lived in. Thus, you have surnames like that of Bartholomew – i.e., “son of” somebody – or you might have surnames that indicated the place the person was from – for example, “Saul of Tarsus” or “Mary Magdalene” (the latter meaning that her name was Mary and she was a Magdalene – that is, from the town of Magdala). In the case of Judas Iscariot, historians and scholars are divided on just what “Iscariot” refers to.
There is a brief reference in the Old Testament to a Jewish town called “Karioth.” No one knows exactly where this town might have been, and other than one brief reference in the Old Testament, it is otherwise unknown to history or archaeology. It is not believed to have still been in existence by the 1st century. However, some scholars have postulated that perhaps Judas was from Karioth, or that his family was historically from this town, and thus “Iscariot” is a bastardization of that town’s name.
Still others look toward a 1st century group of zealots known as the “iscarii” (“iscarii” means something like “dagger-man”). The iscarii were a group of extremist Jews who were intent on using terrorist tactics to drive the Romans out of the Promised Land. They engaged in everything from inciting rebellions to committing political assassinations. They were basically 1st century Palestine’s version of the PLO or the IRA. The iscarii, however, were not known to be in existence in Roman Palestine until the 40’s or 50’s C.E. That would have made it impossible for the historical Judas – who, we are told, committed suicide shortly after Jesus’s death in the early ‘30’s – to have been a member of the iscarii. Despite that, many scholars believe that this is the basis of the name “Iscariot,” and that either the iscarii, or some related group, were around earlier than we previously thought, or that perhaps the betrayal and suicide stories surrounding Judas were not true, and perhaps Judas, later in life, became part of the iscarii. If that were the case, it would mean that when the gospel writers were writing their stories many decades later, they were drawing on several layers of common knowledge and mythology – that is, they describe Judas as killing himself in the 30’s C.E., but still use his surname “Iscariot,” even though that wouldn’t have been a valid surname for him until long after his supposed suicide. Still other scholars suggest that “Iscariot” – derived from “iscarii” – might have simply been used by the New Testament writers as a derogatory reference – suggesting that Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus, was like a terrorist or extremist. In my opinion, that is probably the most reasonable conclusion.
One final, interesting point is the case of Simon the Zealot and Judas (or Jude) the Zealot. Simon the Zealot is the name of another of Jesus’s disciples about whom very little is known, and Judas the Zealot is another name for the apostle we know as James the Lesser, or St. Jude. The Zealots in 1st century Palestine were related to the iscarii, but were not necessarily assassins or terrorists. They were simply intent on driving the Romans out of the Promised Land, but not necessarily through violence (although this may have been part of their efforts as well). Some suggest that “Judas Iscariot” is simply another name or reference to either Simon the Zealot or, more likely, Judas the Zealot. This, of course, is rejected strongly by many Christian theologians, as it would imply that Jesus’s betrayer was the same person as the apostle James the Lesser, whom the church venerates as a saint.
Either way, there is no scholarly consensus on exactly what “Iscariot” refers to. In her novel “Mary, Called Magdalene,” writer Margaret George opts for the “iscarii” theory surrounding Judas’s name, and paints Judas as an assassin and Jewish zealot who falls under the sway of Jesus’s teachings about love and peace.
In my story, Judas is going to play an entirely different role, one which might make traditional believers bristle, or at least roll their eyes. I won’t give it away entirely, but I am developing Judas’s character more in line with the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which paints Judas as a confidant and conspirator with Jesus. It suggests Jesus actually approached Judas and asked him to betray him to the authorities, in order to fulfill his mission, and that Judas, despite knowing that it would make him a traitor in history, agreed to do it, in order to help Jesus do God’s work. I am not necessarily going with that specific route for my depiction of Judas, but I am basing my depiction of Judas on the idea that perhaps Judas wasn’t the evil betrayer of Christ that traditional Christian theology says he was. Perhaps there were other reasons why Judas became notorious to later Christian communities, unrelated to any betrayal of Jesus.
In summary, the important thing to remember from all these etymological discussions is that “Jesus’s precious name” wasn’t really “Jesus,” and his central apostle, the father of Christianity and the Catholic Church’s first pope, was named Rocky – you know, like the boxer.