Hebrew Names – Should We Translate It? (john 1:6-9)

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Since this commentary is concentrating only on relevant Jewish contextual background issues, we are purposefully avoiding all other insightful comments that most other commentaries address. Suffice it to say that many of the names, including John, come to the New Testament from Greek manuscripts of the Gospel. Sometimes the Greek manuscripts do actually refer to Greek names such as Timothy (Timotheus, which means honored by God) or Andrei (Andreas, which simply means man or manly). But other times, names like Mathew were in fact common Jewish, Hebrew names. These names were Hellenized and Latinized before arriving in our English Bibles. As an example, Mathew (Matthaios/Matthaeus) was Mattiyahu (which in Hebrew means gift of God).

John was one of these Hellenized names. His parents likely called him Yochanan. Yochanan is a combination of two Hebrew words: God and grace. Now imagine hearing the Gospel read to you for the first time and you were listening in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic or Syriac. Someone struggling to read clearly, loudly enough, and with appropriate voice tone gets to the verse that says: “there was a man sent from God, whose name was John”. Now tell me, wouldn’t you hear it differently if you knew that in Hebrew Yochanan meant something like the “Grace of God”?

Throughout  this commentary, we will see how knowledge of Jewish backgrounds of both Biblical and para-biblical literature and times is incredibly important for understanding the New Testament. We will repeatedly not only use historical backgrounds, but will also refer to the original languages (mainly Greek and Hebrew) in order to uncover what is hidden behind the thinking of well-meaning and usually faithful-to-the-original Scripture translations.

Incidentally, on your visit to the remains of the Qumran community (it’s not too far from the famous Masada Fortress next to the Dead Sea) you will be shown a film which will suggest that John the Baptist may have been mentioned in Qumran’s writings. It refers to someone named Yochanan who was an active part of the Qumran Community. After disagreeing with the community leaders, who incidentally believed that their community was the Voice of God calling in the Wilderness (Is.40:3), Yochanan left never to return.

We are of course reminded that John the Baptist identified himself with the “voice of God calling in the wilderness” (Is.40:3; Jn.1:23). This, however, is simply not enough to make the connection suggested in the video. The difficulty with this argument is actually very simple. John (Yochanan) was a very common Jewish name during that period. In fact, scholars routinely run into problems with names like this including the names Jesus, Jacob and Mary (just to name a few) when they discover first century burial inscriptions.

Is this interesting and intriguing? Yes. Is it the same John? Unlikely.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Johnny Torres

    Shalom, ¿Can you Posse telo me what is the meaning of Yochanan?

    1. Johnny Torres

      *please tell

  2. Rafael

    Personally, I would love to see, in scripture translations, all Hebrew names both transliterated and translated. And if the translation could also include the name written in Hebrew with vowel points, wow! Has such a thing been done?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      sure, but it takes time, effort, money, will. I think someone could do a Hebrew Names Study Bible for example. Where footnotes are in fact the explanations of names.

    2. Eric Rodríguez

      BS”D

      With the Help of God, I will publish soon a traslation and a commentary of Bible, The Mesianica Bible.
      it’s so important to take in account the revelation of God through his son, that so, we can distinguish when דוד must be readen David or Dod, The Beloved. So, when in prophecies (Ez 37:24-25) , it said that “My servant David will reign over them, we can understand that it isn’t David, but The Beloved; so, the correct sense is: My servant, the Beloved (Cf. Eph 1:6) will reign over them. Let the name of His Majesty, Yehoshua’, The Beloved, blessed for ever!

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Eric, all success to you with the book. Dr. Eli

  3. Tatien Nduwimana

    Dear Eli,

    Although we can learn something from those burial inscriptions found, however Eric point “… the form Yshu (ישו) is not only an offensive…” should not be ignored.

    The Name is important and it is a corrupt mind that allows corrupt thinking to distort this truth. It is most proper to call Him Yeshua [Yehoshua], only in Hebrew does this name have any meaning. In Hebrew Yeshua means both “Salvation,” and the concatenated form of Yehoshua, is “Adonai who is Salvation.” The name Jesus has no intrinsic meaning in English whatsoever.

    Today’s tradition of pronouncing His completely Hellenized name as “Jesus” has indeed obscured His true name, “Yeshua,” and has shifted its perceived meaning much like most of His original teachings.

    I do agree with Eric’s point ‘Yeshua [Yehoshua]’ is the most safety form.

  4. Tatien Nduwimana

    what about the name Jesus and title Christ?
    Yeshua or Yehoshua can not be translated Jesus. Yeshua can be of course Jeshua if you like.
    Moshiach can not be translated to Christ. Rather Moshiach can be translated as Messiah if you like.

    Therefore what is the idea behind the mane Jesus and Title Christ? How and why these manes were introducted in the religion.

    I do agree with you ‘Original Names Conservation rule,

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Yshu, Yeshua, Yehoshua can be transliterated into Yesus and then Jesus (Greek always does that). Har Magiddo for example becomes Armagidon.

      Christ is actually a literal translation into Greek Chrystos (from Hebrew anointed).

      Eli

      1. Eric Rodríguez

        BS”D

        Mr Eli.

        I think we must and it’s needed to avoid and don’t use the form Yshu (ישו) because it’s offensive. Yshu was the Ro’shey teyvot for: Yimach Shmó vezichró among rabbis. Yehoshua’ is the most safety form.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Actually it is an invented but popular myth. Yshu was nothing more than an Aramaic version of Hebrew Yeshua/Yehoshua in the first century according to burial inscriptions found. It is only in middle ages that some anti-Christian Jews come up with your explanation that Yshu stands for “may his name and memory be blotted out”. Most of Israelis today think Eshu is simple Hebrew translation of Jesus. They DO NOT assign any particular negative connotation to this word. I use it on purpose to counter the myth you referred to as a fact.

          1. Eric Rodríguez

            BS”D

            The problem is that Yshu, Yeshu, Eshu, does not contain all the consonants of the original name (ended in ‘ayin, ישוע, יהושע)… and that became the opportunity to built that baspheme agains His Majesty. I’m not agree with using the offensive form as makes Wikipedia, Why doesn’t put יהושע? או ישוע?

          2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Eric, I do not at all see that it is a problem. It still has the root of salvation and if someone wants to be mean to Jesus and his followers they can find a way to read something else in :-). I am saying that this form is offensive only because we bought into the myth that it is offensive where is it is just as good as any other form. I spell it Yeshua more for convention sake nothing more.

  5. JUDAS JAIRO EVELIO SANTA PARRA

    Interesting to know how the Eternal has made ​​known to mankind, through TRUTH is THE same. The Word made ​​flesh and revealed to all (Jews and non-Jews and Samaritans). This revelation nobody can claim ownership. The highest WORD who reveals his humility and faith come to be taught by Him.

    Interesante el conocer como el ETERNO se ha dado a conocer a la humanidad, a través de la VERDAD que es EL mismo. La PALABRA hecha carne y revelada a todos (judios y no judios y a samaritanos). De esta revelación nadie puede reclamar propiedad. El altísimo revela su PALABRA a quienes con humildad y fe se acercan para ser enseñados por EL.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Mr. Judas Jairo Evelio Santa Parra, thank you for your comment and welcome! Dr. Eli

  6. Eric Rodríguez

    BS”D
    I’m agree with the “Original Names Conservation rule” because proper names must be repected. Yochanan יוחנן, “YHWH gave grace”, is the same name Chananyah חנניה via inversion (in a musical sense), which is common in ancient Hebrew (Cf. Yehoyachin = Yechonyahu). On other hands, as maybe will be anotated, Pharisees seem to have a confussion with the Coming Back אליהו’Eliyahu (=Yochanan), and the proper Messiah, so that, He specifies: He himself wasn’t the light!!

  7. Pastor Ephrayim Caluza

    Thanks for the lesson on John. I have been a preacher for more than 25 years but didn’t know that John or Yochanan meant ‘the grace of God’.
    Please feed me more.

  8. […] may remember in previous discussions we mentioned the possibility that John (Yohanan) the Baptist was the same Yohanan mentioned in the […]

  9. Edward Vasicek

    Good comments and the most likely conclusion. John differed significantly from the Qumran community; he was out with the people, and called for people to live righteously in their current social positions.

    1. eli

      Well… its not so simple. Qumran may or may not have been so isolated from the rest of the Jewish world community as was previously thought. Its is possible (though we can not know this for sure) that Qumran was a center of sorts for the larger Essene movement that was comparable in size to the pharisaic movement (Josephus). If so that the fact that John was out with the people, does not disqualify him from this connection with Qumran at all. But we simply do not have enough to go on here. Could John have visited Qumran or taken a part in its community life? Sure. Do we know that? No.