As Christians, we frequently pray “in the name of Jesus.” In the biblical world, a name represented a person’s authority and was a symbol of all that a person stood for. A peculiar movement afield today, fostered by groups such as the Hebrew Israelites and the “Sacred Name Movement,” declares that Christians are making a fundamental error when they pray in the name of Jesus. It is said that by using the Anglicanized translation Jesus, rather than the original Hebrew Yehoshua (or Yeshua), we are dishonoring the name of our Savior. Similar objections are raised against the variation Iesous, which appears in New Testament Greek.
From Here to There. To begin, we need to explore how we got from the Hebrew name Yehoshua to the English name Jesus. Despite the difference in English, Jesus is the same name as Joshua, which is the proper name of the Old Testament figure who led Israel after the death of Moses. The meaning of Joshua/Jesus in Hebrew, Yehoshua, is “Yahweh is salvation.” (Another variation, Yeshua, is a later contraction of Yehoshua.) This reflects the construction of Jewish names as divine patronymics, or names based on the name of God (Yahweh) as a divine father figure. So, for example, Jehoshaphat (the name of a Jewish king in the Old Testament) means, “Yahweh has judged.”
From the Hebrew Yehoshua, the next step is to the Greek variation, Iesous. Greek rendered the Hebrew Y as an I, and formed masculine names with an –s at the end. Iesous was the standard way that the name Yehoshua was rendered in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The next step was the Latin rendering Iesus. The final important shift occurred with the use of the letter J as a variant of the letter I. This was a later development in Latin, and brings us to the form now also used in English, Jesus.
Who Says So? It is the contention of those whom we will hereafter designate Yeshua-onlyists that, unless we are using one of the original Hebrew renderings of the name of our Savior, we are in some way compromising God’s honor. The drive to replace Jesus with Yeshua in our expressions is not limited to any single group, nor is it always presented as a legalistic requirement. Nor should it be confused with efforts by mainstream Christian missionary groups such as Jews for Jesus. They use Yeshua rather than Jesus as a form of outreach to Jewish non-Christians, or as part of their educational programs for Christians to help them explore the Jewish background of their faith. Jews for Jesus does not insist on the use of Yeshua as though it were a point of doctrine or fidelity to Scripture. In contrast, members of what is sometimes called the Hebrew Roots movement may be quite insistent that we abandon the use of Jesus and revert to the Hebrew Yehoshua or one of its variants, such as Yeshua.
One such advocate, Dan Baxley, describes the use of the form Jesus as “a lie and a deception” and refers to a “deliberate conspiracy by the preachers, teachers and scholars of the bible [sic] to deceive those honestly coming to the God of the Bible for answers and seeking salvation.”1 Baxley further declares: “The Biblical scholars have withheld the true identity of our Salvation by their traditions and given the world a false name, a false identity directing those called, those coming toward the Kingdom away from their salvation.”2
Lew White, the author of the conspiracy-theory book Fossilized Customs, is specific enough to advise his adherents that “Y’shua” or even “Yahshua” are acceptable renderings, and that “Yeshua might be alright, as long as it isn’t attempting to modify the vowel for the sound of the name, YAH.”3 Apart from individuals such as Baxley and White, there are also a handful of groups that insist on the exclusivity of the Yeshua variation. The Hebrew-Israelites, an African-American centered movement that teaches a bowdlerized form of Judaism, have a decided preference for the Yeshua variation. The so-called “Sacred Name Movement” strongly emphasizes the Jewish roots of Christianity, such that members may also practice certain aspects of Judaism such as following the Pentateuch’s dietary laws. One publisher has even produced a “Proper Name Version of the King James Bible” in which Jesus is dutifully replaced throughout the New Testament with Yahshua.
What, according to these theorists, will be the penalty for failing to use the proper form of the Savior’s name? Baxley is content to say that, at final judgment, all who used the Jesus variation will be compelled to bow to the Savior knowing His true name, and the deception associated with Jesus will be revealed. Other Yeshua-onlyists lay out no specific penalty for misuse of the Savior’s name, but assume it to be a symptom of a larger theological apostasy deserving its own punishment.4
What’s in a Name? What lies behind this peculiar focus on using the precise original form of the name Jesus in Hebrew? Some, in the manner of Jews for Jesus, merely make the change to honor Christianity’s Jewish roots. Others, however, offer a wide variety of theological rationales.
One rationale is that the modern English name Jesus and its pronunciation bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the English phrase, “Hey, Zeus!” Or, it may be said, Jesus actually means in Greek, “Hail, Zeus!” According to some Yeshua-only believers, the variation Jesus is a disguised way of summoning or honoring the leading deity of ancient Greece. This claim may be supported by pointing to other translations, such as the name Tarsus (the home city of the apostle Paul) allegedly meaning “sweat of Zeus.”
Another rationale is focused on passages such as Revelation 11:18: “And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name” (KJV). According to some Yeshua-onlyists, using a variation such as Jesus shows a marked lack of “fear” of the Savior’s name, and is a sign of unbelief. Also referenced are passages such as Acts 4:12, which says that “God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (KJV). Since God has given this name, it is reasoned, we have no business making any changes to it, even for the purposes of translation.
Yet another claim is that by using the Anglicanized form Jesus, we are in some way compromising the entire gospel message! As noted, the English meaning of the Hebrew name Yehoshua is, “God (Yahweh) is salvation.” According to some Yeshua-onlyists, by not using Yehoshua, we are obscuring the message that it is Yahweh alone that provides salvation.
Why Are They Wrong? It can be extremely difficult to take pedantic arguments such as those presented by Yeshua-onlyists seriously. However, given the widespread and growing nature of this movement, we should take a few moments to address their claims.
The claim that behind Jesus there lies the hidden meaning, “Hail, Zeus!” displays a fundamental lack of knowledge of biblical Greek. The superficial similarity in the way both names end, with -s, reflects, as noted, the construction of masculine nouns in Greek. Male Greek names such as Linus and Eubulus (2 Tim. 4:21) nearly always ended with an S. There is therefore no unique tie between an –s ending and the Greek deity Zeus. The allegation that (e.g.) Tarsus means “sweat of Zeus” is also incorrect. Tarsus means flat basket, derived from the city’s location in a fertile valley in the mountains.
Yeshua-onlyists also fail to account for non-English renderings of the Savior’s name, such as Yesus (Indonesia), Iesu (Japan), or Ihu (Maori). Obviously, none of these could in any way be construed as hidden messages to “Hail Zeus,” since they either do not share a similar pronunciation, and/or come from cultures where Zeus was unknown. They also fail to account for Zeus being widely recognized by his own Roman variation, Jupiter.
Another difficulty is found in the claim that translations in some way hide the meaning behind Yehoshua, that is, ”Yahweh is salvation.” A native speaker of any language (apart from Hebrew) is not going to be able simply to look at Yehoshua and know that it means, “Yahweh is salvation”! To find this out, he or she will need to consult some sort of lexical aid. The reader can perform the same kind of consultation for the English variation Jesus, which will immediately inform him or her that Jesus in its original language means “Yahweh is salvation.”
Finally, we may note that even when using Yehoshua or Yeshua, the Yeshua-onlyist is already utilizing what amounts to a compromised version of the name they so revere! Yehoshua and Yeshua are actually Anglicanized variations transliterated from Hebrew characters. Why could not someone object that by not using Hebrew characters, we could send a mistaken message? For example, it might be argued that Yehoshua is a way of saying “Yay, you!” to Shu, the Egyptian god of the air. This may seem ridiculous, but it is no less ridiculous than supposing that the variation Jesus will lead people to honor Zeus.
In summary, the “Yeshua-only” movement requires the believer to perform a series of semantic gyrations that completely ignore the role and history of translation in the expression of human language. The issue is one of a legalistic application of nomenclature, which draws our attention away from far more serious doctrinal issues in order to engage a meaningless triviality.
James Patrick Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and the author of Scripture and Slavery (Amazon Kindle).