For the remainder of Advent and Christmas season, on through Epiphany (Jan 6), I will be presenting a series of daily notes which will explore the Birth of Jesus and the Infancy Narratives (of Matthew and Luke) from the standpoint of names. The declaration of a name was an important part of celebrating the birth of a child, even as it continues to be for us today. Naming events and scenes feature prominently in the birth (infancy) narratives in the Gospels, especially in Luke, where the births of two children—John and Jesus—run parallel throughout the narrative. Such scenes are inspired and influenced by the Old Testament and reflect ancient traditions regarding the meaning and significance of the name given to a child.
It is somewhat difficult for Christians today, especially in modern Western societies, to appreciate how names were used and understood in ancient times. When choosing a name for a child, we may seek out one that appeals to us, perhaps even researching its origins and etymology, but quite often the name itself has no real meaning in our own language. This is true with regard to my own name, Steven, which is an anglicized transliteration of the Greek ste/fano$ (stéphanos), a wreath or “crown”, something which encircles the head as a mark of honor or prestige. It is a fine name, with a rich history, and features prominently in at least one Scripture passage (cf. Acts 6-7), but has no meaning whatever in English. Even in the case of names which have their origins in older English (and its Germanic roots), e.g. Edward, Richard, and the like, most English speakers today would have no idea of their original meaning.
In the ancient world, on the other hand, names typically had clear and definite meaning—often profound meaning—in the ordinary language of the time and place. For names in the ancient Near Eastern languages, including the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, a single word could express an entire phrase or short sentence—something which is nearly impossible in modern English. Not infrequently, these “sentence names” involved and incorporated the name of God—or, in a polytheistic context, the name of a particular deity. I will be exploring a number of such names in this series, but, for now, one example will suffice. The name Why`u=v^y+ (Y§ša±y¹hû, i.e. Isaiah) means something like “Yah(weh) will save” or “(May) Yah(weh) save!” and really ought to be translated this way, since it would have been generally understood by Hebrew speakers and hearers at the time the various Scriptures were written. Yet, as this is strange to our sensibilities, it is simpler and less confusing to retain the customary transliteration. Very few people would give such names to their children in our culture today.
More than this, the ancient mind regarded names (and the idea of a name) very differently than we do in the modern age. There was a kind of magical, efficacious quality to names—they represented and encapsulated the essence and nature of a person or thing. To know a person’s name was virtually the same as knowing the person. To call out (that is, speak out loud) a person’s name established a connection with the person—his/her nature and character, abilities, and the like. This could be utilized in a positive or negative way; in the latter sense, names were thought to allow one to gain control over another person (through binding magical formulae, curses, etc). In the religious sphere, the names of deities were fundamental to nearly every aspect of ritual, in some fashion. To know and utter—properly and correctly—the name of a deity meant the person had established a relationship and connection with that particular deity, and could ‘tap in’ to the divine protection, power, blessing, etc which God (or the gods) provide. This helps to explain the Old Testament idiom of “calling upon” the name of the Lord (YHWH). Divine names were used in a wide range of ritual contexts, related to nearly every area of human society, including their inclusion to safeguard agreements (i.e. covenants), contracts, testimony, and so forth. There was a sacred quality to such names and they were not to be used or uttered (in oaths, vows, etc) for evil, unworthy or frivolous purposes (cf. Exod 20:7 par). For Israelites and Jews the name of God represented by the Tetragrammaton (hwhy, YHWH, Yahweh) was especially sacred and to be treated with the utmost care. This name will be discussed in one of the articles in this series. Early Christians regarded the name Yeshua (Jesus) as efficacious—uttered for the purpose of blessing, healing, protection, etc—in a similar fashion.
This series of (daily) articles will be divided into two parts. The first part will explore the Names of God—that is, the six or seven fundamental names and titles of God used in the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion. The second part will examine the relevant verses and passages in the Infancy narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), focusing on the scenes of birth and naming, as well as the various names and titles used in the text (especially those applied to Jesus). The commentary on the Infancy narratives will begin with the Lukan account, before turning to that of Matthew. This may seem like a rather narrow lens through which to study the text, but I think you will find it to be a rich and rewarding approach to take, and one which should provide many helpful (and surprising) insights into the familiar Christmas story.