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God Squad: How Jesus Christ got his name

Jesus depicted in Leonardo's

Jesus depicted in Leonardo's "Last Supper" Credit:

Q: Recently some friends and I were discussing name origins. In the long ago, we only had first names, like Herbert son of Michael or Herbert of Dix Hills. That got us to my question to you: How did Jesus of Nazareth become Jesus Christ? What is its meaning? Was Mary Magdalene from Magdala?

— H&C from Dix Hills

A: This is a misunderstood fact about Jesus. His name was not Jesus Christ. Christ is not a family name like Gellman. Christ is a title, which is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashiach which in English means Messiah. So Jesus Christ is actually Jesus the Christ.

You are right that there are no family names in traditional Jewish names (you must have had a very good rabbi as a teacher). A Jewish name is your first name (in Hebrew) followed by the connecting word ben (which means the son of) if you are a male or bat (which means the daughter of) if you are a female. These connecting words are followed by the first name in Hebrew of your father (and in some cases also the first name of your mother). In prayers for healing, only one’s mother’s name is used, while at a funeral only one’s father’s name is used. For example, my Hebrew name is Ha’rav Avraham ben Yisrael Nachman v’ Rosa Leah or in its English equivalent, Rabbi Marc the son of Sol and Rosalie. You are correct that the English way to say your name as if it were a Hebrew name is Herbert the son of Michael.

Occasionally, one’s place of birth or residence was added to one’s basic Hebrew name in order to help distinguish between one Abraham ben David and another Abraham ben David, so one would be called Abraham ben David from Minsk and the other Abraham ben David from Vilna. Sometimes a person’s physical characteristics were added to a name instead of a place of birth. So a small guy would be Abraham ben David Klein and a big guy would be Abraham ben David Gross. When many Jews came as immigrants to America from Eastern Europe in the first two decades of the 20th century and had to tell the clerks at Ellis Island their full name, they did not have one so the clerk often just made their descriptions or cities of origin into their last names. That’s how Jewish names like Kline, Gross, Goldman and Berliner were created. My grandfather Leo Gellman came from an area north of Istanbul called Gallata (the bridge across the Bosphorus is still called the Gallata bridge), but it must have been Gellman day at Ellis Island so he became Leo Gellman.

Now back to Jesus. Jesus was from Nazareth even though he was born in Bethlehem, which is a wondrous story you just heard on Christmas. The name Jesus in Hebrew is Yeshuah. However, because of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, which of course holds that Jesus’ father was not Joseph but God, it would be incorrect to say that his full Hebrew name was Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary. Jesus the son of Mary is actually closer to the Christian belief, though it is not the traditional form of a Jewish name and it was not how Jesus was known. During his life he was known as Jesus from Nazareth or just “The Nazarene.” After his death and, as Christians believe, his resurrection, Jesus was called the Christ. The first to make Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus the common usage in referring to Jesus was the Apostle Paul (who actually changed his name from Saul when he embraced Christianity). On the road to Damascus to round up some Christians to persecute, Saul had a vision of the risen Christ and was immediately and totally convinced that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Any person can call him Jesus of Nazareth, but only a Christian can call him Jesus Christ.

As to Mary Magdalene, it is almost certainly true that Magdalene was derived from the name of her town, Magdala, as you suggest, but it could also be a term of honor since migdal means fortress.


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