In the Hebrew Bible Joshua succeeds Moses as the leader of the Israelites and leads the invasion of the Land of Caanan. Most spectacularly, in the Book of Joshua, with the aid of trumpets and the Lord’s angels, he conquers the walled city of Jericho – an event recounted in the wonderful spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
In Greek speaking Alexandria, there was a large Jewish community and around 250 B.C. a translation into Greek of the first books of the Hebrew Bible was made by Jewish scholars. This translation is called the Septuagint (meaning 70) because seventy different scholars translated the text independently; according to the Babylonian Talmud and other sources, when their translations were compared, they were all identical down to the last iota.
In Hebrew the name Joshua is יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshu’a); in the Greek of the Septuagint, it becomes Ιησους roughly pronounced as “ee-aye-soos.” In Hebrew the word for Messaiah is מָשִׁיחַ (Mashiach); in the Greek of the Septuagint, it becomes Χριστός.
The gospels of the New Testament were written in Greek in the latter part of the first century A.D. In the Greek text, this name of Jesus is Ιησους ; but this is the same as the Septuagint’s name for Joshua. Is Jesus’ real name “Joshua”? Should the Greek Χριστός be rendered as “Messaiah” in English? Mystères.
The short answer is Yes; Jesus and Joshua have the same Hebrew name. Had the New Testament Gospels been written in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus Christ would have been called Yeshua Hamashiach by his disciples or, in English, Joshua the Messaiah.
That Jesus and Joshua shared the same Hebrew name is not new news. In fact, the “Joshua” novels of Joseph F. Grinzone are about a Christ-like figure, a carpenter, who touches people’s lives with his example, his teachings and his miracles; the author chose the name Joshua exactly because it is an alternative reading of the name Jesus in the gospels.
But, it’s complicated. In moving names from one language to another, typically a letter is replaced by its closest relative in the target language and adjustments are made for the sake of grammar or sound; that said, the two words might not sound at all alike or look at all alike. Because the Greek name Ιησους is sounded out as (something like) ee-ay-soos (close to the Spanish pronunciation), it became Jesus in Latin. One more thing: if you capitalize the first three letters of Ιησους, you have I H S for iota, eta, sigma; these are the letters that form the Christogram that traditionally adorns vestments and altar cloths in Roman Catholic churches. Another popular Christogram is Xmas, where the Χ is the Greek chi which is a symbol for Christ (Χριστός). These Christograms and the Kyrie are last links back to the early Greek Christian church.
The good news of the gospels reached Rome from the Greek speaking eastern part of the Mediterranean. The first Christians in the Latin speaking part of the Roman Empire did not translate “Ιησους Χριστός” from the Greek much less from a Hebrew or Aramaic original source; instead they imported the Greek name all of a piece. This had the effect of making the name “Jesus Christ” special. Otherwise, the name would have been shared with others: Joshua of the Book of Joshua is called Joshua the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible and others are called the Messiah as well – even the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, is called Messiah in Isaiah 45:1.
When one is raised in a Christian religion in an English speaking country, the name “Jesus Christ” is magical and absolutely unique, a name that no one else has had nor will ever have. Would saying “Joshua the Messiah” have made the Son of Man simply too human, simply one Joshua among many? And would that have interfered with our understanding of the Mystery of the Incarnation and of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity? Or would it have enhanced our understanding?
So the distinction between the names of Jesus and Joshua began in early Western Christianity. And the distinction has persisted. In St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, the Old Testament name for Joshua is rendered as “Josue” and, of course, the New Testament name of Jesus is “Jesus.” St. Jerome had access both to the Hebrew text and to the Septuagint, so he was likely aware of this “inconsistency.” His translation, written at the end of the 4th century was the standard one in Western Christendom until the Reformation. Similarly, Jerome did not render the Greek Χριστός as “the Messiah” or even “the anointed one.” Indeed “Christus” had been the standard rendering of Χριστός in Latin since the very beginning; this is also attested to by the way the pagan Roman writer Tacitus referred to the Christians and Christus at the beginning of the 2nd Century in his Annals: he recounts how Nero blamed them for setting the fire that burned Rome in 64 A.D. and then ordered a persecution. Not at all fair of Nero, but it is a testament to the very rapid spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire.
There was a point in time when the name Jesus could have been replaced with the name Joshua in English (or vice-versa for that matter but no one has yet suggested replacing Joshua with Jesus in English translations of the Old Testament). The Anglican authors of the King James Bible had access to the Hebrew Bible, to the Septuagint, to Saint Jerome’s work, and to the Greek New Testament; they, like St. Jerome, kept the name Jesus because, presumably, it was what people knew and loved. The same can be said of Χριστός which they also did not translate from the Greek, but rather they followed St. Jerome’s example.
But the plot thickens. Is Jesus the only one to have the name Ιησους in the New Testament? After all, there are multiple people named Mary or John or James. Again, mystère.
But here the answer depends on which edition of the gospels you are reading. In the latest edition of the New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 2010), Matthew 27:16–17 is rendered as follows:
At that time they had a notorious prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Whom do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
Note that Barabbas has the first name Jesus in this text. In St. Jerome’s translation and in the original King James from 1611 A.D, “Jesus Barabbas” is simply “Barabbas.” In other words, Barabbas does not have a first name in these classic translations and the name Jesus is reserved exclusively for Jesus the Messiah. This practice of dropping Barabbas’ first name goes back, at least, to the third century: the church father Origen (d. 254 A.D.) declared that Jesus must have been inserted in front of the name Barabbas by a heretic. Origen was certainly not alone in this; until recent scholarship went back to original texts on this point, only Jesus the Messiah was named Jesus in the New Testament.
Of course, the crowd then cries “Give us Barabbas” – the most inflammatory passage in the gospels for Christian-Jewish relations. This account of events appears in all four gospels but Saint Matthew adds “His blood be upon us and our children.” To some, all this feels staged; could it have been included to deflect guilt from the Romans, placing the blame for the Crucifixion on the Jews?
After all, Christianity at the time of the gospels was becoming dominated by Gentiles and Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora (like St. Paul himself); the empire they lived in was the Roman Empire, and Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land were repeatedly being put down by those same Romans; crucifixion was employed by the Romans as punishment for crimes against the state and not to settle squabbles among coreligionists of a conquered population – so if the ministries of John the Baptist and later Jesus did have a social-political dimension that was problematic for the Romans, Christians could side-step this by re-positioning the Crucifixion as an intra-Jewish affair.
Or was it to prove to Christians that the Jews had broken their covenant with the Lord and that this covenant now belonged to the Christians.
This second interpretation is the standard Christian one and historically was the basis of the Catholic Church’s position that those who practiced Judaism would not enter Paradise; this position was only revised after WWII and the Holocaust. Pope Benedict XVI added that the Jewish people are not responsible for the death of Christ. Other Christian Churches have also updated their thinking. These are important steps. The roots of anti-Semitism in the Christian world are complex and do not come down simply to these Gospel passages; official Nazi anti-Semitism itself was not Christian in origin but came with a package of pagan race-based beliefs. Anti-Semitism in Western Europe today is Muslim in origin. Jews in the U.S. themselves say that America, which has never had an established religion, has been an exceptionally good place for them. The terrible outburst of anti-Semitism that recently killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh tells us how far we all still have to go despite the post-War efforts by Christian churches; the rot is deeper.