The Grammarphobia Blog

How Jesus got his name

Q: In preparation for an upcoming lecture, I would be interested in knowing if you have any details about how the name of Jesus came into English. Specifically, how did it come to be pronounced so differently from the original Greek/Latin?

A: Jesus was first referred to in Old English as hǽlend, or “savior” (the word wasn’t capitalized). The name we now spell “Jesus” didn’t come into our language until the early Middle English period (1150-1250).

But even then, it wasn’t spelled “Jesus.”

In its earliest written form, the name didn’t end in “s” and didn’t begin with “j” (the letter “j” didn’t exist at the time). The name was spelled “iesu” (names weren’t capitalized then). 

Before getting any further into how the spelling developed in English, let’s take a little detour into the etymology of “Jesus.”

The name came into English from the Latin Iesus, a Roman transliteration of the Greek Iesous.

It had come into Greek from the late Hebrew or Aramaic Yeshua, which was a common name for Jewish boys at the time of Jesus’s birth.

(We’ve capitalized the names here, though proper nouns were treated the same as common nouns in classical Latin and Greek, as well as in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic.)

Yeshua, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came from the earlier y’hoshua, which can be translated as “God (Yahweh) is salvation” or “God saves.” (Other forms of this name include Yehoshua, Jehoshua, and Joshua.)

The name was first recorded in English as “iesu” around 1175, as part of “iesu cristes” in a book of homilies. The name was written in lowercase letters then, but we’ll follow the modern convention and capitalize it from now on.  

The absence of a final “s” was an influence of Old French, the OED says. “Iesu” represented the Old French objective form of the Latin Iesus, and that was the form that came into Middle English and was used for some 400 years.

The spelling “Iesus,” representing the Latin nominative form, was rarely used in Middle English but became the regular English spelling in the 16th century, according to Oxford.

As we mentioned above, “Jesus” wasn’t originally spelled with a “j” because the letter didn’t exist at the time. The “j” showed up in English, the OED says, as “a comparatively late modification of the letter I.”

The sound itself—the “j” we hear in words like “judge” and “jail”—is relatively new as these things go. Here’s how it developed.

In the ancient Roman alphabet, the letter “i” had two sounds—it was a vowel, but also a consonant sounding like “y.”

Sometime before the sixth century, as the OED explains, this “y” sound in Latin and other languages using the Roman alphabet began changing into a “consonantal diphthong.”

This blend of the consonant sounds “d” and “y” (similar to the sound heard in the English words “odious” and “hideous”) gradually passed into what we now know as the “j” sound.

The result, Oxford says, was that from the 11th to the 17th centuries the  letter “i” had two extremely different sounds—it was both a vowel and a consonant sounding like “j.”

Meanwhile, according to the OED, the guttural letter “g” was undergoing its own evolution, and began to develop a “softer” sound, similar to that of the modern “j.”

Clearly, European printers needed a new letter for a sound hitherto represented by both “i” and “g.” Thus “j,” looking in its lowercase form like an “i” with a tail, appeared—first in 15th-century Spanish and later in other languages using the Roman alphabet.

The new letter became established in English in the mid-1600s, too late for the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.

The earliest example in the OED of the “Jesus” spelling is from a 1632 case in the Court of High Commission, the supreme ecclesiastic court in England at that time:

“That we are as carefull in printeing the Bible as they are of their Jesus’ psalter.”

We couldn’t find any earlier examples in a search of Google Books, but we did find several others from the 1600s.

Although the “differentiation of I and J, in form and value” was completed by 1640, the OED notes, “the feeling that they were, notwithstanding, merely forms of the same letter continued for many generations.”

By the way, “Christ” is not Jesus’s last name. Jews in his time had only one name.

As we’ve written before on the blog, “Christ” is a title meaning “anointed one,” an Anglicized version of the Greek Kristos and the Latin Christus. Originally the first vowel had a short “i” sound, as in “mist.”

In another post, we’ve pointed out that the term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years. No, it’s not a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas.

In fact, the use of “X” for “Christ” began nearly a thousand years ago. But you can’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for “Christ” while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

Why “X”? Because the Greek word for Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, begins with the letters “chi” (or “X”) and “rho” (or “P”). And the monks used either “X” or “XP” in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.”

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