How “Yeshua” Became “Jesus”
The first letter in the name Yeshua (“Jesus”) is the yod. Yod represents the “Y” sound in Hebrew. Many names in the Bible that begin with yod are mispronounced by English speakers because the yod in these names was transliterated in English Bibles with the letter “J” rather than “Y”. This came about because in early English the letter “J” was pronounced the way we pronounce “Y” today. All proper names in the Old Testament were transliterated into English according to their Hebrew pronunciation, but when English pronunciation shifted to what we know today, these transliterations were not altered. Thus, such Hebrew place names as ye-ru-sha-LA-yim, ye-ri-HO, and yar-DEN have become known to us as Jerusalem, Jericho, and Jordan; and Hebrew personal names such as yo-NA, yi-SHAI, and ye-SHU-a have become known to us as Jonah, Jesse, and Jesus.
The yod is the smallest letter of the alphabet, which is why Yeshua used it in His famous saying in Matt 5:18: “Until heaven and earth pass away not one yod (“iota” in the Greek text) or one kots will pass from the Torah.” For emphasis, Yeshua incorporated in this saying a well-known Hebrew expression: lo’ yod ve-LO’ ko-TSO shel yod, “not a yod and not a ‘thorn’ of a yod,” i.e., not the most insignificant and unimportant thing. When Yeshua declared that heaven and earth might sooner disappear than the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or the smallest stroke of a letter, He was simply saying that the Torah (“Law” or “Teaching”) of Moses would never cease to be.
The second sound in Yeshua’s name is called tse-RE, and is pronounced almost like the letter “e” in the word “net”. Just as the “Y” sound of the first letter is mispronounced in today’s English, so too the first vowel sound in “Jesus”. Before the Hebrew name “Yeshua” was transliterated into English, it was first transliterated into Greek. There was no difficulty in transliterating the tse-RE sound since the ancient Greek language had an equivalent letter which represented this sound. And there was no real difficulty in transcribing this same first vowel into English. The translators of the earliest versions of the English Bible transliterated the tse-RE in Yeshua with an “e”. Unfortunately, later English speakers guessed wrongly that this “e” should be pronounced as in “me,” and thus the first syllable of the English version of Yeshua came to be pronounced “Jee” instead of “Yeh”. It is this pronunciation which produced such euphemistic profanities as “Gee” and “Geez”.
Since Yeshua is spelled “Jeshua” and not “Jesus” in most English versions of the Old Testament (for example in Ezra 2:2 and 2 Chronicles 31:15), one easily gets the impression that the name is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet ‘Yeshua’ appears there twenty-nine times, and is the name of at least five different persons and one village in the southern part of Yehudah (“Judah”).
In contrast to the early biblical period, there were relatively few different names in use among the Jewish population of the Land of Israel at the time of the Second Temple. The name Yeshua was one of the most common male names in that period, tied with Eleazer for fifth place behind Simon, Joseph, Judah, and John. Nearly one out of ten persons known from the period was named Yeshua.
The first sound of the second syllable of Yeshua is the “sh” sound. It is represented by the Hebrew letter shin. However Greek, like many other languages, has no “sh” sound. Instead, the closest approximation, the Greek sigma, was used when transcribing “Yeshua” as “Iesus”. Translators of English versions of the New Testament transliterated the Greek transcription of a Hebrew name, instead of returning to the original Hebrew. This was doubly unfortunate, first because the “sh” sound exists in English, and second because in English the “s” sound can shift to the “z” sound, which is what happened in the case of the pronunciation of “Jesus”.
The fourth sound one hears in the name Yeshua is the “u” sound, as in the word “true”. Like the first three sounds, this also has come to be mispronounced but in this case it is not the fault of the translators. They transcribed this sound accurately, but English is not a phonetic language and “u” can be pronounced in more than one way. At some point the “u” in “Jesus” came to be pronounced as in “cut,” and so we say “Jee-zuhs.”
The “a” sound, as in the word “father,” is the fifth sound in Jesus’ name. It is followed by a guttural produced by contracting the lower throat muscles and retracting the tongue root- an unfamiliar task for English speakers. In an exception to the rule, the vowel sound “a” associated with the last letter “ayin” (the guttural) is pronounced before it, not after. While there is no equivalent in English or any other Indo-European language, it is somewhat similar to the last sound in the name of the composer, “Bach.” In this position it is almost inaudible to the western ear. Some Israelis pronounce this last sound and some don’t, depending on what part of the dispersion their families returned from. The Hebrew Language Academy, guardian of the purity of the language, has ruled that it should be sounded, and Israeli radio and television announcers are required to pronounce it correctly. There was no letter to represent them, and so these fifth and sixth sounds were dropped from the Greek transcription of “Yeshua,” -the transcription from which the English “Jesus” is derived.
So where did the final “s” of “Jesus” come from? Masculine names in Greek ordinarily end with a consonant, usually with an “s” sound, and less frequently with an “n” or “r” sound. In the case of “Iesus,” the Greeks added a sigma, the “s” sound, to close the word. The same is true for the names Nicodemus, Judas, Lazarus, and others.
English speakers make one further change from the original pronunciation of Jesus’ name. English places the accent on “Je,” rather than on “sus.” For this reason, the “u” has shortened in its English pronunciation to “uh.”
In the West, a child’s name is often chosen for its pleasant sound, or because another family member had it. The Jews of the Second Temple period also named after relatives (Luke 1:59-63). However, almost all Jewish names have a literal meaning. Occasionally this is seen in English names too, such as Scott (a person from Scotland), Johnson (son of John), and Baker (bread maker). But with Hebrew names it is the rule, rather than the exception.
The name Yeshua literally means The LORD’s Salvation, or Salvation from the LORD. In comparison, prior to being transliterated from the Hebrew Bible, the name Iesus did not exist in Greek. Through multiple translations and changes in pronunciation, a tradition of saying “Jesus” has obscured His name, “Yeshua.” It has shifted His perceived message and identity from Hebrew to Greek.
Adapted from an article by David Biven with kind permission of Bridges for Peace