Names in the Bible

In the Mail section of the May 3, 2004 New Yorker, Professor Robert Eisenman of Cal State University Long Beach writes

The debate addressed in his letter regards the so-called “James ossuary”, which is alleged to have held the bones of James, brother of Jesus Christ. My question has nothing to do with that debate, but instead is a purely factual one ( hence my having placed this O.P. here, instead of in G.D.)

How can one man have three complete different first names? Is this a case of different names being applied because of different languages being spoken at the time?

Let’s say my name is Dexter Fullbright. My family name, Fullbright, is carried and Dexter is what my parents chose to call me. David Ben Gurion, famous Israeli founder, is David, Ben ( son of ) Gurion. No matter what culture I am placed in, I will be called Dexter Fullbright, and Mr. Ben Gurion would be addressed as he would be in Jerusalem. Local accents aside, our names would be spoken as we are used to. More accurately, my kid’s birth name is Cho Sung-Hee. ( South-Korean) Her birth-family name is Cho. When I refer to that name, I use it as I’ve typed it above, I don’t “Americanize” it by placing the family name after the first name. Similarly, news organizations don’t call the head of North Korea Il-Jung Kim, they call him Kim Il-Jung, because that is how he is known in his own culture. Kim is his family name.

In Biblical times, did one have many different names? Are the various names that the good professor is referring to really all names that Joseph would have been known by? Or, are they various names used in early Christian History to refer to Joseph, even though he never heard them spoken to him?

Note that the good professor said “son of Cleophas” or " son of Alphaeus", not James Ben Cleophas or James Ben Alhaeus. What do I make of this? How many names did James’ father have? Or did he have but one and has history given him many? OR, is one a Hebrew name, one a Greek name and one a Latin name? Or, Aramaic?

Hmph. Any Biblical scholars who really know their languages able to gimme the Straight Dope on why James’ father Joseph has many names?


There were (IIRC) at least three different James in the NT.

One was James, the brother of Jesus. Then there were two disciples - James, son of Zebedee. He and his brother were traditionally referred to as the Boanerges, or “sons of thunder”, because their father made so much noise when they abandoned their fishing to follow Jesus. (Jim Bishop, in his book The Day Christ Died). There was another disciple, James the Lesser, or James the son of Alphaeus.

James was a common name. It is possible that several different James were being confused.

All this is off the top of my head, so I don’t have a cite. It is mostly from a song I learned in Sunday School -

*There were twelve disciples,
Jesus called to help Him,
Simon Peter, Andrew,
James, his brother John.

Philip, Thomas, Matthew,
James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas,
And Bartholomew.

He has called us, too
He has called us, too
We are His disciples,
We His work must do.*

Thank you, Mrs. Nelson.


In “Old” Testament times, it was rather common. One had only one given name, but was often called by other names during his lifetime, sort of as nicknames or titles related to life events. For example, the Midrash says that Moses’s given name (by his mother, before she set him adrift in the Nile) was Yekutiel, but he was more popularly called by the name Pharaoh’s daughter gave him. The Midrash, in fact, says that he had ten names all together. His father-in-law Jethro was referred to by seven (the Bible also refers to him as Reuel and other names in addition to “Jethro”). Jabez, a minor personality who recently gained popular fame when someone published a book centered around his brief prayer in the book of Chronicles is said to actually be Joshua’s successor, Othniel son of Kenaz.

I’m not sure exactly how common it was during the Roman era, but there are definitely some examples in the Talmud. One of the greatest Talmudic Rabbis is always referred to as “Rav”, though his real name was “Abba Arikha.”

Biblical translators, when encountering a person’s name in the text, had several choices.

  1. Transliterate the name directly into the new language.
  2. Replace the name with a word or name that means the same thing in the new language.
  3. Replace the name with a word or name that sounds similar, even if it means something different.
  4. Replace the name with a nickname, epithet, patronymic, or something else that makes it more (or in some cases, less) obvious who the person being referred to is.

Even in cases where the name is transliterated directly from one language into another, problems arise. Hebrew and Aramaic are Semitic languages that make use of sounds which have no real equivalent in Greek. There is also the fact that Greek is an inflected language, and altered the endings of most names to conform to their rules for declensions. As a result, the name “Jacob” sounds very different in Aramaic and Greek, going from something like “he-YAH-xo-be” (x as in “Loch Ness”) to “YAH-xo-bos”. The name was further changed when translated into Latin, because the x sound does not occur in Latin, and the declension pattern is different. So it became “YAH-ko-bus”. Finally, the name was introduced to English, where the letter I became a consonant J, and the declension ending was dropped: Jacob.

As I understand it, James is just one of many variation of the same name that came about through some convoluted phonological path.

Here is an example of a name which has been translated to keep the meaning the same from one language to another. This incident involves a Jewish-Christian woman, and the story is probably being written for a Greek audience:

“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas:” (Acts 9:36, KJV)

In this case, “Tabitha” is a Hebrew name meaning “gazelle”; “Dorcas” is a rough Greek equivalent meaning “female deer”.

This is all very helpful, my thanks to those who are taking the time to post in here. Keep ‘em comin’, there seem to be a lot of good theories. :slight_smile: