Aleph-Bet: Hebrew Reading and Writing for Christians in 17 Easy Lessons

LESSON #1 – JESUS’ HEBREW NAME

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Let’s Start With Letter 10

We start by learning the letter י (yod), the first letter in יֵשׁוּעַ (ye·SHU·a‘), Jesus’ Hebrew name. Remember that in Hebrew one reads from right to left. Yod is the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It is usually written with a tiny horizontal line on the top left, a spur added to some Hebrew letters. 

yod-forms[1]

Ornamental Thorn

This spur is called a קוֹץ (kots), which means “thorn.” The Greek New Testament’s equivalent is κεραία (keraia, horn), and it is often rendered “tittle” in English. In Jesus’ day, the kots was not horizontal, but angled down and to the left like a fishhook, or the barb of a thorn. That is why it was called “thorn” in Hebrew.

The kots often was as long as the yod itself. In the frame below is a yod, and a yod with its kotsYod with KotzYod represents the “y” sound in Hebrew. Many names in the Bible that begin with yod are mispronounced today in English because the yod in these names was transliterated in English Bibles with the letter “j.” This came about because in early English the letter “j” was pronounced the way we pronounce “y” today. All proper names in the Hebrew Scriptures were transliterated into English according to their Hebrew pronunciation, but when the English pronunciation of “j” shifted to what we know today, these transliterations were not altered. Thus, such Hebrew place names as ye·ru·sha·LA·yim, ye·ri·ḤO and yar·DEN have become known to us as Jerusalem, Jericho and Jordan, and Hebrew personal names such as yo·NAHyi·SHAI and ye·SHU·a‘ have become known to us as Jonah, Jesse and Jesus.

Smallest Hebrew Letter

The yod is the smallest letter of the alphabet, which is why Jesus used it in his famous saying in Matthew 5:18: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one yod or one kots will pass from the Torah….” For emphasis Jesus incorporated in this saying a well-known Hebrew expression: לֹא יוֹד וְלֹא קוֹצוֹ שֶׁל יוֹד (loʼ yod ve·LO ko·TSO shel yod), “not a yod and not even a ‘thorn’ of a yod,” i.e., not even the most insignificant and unimportant thing).[ref]See David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton, “The Significance of Jesus’ Words “Not One Jot or One Tittle Will Pass from the Law” (Matt. 5:18).”[/ref] When Jesus declared that heaven and earth might sooner disappear than the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or even its optional stroke, he was saying in a very picturesque way that the Law of Moses would never cease to exist. Many rabbinic sayings express the same idea. According to Genesis Rabbah 10:1, for instance: “Everything has an end—heaven and earth have an end—except one thing that has no end. And what is that? The Torah.” We find a similar statement in Exodus Rabbah 6:1: “No letter will ever be abolished from the Torah.” 

Many of Jesus’ words were spoken against a profoundly Hebraic background. We believe that a knowledge of Hebrew is central to understanding much of what Jesus said and what was written about him in the Gospels.

Sound #2: “e” as in “net”

The second sound in Jesus’ Hebrew name, יֵשׁוּעַ (ye·SHU·a‘), is a vowel. Hebrew vowels are represented by signs that are placed under, or sometimes, to the left of consonants (letters). A vowel is pronounced after the consonant that carries its sign. The vowel we will consider in this lesson is called tse·RE, which takes the form of two horizontal dots. Here, the tse·RE appears under the yod, the first letter in יֵשוע. In the transliteration system used here, this vowel is represented by the letter “e.” When unaccented, as in the name ye·SHU·a‘, the tse·RE is pronounced almost like the “e” in the word “net.”

Mispronunciation of First Vowel

In our previous lesson, we explained how the original “y” sound of the first letter of Jesus’ name is pronounced in today’s English as a “j” sound. In a similar way, in English the first vowel sound in Jesus’ name is mispronounced. Before the Hebrew name ye·SHU·a‘ was transliterated into English, it was first transliterated to Greek. There was no difficulty in transcribing the tse·RE (  ֵ ) sound since the ancient Greek language had an equivalent letter to represent that sound. And there was no real difficulty in transcribing the same vowel into English. The translators of the earliest versions of the English Bible transliterated the ֵ  of יֵשוע with “e.”

Euphemistic Profanities

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 ye·SHU·a‘ came to be pronounced “jee.” It is this pronunciation that produced such euphemistic profanities as “Gee” and “Jeez.” Since ye·SHU·a‘ is spelled “Jeshua,” and not “Jesus,” in most English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures (for example, in Ezra 2:2 and 2 Chr. 31:15), one easily gets the impression that the name is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet ye·SHU·a‘ appears there twenty-nine times, and is the name of at least five different persons and one village in the southern part of Judah.

Scarcity of Personal Names

In contrast to the early biblical period, there were relatively few different names in use among the Jewish population of the land of Israel in Jesus’ time. The name יֵשוע was one of the most common male names in that period, tied with “Eleazar” for fifth place behind “Shimon” (Simon), “Yehosef” (Joseph), “Yehudah” (Judah) and “Yehohanan” (John). In fact, in a study by Rachel Hachlili,[ref]Rachel Hachlili, “Names and Nicknames of Jews in the Second Temple Period,” Eretz-Israel (Brawer volume) 17 (1983): 188-211 (Hebrew).[/ref]in which she surveyed the literary and epigraphic sources of Jesus’ day, she found that nearly one out of every ten persons known from the period was named ye·SHU·a‘.

[pullquote align=”right”][note note_color=”#cef0e1″ text_color=”#000000″]Jesus’ Hebrew name is composed of three syllables. We’ve learned the sounds of the first syllable—the “y” sound, yod, and the “e” sound, tse·RE—now we will learn the two sounds of the second syllable.[/note][/pullquote]

The “SH” Sound

The first sound of the second syllable of יֵשׁוּעַ (ye·SHU·a‘) is the “sh” sound. This is represented by ש (shin), the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Written with three points or teeth, it got its name from the Hebrew word for “tooth” because of the pictograph upon which it was based. ש (shin) usually stands for the “sh” sound, but sometimes for the “s” sound. In order to distinguish between these two pronunciations, a small dot often is added at the upper right-hand corner of the letter—שׁ. When the reader is to pronounce the ש as “s,” the dot is placed at the upper left-hand corner of the letter—שׂ. In this case the letter is called sin

Without Vowels

The Hebrew alphabet’s twenty-two letters do not include visually identifiable vowels like a, e, i, o, u. Vowels exist and of course are pronounced, but they are not a formal part of the alphabet. This lack of vowel symbols was remedied by the creation of vowel signs, which were gradually developed in the sixth and seventh centuries when Hebrew began to wane as a spoken language. The vowels were not writ­ten when Hebrew was a living language, which is borne out again today in modern Israel where newspapers, magazines and books are printed without vowels. Cn y ndrstnd nglsh wtht vwls? Israelis read Hebrew in the same way you have just read the preceding sentence. Although it is more difficult to read without vowels in English than in Hebrew, even in English it is not impossible when one is reading words one already knows.

More Mispronunciations

We have previously explained how the first two sounds in Jesus’ name are mispronounced today by English speakers. The third sound also is mispronounced—as “z” instead of “sh.” This happened because Greek, like many other languages, has no “sh” sound. יֵשׁוע (ye·SHU·a‘) was transcribed to Greek as Ἰησοῦς (Iesus), the Greek sigma (the “s” sound) being the closest approximation of the Hebrew shin. 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.” Notice that the “sh” sound is preserved by English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures in “Jeshua” (cf. 2 Chr. 31:15; Ezra 2:2; 3:2).

shu·RUK

The fourth sound one hears in the name ye·SHU·a‘ is the “u” sound, as in the word “flu.” Like the tse·RE, this is a vowel. The symbol וּ used to represent this sound is called shu·RUK. It is written as a straight line with a dot to its left. In the system of transliteration used here, this vowel is represented by the letter “u.” One reason for learning Hebrew is to be able to pronounce correctly the many biblical names. The fourth sound in יֵשׁוּע, like the first three, has come to be mispronounced in English. We cannot blame translators in this case. 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.”

In Other Words

The first three sounds in the word ye·SHUa‘ appear in many other Hebrew words. We can now pronounce יֵשׁ (yesh), a frequently used word meaning “there exists.” The Hebrew sentence yesh tik·VAH, for example, means “there is hope.” Using the letters and vowel symbols we have learned, we can make another word: שֵׁשׁ (shesh), the number “six.” With the addition of the shu·RUK, we also can read the Hebrew word “licorice”: שׁוּשׁ (shush). Although it is not found in the vocabulary of the Bible, it does appear in rabbinic literature, and is a tasty word in its own right. [pullquote align=”right”][note note_color=”#cef0e1″ text_color=”#000000″]Jesus’ Hebrew name is composed of three syllables: ye·SHU·a‘.[/note][/pullquote]

The Final Syllable

The fifth sound in Jesus’ Hebrew name יֵשׁוּע is “a” as in the word “father.” Like the tse·RE and the shu·RUK, this sound is a vowel. The symbol used to represent this sound is called pa·TAḤ. It is indicated by a horizontal line below the letter with which it is sounded. Here it appears below the last letter of ישועַ (ye·SHU·a‘). In the system of transliteration used here, the pa·TAḤ vowel sound is represented by the letter “a.”

Origin of ‘A·yin

The final sound one hears in the name ye·SHU·a‘ is guttural. It is produced by constricting the lower throat muscles and retracting the tongue root. This sound is represented by ע (‘A·yin), the sixteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. ‘A·yin is also the Hebrew word for “eye”—easy to remember since it sounds like the English word “eye.” The ע (‘A·yin) got its name from the Hebrew word for “eye” because of the pictograph upon which it was based. In biblical times, the letter was written as a circle, the shape of an eye. Because ‘A·yin is not a sound that occurs in English, in our system of transliteration we indicate it with the symbol ‘, a single open quotation mark.

Inevitable Exception

We stated above that a Hebrew vowel is pronounced after the letter that carries its sign. No language is complete without a few exceptions to the rules, and we encounter one such exception here. Because the guttural ‘A·yin is a weak letter, when ‘A·yin is the last letter of a word and follows the “u” vowel, it needs a little help to be heard. The pa·TAḤ is added as a “helping vowel,” and is pronounc­ed before the ‘A·yin rather than after it. This creates a syllable which begins with a vowel, one of the few such exceptions in the language. The ‘A·yin is almost inaudible to the western ear. Consequently, the name יֵשׁוּעַ sounds to the speaker of a European langu­age as if it ends with the “a” sound. Many Israelis of oriental extraction—immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Ara­bic-speaking countries—pronounce the ‘A·yin sound properly. For most Israelis, how­ever, ‘A·yin is a silent letter. The Hebrew Language Academy, guardian of the purity of the language, has ruled that the ‘A·yin should be sounded, and Is­raeli radio and television announcers are required to pronounce it correctly.

An Ending Added

We noted in the previous lessons that the first four sounds in Jesus’ name are mispronounced today by English speakers. As if to avoid further problems, the fifth and sixth Hebrew sounds are not pronounced at all in the English equivalent. That is because they were already dropped from the Greek transcription of the name, from which the English “Jesus” is derived. The Greeks had no letter in their language that could represent the sound of the ‘A·yin, and its helping vowel, the pa·TAḤ, seems to have been lost with it. But where did the final “s” of the word “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 the name Ἰησοῦς (Iesous), the Greeks added a ς (sigma), the “s” sound, to close the word. 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.”

Other Hebrew Words

Having introduced ‘A·yin and pa·TAḤ, we now have learned all six sounds that form the name יֵשׁוּעַ. These Hebrew letters and vowel sounds are used in other words of the Hebrew language. יֵשַׁע (YE·sha‘), for instance, is one of the many Hebrew words for “salvation,” and is used five times in Scripture. The personal name שׁוּעַ (SHU·a‘) is attributed to the father-in-law of Judah mentioned in Genesis 38.