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The Babylonian Captivity
After hundreds of years of warning Israel to return to God and the Torah (His revelation of Himself to them at Mt. Sinai), God again reveals to them His plan to judge them for their sins through the prophet Jeremiah. God used the Babylonian Empire to destroy Jerusalem and to take the Jewish people away captive into Babylon for seventy years as judgment for their sins (Jeremiah 25:9-13). The Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem and took the people captive in 586 B.C.E. This was the first major traumatic event to happen to the Jewish people since they received the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) from God at Mount Sinai. In this siege by the Babylonians, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and the House of David was taken captive into a foreign country. The book of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah, clearly echoes the pain and suffering they felt as a result of this event.
But it was during the Babylonian captivity that the Jewish people were made to learn the official language of Babylon, Aramaic. As a result of their time in Babylon, there were a large number of Aramaic words that were introduced and adopted into the Hebrew language. For example, the word “bar” for “son of,” rather than the traditional Hebrew form, “ben,” like in “Benjamin,” or in the name Y‘hoshua ben Y‘hotzadak (Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 6:11). Also, another word that was added to the Hebrew was the Aramaic form of the name of “Joshua,” which is יֵשׁ֨וּעַ (“Yeshua”). And as I noted earlier, the Aramaic – Late Hebrew form “Yeshua” does not appear in any of the biblical books that were written prior to the Babylonian Exile, but it is consistently used in the Aramaic New Testament, which according to the Eastern Christian Church, dates back to the time of the Apostles.
The Post-Exilic Writings
Some of the Jews were allowed to leave Babylon in 536 B.C.E. (about 50 years after the Exile) when Cyrus the Great issued the Edict of Cyrus, and with that edict, the first group of Jews was allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. In this first group were the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, who were very young when they had been taken from Israel to Babylon in 586 B.C.E., but are now fifty years older when they are now returning to the land of Israel. After returning to the land, it is then sixteen years later when their ministry actually begins. Interestingly, it is in their books that the traditional form of the name “Joshua” (Heb. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) is used for “Joshua the High Priest.” Haggai and Zechariah maintained the traditional Hebrew spelling as we see it used in those books that were written before the Babylonian captivity.
However, Ezra and Nehemiah, unlike Haggai and Zechariah, were both born and grew up in Babylon. Ezra was sent to the land of Israel in 457 B.C.E. to teach people the Law of God (Heb. Torah), 129 years after the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E. Nehemiah, on the other hand, was the cup bearer of the King and was not sent to the land of Israel until 445/444 B.C.E. (or 142 years after the Babylonian Exile). Obviously, these men would have been born in Babylon as stated and grown up reading, writing, and speaking both Aramaic and Hebrew. It is in their writings, as well as the books of I Chronicles and II Chronicles, which according to tradition, were written by Ezra after the Babylonian Exile, that we find the Aramaic – Late Hebrew form “Yeshua” being used, rather than the traditional form Y‘hoshua (Eng. “Joshua”).
Currently, there is a debate as to how this name came into existence. There are two dominant views, and I would like to offer a possible third.
- The name Yeshua is an Aramaic form of the name “Joshua” that was adopted into the Hebrew language during the Babylonian captivity; OR
- The name Yeshua is not Aramaic, but it’s an abbreviated or shortened form of the traditional Hebrew form of Joshua’s name, Y’hoshua, or what we would call a “nickname” today.
Although these two views are the dominant positions being currently argued, and I think both could be equally true, I also thought of a third option which is not being discussed, and that is,
- The name Yeshua is the transliteration of the Hebrew name “Joshua” into Aramaic.
This might explain the later Greek form, which we will see in a few moments. After all, if they were able to transliterate Y’hoshua into Aramaic to form Yeshua, why not use the new transliterated form to transliterate it again into Greek? However, if we take the position for a moment that the name Yeshua was formed from the traditional form יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Y‘hoshua), what changes would we have to do to the name to accomplish this? The changes would be the following:
- The vocal shewa under the yodh (“Y”) would have to be changed to a tsere.
- The letter He (“h”) would’ve been dropped.
- The cholem above the vav would’ve been dropped.
- The vav would need to be moved from before the letter shin to coming after it.
- The qibbuts vowel under the shin would’ve been dropped, and
- The vav, in its new place, would’ve been changed to a shuruq.
Now that’s a lot of changes to do to form a new version of someone’s name. However, if they used the alternative form of Joshua’s name (Heb. יְהוֹשׁוּעַ) that’s seen in only two verses of the entire Old Testament (Hebrew Bible; Tanakh), it would have been much easier.
- Again, the vocal shewa under the letter yodh would’ve been changed to a tsere.
- Then, both the letter He (“h”) and the cholem with the vav (forming the long o sound) would’ve been dropped.
These two things would’ve been the only changes necessary to transliterate the alternate form of the name Y’hoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ “Joshua”) into the Aramaic form, Yeshua. The reason I believe this could be a possibility is because according to some research sources, there was a law passed in Babylon requiring the use of the official language, Aramaic. So what if the traditional form of the name “Joshua” was transliterated into the Aramaic to form the name “Yeshua” in order to comply with this mandate? This would support the name originating in the Hebrew, as well as explain why we do not see the name being used in Scripture until after the Babylonian Exile.
If that were proven not to be the case, I would still have to wonder why we don’t see the use of the name Yeshua in any of the books that were written before the Babylonian captivity, and even among the Post-Exilic writings, we only see it used by those who were born and raised in Babylon (Ezra and Nehemiah) and not by those who had been taken captive to Babylon from the land of Israel (Haggai and Zechariah). I believe there’s enough evidence here to at least suggest that if the name Yeshua was not transliterated from the Hebrew into Aramaic, then it was either adopted from the Aramaic or, at least, its formation was strongly influenced by the Aramaic.
As I mentioned, the name Yeshua only appears in four of the books written after the Exile: Ezra, Nehemiah, I Chronicles and II Chronicles. For example, in the King James Version of Nehemiah 8:17, we read:
And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
Now here is the same exact verse in the Hebrew:
וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כָל הַקָּהָל הַשָּׁבִים מִן הַשְּׁבִי | סֻכּוֹת וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בַסֻּכּוֹת כִּי לֹא עָשׂוּ מִימֵי יֵשׁוּעַ בִּן נוּן כֵּן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַתְּהִי שִׂמְחָה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד:
What I find interesting in this verse is that Nehemiah writes Yeshua bin Nun for “Joshua son of Nun,” rather than Yeshua ben Nun. The traditional form ben, like we saw in Haggai and Zechariah has been altered by changing the vowel tsere (short e sound) under the letter beyt (b) to the vowel hireq, which makes the short i sound, like in the English word “bitter.” Again, this is one of those things that make me wonder “Why?” Also, when I compared the book of Nehemiah with the book of Ezra, I discovered that when Ezra writes the name “Joshua” in Hebrew for “Joshua the High Priest,” for example, he does not write Y’hoshua ben Y’hotzadak, like we find written by Haggai and Zechariah, but Yeshua bar Yotzadak (Eng. “Yeshua the son of Jozadak”):
בֵּאדַיִן קָמוּ זְרֻבָּבֶל בַּר-שְׁאַלְתִּיאֵל, וְיֵשׁוּעַ בַּר-יוֹצָדָק, וְשָׁרִיו לְמִבְנֵא, בֵּית אֱלָהָא דִּי בִירוּשְׁלֶם; וְעִמְּהוֹן נְבִיַּאיָּא דִי-אֱלָהָא, מְסָעֲדִין לְהוֹן.
In Ezra’s version of the High Priest’s name, we see changes in all three parts of “Joshua’s” name. First of all, he uses the Aramaic-Late Hebrew form of the name “Joshua” – Yeshua, like we see used in Nehemiah. Secondly, instead of using the traditional form for “son of” (Heb. ben), or even the form bin, like we see in Nehemiah, he uses the Aramaic-Late Hebrew form, bar. This word bar is the same word that’s used in the phrase Bar Mitzvah (Eng. “Son of the Commandment”), a ceremony that celebrates a Jewish boy becoming a man. And finally, even the traditional Hebrew form of “Joshua’s” father’s name Y’hotzadak is changed to the Aramaic-Late Hebrew form, Yotzadak. The form of the name was shortened by dropping both the vocal shewa under the letter yodh (“Y”) and the letter He (“H”) after it.
Consequently, as we can see from examining the biblical text, the traditional Hebrew form was used and maintained in the writings of those who spent less time in Babylon and, therefore, less time exposed to the Aramaic language; whereas, in the writings of those who grew up in Babylon, we see either the Hebrew forms that were transliterated into Aramaic being used or the forms that originated in Aramaic or, at the very least, were strong Aramaic influences on the form of the name in the Hebrew being used.
Y’hoshua (Eng. “Joshua”) or Yeshua?
Haggai and Zechariah, as well as Ezra and Nehemiah, all mention the High Priest; however, Haggai and Zechariah call him “Joshua” (Heb. Y’hoshua); whereas, Ezra and Nehemiah call him “Yeshua.” But which one is it? I point this out because there are those who try to argue online and in various places that the Messiah only has ONE form of His name (and it usually involves some Hebrew form that begins with “YAH“) that they say is “the correct form” and all others are false. But as we can see here from the Scriptures, the Bible does not support this position since both Y’hoshua (Eng. “Joshua”) AND Yeshua are used for the same High Priest. Therefore, which form of the name that’s used in the Hebrew text is merely a matter of personal preference. There is not only one correct form.
We see the same thing happens for “Joshua son of Nun.” Throughout the Scriptures, up until the Babylonian Exile, the “son of Nun” is referred to in the Hebrew as Y’hoshua (Eng. “Joshua”). However, in Nehemiah 8:17, as we’ve discussed, which is written after the Babylonian Exile, he is called “Yeshua son of Nun” (or “Jeshua son of Nun” in our English Bibles). So which one is it? Y’hoshua (Eng. “Joshua”) or Yeshua? Obviously, Hoshea the son of Nun’s name was changed by Moses to Y’hoshua (“Joshua”) centuries before Nehemiah came along and called Him “Yeshua,” and so from our biblical study of the how the language is used in Scripture, it’s only logical to conclude that again, which form of the name that’s used in the Hebrew text is merely a matter of personal preference, and there’s not one correct form.
For example, in English, it is much like “Josh” and “Joshua” or “Chris” and “Christopher.” Which one is right? They both are. One is simply a nickname for the other: “Josh” is the nickname for “Joshua,” and “Chris” is the nickname for “Christopher.” Consequently, both forms of the name “Joshua” in the Hebrew – Y’hoshua and Yeshua – are biblically accurate and equally interchangeable.
About Messianic Use of the Name Yeshua.
Now that we have traced the name “Joshua” (Heb. Y’hoshua/Yeshua) from its first use in the Hebrew Bible to the form “Jesus” that we see in our English translations today. I wanted to take a few moments to explain the use of the name Yeshua by Messianic Jewish believers for the Messiah’s name. The reasons that they give for why they use the name Yeshua rather than the name “Jesus” involves several points. The first is that they claim that since Messiah was Jewish, then the name we use should reflect His Jewish ethnicity and culture. In addition, some other points they raise to support their use of the name “Yeshua” are the following:
- The name Yeshua, as we’ve discussed, was used to form the Greek Ιησους (Iesous) seen and used in the Greek New Testament;
- The name “Yeshua” is formed from a Hebrew word play off of the word Yoshi’a (“He will save”) that can be inferred when we realize there’s a Hebrew text behind the Greek text of Matthew 1:21,
And she [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and you shall call His name JESUS (Gk. Ιησους; Heb. Yeshua): for He shall save (Heb. yoshi’a) His people from their sins.
- Also, there have been several books written by several authors on what is called “the Bible Code,” such as Yacov Rambsel’s Yeshua and Grant R. Jeffrey’s The Handwriting of God: Sacred Mysteries of the Bible, that argue that the Hebrew name Yeshua is, in fact, encoded in every Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament.
- Finally, archeologists have uncovered tombs and ossuaries which indicate that the name Yeshua was the fifth most common name during the Second Temple period of the first century, C.E.
There seems, indeed, to be evidence to support the use of Yeshua for the Messiah’s name; however, I do believe it is important to remember that just like some names in the United States go through times of popularity, it is apparent that the form Yeshua for the name “Joshua” did as well, from the time of the Babylonian Exile up through the time of the Second Temple period of the first century, C.E.
I think we should also note that the name Yeshua is an alternate form of the name “Joshua,” as we’ve seen in the four books that were written after the Babylonian Exile. So even if Yeshua, as the evidence seems to indicate, was the particular form that was used by Joseph and Mary, it is still valid to use the English form “Joshua” for Yeshua, as we see modern translators do for the name Yeshua in Nehemiah 8:17.
“And the entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing.”