Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Name of Jesus

page from Lindisfarne Gospels showing Anglo Saxon translation
An exploration into Anglo Saxon over the last few years, revealed a surprising little gem: the name of Jesus got translated by meaning rather than by an approximation of phonetic values. So instead of something that sounds a bit like 'Jesu' or 'Yesou' or 'Yeshua' or 'Joshua', as we get so often in translations around the world, Anglo Saxon departs completely from trying to replicate the sound, and gives 'Haeland'. (The 'a' and 'e' should be stuck together in a dipthong pronounced 'a' as in 'cat' but I can't work out how to do that on this blog site). Haeland means healer and thus rescuer from harm, a save-er in the sense that a firefighter, a surgeon or a lifeguard might be seen as a save-er. In the Gospels, Jesus is normally described doing such 'middle-earth' works, although the accounts may take on a metaphorical spiritual dimension for the reader, such as when Peter tries to walk on water, sinks, and cries out 'save me!'. (Matthew 14:30)

The Harrowing of Hell from the Melisende Psalter
For some with a concern for spiritual affairs beyong this middle-earth as Anglo Saxons called it, the concept of save-er, one who saves another from harm, becomes saviour, with a more spiritual connotation of survival in a blessed state beyond this life. The Christian concept of 'salvation' emerges gradually, it is not fully formed in the writings of the New Testament and has different emphasis in different periods of church history. In Anglo Saxon Christian literature, for example, we find an account of Christ's harrowing of hell: he courageously rescues departed souls by fetching them out of their shadow-world of joylessness and bringing them to heaven.

Haeland is a statement of belief: Jesus exists in these Anglo Saxon translations as 'the one who heals-saves'. This is close to how Jesus's own Jewish contemporaries would have encountered the meaning of his name, but not quite the same. The name of Jesus in Hebrew was at the time a common name and made up of Yah and shua. Yah is a shortened form of the holy name that was not to be spoken, (Exodus 3:14) and refers to God as revealed to Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Miriam and other ancient founders of the faith: God Most High, God who made heaven and earth. Shua means something very like the healing, helping work of Haeland. 'God is our help', or 'God rescues', or 'God saves', are possible translations. Jesus's name is a statement about God - the God Jesus asked people to devote themselves to. The Anglo Saxon translator works a subtle sleight of hand and attributes all helping work to Jesus himself, not the Deity of Hebrew scripture. Some might say these are one and the same entity, but many would argue that it's more complicated than that.

We are often unwitting hostages to the interpretations of translators.This brings me to an interesting book I read recently, 'A Native American Theology', by Clara Kidwell, Homer Noley and George 'Tink' Tinker. The authors talk about a passage that has been used oppressively by white colonisers, to frighten indigenous people into thinking they have no option but to convert. The passage in question is one quoted quite recently to me by an evangelically minded friend, as the reason why, in all conscience, he finds it very difficult to make room for other faiths. I wondered whether he had read the whole passage in the original Greek at all, as it makes a difference. Here's an English translation of the key verses:

let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth ... There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ 
Acts 4:10-12 NRSV

Fragment of Greek papyrus
That sounds pretty authoritative, doesn't it.  But the Greek word sozo, here rendered 'salvation' and 'saved', is in the same episode, which involves a man's lame leg being healed, understood to mean physical healing, restoration to wholeness. Suddenly the translator jumps from bodily wellbeing to spiritual salvation, with, it seems, little justification except that he or she is reading back into the text a theology of Christian salvation that was not fully developed at that time. So first, this is primarily an account about a healing controversy and a dispute about the fact that it happened on a Sabbath day. 'Yes but it's still the name of Jesus that effects the cure,' you might say. It's still 'by no other name ...' Well, OK, but what does the name of Jesus mean? As I said above, it points to God. It means 'God saves / helps / rescues.' Depending on your outlook, that may or may not be Jesus, and to many but not all Christians that's exactly what it does mean -  but it does take the wind out of the sails a bit. The passage becomes less oppressive, easier for a person of another faith or spiritual path to find room for manoeuvre. As the authors of A Native American Theology put it,

'So it has always been in our ceremonies and among our healing specialists since time immemorial. The power to heal always comes from the spiritual energy of Wakonda, even when particular individuals have been identified as the vehicles through whom certain kinds of healing or help can be facilitated. Yet the missionaries have used this story to proclaim to us a self-serving untruth, that God has only spoken to them and only communicated through Jesus.'

I know a lot of Christians do hold onto this passage is Acts 4:10-12 as a reason for exclusivism - even the ground of their faith, and I appreciate I will press buttons by flagging it up as a misleading, even oppressive text, in the way it is usually interpreted. But it's a wobbly rock to stand on as a foundation for faith. The text is not as clear as translators would like us to believe and indigenous peoples are not alone in having been persuaded out of fear, rather than making a choice based on love and personal calling. Personally, and it's been said many times before, I think it's time for Christians to look again at the history of colonialism, conquest and coercive conversion in the name of Jesus and look again at texts like this, and just pause, just listen to what is really being said, what following Jesus is really about, and what we really mean, how we can  say what we mean without any violence. I don't think most Christians wish to be oppressive or oppressed, but sometimes it happens anyway.

(the photos in this post are of pages in my 'Bible Manuscripts' British Library address book with thanks)


  1. Thank you, Annie – that is extremely interesting! BTW you can get an ae digraph (not strictly a diphthong in this case, as it's a single vowel sound) by holding down Alt and typing NumPad 0230 æ. The upper-case is Alt + NumPad 0198 Æ. That should work anywhere in Windows. (Not sure what the equivalent is on a Mac or Linux machine.) Or you can just use Character Map, which is great for finding obscure characters. Phil x

    1. hi Phil, thankyou for your warmly welcome feedback, and also the advice on how to make a dipthong! Annie x

  2. PS 'Hæland' is obviously cognate with modern German 'Heiland' = 'Saviour'. I'm surprised they're so close.

    1. indeed! Also check out the Old Saxon 'Heliand' which is a lengthy 9thC poem about the life of Jesus, frustratingly I can only find versions in Saxon on the internet, I think I will need to buy a book to get a translation!