Is the Name “Jesus” Anti-Semitic?

It has been argued by some people in the HRM that the English name “Jesus” is Anti-Semitic. I intend to show that this is false. It is not inherently any more Anti-Semitic than the name would be translated into any other language on the face of the earth. To illustrate the point, I will use a word completely on the opposite end of the spectrum of attractiveness: “nigger.” Some people, for instance, would probably call me racist even for bringing up this word. However, what if I used the word this way: “Anyone who uses the term ‘nigger’ today to describe an African-American is a racist.” I’m using the word, yes, but how am I using it? I am using the term to encourage people not to call African-Americans by that term, which they tend to find offensive. The word is not the same thing as how it is used, and it does not inherently convey a clear meaning all by itself. The word could be used in a racist way by one person and in a non-racist way by someone else.

To use a less charged word, take the word “lie.” There are two main definitions for this word possible, and they are not even remotely related to each other. I could lie down on the sofa, or I could tell a lie. The word is spelled exactly the same in both cases. But it changes meaning completely based on its usage.

These two examples illustrate a common fallacy making the rounds today: the word-concept fallacy. This fallacy (see the excellent discussion in D.A. Carson’s book Exegetical Fallacies) makes words equal ideas and ideas equal words. For instance, just because the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible doesn’t mean that the idea is absent also. Conversely, just because the Greek word “dikaioo” is being used in a text doesn’t mean that the text is talking about justification. Words have a semantic range, and do NOT always mean the same thing everywhere they are used. To argue otherwise shows a lack of understanding of how language works.

In the New Testament, the word “nomos” (law) is an excellent example of semantic range. When Paul says (Romans 7:23), “I see another nomon at work in the members of my body, waging war against the nomo of my mind and making me a prisoner of the nomo of sin at work within my members,” we can see easily that if Paul means Torah in all three uses of the word “nomos” (the differences in ending are only differences in case endings) then Paul is setting the Torah against itself. It would make the passage absolute gibberish. Words cannot possibly mean the same thing in all contexts. This fact makes it exceptionally dangerous to say that we are going to build our theology based on a concordance. If we say that our theology of law is going to be based entirely on the word “nomos” we would be screening out passages that DO talk about the law and including passages that may NOT be talking about the law. It would be to commit the word-concept fallacy. Meaning is not just in words, but in how words are used.

The arguments concerning the Anti-Semitism of the name “Jesus” that I have seen make this word-concept fallacy. That there are many incorrect ideas about Jesus out there is undeniable. He was a Jew, not a Caucasian. This means that He almost certainly did NOT have blond hair and blue eyes, and look like a girl with a beard. This is one (among many) reasons I am opposed to pictures of Jesus. If He was a Jew (and He certainly was), then He almost certainly had black hair and black eyes, and quite possibly swarthy skin. The long hair one usually sees on pictures is also a misrepresentation, since the point about Nazareth is not that He was a Nazarene, but that He was from Nazareth, the town. We do not know how long His hair was. The Bible never tells us.

Be that as it may, the misconceptions referred to in the previous paragraph cannot possibly be attributed to the fact that people use the English name “Jesus.” That would commit the word-concept fallacy. That, in short, is my argument. That some people have such an Anti-Semitic conception in their heads when they use the term “Jesus” is quite likely. The solution is education, not panning the name “Jesus” and labelling those who use it as Anti-Semitic.

We must go further, however, and speak of the nature of translation. Some HRM proponents believe that the NT was originally written in Hebrew. The only book of the NT about which this can reasonably be argued at all is the book of Matthew, and the arguments are slim when set against the vast manuscript collections of Matthew in Greek that we have (in addition to the fact that all the Hebrew manuscripts are much newer than the Greek). The manuscripts support a Greek original. There are no Hebrew manuscripts of the NT surviving in the first ten centuries A.D., to my knowledge, compared to thousands of Greek manuscripts. Almost all NT scholars today agree that the entire NT was written in Greek, even Matthew (notwithstanding the testimony of a very few early church fathers). Are there Semitisms in the NT? Of course. Lots of them. For most of the authors of the NT (being Jewish!), Greek was a second language. They spoke Greek with an accent, if you will. Some, like Luke, have very few Semitisms in their writing at all.

The reason I bring up this issue is that if the NT was originally written in Greek, or any part of it that uses the Greek name “Iesous” (which is a direct transliteration of the Greek letters), then “Iesous” cannot be inherently Anti-Semitic, since then the accusation would have to be levelled against God Himself for inspiring authors to use the Greek instead of the Hebrew name for Jesus.

Lastly, I simply note that older English translations usually translated Greek iota with a “J.” Witness “Jehovah” instead of the more correct “Yahweh.” That gets us to “Jesous” if we use the older transliteration style. It is quite simple to see that only the omission of the omicron gives us the English name “Jesus.” Folks, this is a matter of translation and transliteration that goes back hundreds of years (and therefore predates modern evangelicalism’s misunderstandings about Jesus’ appearance!).

One last word. I have zero problem with anyone saying “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus.” It still communicates to me perfectly well the Person about whom we are conversing. I wouldn’t expect native Hebrew speakers to use any other name than “Yeshua,” unless it be “Yehoshua.” I sometimes wonder if it not used in an effort to be “holier than thou,” but I make no assumption that such is the case. People can come to use that name for a variety of reasons, some better than others. I have a real problem with people accusing users of the name “Jesus” of Anti-Semitism. That is not likely to gain a sympathetic audience, especially among those who, like myself, know that they do not use the name “Jesus” in an Anti-Semitic manner. For just as surely as people can use the name “Yeshua” for a variety of reasons, so also can people use the name “Jesus” for a variety of reasons (just witness taking the Lord’s name in vain for a very negative example!).

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13 Comments

  1. Tim Harris said,

    December 29, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    BTW almost certainly “Jehovah” is more accurate than “Yahweh.” See excellent discussion here:
    http://karaite-korner.org/yhwh_2.pdf

  2. John Harutunian said,

    December 29, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    > [Jesus] was a Jew, not a Caucasian. This means that He almost certainly did NOT have blond hair and blue eyes, and look like a girl with a beard. This is one (among many) reasons I am opposed to pictures of Jesus. If He was a Jew (and He certainly was), then He almost certainly had black hair and black eyes, and quite possibly swarthy skin.

    So why not create a painting of Him which represents His human body more accurately? Surely Exodus 20:5 -“Thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them” MUST be read as a qualifying clause to what precedes. Otherwise, anyone who paints a Crucifixion is guilty of idolatry, even if he intends his work to be placed in a museum rather than a place of worship. And art museums are sinks of iniquity -specifically, idolatry- and should not be visited by Bible-believing Christians.

    Isn’t there anyone else around here who will acknowledge that Calvin had a problem in this area?

  3. December 29, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Very interesting discussion. James Barr’s “The Semantics of Biblical Language” (1961) is as relevant as ever.

  4. Andrew McCallum said,

    December 30, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I’ve heard some of the HRM people speak of Hebrew as the “Holy Language.” I really don’t know much about this movement, but it sounds like they are trying to make the case that there is a particular spiritual power in the Hebrew language when it is used to convey biblical truths. Maybe there is something here that is analogous to how Muslims think about the Arabic language?

  5. Jason Loh said,

    December 30, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Hahaha … good one, Andrew. Good one. I think *mentality* is the same.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    December 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Tim, that is a very interesting article and well-argued.

    John, probably the main problem I have with pictures of Jesus is that it seems to me to diminish the sufficiency of the Word. See Danny Hyde’s excellent little book on the subject _In Living Color_.

    Andrew, that is basically what I was thinking about when I said “holier than thou,” but you said it better and more graciously. Thanks for that.

  7. John Harutunian said,

    December 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    >the main problem I have with pictures of Jesus is that it seems to me to diminish the sufficiency of the Word.

    From which I’d gather that you don’t have a problem with paintings of Christ in art museums. So it’s not exactly an idolatry issue. But you are opening doors on huge areas here. For example, most Christians would agree that it’s desirable for a Christian worship edifice to have some sort of distinctive shape (ornate or otherwise). Suppose that a particular Christian finds this shape, or even the sight of a bare cross, or even that of a prominently-displayed pulpit with a large Bible on it, to be conducive to worship -does any of this detract from the sufficiency of Scripture?

    For another example: singing hymns in worship. (I’m assuming that you’re not an Exclusive Psalmodist.)

    For still another example: Does the offering up of non-canonical prayers in worship detract from the sufficiency of Scripture?

  8. Reed Here said,

    December 30, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    John: definitely off topic. But maybe Lane will indulge you.

  9. Reed Here said,

    December 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    A lot of good ground covered Lane.

  10. John Harutunian said,

    December 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    You’re right, Reed -this is off topic. But I’ll take the liberty to make one additional point ,to which Lane may or may not choose to respond.
    I, too, hold to the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture. I take this as implying that Tradition can not be elevated to the same status as Scripture. Scripture alone has compelling (as opposed to merely persuasive) authority. But I can’t see that something like the “Holy Sonnets” of John Donne or [Puritan!] John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” impinges upon the sufficiency of Scripture. Still less would a form of communication (or expression, whatever) whose medium is different from that of Scripture, i.e., shapes and colors, rather than words.

    To be more explicit: If the Bible contained images of the incarnate Christ, together with a command that no one was to add to them (after the manner of Rev. 22:18), there would be a real problem here. But of course this is far from the case.

  11. John Harutunian said,

    December 31, 2013 at 6:10 am

    To be still more explicit. The sufficiency of Scripture implies that an excerpt from “Pilgrim’s Progress” cannot be used as the basis for an expository sermon _in addition_ to a Biblical text. However, the minister may _quote_ from Bunyan’s book, if the quotation helps to illumine (or supply a practical application) for a particular Biblical passage.

    Thanks for your patience, Lane!

  12. Elliot Pierce said,

    December 31, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Shouldn’t the Hebrew Roots Movement be labeled as what it is: hyperdispensationalism?

  13. Reed Here said,

    January 1, 2014 at 8:31 am

    Elliot: sounds reasonable.


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