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!).