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Advent Alphabet: Y is for Yeshua

blonde-jesus-versus-galilean-aramaic-yeshua-bar-yosef-by-rod-borghese-279x279Y is for Yeshua. Yeshua ben Joseph is the “reason for the season”! (The “ben” means “son of”) When I was growing up, I thought that his first name was Jesus, and his last name was Christ. It was actually not until I was studying the philosophy of religion in my under-grad years that I learned that “Jesus” is our translation of a Hebrew name which can also be expressed as “Joshua”. I say “expressed as Joshua” because in the original Hebrew writing there were only consonants, and the reader would have to fill in the vowel sounds. There is a whole group of variant ways to pronounce words that have the “J or Y” sound followed by the “S or Sh” sound, depending upon which vowel sounds we plug in. So we say his name is Jesus, but that is not a name that anyone who lived in his time would recognize.

Does it matter? Most people know who we mean when we talk about Jesus. What this minor revelation about names taught me is that it does not hurt to practice a little more humility when it comes to what we think we know, with certainty, about the founder of our faith.

The “Christ” part is not actually a name at all, but more of a description, or a title. Our English word “Christ” is derived from the Greek Χριστός “Khristos”, which means “the anointed”. When the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ which means “one who is anointed”. This Hebrew word is also translated as “Messiah”. Words are important!

The word “Christ” has taken on a meaning in Christian theology very different from what “Messiah” means in Jewish religious thinking. (The word Christ, in much of our theology, is used to refer to the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, who in creeds is described as being both fully human and fully divine. The word Messiah in much of the Jewish literature, refers to a person who is fully human. In Jewish theology, only the one God is divine.)

When early Christian theologians began poring over their Greek translations of the Old Testament, they were not necessarily aware of what had been lost (or added, depending upon your view of things) in translation. So Old Testament passages about an anointed king or leader of Israel took on an air of prophecy, of appearing to foreshadow or predict the coming of Jesus, who later came to be called the Christ.

Scholars of religion, and particularly of Christian theology, have been debating for centuries whether or not there is a connection between the “messianic hopes” of the Jewish people, who were looking for a human leader to “save” their nation, and the earthly ministry of Jesus (or Yeshua)

Does this confusion over names, and the questions about the meaning of those names take anything away from our anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus? Not for me. I think God is a mystery. It is not surprising our human languages, and our translation efforts, have not fully captured the truth.

When even our best efforts at using words to define or describe God fall short, there is always prayer. When we don’t know exactly what to say, it is good for us to listen.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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