Does it matter how we pronounce Jesus’ or God’s name?

A Facebook friend writes:

some people in our church have recently been insisting on pronouncing Jesus’ name in the Hebrew tongue, something like Yesu. They believe this is important …

He doesn’t agree, but he asks for my thoughts on the matter. What follows is an edited and expanded version of my Facebook reply to him. I have widened the issue to cover also pronunciation of God’s name, the Tetragrammaton.

I don’t see any biblical warrant for Christians worrying about exactly how to pronounce Jesus’ name or God’s name. When we are told to pray etc in God’s name or in Jesus’ name, that doesn’t mean that we have to pronounce the actual sounds of either name as a kind of magic spell. So while the pronunciations of the name vary from language to language (the Greek form of “Jesus” is very different from the Hebrew form), and the precise Hebrew pronunciation of the divine name (the tetragrammaton) is unknown, that really doesn’t matter.

What praying etc in God’s name or in Jesus’ name does mean is that we are claiming the authority that we have from God through Jesus. It is like when an ambassador or a government official does something in the name of the Queen or of their President. That is nothing to do with pronouncing the Queen’s or the President’s name. What it means is that the ambassador or official is acting under the authority vested in them by the Queen or President. Similarly we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) and so we can act and make pronouncements “in his name”, meaning by the authority vested in us by him.

Note that this authority is held by all Christians, not only by pastors, teachers or even apostles. It is not authority over other people. But it is authority to declare the word of God and to make the appeal to others “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Similarly when we pray in Jesus’ name we have this authority, and so when we ask for anything in his name and for his glory he will do it for us (John 14:13-14).

God will understand the intentions of our heart whatever name we call him. But what does matter is that what we say is understood by the humans we are speaking to. So while it is not a big deal to use “Yeshua” or something else instead of “Jesus”, it is likely to confuse the people we talk to, who even in the secularised western world have some idea of who Jesus is. So in our language, especially to outsiders and all the more when appealing to them “be reconciled to God”, we need to speak so that we will be understood. That probably means that, when speaking English, we would do best to stick with “Jesus”.

9 thoughts on “Does it matter how we pronounce Jesus’ or God’s name?

  1. The question of whether Jesus’ name should really be pronounced “Jesus” just came up in a comment to a post I wrote about God’s name.

    I would add that we don’t know how the original Hebrew or Greek was pronounced, so:

    So while it is not a big deal to use “Yeshua” or something else instead of “Jesus”…

    It’s not a big deal, but it’s still not the same as the original. (For one thing, we know there was consonent after the “sh,” though we don’t know for sure how it sounded.) In the end, it seems to me that the question is which Anglicized pronunciation to use, not whether to use one.

  2. Good post. It reminds me of one day a few years back when I was working in Laos I had a number of believers come to my house and consult with me about what is the right name of our Savior, was is Yesou as is said in the local language or is is Jesus as pronounce in English. Of course then we have the situation in Malaysia which has been on the news a month ago concerning the name of God. Praise be to Allah the Father of Isa.

  3. “Everything is permissible” except for Jehovah
    and don’t get me started on the possessive apostrophe in association with our Lord

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Joel, I hadn’t forgotten your post, but I had forgotten that Jesus had been mentioned on it. We certainly don’t know precisely how any ancient names were pronounced, but scholars have come to a fairly good idea of how ordinary Hebrew and Greek words were being pronounced in the time of Jesus. But there are of course special issues with the tetragrammaton. Anyway, my whole point is that these ancient pronunciations don’t matter – what does matter is what modern human listeners hear.

    Jay, there are of course big issues about pronunciation of these names in missionary situations. I may write a follow-up post on that.

    Tim, I would even use “Jehovah” to an audience used to that pronunciation. After all it’s no more remote from the original than “Jesus”, as pronounced in English, is from the original Hebrew sound of his name.

  5. I don’t think Jesus really cares if we pronounce his name properly.

    “what does matter is that what we say is understood by the humans we are speaking to.”
    Thats a good word. We need to make sure we’re not so pious as to forget those we’re ministering to. Even half the Zionistic language that is used in church is taken for granted as understood but ask a congregation what ‘the lion of Judah’ is when they are singing it or what the ‘days of elijah’ are, or what an ebeneezer is that we’re meant to raise in ‘come thou fount’ when they’re singing it and I bet half don’t know what it means.
    We need to explain the terms we’re using.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » When it does matter how we say “Jesus”

  7. Let me just add a late comment from a Messianic Jewish perspective.

    For most of the last 2,000 years, Christians have tried to deny the Jewishness of Jesus and present him as the first Christian, not as the Jewish messiah. This comes through in all sorts of different ways – for example numerous statements of faith contain no mention of Israel or the Jewish people, which when you think about it is rather strange. Another way is the very name Jesus, which is an anglicisation of the greek – twice removed from the hebrew or aramaic. This matters in the first instance because the church’s attitude to the Jewish people over the centuries has been disgraceful. If Christians saw Jesus first and foremost as a Jew, with a Jewish name, perhaps there wouldn’t have been so much christian anti-semitism.

    But it also matters when Jewish people come to believe in Jesus. For this is viewed by the Jewish world as a betrayal of their people – following Jesus is for gentiles, not Jews. And so, again, in recent years, many Jewish believers in Jesus have preferred to call themselves Messianic Jews, not Christians, and express their faith within a Jewish framework (religious as well as cultural, for Jesus didn’t come start a new religion). They also prefer to say Yeshua, not Jesus, for this reason.

    So, to conclude, whilst I would agree that God hears our prayers no matter what language we use, the use of Jesus does have implications. Yes, most people will understand it (which is a strong argument in favour), but equally it presents issues to the Jewish world.

  8. Ian, thanks for this comment. I agree that it is sad and wrong that Christians have sometimes ignored, if not denied, Jesus’ Jewishness. And it is certainly disgraceful how some Christians have been anti-Semitic. I have no objection to Messianic Jews using “Yeshua” if they prefer it, as indeed I wrote in my follow-up post.

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