I’m going to assume you all know that his original name is Yeshua. Then how come all Israelis who are not believers call him “Yeshu”? Where did that name come from? Is it a curse? Is it an abbreviation? When did it come into use, and why?
I’ll tell you: I don’t know. (You got that reference, I hope?)
What we do know is that it’s a name that has been used consistently by people who don’t believe in him, at least since the days of Talmud, if not longer. Many believe that it’s a curse, others say that it was just the Galilean way to pronounce his name. It’s most probably the curse, but even if the latter is true, the usage is still not very flattering. Let me explain.
There are various stories in the Talmud about a false teacher and a sorcerer named “Yeshu” who was executed. The stories are confusing and messed up. One of them involve a Rabbi who lived hundreds of years earlier than Jesus, another one has him talk to a Rabbi who was active in the 2nd century. This is, of course, a clear indication that the stories are either made-up by people with poor historic perception, or that they are about different persons who just happened to be named Yeshu.
In medieval times, a mocking story about Jesus called “toldot Yeshu” was written and passed around among Jews, where Yeshu definitely is referring to Jesus. It’s a ridiculous story, disconnected from reality, but it’s also hard to blame the medieval Jews for mocking their Christian overlords. (While they taught their kids to read the original Hebrew of the Old Testament from age 3, most Christians were illiterate and superstitious). In any case, we can see that the name “Yeshu” has been around since the time of the Talmud, at least, to refer to Jesus by Hebrew-speakers who didn’t believe in him. In fact, all Rabbinic references to Jesus uses either “Yeshu” or “that man,” with one notable exception – Rabbi Maimonides who lived in Muslim-ruled Spain and Egypt between 1138 to 1204. He doesn’t flatter Jesus, of course, but he does refer to him as “Yeshua of Nazareth,” and not as “Yeshu.”
So based on the biblical account, and every single translation of the New Testament from the medieval times until today, plus a number of archaeological evidence and Maimonides, we can be fairly certain his original name was Yeshua, which means salvation. We can also see that people who didn’t believe him, opposed him, and mocked him, consistently called him Yeshu, which doesn’t have any meaning in Hebrew.
Even though the origin of “Yeshu” is unclear, the purpose is quite clear – they preferred using a name not associated with salvation. “Yeshu” is therefore first and foremost an attempt to deny him being the savior, whether “Yeshu” was originally a curse or not.
As for the curse, the name Yeshu can be seen as an abbreviation of “Yimach Shmo Uzichro,” may his name and memory be blotted out. Some believe this curse was the original meaning of the name. Others claim that this meaning and usage as a curse was added later. That is, Yeshu was already the accepted name in Hebrew, and someone made up that it could be an abbreviation of this curse. Nevertheless, no one can deny that this name has been used as a curse. In fact, my great-great-grandfather, who wrote about China in Hebrew in the early 20th century and harshly criticized the missionaries in China, wrote “Yeshu” to refer to Jesus with clear abbreviation marks, showing that he uses the name as a curse.
The other explanation, which could be true, is that since “Yeshua” is pronounced with the letter “ayin” in the end, which is pronounced far back in the throat, it was eliminated from the Galilean dialect and also from the Greek and Latin version of the name. This is why the name in Greek and Latin is Iesous, and the Galilean way of saying it is “Yeshu,” which was preserved in the Talmud. Even if this was true, the Galileans would still spell it as Yeshua. Those who claim this as the true “harmless” origin of the name point to ancient Rabbis named “Yeshu” in the Talmud, where the name “Yeshu” is only in the oldest manuscripts, and they have been edited to Yehoshua (Joshua) in later editions, so as not to connect them with Jesus.
Even if this is true, it shows us that the Talmud originally had all kinds of people known as Yeshu or Yeshua or Yehoshua, and the Rabbis deliberately kept the name “Yeshu” for all the heretics and sorcerers, and switched to Yeshoshua for all the “good” Rabbis with the same name. Keeping the name Yeshu, whether it was with the curse in mind or not, was done in order to make it sound more gentile, less Jewish, and less like salvation. They wanted to label him as a foreigner. Another theory is that the Rabbis just tried to use the Greek or Latin name and render it in Hebrew. That theory just makes it worse – it was a part of a deliberate campaign to un-Jew him and detach his name from the notion of salvation. Fact is, we have no records of anyone who believes in him naming him Yeshu.
Most Israelis today call him Yeshu, thinking it’s his real name in Hebrew. Whenever Christianity is taught in school, in books, in academic works, anywhere, it will say Yeshu, unless it’s a direct quote from the New Testament (then, they actually have the decency to keep Yeshua). If confronted about this, the average Israeli might look up the Hebrew Wikipedia article that establishes that it’s the Galilean pronunciation of Yeshua, and claim it’s his Hebrew name, and there’s nothing bad with it. Others, especially some ultra-orthodox, might own the fact that it’s a curse and say it’s fine. They are supposed to curse heretics. Others will wave it away, saying that it’s just the accepted way to call him in Hebrew nowadays, and we can’t change it.
But that’s where they are wrong. We can, and we should demand that this change. We should reiterate that his name is Yeshua and not Yeshu whenever it comes up. Why on earth would it be acceptable to name the main figure of a world religion with a curse? Can you imagine the protests that would ensue if the accepted name for Muhammed or Buddha was a curse in any other language? Buddha was from India, but India stayed a mostly Hindu country. Imagine if all the schools in India taught the children that “a man named ‘cursed one’ founded the Buddhist religion.” Would anyone accept that? Imagine the outrage if Muhammed’s name was switched to a curse in any European language. Yet Christians just silently accept that all the Israeli children in all schools in Israel learn that the founder of Christianity was named Yeshu.
No, I’m not saying you should boycott Israel until this changes, or that you should stop being pro-Israel. Neither should you believe the anti-semites who claim that “the Jews curse Jesus every day,” because most Israelis are not even aware of this. What I am saying is that if you’re an evangelical leader with any kind of influence on Israeli decision makers, this is something I think you should bring up. Not as an attack or demand, (the old medieval days, when the Christians could dictate what the Jews are allowed to say and do are thankfully over), but as something that you see as extremely problematic and offensive. In fact, I think any Christian who has any kind of talks or dealings with Israelis should bring it up if possible. I’m not saying the Israeli schools should teach that he was the Messiah, but couldn’t we at the very least ask that they use his real Hebrew name? Isn’t that a bare minimum thing to ask for? The typical Israeli will respond that they can’t change anything, but if enough people express concern over a large enough period of time, we just might start to see things change.
You probably remember that I don’t think it matters whether we call him Jesus or Haysoos or Iesous or Yeshua, as long as we mean the same person. The phonetic sounds formed in our mouth don’t carry any specific magic meaning in themselves. If so, it shouldn’t matter if some people say “Yeshu,” should it? No, it should. This time it does matter. Not because there is magic in the sounds we utter, and we are magically unknowlingly blaspheming him if we use it, but because Yeshu is a name with problematic historical baggage. Frankly, it’s right out offensive, and we should strive to make it not politically correct to use it. (I know some of us are allergic to the term “politically correct,” but if others can use it to remove offensive words and phrases, why shouldn’t we be allowed to do the same?)
Bottom line – no matter the origins of the name, whether innocent or a curse, it has been used as a curse, and it is used exclusively by people who don’t believe in him. Most Israelis use the name “Yeshu” without knowing its origins and its association with a curse, and it has probably become the regular name for him in Hebrew for two reasons: It makes him sound less Jewish, and they don’t want to use a name that means “salvation.”
They’re trying to get away from the fact that belief in Jesus is a Jewish faith.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, November 19, 2021, and reposted with permission.