The Influence of Language and Culture in shaping the Meaning of Christian Names
Clement Aloyce Kihiyo is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Tanga in Tanzania, born in 1976 and ordained in 2008. He holds a licentiate in Sacred Liturgy from the University of St. Anselm in Rome. Since 2011, he has been teaching Sacred Liturgy and Latin language at Ntungamo Major Seminary-Bukoba in Tanzania. Since 2019, he has been pursuing doctoral studies in Catholic Theology at the University of Innsbruck (Austria).
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us (Mat 1:23). The meaning of Immanuel is rooted in the Jewish cultural and linguistic context. How about other names?
In the Swahili culture, a child is usually given two names. The first name is traditional names which has special meaning. The second name is religious name, being it Christian name or Islamic name. Due to the influence of colonialism and slave trade in Swahili culture, the religious names are sometimes referred as foreign or simply European names or Arabic names. The Muslims would take names which are Arabic oriented, and the Christian would take the names which ore European oriented. Sometimes people prefer to use the traditional names and hide their religious name because they think such names are connected to slavery or colonialism.
In this article, I would like to remove this negative mentality that the religious names in the Swahili culture are connected to European colonization or Arabic slavery. The Bible and the history of evangelization shows us that language had the special influence in shaping the meaning of our names. It is the lack of historical knowledge and understanding of the meaning of names that make some people in the Swahili culture to consider the religious names as foreign. It is good to for each person to search to which language does his or her name originated.
In the Jewish tradition, the child receives a name soon after the birth. Usually, the name is chosen by the mother or the father of the child. The name defines the essence of a thing. Naming a thing means knowing it and the possibilities within it. In the terrestrial paradise, God gave the first man the role to name the animals (Gen 2:19-20), in this case they became under his authority. Since the name defines the essence of a being, it reveals the character and destination of the one who carries it. It becomes a symbol which forces the interpretation with the appropriate etymology deep in the given language. In this case, even the religious names fall in this significance. In this article I would like to focus more on Christian names.
Some of the Christian names are taken from the Bible. The first instance when one opens the Bible finds a series of names; the Name of God and names of creatures. It is simple to answer the question what is your name? But very difficult or even impossible to answer the question, what is the meaning of your name? In a more specific way, what is a Christian name? A simple answer is this; it is synonymous to a Baptismal name, or a name which a person acquires after being Christianized, or a name which a person acquires in the process of Christian initiation. For the adults, it may be a new name, or the old name which acquires the dignity of Christianity after having confessed the Christian faith. So, Christian name is connected always to the faith in Jesus, at Jesus’ command “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” (Mt. 28:19). Therefore, a Christian name is a meaningful name, a name of a person who lives, or who has lived a Christian faith and who has witnessed Christ by blood or by a worthy life. It is a name that one acquires through baptism. Through baptism a person is born anew (CCC 1212).
The Canon law highlights the necessity of being born in the sacrament of baptism, “A person who has not yet received baptism cannot validly be admitted to other sacraments “Ad cetera sacramenta valide admitti nequit, qui baptismum non receipt” (CIC 842§1); and that parents, sponsors and parish priests are to take care that a name is not given which is foreign to Christian sentiment; “Curent parentes, patrini et parochus ne imponatur nomen a sensu christiano alienum” (CIC 855). The name may be of a saint or sometimes of a virtue. A Christian name in the sense of a saint is not required but only that is not alien or offensive to Christian sensibilities.
Baptism goes hand in hand with the giving of name, and a name becomes a door of persons’ identity. People are known by names, and other identifications can follow. If baptism is the base of Christian life, so also the name is the base of one’s identity. A name can identify your nationality, tribe, religion, and the like. Here, a Christian name identifies a person’s identity as a one who lives a Christian faith. In other words, the name is a language which gives meaning to your life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that, holy baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacrament. Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word (CCC 1213).
The first act of naming is found in the story of creation (Gen 1:26-27, 2:19-23). The first man God calls him Adam, and the meaning to call him Adam is given in Hebrwe, “because he is from the soil ﬡﬢﬦﬣ (àdamah). So, Adam is created from the soil as his primitive nature, whereby at the end he will return to the same soil which fashioned him. Hence from the beginning, the name is not just a name, but a name with meaning. Hence the name Adam from Hebrew language refers to the origin of human race, and it defined the destiny of human race after earthly life.
In the second story of creation, God sees that, this man is alone, so He makes him sleep and makes a woman from him. The woman is not left without a name, but she is named ‘Eve’, because she was the mother of all those who live (Gen 3:20). In this case, her name refers to the biological role of procreation. Her name signifies what God meant, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it” (Gen 1:28).
What is more interesting in the story of creation is the responsibility of a man to give names to the other creatures (Gen 2:19-20). Man starts that responsibility by naming animals. This shows that, the importance of a name is not only for human being, but also for the rest of the creatures. Every creature is identified by its name.
Naming is the perpetuation of the work of creation which God has initiated. Baptism is a similitude of recreation or regeneration. It is a new creation into the new life after that life of first creation which was destroyed by sin. As it is written in the Gospel of St. John, “...unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God...unless a man is born through water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God ...what is born of flesh is flesh, what is born of the spirit is spirit” (Jn 3: 3-8).
The Christians apart from taking the names of saints, they have followed the long Jewish tradition of giving their children meaningful names soon after birth, or even anticipating the name before the child is born. A scriptural crosschecking reveals this tradition of giving meaningful names not only in Jewish tradition, but also the whole Semitic tradition.
It is also a Jewish custom to name a child in relation to a Jewish feast, holiday or commemorative event that coincides with the child’s birth. For a boy born on Purim, one might use the name Mordechai; on Chanukah one may use the name Mattisyahu or Yehudah; on Pesach one may use the name Moshe and many others. As Christianity grew, names reflecting the feasts were given. There are found names like Paschal which reflect the feast of Easter and Natalia which reflects the feast of Christmas. There are many names which have reference to the feasts of Virgin Mary such as Immaculate, Assumption and others.
The Midrash-Tanchuma Ha’azinu 7 gives direction of choosing names. One should always be careful to choose for his child a name that denotes righteousness, for at times the name itself can be an influence for good or evil. The name given to a new-born child does not perish but remains forever. This is the reason why the ancestors are always remembered though they died many centuries ago.
To make sure that the Jews do not lose their traditions, together with oral transmission of their values, they established schools for the children. The teaching involved the studding of Alphabet, the Torah, and other regulations of the tribe. The recording of names of Rabbi helps to lay foundation for the support of the tradition. Some of the names found in the school of Hillel are Aqabja ben Mahalalel, Rabban Gamaliele I, Chananja and others. They kept records from one generation to the other. Therefore, the schools show the importance of name recording which will later be taken in the Christian tradition.
In the Jewish tradition, children in some cases were given names which corresponded to animals, insects, or other living creatures. For instance, Rachel means ‘sheep’; Deborah means ‘bee’; Jonah means ‘dove’; Caleb means ‘dog’; Nahash means ‘serpent’ and the like. This became common character in the Christian era to choose names which signify animals. Names may also be according to physical appearance such as Quareah which means ‘bald-headed’; Paseah means ‘crippled’; Habash which means ‘black’ and the like. This happen when a child was born, or changes of life when one is already adult. For instance, one may acquire the name ‘Quareah’ when his hairs go off because of old age, or a child may get such name if he is born without the hairs. The names of plants also appear, such as Elon which means ‘ork’; Zeitan which means ‘olive tree’; Qos means ‘spine’; Tamar means ‘palm’ and the like. Many names refer to God with the abbreviation ‘El’. Some foreign names outside Palestine and within Palestine were also adapted.
In the epoch of Greco-Roman rose a tendency of having Judaic name and the name Greek or Latin, such as Salome-Alessandra, John-Mark or the name is translated into Greek: Mattaniya becomes Theodotos, or the Semitic name is given Greek form such as Jesus, Mary, and the like. The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The wise men say that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. It is like a new creation. The divine name ﬡﬥ (‘el) is always at the centre of naming. The name also means direction towards God. For at the beginning of life we give a name, and at the end of life a good name is all we take with us. Further, the Talmud tells us that parents receive one-sixth of the prophecy when picking a name. An angel comes to the parents and whispers the Jewish name that the new baby will embody.
The name of man ﬡﬢﬦ (Adam) is essentially constituted by the divine decision, the absolute decision of God. The name of God יהוה (Yahweh) is the Holy name; therefore, no person is given that name, for it would be sacrilege. It is a name which contains the mystery of every person. The following is a biblical observation.
The first born of Adam and Eve was named Cain (Qain). The woman gives a reason why she has chosen that name, ‘I have acquired a man (qanah) with the help of Yahweh’ (Gen 4:2). The third son was named Seth. Again, the woman gives a reason on why she chooses that name, the woman said ‘because God has granted me other offspring in place of Abel, since Cain has killed him (Gen 4:25). So, the names given are given with reasons, hence they are meaningful names. It is the first time we find a woman choosing names to her children. In the first instance of naming, it was God who named Adam, and Adam named Eve. Then Adam was given the authority to name other things.
The naming of Esau and Jacob, the two sons of Isaac and Rebecca depended on the way they were born. As it is written, ‘The first born was red, and as though he were completely wrapped in a hairy cloak; so, they named him Esau’. Then his brother was born, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so, they named him Jacob (Gen 25:25-26). Therefore, Esau’s name is connected to his redness and his hairy nature while Jacob name relates to his grasping or struggling character with his brother.
The naming of the twelve Sons of Jacob is so dramatic within his two wives and the two slave girls. In every instance a reason is given on why that name is given. Leah, the first woman gives names which reflect her unlovely relationship with Jacob and her sister Rachel because she is less loved by Jacob. The first born of Leah was named Reuben, because she said ‘Yahweh has seen my misery; the second son was named Simeon, she said because ‘Yahweh has seen that I was neglected; the third son was named Levi, she said ‘this time my husband will be united to me, the forth son she named Judah saying ‘this time I will give glory to Yahweh (Gen 29:31-35).
For the two sons of Zilpah, the first Leah named him Gad; she exclaimed ‘What a good fortune! And the second son of Zilpah, Leah named him Asher, as Leah said ‘What happiness! The last two sons of Leah she named them Issachar ‘God has paid me my wages...’ and Zebulun ‘God has given me fine gift’ (Gen 30:9-13, 18-21).
For the sons of Rachel and her slave girl Bilha, the names reflect her reaction to her sister and her state of being barren. The two sons of a slave-girl Bilha, Rachel named them Dan, as she said, ‘God has done me justice’ and the second she named him Naphtali, as she said, ‘I have fought God’s fight with my sister, and I have won’.
For the sons from her own womb, the first son she named him Joseph saying, ‘God has taken away my shame’. It means the shame of being barren is now over. The second son she named him Ben-oni which means son of my sorrow. It was a child who came with the pain of death. The father changed this name of ill omen to Benjamin which means ‘son of right hand, son of right omen’ (Gen 30:6-8, 23-24; 35:18-19).
Therefore, the names of the twelve sons of Jacob characterised the relationship of the two sisters, and the character of Jacob to love more the young sister than the elder sister. Also, the health state of Rachel characterises the names of her two sons from her womb. In this case, they are names with the reasons, or one can say, they are meaningful names.
The names of Josephs’ sons with Asenath in Egypt depended on his being away from home and his suffering. The first son he named him Manasseh because he said, ‘God has made me forget all my suffering and my entire father’s household.’ For the second son he named him Ephraim, because he said, ‘God has made me fruitful in the country of my misfortune’ (Gen 41:50-52).
The tradition of giving meaningful names seems to spread to the Egyptian tradition. This is shown in the naming of Moses by the daughter of Pharaoh. She named him Moses because she said, ‘I drew him out of water’ (Ex 2:10). When Moses got his first born at Midian, he named him Gershom because he said, ‘I am a stranger (ghèr) in a foreign land’ (Ex 2:22).
The birth of Samuel came after a long prayer of Hannah the wife of Elkanah. She named him Samuel because, she said, ‘I asked Yahweh for him’ (1Sam 1:20). So, his name is a result of long prayers, and it is a thanksgiving to God, as it ends with ‘el’.
Hosea names his three children according to the command of God. All the names he gave to his children are symbolic. The first child God commands “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel’s bow in the Valley of Jezreel.” So, it is a name which prophesizes the revenge of God on the house of Jehu.
The second child God says, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them. Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them not by bow, sword, or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.” Israel has chosen to follow foreign gods and Judah has remained faithful to God, in this way God shows His dissatisfaction on Israel and His love on Judah. And the third child God says, “Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God (Hos 1:3-9).
The same tradition continues until the time of the New Testament. The Evangelist quote from the book of Prophet Isaiah in the account of the birth of Jesus, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God is with us” (Mt 1:23, Is 7:14). The name was anticipated before the birth of Jesus; hence it is a prophetic name fulfilling the Old Testament promise.
The naming of John the Baptist shows that, there is a possibility of a child to take a name of his father, ‘they were going to call him Zachariah after his father’ (Lk 1:59). However, the mother intervened the process of giving a name to the child and gave the name John as his name. Here again it shows that that, the community was not content for this name because it is not found in the family lime, “But no one in your family has that name,” (Lk 1:61). The father’s affirmation ended the discourse.
The naming of John Baptist is the clear indication that names are drawn within the family line and members. The Bible does not give indication why they choose that name, but the prophecy of Zachariah shows the prophetic sense of the name of a child. This tradition of giving meaningful names to the newly born reflect the Christian tradition of giving the new-born in the Christian faith with the meaningful names which do not contradict Christian faith or scandalous to Christian faith. If it is a name of a saint, it will reflect that meaningful life which that saint has lived, or another name which reflect the virtuous life in the common life of people (CIC 855).
Changing of names is another common phenomenon in the Jewish tradition. The new name comes due to new situation of life or new responsibility of life. The change of name may also be due to divine intervention. The following sections will manifest such changes as presented in some parts of the Bible.
The first divine intervention for the change of a name is found in the account of Abram and his wife Sarai. God tells Abram, “You shall no longer be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I make you father of multitude of nations. “The name is changed with the promise in it, which is to be ‘the father of the multiple nations. The change of a name also comes to the wife of Abraham. God says, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah” (Gen 17:1-16). In this way, a child is promised to these two although they are old.
According to the Jewish tradition, names correspond to a certain number which has meaning. In this case, the change of the name of Abram to Abraham explains a completion or fulfilment of a specific number. It explains the relation with having added the complete name of the body, which according to rabbinical conception has two hundred forty-eight parts, crossing the correspondent numerical value of the form of the name.
The divine intervention for the change of name is also shown in the name of Jacob. God tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have been strong against God, you shall prevail against men” (Gen 32:28). It is a name with prophetic pronouncement, ‘to prevail against men’.
The change of name comes also to the last son of Jacob. It was a child who was born in the pain of death. In this case her mother, Rachel named him Beni-oni, which means son of my sorrow, or son of bad omen. The father Jacob, for his own reasons found that name is not good for his child, so he decided to change it into Benjamin, to mean a son of good omen (Gen 35:18). This is the indication that, a good name is important to the child, and a bad name with negative implication has to be avoided, and if someone has already that name, it has to be changed and take a new a good name. This is the first human intervention to the change of a name as it is shown in the scriptures.
Joseph the son of Jacob who was sold to Egypt was given a new name after he has interpreted the dream of Pharaoh. Pharaoh gave Joseph the name ‘Zaphenath-Paneah’ and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt (Gen 41:45). The name changed with the change of his status that is, from being a prisoner to being a governor of all Egypt. This is another human intervention to the change of a name.
Hoshea was given a new name by Moses. This name reflected his role of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, as written, ‘These were the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua’ (Numb 13:16). Therefore, the new name came with new responsibility of taking the role of Moses of leading the people of God to the Promised Land.
Another instance for the change of a name is for Naomi who chooses a new name by herself. As it is written, ‘And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. ‘I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’ (Ruth 1:19-21). So, the name ‘Mara’ shows the better experience of the lady.
Gideon was given the name of Jerubaal due to his act of destroying the statue of the pagan god ‘Baal’. ‘Therefore, on that day he called him Jerubbaal, saying, Let Baal pleads against him, because he hath thrown down his altar (Jg 6:32). The reason for changing their names is the divine powers God manifested in them.
Here the names are in relation to the Babylonian gods, Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These names were given as follows, ‘Daniel’s new name was Belteshazzar, Hananiah’s was Shadrach, Mishael’s was Meshach, and Azariah’s was Abednego (Dan 1:7).
The change of names does not end in the Old Testament; it crosses to the New Testament. The best example is that of Jesus to Simon. Jesus tells him, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! So, I say to you: You are Peter, and, on this rock, I will build my Church (Mt 16:17-18). I t is a change with the new role, the role of being the rock of the foundation of the Church. It is from this change where the supremacy of Peter is referred up today as the chair of St. Peter (Cathedrae S. Petri Apostoli).
Jesus called twelve men to be His apostles. Among them are “James the son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder)” This is the only place in Scripture that mentions the designation of the sons of Zebedee as the Sons of Thunder, and there is no stated explanation as to why Jesus named them this (Mk 3:17).
In the acts of Apostles, there is again a person given another name, as written, ‘Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), (Acts 4:36). Barnabas became a strong co-worker of Paul in the spread of the Gospel to the gentiles. So, this new name relates to his efforts for the Gospel preaching.
Another interesting phenomenon is having two names or dual names. Usually the first name is mentioned, then a statement is given for the second name ‘who is also called, or known as ...’ The following survey shows those people with two named as they appear in the Bible.
Solomon the son of David with Bathsheba was given the second name Jedidiah. The reason of getting the second name is given, “Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and went into her and lay with her; and she gave birth to a son, and he named him Solomon. Now the Lord loved him and sent word through Nathan the prophet, and he named him Jedidiah for the Lord’s sake (2 Sam 12:24-25). Therefore, the second name is due to divine intervention which shows the love of God.
The book of Esther shows that, “Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful (Esther 2:7). How she has acquired this name is not stated, even what does it mean is not explained; only that she is also known by another name.
The two names of Thomas are clear as given in the narration of the event of resurrection. ‘Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came (Jn 20:24). There is no explanation to why he has two names, but only he was also known as Didymus.
The writer of the Gospel according to Mark is said to be John Mark. As found in the Acts of the Apostles, he is mentioned in the story of Paul and Barnabas as follows, “After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also (Acts 15:37). So, it is so obvious that the person referred has two names, John also called Mark.
The writer of the Gospel according to Mathew is also known as Levi. There is no explanation to why he has two names. In his call by Jesus the two names are demonstrated. “As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me” And he got up and followed Him” (Lk 5:27; Mk 2:14).
The Apostle Paul had two names, one Hebrew and the other Roman or Latin name, as written, “But Saul, who was also known as Paul” (Acts 13:9). The Hebrew name he inherited from his parents was Saul, but, because his father was a Roman citizen Saul also had the Latin name Paul and Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37, 22:25-28). The custom of dual names seems to be common in those days. In his missionary activity, the name which prevails is Paul while the name of Saul disappears.
The following table shows the list of dual names and where they are found in the Bible. This list is just an example of dual names. There are many other dual names in the Bible and Jewish culture.
As it has been shown from this survey of the Jewish Culture, the Christian names have their root in the Jewish Culture and tradition. Christianity is born within the Jewish context; it took many elements including names and the mode of naming.
In the first place, the work has shown what a name is and it’s important in life. Moreover, it has shown the meaning of a Christian name apart from the rest of the names and terminologies. So, the Christian name is connected to Christian faith. There are also other titles and terminologies connected to Christian faith such as the Church, Baptism and others.
The survey has shown that, some of the names have been taken directly from the Bible and inserted in the Christian Liturgical Calendar hence used as Christian names. The names like Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, David, and many others have been taken exactly as they are from the Bible and used as Christian names.
From the authority of naming things given to Adam by God, it is the same authority which the Church uses to name, not only the things but also the people of God. Terminologies and titles like the Pope, the Cardinal, the Acolyte, the Basilica, the Cathedral, and many others is the clear indication that the Church can use her authority to name things or invent terminologies which indicate the Christian sense in the life of the Church.
The tradition of giving meaningful names has been taken by the Church depending on each language and culture. A Christian name can be chosen from the list of Saints, or taken from the Bible; however, the Church gives freedom to choose any name, only that it should be a good name, in the sense that it does not contradict Christian faith and neither evoke Christian sensibilities. Names like Happiness, Glory, Peace, Good-luck, Wisdom, and such type are commonly used as Christian names though they are not names of saints; what is important is that they are meaningful names.
The tradition of changing or addition of names is also taken by the Church. This is found especially when a new Pope is elected; he is given a freedom to choose a new name for the new office which he assumes. The Pope imitates the act of Simon who took the name of Peter. The change of names is also found in the religious vows. A member is allowed to choose a new name which signifies his or her new status of life. In the baptism, if a person is an adult may continue to use the old name only of it accords to Christian faith, but if that name is contrary to Christian faith, it needs to be changed and choose a new name which accord to Christian faith. In fact, it is the same idea of changing or adding of name which is found in the Bible.
As for dual names or two names, or even combination of two names, the same tradition has been taken by the Church. Names like John Paul II, Anna-Maria, Maria-Anna, John-Luke, and other such type are common for Christians.
In short, the long root of Christian names if from the Bible and the Jewish tradition. Christianity has taken not only the names as they appear in the Bible and Jewish tradition, but also the method of naming their children. Hence, one can easily conclude that, Christian names have the Bible and Jewish culture as their origin. Since the language at biblical time was Hebrew and Aramaic, them some of the Christian names a meaningful when one refers to Hebrew or Aramaic language.
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