Sunday, December 16, 2012

I Think I Have Figured Out an Alternative Etymology for the Name Jesus

I was having dinner with my wonderful friend Benny Tsedaka today (as well as my son) and by the end of the night I feel very confident about my theory about the original Marcionite understanding regarding the name Isu (= Jesus).  My theory is that Isu is derived from יִשְׂא֤וּ (yod sin alef vav).  Like many Hebrew words there are a number of meanings associated with the verb נָשָׂא nasa which usually means to lift, carry, take.  But speaking with a Samaritan tonight and doing some more research I think I found the solution to what the specific meaning the term had in early Christianity.

Let me start with an example from the great Sebastian Brock of Oxford that confirms my suggestion:

It was pointed out in Chapter I that even the translator who sets out to provide a literal translation cannot avoid choosing between two or more possible interpretations in cases where the Hebrew original is obscure or ambiguous. The Hebrew text of God's words to Cain in Genesis 4:7, “if you do well, will you not be accepted” (Revised Standard Version), is capable of several possible interpretations, owing to the ambiguity of the word s‚t (“will you not be accepted?" in the RSV). s't derives from nasa which can have at least four different senses, all possible in the context:

  1. “raise up” in the sense of “offer.” This is how the Greek Septuagint takes it (“If you offer well...”). 
  2.  “lift up” in the sense of “accept." The Syriac translator opts for this understanding, and he gives emphasis to it by changing the tense: he translates using a past tense, qabblet, literally “I have received/ accepted,” but in this context it will either have the nuance “I will certainly accept (that is, if you (= Cain) act well in future). Two Jewish Greek revisers of the Greek Bible have a similar understanding of the word. 
  3. “lift up” in the sense of “forgive.” This is how the Jewish Targums understand the passage (“you will be forgiven”). 
  4. “lift up” in the sense of “suspend." This understanding of the word was chosen by the author of the Samaritan Targum (“I will suspend”). It is interesting to find that most modern translators base their renderings on the second interpretation, thus following in the footsteps of the Peshitta. (Brock, the Bible in the Syriac Tradition p. 24)
And there you go.  The Samaritans Targum translated the appearance of nasa in Genesis 4:7 as 'to suspend.' Gunnar Samuelson reminds us that the various stauros terminologies go back to the idea of 'suspension.'  There is no specific sense of a 'cross' as we have been traditionally led to believe.  

My guess is that the name Isu meant 'they will hang' him i.e 'they' (= the Jews) 'will hang' him (= Jesus).  I remember Benny also reminded me in a previous trip that the Samaritans have an acronym for the name Yeshu (= Jesus) which reinforces his name means "they will hang him."  The Gospel of Shem Tov also preserves similar ideas.  Notice the following differences - Mat 26:2 "...the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified" Shem Tob "delivered into the hand of the Jews for the gallows";   Mat 27:23 "Let him be crucified" Shem Tob "let them hang him";   Mat 27:31 "led him away to crucify him" Shem Tob "gave orders to hang him"  The Aramaic term used in the Samaritan Targum is 'tly which is definitively used for crucifixion.

תלה appears for bodily suspension of humans in the MT in Gen 40:19; Deut 21:22; Josh 8:29; 10:26; Esth 2:23; 6:4; 7:10; 8:7; 9:13, 25 (cf. Esth 5:14; 7:9) – the Esther accounts likely indicating a means of execution. The word תלה by itself functions in a similar way in Gen 40:22; 41:13; Deut 21:23; 2 Sam 4:12; 21:12; Lam 5:12; Esth 9:14. For Aramaic תָלִ֥י Sokoloff lists as one of the definitions “to execute by hanging” (citing Lam. Rab. 5:12 [Buber 157:8]); see Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period, Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash and Targum 2 (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990), s.v. The penal suspensionary use of the Aramaic term תָלִ֥י appears as early as text no. 71 in A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), pp. 180–81 (line 19)

I think this is a significant discovery.

It is also worth noting that while Arabic-speaking Muslims refer to Jesus as ʿĪsā, Arabic-speaking Christians refer to Jesus as Yasūʿ (يسوع).  The circle is closing.  

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