Is ‘Isa a fake name of Jesus invented by Islam?


Refuting the falsehood that ‘Isa is not the real name of Jesus

by Ibn Anwar, BHSc (Hons.), MCollT

     In my rather long experience in engaging with Christians, they have often questioned the validity of identifying Jesus with the Qur’anic name that is given to him: ‘Isa (عيسى). They would argue that Arab Christians have long identified this individual that we today generally know as Jesus as Yasu’ (يسوع) and so there is no historical basis for the name ‘Isa. In this brief article we shall examine the validity or lack thereof of the Islamic usage of the term ‘Isa as the historical name of the son of Mary who lived some 2000 years ago in Palestine.

Before we begin looking at the various names that are attributed to the son of Mary, we should have a little grasp of the historical context within which the son of Mary lived, with particular focus on the language that was used, at the time in the son of Mary’s locality and what his own native language would have been. We now know for certain that the language used by Jesus and those around him in Palestine was Aramaic. This fact is attested by the Catholic theologian Lucien Deiss who writes, “Jesus’ mother tongue was Aramaic.” [1] Similarly,Robert H. Stein writes, “Gustav Dalman at the turn of the century clearly demonstrated that the native tongue of Jesus was Aramaic.” [2] And Sang-ll Lee makes it rather unequivocal that, “…the consensus of modern New Testament scholars…Jesus spoke Aramaic as his matrix language.” [3] We have thus established that the language that was used by Jesus and his local compatriots was in fact Aramaic (or sometimes called Syriac).

A pertinent question that may follow from the above elucidation would thus be, “What was the name of Jesus in Aramaic?” And from this question we may certify whether the Arabic name ‘Isa has any historical validity or not. Before we answer this question however, we may well ask, “Where did the name Jesus come from?” How is this a relevant and valid question? Well for starters, when Jesus lived in Galilee, Palestine the letter ‘J’ that we are so familiar with in our Roman alphabet did not exist. In the time of Jesus, the local dialect that was spoken, that is, the language of the common folk was Aramaic and we cannot stress this enough. Hebrew on the other hand was the language of the learned elite that was used by the Pharisees for learning and liturgical purposes. So in Hebrew, Jesus’ name would have been Yeshua or Yehoshua (ישוע or יהושע) and this was then rendered into Iesus (Ἰησοῦς) in Greek as the New Testament authors, who spoke Greek, started writing about Jesus. This then was borrowed into Latin and much later, when English became the more prominent language that eventually replaced Latin, the term Iesus (or in its genitive form Iesu e.g. initium evangeli Iesu Christi Filii Dei in Mark 1:1) took the form of Jesus. From this short historical account of the formation of the name Jesus, we may say that there is a rather huge gap between the original name of Jesus with the much later invention of his name, that is, Jesus in English.

A lingering question still remains: What was his original name in Aramaic? There are two answers to this question.  In Eastern Aramaic, the name used for Jesus was ‘Ishho whilst in Western Aramaic, his name was Yeshu. This fact is attested by the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which states, “One very tangible difference appears in the fact that the name Jesus was by the East Syrians written and pronounced Isho`, by the West Syrians Yeshu.” [4] From a quick inspection of the pronunciation of either ‘Ishho’ or ‘Yeshu’, one may get a good sense of understanding behind the historical background of the Arabic word used for Jesus, ‘Isa. Citing the Qur’anic exegetes al-Baydawi and al-Razi, Geoffrey Parrinder writes, “He said that it was an arabized form of Ishu’, probably meaning the Syriac Yeshu’. Razi said that it was from Yasu’ and this is what the Syrians say.” [5] I should note that Parrinder may have given somewhat faulty information here because al-Baydawi was most probably referring to the Eastern Aramaic, ‘Ishho’ and was not confusing it with the Western Aramaic, ‘Yeshu’. Nevertheless, it would seem that whether we prefer Baydawi’s interpretation or al-Razi’s both concur that the origin of ‘Isa is Aramaic (Syriac), the original language of Jesus. Parrinder goes on further to provide some rather interesting information, that he takes from Arthur Jeffrey’s ‘The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an’, about the existence of Nestorian Christians in southern Syria and Arabia, and specifically a monastery in southern Syria, which as early as 571 AD, bore the name ‘Isaniya, ‘of the followers of Jesus’. [6] If we carefully scrutinise the spelling of the Arabic ‘Isa and run a linguistic comparison to its ancestor Ishho, we can see how the former has in fact come out of the latter. Leaving aside linguistic technicalities, a simple glance at the two confirms how similar they are in both appearance and pronunciation. Whilst the Arab Christians have chosen to adopt the Western pronunciation of Jesus’ name, it appears the Qur’an took the liberty to retain the Eastern model. Attesting to this fact, Neal Robinson writes, “The peculiar spelling of ‘Isa still remains something of an enigma but the most plausible explanation is that it is derived from Isho, the Syriac name for Jesus.” [7] Likewise, the scholar Sidney Griffith writes, “Of the many explanations for the form of jesus’ name as it appears in the Qur’an, the most reasonable one from this writer’s point of view is that it reflects an Arabic speaker’s spelling of what he hears in an Arabic articulation of the common East Syrian form of the name: Isho’.” [8] Similarly, Honorary Professor of Missiology at Utrecht University, Jan A. B. Jongeneel writes, “The Qur’an refers to Jesus as ‘Isa al-Masih. This Arabic expression appears to have originated from the Nestorian Syriac, Isho Mshiha.” [9] 

From the foregoing discussion, we may establish the following positions: Firstly, the popular name Jesus that is used widely around the world today is thoroughly divorced from the son of Mary’s original name in his original language. In fact, it is derived from the Greek, Iesus, which itself is rather unsemitic. This is rightly pointed out by Parrinder who states, “The final ‘s’ of the Greek and European words for Jesus is quite unsemitic.” [10] Secondly, as we have established that Jesus was not in fact Jesus’ original name, it would be folly for any Christian who uses this name resolutely without any compunction in their Bibles, liturgical practises in church etc. to denounce Muslims from using the Arabic model of his name which is ‘Isa and we have seen above that this has its origins in the original name of Jesus in his original language. We may thus safely conclude that the name ‘Isa in Arabic is indeed a valid name that correctly reflects the original Aramaic name of the historical son of Mary from Galilee, Palestine. And more than that, it also leads us to the interesting fact that the Qur’an that was given to the unlettered Prophet Muhammad, by God above, has an uncanny insight into the historical Jesus. This is yet another miracle of the Qur’an that further proves its divine origin and nullifies claims of its detractors that it is man made.

Notes:

[1] Deiss, L. (1996). Joseph, Mary, Jesus (Medeleine Beaumont, Trans.). Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. p. 8

[2] Stein, R. H. (1994). The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 4

[3] Sang-Il Lee (2012). Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context: A Study in the Interdirectionality of Language. p. 342

[4] The Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1911), 11th Edition. Cambridge, England: University Press.; See also footnote 8, Against Marcion I. in St. Ephraim’s Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan.

[5] Parrinder, G. (1965). Jesus in the Qur’an. Russel Square, London: Faber and Faber. p. 17

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robinson, N. (1991). Christ in Islam and Christianity. London: Macmillan Press LTD. p. 17

[8] Griffith, S. H. (2013). The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of “the People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 84 Fn. 64

[9] Jongeneel, J. A. B. (1989). Jesus Christ in World History: His Presence and Representation in Cyclical and Linear Settings. Frankfurt: Peter Lang Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften. p. 128

[10] Parrinder, G. Op. Cit.