Another Informal or Familiar Name for “Jesus”
There was another familiar name for Yehoshua‘ besides Yeshua‘, though less common. After the birth of Christianity, the use of the name Yeshua‘ became exceedingly rare when compared with the frequent use of the name during the Second Temple Period.
A shortened form of the name, “Yeshu”, without the ‘ayin has long been used as the Jewish name for Jesus (of Nazareth) in Jewish circles. The use of this form of the name for Jesus of Nazareth by Jews has, for some time, been at the center of a controversy, especially in the modern era. A common reason given in certain circles for this seeming misspelling of the name is that the name was changed in order convert the original meaning “God is our salvation” to an acronym “may his name and memory be erased” (as a slur). However, there is some evidence that the name Yeshu was used during the late Second Temple Period as mere familiar name or nickname, with no slur intended.
According to the medieval Masoretic grammatical rules of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: When a word ends in a guttural letter, ‘ayin or chet, which is preceded by a ‘heterogeneous long vowel’ (such as “-ow-“, “-uw-“, “-iy-“,“-ey-“) then a short ‘a’ vowel is to be inserted between the the consonant of the long vowel and the guttural ending. However, this rule is reflected in Hebrew and Aramaic grammar rather late in the game, in the medieval vocalized manuscripts of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.
The only place where we can find the actual first century pronunciation of the name (with its vowels) is in the Greek form of the name. The Greek transliteration of the name is not IHSOUAS but IHSOUS, with no evidence of an inserted short “a” vowel. Likewise, the Syriac Aramaic vocalization of the name is Isho‘ (not Ishoa‘). The original pronunciation of the name ended with the guttural ‘ayin alone. In this case the “-uw-“ of Yeshu‘ followed immediately with a drop in the voice and the constriction of the larynx and the glottis to for the sound of the letter ‘ayin. This sound may have resembled the vowel sound “a” to the Masoretes of the medieval period. However, to the ears of others from the Second Temple Period, including the Greeks, the sound of the ‘ayin was either unheard or could not be transliterated in the Greek language.
With regard to ossuary inscriptions, in at least one case, and perhaps two, the familiar name YESHU‘ is accompanied by an even shorter form of the name, YSHW (YESHU). On ossuary CJO 9 (the second “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosef” inscription), the name appears as an alternative reading of Yeshua‘ (note the unusual form of the shin, with five strokes rather than four). In DF 40 the name YESHU‘ occurs twice in cursive script, while a third name appears (with a poorly written shin, but otherwise decipherable), which may be another example of YSHW (YESHU).
It seems to follow that, at least during the Second Temple Period, the name YSHW (YESHU) did not contain any derogatory connotations. Whatever it may have come to mean to Jews and Christians during their many centuries of conflict, can only be drawn from the annals of later history. The etymological back-formation of YESHU to represent the acronym YSH”W –“may his name and memory be erased” may well be a relatively recent invention that was instigated during these years of struggle.
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