Probably not as clever as my first blog title. I apologize. It is 2 a.m.
This question has always intrigued me, and I felt now was a good time to dive into the issue. Names are obviously very important in the day and age of the book, so why were the disciples’ epithets altered or, in the case of some, changed completely?
The first thing I think we need to address is what names meant in this time. We have a great emphasis this semester on understanding the context that the book was written in – what was 1st century Palestine like?
I grabbed a quick overview from jesuscentral.com and summarized it, which can be accessed by clicking here.
Politically, we’re looking at Roman rule. This should have been obvious based on verses 13-17 in Mark chapter 12:
13And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances,c but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denariusd and let me look at it.” 16And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
We can see from much of the New Testament that the Jews did not exactly admire the Roman government. Herod was responsible for the murder of several young Jewish boys at the time of Jesus’ birth, as well as the placing of idols in the Temple. All of this makes for some bad mojo.
I wasn’t going to put anything on the economics of this particular time and place, but upon further inspection, it may be important. Herod employed many in public works projects, such as temple building, stone carvings, and stadium construction. There was a huge divide between the upper, middle and lower classes, which of course consisted of religious aristocracy, teachers and tradesmen, and laborers and slaves – respectively.
This ties into cultural life in Palestine, which was centered around religion, the family, and work. What you did for a living made you who you were – it established a name for you, and for future generations of yours as well. Even today we often hear when speaking to others, “Yeah, my dad is so-and-so,” and that carries some weight if the person is well-known. Being able to say, “My father is Joseph, the carpenter,” would have allowed you to establish rapport with those who knew your family, and would have spoken to your credibility as a craftsman (or a man in general, depending on how your father was perceived).
This brings me to my main point – what’s in a name? For the people of first century Palestine (not just Jews), everything. Even in the Old Testament, we see the importance of names come up. According to Wes Woodall of The Overflow (a Christian blog), Biblical names had several connotations behind them.
…a biblical name could record some aspects of a person’s birth. Moses was given his name because his mother drew him out of a river (Exodus 2:10). His name literally means “to draw out.” Jacob and Samuel also serve as examples (Genesis 25:6; 1 Samuel 1:20).
Biblical names sometimes expressed the parents’ reaction to the birth of their child. Examples include Isaac (Genesis 21:6) which means “laughter”, and Abimelech (Judges 8:31) which means “my father is king.”
Biblical names were sometimes used to secure the solidarity of family ties. An example of this is found in Luke 1:59 when John the Baptist was nearly given the name of his father.
Biblical names could be used to communicate God’s message. The prophet Isaiah named his first son Shear-jashub which means “a remnant shall return” (Isaiah 7:3). This was in line with God’s message to the Israelite people that they would be reduced to a mere remnant of what they once were, and would eventually return from exile to the promised land.
Biblical names were also used to establish affiliation with God. All the names ending with -jah or -el (and there are many of those) are saying “with the Lord” or “with God.”
Next, he goes on to talk about the giving of a new name. We’ll get there. I would still like to take a moment to discuss what he says in this portion of the blog.
If we look at these five reasons Wes gives, we can see a small understanding of the original names of the disciples. Below, I have a list of these names, and their meanings.
1. Simon (Peter): “He has heard.” This makes sense for this character, as he was the – how shall I say this delicately? – loudmouth of the group. Simon (Peter) was always the first one to speak up about anything, whether he was right or wrong, he jumped in head-first.
2. Andrew: This is an English translation of the Greek name Andreas, which means “man” or “manly man.” This can be seen in his demeanor in the whole New Testament, which is pretty much the silent, working man. Andrew was a fisherman before Jesus’ ministry began, and a job like that requires more than spaghetti arms.
3. James (Boanerges): This seems to be a derivative of the OT name Jacob, which means “supplanter.” There are actually two James in the group of the apostles. The first one was John’s brother, and was also a fisherman. The second one was not very well-known. I can’t actually find any reason why they are named this, which is frustrating me a little.
4. John (Boanerges): “Yaweh is gracious.” This John is not to be confused with John the Baptist. The former was actually a disciple of the latter before Jesus came into the picture. He was considered one of the three disciples closest to Jesus during his ministry, along with Peter and John’s own brother, James. John was a powerhouse for the furthering of the story of Jesus, believed to have written five books of the bible – his Gospel; 1, 2, and 3 John; Revelation. He is frequently referred to as “the disciple who Jesus loved” in the Gospel accounts, and this seems to go hand in hand with the meaning of his name.
5. Philip: His name means “Friend of horses.” This one truly baffled me, and upon further inspection, all I am really able to tell you is that Jewish children were often named after a deceased relative, which can possibly be applied in Philip’s case, as well as the two James.
6. Thomas: Literal translation is “twin.” He is often referred to as “Thomas the Twin” in the book. The only other thing we know about Thomas comes later in the book of John, when we see that he does not believe Jesus has been resurrected and demands to see him in person to confirm it.
7. Matthew (Levi): Matthew comes from a Greek form of a Hebrew name which means, “Gift of Yaweh.” This is evidenced in the impact he had on the spread of the gospel. I am sure his parents were also probably exicted to have a child, and considered him a “gift.”
8. Thaddeus (Jude): Thaddeus comes from the Greek name for Theodore, which means “Gift of God.” Not much is known about him either, so we can assume this may be a family name.
9. Simon (the Zealot): We established that Simon means “He has heard.” Based on his name (and the history of the “Zealots” group), we can see that his name fits his character. A zealot will certainly be heard, no?
10. Judas: Comes from the Hebrew name Judah, which means “Praised.” This seems to be a positive thing, but knowing that he was the one who betrays Jesus, as well as the only one given a job description in the disciple group (Treasurer), you have to wonder if this name was a foreshadowing of his egotistical and greed-driven nature. It may have just been a name his parents chose, but methinks there is more to this story.
11. Bartholomew (Nathaniel): His name is literally just an identification of who he is related to – “Son of Talmai.” Not much else is known about him.
Below, I found a chart that shows all the names and where they appear, as well as where they appear changed.
That was a long list. Thankfully, this one is much shorter. I’m only going to talk about the name changes in this section.
1. Simon (Peter): Peter comes from the Greek name Petros, meaning “Rock.” This name is also pretty obvious from what we know about Peter, which is that he later came to be the founder/leader of the Christian church.
2. James and John (Boanerges): Boanerges translates to “Sons of Thunder” in Greek. This was just a nickname that Jesus gave the pair of brothers, and it is evidenced later in their lives when we see (as previously mentioned) how much they did for the Gospel message, including (but not limited to) being martyred for their faith and outspokenness.
3. Matthew (Levi): Levi translates to “Attached” in Hebrew. There is some question as to whether or not this is the same person, as in both Mark and Luke, the “tax collector” (formerly identified as Matthew) is referred to by the name Levi. I can’t find any reason for this name change, except that it may be a family name.
4. Thaddeus (Jude): It is believed that Jude (Judas, actually) is the original name here, and not Thaddeus. To distinguish this Judas from Judas Iscariot (the betrayer), I suppose the writers decided a name change altogether was best.
5. Bartholomew (Nathaniel): I feel like I’m letting you guys down! There is so little known about this disciple that all I can tell you is Nathaniel means “God has given.”
The main point of this blog was to answer this question: Why were the disciples’ names changed? Wes (mentioned above from the Overflow) has an interesting theory:
…the giving of a new name. This was used to establish authority over another, or to indicate a new beginning or new direction in a person’s life. For instance, Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name to Zephenath-paneah when Joseph entered his service (Genesis 41:45), another Pharaoh changed the name of the Jewish king Eliakim’s name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:24). While in Babylonian captivity, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were forced to change their names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 1:6-7). Name changes indicating a new life direction include Abram to Abraham (Genesis 17:5), Cephas to Peter (Mark 3:16), and some would say Saul to Paul (Acts 13:9).
I like to think this is a good answer, but really, I don’t know. In the time of the disciples, names were a big deal, and I don’t know if any of these explanations satisfy uprooting your whole cultural ideal for some 30-something-year-old dude who has convinced you that he’s the Messiah, the savior of the world.
I feel like I’ve made this even more complicated to think about. Maybe there is no right or wrong answer. Maybe it’s just something that happened and it really isn’t that significant. I would like to think otherwise, but I also can’t come to a good conclusion. Maybe you can.