Who Was Yeshua bar Maryam? May 25, 2010Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
The Bible calls him Jesus of Nazareth or Lord Jesus Christ. So that was his name, right?
No. Jesus was Jewish. His native language was Aramaic, a sort of “Hebrew lite.” The Christian Testament was written in a form of ancient Greek called koine (pr. KOY-nay). In the Christian Testament, “Jesus” is “‘Hσουσ.” (There was no J in ancient times.) You say “Jesus.” The Romans and Greeks to whom Paul wrote his epistles would have sounded almost Spanish to us: “Hay-SOOS.” Meanwhile, at home in Galilee (not far from today’s Golan Heights), everyone who knew the man YOU call “Jesus” called him “Yeshua.”
Yeshua is another spelling of Yoshua, a name most of us know today as Joshua, the one who “fit” the battle of Jericho. In the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 250 BCE, “Joshua” is spelled “ ‘Hσουσ.”
Yeshua/Yoshua/Jesus was quite a common name in the first century; about the same as “John” or “Robert” is today. It meant “God saves,” back in the days when a name’s meaning was important.
(Parenthetically: Most people in the first century seem not to have cared about naming girls at all. In first-century Palestine, 40 percent of all females were named Mary or some variation thereon (Maryam, Mariam, Miryam, Miriam, Mariamne, etc.), and another 25 percent were named Salome (pr. SAL-oh-may). In Rome they cared so little that most girls were named after their fathers. If Julius felt like it, his daughters were named Julia, Julia, Julia, Julia, and, for a change of pace, Julia. One assumes that at home they were known as Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and so forth.)
In the first century, there were no surnames or middle names such as we use today. In first-century Palestine, two men with the same name were distinguished by the Aramaic for “son of,” bar: Cephas/Caiaphas (same name, different transliterations) bar Jonah as opposed to Cephas/Caiaphas bar Shmuel. Sometimes we have no idea what the man’s “real” name was; we only know him as bar Tholomew, bar Nabas, or bar Abbas.
But it was always “man’s name son of man’s name” UNLESS the name of the father was not known. In the first century, if the name of your father was not known, that was instant proof that you were a bastard, a mamser, “the sh*t of the community.” In Mark 6:3, when Mark calls Jesus “son of Mary,” that meant that the name of Jesus’s father was not known.
So if you, dear reader, managed to learn Aramaic (a few people still speak it today), get a time machine, travel back to first-century Galilee, and ask around for “Jesus of Nazareth,” no one would have had the slightest idea what you were talking about. THEY knew him not as “Jesus of Nazareth” or as “Yeshua bar Yusuf [Joseph],” but as “Yeshua bar Maryam.”
Okay, okay, I hear you say; but why make such a big deal about it?
As Christians know, when the Jesus Movement was in its first, formative years, one of its most ardent persecutors was a zealous young man known as Saul of Tarsus. (Tarsus was in what today is Turkey.) Then one day, Saul had a profound religious experience that changed his life forever. For several days afterward, he was blind. His vision is said to have been restored by one of Jesus’s earliest followers, and a few days later Saul changed his name to the Greek Paulos, known to us as Paul, and began preaching the gospel of Jesus the Chosen One (Hebrew: Messiah; Greek: Christ), God in a man-suit.
In other words, Paul knew virtually nothing about Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life wandering teacher, healer, and sage, when he began proclaiming the gospel. The real, historical man simply wasn’t important to Paul — not compared to the divine being whose glory had stricken him blind. (Acts 9)
All my life, I wondered why the pre-resurrection Jesus — humble, loving, forgiving, funny, “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34) — was so different from the humorless and judgmental post-resurrection Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, God in a man-suit. Finally, it came to me: the difference was Paul of Tarsus. Who knew nothing about the real Yeshua bar Maryam when he began proclaiming the gospel of Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.
In the 21st century, two thousand years after the fact, it is impossible to prove Jesus’s alleged divinity one way or the other; otherwise we’d all be Christians, or we’d all worship the Invisible Hand, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whoever the true God proved to be. But it seems to me that if Jesus really was “God in a man-suit,” Christianity ought to take what he said much more seriously than it takes what Paul said about him. And if Jesus wasn’t “God in a man-suit,” who cares what Paul said?
(And yet, I would guess at least 90 percent of every worship service I’ve ever attended has focused on “God in a man-suit.” We’re lucky to get a minute or two of what Jesus thought was interesting and important, during the gospel reading.)
Several years ago, the Jesus Seminar published The Five Gospels (Thomas ought to be in the Bible) and The Acts of Jesus. These respected scholars voted, verse by verse, on how likely they thought it that the real, historical Jesus — Yeshua bar Maryam — actually said or did what the gospel writer said he did. They coded their votes as red (probably yes), pink (well, mostly yes), gray (probably not), and black (not a chance).
A few years ago, out of curiosity, I culled out all the red and pink passages. What’s most interesting, when you look at them all together, is how very human the red and pink Jesus was — how very pre-resurrection. Not once does this Jesus proclaim, “Believe what I tell you because I am God in a man-suit!” This Jesus is wholly uninterested in his own alleged divinity. “Why do you call me good?” he challenges one brown-noser. “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
So, I stopped following Paul of Tarsus. I follow Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life wandering teacher, healer, and sage on whom Jesus Christ is based. His teachings are based on two simple truths: You get back what you dish out; and you become what you pretend to be. To get back love, dish out love. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. Forgive not just once but over and over: make a lifestyle of it. Prefer compassion to justice, because that’s what you’d like to receive from those who judge you.