Magical Power in a Name? A Case for Using ‘Isa in Arabic Translations of the Bible

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2)

As Juliet agonizes over her love for Romeo, forbidden to her merely because he bears the Montague name, the family which is enemy to her own, she poetically spells out the issue that stands at the crux of my reflection in this post.

Yasu‘, the common name of Jesus in our modern Arabic translations of the New Testament, is a name largely unrecognized by Islam, the “other” family. The “Christian family” wants to retain this name, often defending it with great passion. The Qur’an introduces the name ‘Isa for Jesus for no obvious reason, although I will explore possible motivations below, several of which are discussed in the excellent Wikipedia article on “Isa.”

The early apostles would encourage us, when at all possible, to use names and words familiar to the receiving culture

For Bible translators seeking to do their work faithfully, what is the “apostolic model” that they must follow? In the New Testament, apostles adopted existing equivalents in receiving cultures, such as Theos for Elohim and Kurios for Adonai, yet for the name of Jesus, they adopted the Hebrew/Aramaic Yeshua into a near Greek transliteration, ’Iesous.

The reason for this was quite natural, since “God” and “Lord” had equivalents in Greek, whereas Yeshua was a proper name with no equivalents in the receiving language. Inventing a name other than the one by which Jesus was known in Aramaic would have been absurd. Only when there was no equivalent in the receiving culture—as would have naturally been the case with proper names—did the apostles use a transliteration. I believe the early apostles would encourage us, in our translation work, to use names and words familiar to receiving cultures.

Salvation is located in the power of Jesus’s person rather than in the literal name Yasu‘ or Jesus or whatever equivalent

Is the name Yasu‘ itself the locus of God’s salvation? Should Arab Christians introduce a transliteration of the name of Jesus as an end in itself? Is there any magical power to the name?

The name of Jesus and his salvation have been used an infinite number of times in vain by the church through history, including on the war banners of “holy” Christian warriors. Surely God will honor with salvation someone who believes in the salvific power of the name ‘Isa, before honoring someone who claims these benefits in vain through military power in the name of Jesus or Yasu‘.

For the Arab Christian tradition, the Qur’anic name for Jesus can meet the lexical need of the church. In most classical Arabic translations of the New Testament, Arab Christians chose Yasu‘, but when they engaged with Islam in dialogical texts, they almost unreservedly used ‘Isa. There was no reason for them to look outside, and there should be no objection for us to do so today, both in Bible translation and other uses, if it seems appropriate in certain contexts, except if one holds some superstitious or magical belief in the literal name itself. Protestants consider that salvation is not received through—for example—the sacrament of Baptism. They would, therefore, not rush to baptize a dying person, since they believe that salvation is received through new birth and prayer of repentance. Why, then, should one believe that salvation is located in the literal name Yasu‘ or Jesus, rather than in the power of Jesus’s person?

The author of the Qur’an had no polemical intentions in his choice of Jesus’s name but naturally sought to use names as familiar and meaningful as possible to his people in their linguistic idiom

Qu’ran cover by ~crystalina~ – Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Some have suggested that Arabic ‘Isa might have been an intentional inversion of the name Yasu‘. Others claim that it was intentionally meant as an insult, adopted from the Jewish community of the day, by associating the name of Jesus to Esau, who was “hated” by God (see Malachi 1:2b–3a). This is an old argument which has not been taken seriously by more recent scholars, primarily for lack of evidence that Esau was used by Jews as a substitute for Jesus as an intended insult (see the Wikipedia article on “Isa”). One argument goes something like this: the Qur’an claims to be a divine revelation—the Qur’an never mentions Yahweh as the proper name of God or Yeshua as the proper name of his Messiah savior—therefore the Qur’an is an anti-scripture that omits God’s proper name purposefully.

There are many problems with this argument, the main one being that it serves to force us to choose between accepting that the Qur’an is a divine revelation or rejecting it is an anti-scripture. As a Christian who does not believe in the need for a post-biblical revelation, however, I come to the Qur’an with no expectation of supernatural transmission. I simply encounter a text that desires to transmit God’s biblical revelation in the Arabic language that the people of Arabia could understand. If the Qur’an was meant, as I believe it was, to be a sort of Arabic Midrash of the Bible, then it would have been futile for it to have used transliterations of Hebrew names that carry no meaning to the Arabs of Arabia. It would have more naturally sought to use names as familiar and meaningful as possible to the Arabic linguistic idiom.

So where did the name ‘Isa come from?

It is fair to ask ourselves about the origin of the name Isa. Unfortunately, no easy explanations exist. An excellent survey of the various theories can be read in the Wikipedia article on “Isa.” Here are a few notable remarks on the matter.

  • In Syro-Aramaic, the language which would have been most common among Christians around Muhammad, the name of Jesus would not have been pronounced Yasu‘ but rather ’Ishua‘, pronounced with an opening glottal stop (hamza) rather than with a ya’. The transformation of the name ’Ishua‘ to ‘Isa, although not readily explained philologically, could make some sense from the perspective of usage, where the “’I” would have been assimilated into the Arabic letter ‘ayn. Further, the second syllable shin would have been indistinguishable from the letter sin in the Arabic script of the time that lacked diacritical points. In any case, the ‘ayn was a far more common first letter for proper names in Arabic.
  • Another point seems compelling. According to the Wikipedia article, Jewish German Orientalist Josef Horovitz (1874–1931) held that “the Qur’anic form is meant to parallel Mūsā (Moses).” The Qur’an, written in rhymed prose, often associates pairs of names that have the same rhythmic structure and ending rhyme. Horovitz notes the pairs Ismā‘īl and Ibrāhīm (Ishmael and Abraham), Jālūt and Tālūt (Goliath and Saul). I would add as well Qābīl and Hābīl (Cain and Abel). The total transformation of the names of Saul and Cain for the purpose of rhyme and rhythm is particularly interesting and, in my view, may provide a strong rationale to understand the transformation of ’Ishua‘ into ‘Isa in the pair ‘Isa and Mūsā.

Finally, Christian Arab scholar Hikmat Kashouh has recently suggested a completely new and most insightful theory on this question. In his latest book, The Gospels in Arabic, he proposes “that ‘Isa simply comes from the Greek Ἰησοῦς, written as a nomen sacrum.” The nomina sacra (sacred names) of God and saints were frequently abbreviated both in manuscripts and icons in the classical world because of their high frequency and—no doubt—to save on precious space on parchment and iconographic material. Almost every occurrence of the name Jesus on Greek icons is written in the contracted form “ΙΣ” (Greek capital iota [i] and sigma [s], with the line over the two letters indicating the contraction). Kashouh argues that “it is very likely that ‘Isa comes from the Greek sacred name IC (pronounced Ee-Sa).” He concludes:

Finally, one might entertain the idea that the fact that the Qur’anic tradition preferred “عيسى” for IC, instead of “يسوع” for Ἰησοῦς, could point to how this name was revered in early Islamic era, and was indeed considered a nomen sacrum.

What’s in a name, then?

So “what’s in a name?” If you’re a committed follower of Jesus, then much—no doubt—is in his name. But I would hold that it is in the significance rather than in the form of the name that there is power and medium for salvation. Him whom we call “love,” by any other name—whether Jesus, ’Iesous’IshuaYasu‘, or indeed ‘Isa—still smells as sweet.

This post first appeared as “What’s in a Name?: A Case for Using ‘Isa in Arabic Translations of the Bible” which was posted on the ABTS blog on May 27, 2021.

About Martin Accad

Martin Accad is associate professor of Islamic studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, and at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as director of ABTS’ Institute of Middle East Studies. He is the author of Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide.