What’s in a Name?

Salvador Dali

‘Jesus’ is the English version of the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’ – a word which combines the beginning of God’s name ‘Yahweh’, with the verb ‘yasha’ which means delivering, liberating, rescuing or saving. Its meaning is therefore, ‘Yahweh delivers, liberates or saves’. In his home village setting, he’d have been known as ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, but in the wider world beyond, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, (from the backwoods of Galilee). When we talk about Jesus, we’re talking about a historical human being – a first century Palestinian Jew.

‘Christ’ is not a name. Mr. & Mrs. J. Christ did not live at no.5 Main Street, Nazareth.  It’s a designation, and comes from the Greek word ‘Christos”, meaning “anointed” (with oil that is). It’s the Greek equivalent of the earlier Hebrew word ‘Mashiach’, translated into English as ‘Messiah’ – someone anointed with oil because appointed by God. So rather than Jesus Christ, he would more accurately be called ‘Jesus the Christ’ or ‘Jesus the Messiah’. 

This is where we begin to part company with history. Jesus was a man who lived, and died, in 1st century Palestine. The Christ is someone who was pre-existent, born of a virgin, God in a human body, died for the sins of the world, was raised from death, taken up to heaven, sits at God’s right hand, and will return to usher in new heavens and a new earth.

Nowadays, like a steadily growing majority of people in the UK, I’m no longer persuaded about these ‘Christ’ ideas. This doesn’t mean that I think they’re of no interest or importance. On the contrary, to take a single example, the image of the arms-outstretched, crucified Christ is, to me, a powerful symbol of unconditional love, a revolutionary concept, which would make a world of difference to individual lives, human relationships, and society in general.

More immediately down-to-earth, is how Jesus the human being lived from day to day, together with many of the things he taught. There were those in his day who rigidly observed the letter of the Jewish Law. Jesus also upheld the Law, but recognised the need for flexibility – that the spirit of the Law has equal validity and asks for thoughtfulness, understanding, empathy and compassion, rather than mindless and heartless tick-box application. That was how he lived, and invites us to live also.

Some of his teachings can seem extreme, taking which at face value could reduce us to ragged, penniless destitution – soft-touches for every passing swindler. We need to remember, however, that Jesus, a 1st century Jew, believed that the end of the current age was only a few years, if not days, away. There was no point is saving for a ‘rainy day’ that wasn’t going to come. You and I may no longer believe that, but although we can therefore move some of Jesus’ teachings down a gear, they still have plenty of bite that would make our own lives, and those of others, and our world as a whole, a lot different and much better.

What’s in a name? Should we focus less on ‘the Christ’ and his amazing supernatural wonders, and more on ‘Jesus’ and his down-to-earth, challenging practicalities? If more of the so called ‘religious right’ in the USA had done that four years ago, they might not have made a president out of the most godlessly amoral and selfishly non-empathetic person ever, one feels, to have held that office.

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