Christians pray to Jesus, but get no reply. They pray to Jesus for parking spaces closer to the mall, to win the lottery, to make their boss disappear, to lose weight, to restore Donald Trump to his lost presidency, for their kids to win the little league game, for better business sales, and other really important stuff. And yet nothing ever happens. But would you respond if someone called you by another name? If your name was, say, Bob, or Sara, would you respond if someone called you Dobbie? Or Parat? Because that’s what’s happening when people pray to Jesus.*
Not to get into the whole debate over the existence of invisible deities and supernatural beings living in magical places or about the wacky, selfish things people pray for: this is about names and alphabets, about how some letters got added to English, changed how we speak, and in turn renamed a lot of people and places. And maybe why your particular god isn’t answering you.
The Christian bible speaks of James, Jonah, Jeremiah, Joshua, Jehovah, and Jericho. None of which ever existed, at least not by that name, in their day. Likewise, there was no Julius Caesar, Emperor Trajan, Jupiter, or Juno (Gaivs Ivlivs Caesar was pronounced “Guy-oos Yool-ee-oos Kie-sar” and the other was spelled Traianvs). That’s because none of the languages the Bible was written in or were spoken in classical times — Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin — had the letter “J” in them. In fact, most didn’t even have an equivalent sound for it. The letter “G,” for example, in Latin is always hard, as in “game” or “Gaul.”**
“J” doesn’t appear as its own glyph (not merely a variant of “I”) until 1524 CE, when the Italian Gian Giorgio Trissino used it to show the sound “dg” (as in “edge”) separate from “i”, both of which were represented in Italian by “I” previously. Trissino was trying (unsuccessfully) to identify a sound that connected the Greek “I” and the Hebrew yod characters so that Biblical names would be sounded appropriately. His arguments for a “J” sound found resonance among later Medieval and Renaissance biblical scholars, even though in Italy his innovation was later dropped.
Printing arrived in Spain in the 1470s, and the letter “J” was used there soon after, but not consistently until about 1600. The Latin Iesus became Jesus in Spanish. The Spanish letter hota was pronounced as a breathy “h” and Jesus was pronounced “hay-sus.” In France, “J” (pr. jye) began to replace “I” for the slurred “s” sound or “zh” (like the “S” in measure) around 1570 (first use was possibly the philosopher Petrus Ramus). But in Italian, after briefly flirting with the glyph, “J” was dropped and replaced by a soft “G” before a vowel (Julius became Giulio). In German, the “J” took on the sound of “Y” as in Carl Jung.
Old and Early Middle English also lacked a “J” but it eventually worked its way into our language through the influence of languages on the continent (mostly Norman French). But not right away.
The first translation of the Bible into (Middle) English was made by John Wycliffe around 1390; he translated Iakobus as both Iames and Iacob, and Ihesus and Ihesu for Jesus, but using the embellished “I” that looked like a “J.” His bibles were copied, by the way, not printed, and still used Middle English glyphs like the thorn and yogh. William Tyndale translated parts of the bible in the early 16th century, using similar orthography but in early Modern English. He used the spelling Iesu for Jesus. You can see the “v” in Revelation and seven is printed as a “u” because “V” was not yet its own letter, as well as the embellished “I” that looks like a “J”:
Luther’s 1522 translation into German changed the Hebrew yod (“Y”) to “J” because “J” in German is sounded as a “Y” and that may have influenced later English translators.
The first printed English translation in early Modern English was made by Miles Coverdale in 1535. He used some of Tyndale’s work together with his own translations from the Latin Vulgate and German text, and continued with the spelling Iesu. In 1529-40, Coverdale then helped create the first authorized bible in English, known as the “Great Bible.” Here are two samples from different copies of Coverdale’s bible (1535 and 1540) where you can see the embellished “I” looking like a “J”:
Iesu had become Iesus in English bibles by 1568, although the full name was seldom written out in favour of abbreviations like abbreviations ihu, ihc, and ihs. Iesus was used in the first editions of the King James Bible (KJV):
The early bibles used Iesus (Latin); Iesous (Greek); Ihesus (German); Iesus (Tyndale); and ihesus (Wycliffe). Even the King James edition of 1611, didn’t have a “J” or a “V”. That’s because both glyphs came into general use in the English alphabet later. They were added by printers. The KJV and other printers did use a fancy “I” that looks like a “J” but it was actually an “I” as you can see above. Technically this is called a swash, derived from embellished handwritten manuscripts, but not affecting pronunciation, and used interchangeably with “I”. You can see it better in this enlargement:
“J” was not used as a separate letter in the KJV Bible until 1629, when the First Revision was published in Cambridge, and the name “Jesus” first appeared in English. Although the English pronunciation of Jesus changed from ‘e-ye-soos’ (Iesus in Latin) into ‘ye-soos’ in the 12th century due to the influence of Norman French, it again changed into ‘yi-sus’ during the Great Vowel Shift following Chaucer’s time (Chaucer didn’t use the letter “J”).
England was a bit slower than its European neighbours to adopt the “J” glyph. It appeared in print around 1580, but wasn’t in consistent use until about 1640. Shakespeare never wrote the letter “J” in any of his plays or sonnets: he used an “I” as in Romeo and Iuliet and Ioane Puzel (La Pucelle, or Joan of Arc):
The English alphabet of 1640 had 24 letters, still treating “J” and “V” as mere variants. By 1683, the printed name and pronunciation had changed from Iesus into Jesus in almost all English publications. The name is a mid-17th-century invention, or more correctly, a mistranslation, to suit the changing form of English. No one speaking English pronounced or spelled the name “Jesus” until the mid-1600s: until then it was Iesus, following the Latin form. Even then, J was not happily adopted into English by everyone and it took another 200 years to accept it.
More than a century later, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, had no separate entries for the two, combining IJ and UV. Although he recognized them as separate forms, he was reluctant to grant them their own sections. He wrote in his introduction:
J consonant sounds uniformly like the soft g, and is therefore a letter useless, except in etymology, as ejaculation, jeffer, jocund, juice.
It wasn’t until 1828 when Noah Webster published his first American dictionary, that both J and V were treated as separate letters. And from then, it snowballed so that by the mid-19th century both were accepted into the alphabet as separate characters. But “J” wasn’t the only letter to cause hiccups.
None of these classical languages had the letter “V” either — no Germanic tribe called the Vandals ever fought the Romans. In Latin (with only 23 letters) the glyph was pronounced as a “U” or “W” not as a “V.” Caesar’s famous veni, vidi, vici would have sounded like weni, widi, wici. Medieval scholars, writing in Latin, used the ‘V’ or ‘v’ form for the beginning of a word, while the rounded ‘U’ or ‘u’ was used in the middle or end. Both, however, were pronounced as our modern “U.”
In Biblical Hebrew, there was a “V” sound if the “Bet” character (second in the alphabet) has a dot (the dagesh lene) in its centre; otherwise, it’s pronounced as a “B.” However, the original Hebrew lacks diacritical marks like this; they weren’t added until the Masoretic text introduced them (and marks to identify vowels) sometime between the seventh and 10th centuries CE (Biblical Hebrew is an “abjad… a writing system in which only consonants are represented, leaving vowel sounds to be inferred by the reader.”).
In Biblical Hebrew, the sixth letter today is called “Vav” and is used for “V” but in Biblical times it was “Waw” and sounded like a “W.” That’s why the Jewish god’s name would have been pronounced “Yahweh” or perhaps “Yehowah,” not “Jehovah,” which compounds two errors with its “J” and “V.” For religious reasons, after the Romans destroyed the Temple, in 70 CE, it wasn’t actually pronounced at all by Jews, and other words were used in its stead, like Adonai and sometimes Elohim.***
“W” is another latecomer: neither Latin nor Greek had a symbol for it. The sound was there in Latin, expressed by a “uu” and “qu” combination (and a “u” before a vowel gave it a consonantal sound). If you recall Latin has no distinction between “U” and “V” and the letter was most often carved into stone as “V” so “uu” looked like “VV” — you can see how the glyph for “W” originated. The “VV” is called a digraph (two-letters). We call it “double-u” but in French and Spanish it’s “double-v.”
The Bayeux Tapestry (circa 1077CE) has the names Edvvwardvs and Vvilliemvs, showing the digraph for the “W” sound. The sound was common in Germanic languages and the digraph was used by Medieval scribes to spell German or Gothic names. Old English used the rune wynn for “W,” but after the Norman conquest, that gave way to the French-style digraph. Our English letter “W” (the ligature) started appearing in Medieval Latin to write Germanic names; it arrived in England with the Normans and is seen in Middle English by 1300 CE. By Chaucer’s day, the digraph had become the ligature “W” and was considered a separate letter. Chaucer used it himself:
Coverdale used the ligature in his 1535 bible (see picture, above near beginning). Yet acceptance of “W” as a standalone glyph in English was still not complete until the 18th century (the Wikipedia page shows a 1693 pamphlet that uses both digraph and ligature). Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623 CE) sometimes used the digraph instead of the ligature:
Hebrew and Aramaic had “Wau” for the “W” sound (the sixth letter in both alphabets) which later morphed into “Vav” or the “V” sound and the “W” sound was dropped. Curiously, although there are a lot of “W” words in the English language Bible, there doesn’t seem to be any names that begin with that letter. I suspect the translators followed the KJV habit of using “V” for names, even though the “W” sound would have been more authentic.
Another issue with the name of Jesus is its two “S” letters. Semitic writings were translated into early (Koine) Greek as early as the third century BCE when the Septuagint was translated. Greek didn’t have an equivalent letter for the Semitic letter shin (pr. “sh”) in the middle of the Hebrew name, so translators used the Greek sigma (pr. “s”) instead. And to make the name work with inflections according to Greek grammar, translators added the masculine singular ending [-s] in the nominative case. Yehoshua/Yeshua became Iesous in Greek. This became Iesus in Latin and Iesu in Middle English.
So back to Jesus and why he’s not answering your prayers: his name when he lived would have been Yehoshua in the original Aramaic, or possibly Yahshua, Y’shua, Yehosua, Yoshua, or Yeshua. It may have even been Yeshu, which is how the Talmud refers to others of that name. In part, the confusion lies in the lack of vowels in both written Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic. But it certainly wasn’t Jesus. Maybe you should try using one of those authentic names next time. Who knows, you might win the lottery or lose 25 pounds!
Or maybe not.****
* Christian kids also pray to Santa Claus, or at least write to him in ways that are identical to prayers: requests for things and events requesting the supernatural should provide. But we know their parents often answer their prayers instead, in order to keep their faith in the deity Claus alive, at least for a few more childhood years.
** Also, English lacks the guttural sound of Chet, which is pronounced much like the “ch” in the Scots “loch,” closer to a “KH” sound, but is often rendered in English as simply “h.” So there is no “Bethlehem” — the proper name of the town is Beit Lechem (House of Bread), with the “ch” being pronounced like that in “loch.” And instead of Jehovah, the proper pronunciation would likely be Yahweh, although there are some who argue for Yehowah.
*** Names like Vophsi, Vashni, Vaniah, Vajezatha, and Vashti are all from the Christian “Old Testament,” (aka The Tanakh) but they were never pronounced with a “V” in biblical times. They would have all begun with a “W” sound.
**** One poster on Quora commented that,
Names change and are adapted when they wander from language to language. Deal with it. It goes for the names of many historical figures, not just Biblical ones. Alexander the Great would have found the universal English pronunciation “Alexander” ludicrous; he knew himself as Aleksandros, accented on “leks”. Joan of Arc is called Jeanne in French, but even that modern French form is not exactly how she herself wrote or pronounced it in her own day; some preserved signatures from her own hand use the spelling Jehanne. But in English she is Joan. And Yeshua is Jesus.
However, while names sometimes get changed when shifting languages, in the past the change has often been the result of misunderstanding the other language, or the arrogance of imperialism. In the 20th and 21st centuries, efforts have been made to pronounce names and words in as close as possible a manner as the native version. That’s why Kiev became Kyiv, and Peking became Beijing. It’s arrogant to think our mispronounced version has any legitimacy. Or that your god will be pleased by it.