Would One Name a Teddy Bear ‘Jesus’?

By Philologos

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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Sometimes things you have wondered idly about for years find their solution unexpectedly in passing. This is what happened to me recently while following the story of the British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who was convicted in Sudan of the crime of letting her pupils call the class teddy bear “Mohammed.”

My reflections on the fate of Ms. Gibbons, who was released in the end, caused me to think about three questions that have desultorily crossed my mind from time to time: 1) Why is a teddy bear called a “teddy bear”? 2) Of all the languages of Europe, why is Spanish the only one in which “Jesus” is a first name? 3) Where does the “s” at the end of Jesus come from?

The first of these was the easiest to answer. Teddy bears are named for America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was an enthusiastic hunter. On a hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902, he mercifully declined to shoot a helpless little bear cub. The incident was memorialized in a newspaper cartoon, and cuddly little bears called (initially with a capital t) “Teddy bears” were soon the vogue.

The second question is of a different nature. Jesus, in Christian theology, is the second person of the Godhead, and one doesn’t normally name a child after God. Nor has Jesus as a first name ever been accepted outside of Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. True, U.S. Social Security statistics for the year 2003 show it to be the 65th-ranking name in popularity for American males, as compared with the 129th in 1990, but this is clearly a reflection of Hispanic immigration to the United States. The world of baseball alone can boast of quite a few Hispanic Jesuses, such as the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitcher Jesus Sanchez, the Washington Nationals’ catcher Jesus Flores and the Minnesota Twins’ former pitcher Jesus Vega.

You may ask what this has to do with Mohammed. Well, what got me thinking about the subject is that calling a child “Mohammed’ in the Muslim world is perfectly ordinary; in fact, the name is far more popular there than “Jesus” is among Spanish speakers. As revered as Mohammed is by Muslims, he has never been thought of as anything but human, and giving someone his name is no more blasphemous than naming a child for Moses in Judaism, although a teddy bear is apparently something else. (Few Jews, on the other hand, would object to naming a teddy bear Moshe, either, but this is another issue.)

Moreover, since Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet, the first name Issa, Arabic for “Jesus,” is found among them also. And in what European country did Christians and Muslims live together in close proximity in the Middle Ages? You guessed it: Spain.

What I am suggesting is that Spanish Catholics took to calling their children “Jesus” under Islamic influence. In part they may have been affected by the Arabic use of Issa, but mostly they were probably responding to the name of Mohammed. At work would have been a simple process of analogy: Just as their Muslim neighbors did not shrink from naming their children after the founder of Islam, they as Christians could do the same with the founder of Christianity. The theological fine points of who was human and who was divine would have carried less weight, and in time “Jesus” would have become a common name.

But my mind, set in motion by Gillian Gibbons, kept running. Why, it now wanted to know, does Jesus end in an “s” in Spanish, English and most European languages when the Hebrew name Yeshu’a, from which it comes, has no such final consonant?

In the end, this question led me to the Septuagint, the third-and-second-century-BCE translation of the Bible into Greek by Jews in Alexandria. Yeshu’a is a shortened form of Yehoshua or Joshua, and the biblical character of Joshua, as well as the book named after him, is called by the Septuagint Iesous. And so, when the Greek New Testament was written, “Iesous” was adopted as the spelling of Hebrew Yeshu’a, and from there it spread to other languages. (In Hebrew, the final vowel of Yeshu’a was dropped and Jesus became known as Yeshu.)

And why did the Septuagint add the extra “s”? For the same reason, I would guess, that it added this letter to many other biblical names, so that we have Greek Mouses for Hebrew Moshe, Esaias for Yeshayahu, Michaeas for Micah, Ezdras for Ezra, and so on and so forth. This must have been because men’s names in ancient Greek frequently ended in “s” (think of Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus, Patroclus, Aeneas and so forth) and almost never in a vowel, whereas women’s names often ended in vowels, especially “a” (for example, Hera, Hebe, Aphrodite, Helena, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Andromeda, etc.). To permit Hebrew names to end with a vowel in Greek would have been to suggest to Greek readers that there was something unmanly about their bearers. Seeking to avoid this, the Septuagint’s translators added a final “s.”

So thank you, Gillian Gibbons. I could never have figured it out without you and Mohammed.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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