4. Palestinian Jewish Names
A New Resource for Study of the Gospels
The Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE by Tal Ilan was published in 2002. It is a database of Jewish names from the period from both literary and epigraphic sources. We know the names of about three thousand Palestinian Jews who lived during this period.
For the study of the Gospels this period of five centuries might seem too broad, but this possible disadvantage for the New Testament scholar in Ilan’s collection of data is offset by the facts that in many respects the practices of name-giving seem to have remained fairly constant over this period and also, importantly, that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and the early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period. (p. 68)
The Relative Popularity of Names
The data shows that among Jews of this time there were a small number of very popular names and a large number of rare names. Bauckham notes the following figures (pp. 71-72):
- 15.6% of men bore one of the two most popular male names, Simon and Joseph.
- 41.5% of men bore one of the nine most popular male names.
- 7.9% of men bore a name that is attested only once in our sources.
- 28.6% of women bore one of the two most popular names, Mary and Salome.
- 49.7% of women bore one of the nine most popular female names.
- 9.8% of women bore a name that is attested only once in our sources.
The names given in the Gospels and Acts correlate well with the numbers for Palestine at large (p. 72):
- 18.2% of men bore one of the two most popular male names, Simon and Joseph.
- 40.3% of men bore one of the nine most popular male names.
- 3.9% of men bore a name that is attested only once in our sources [Agabus, Bartimaeus/Timaeus, Caiaphas].
- 38.9% of women bore one of the two most popular female names, Mary and Salome.
- 61.1% of women bore one of the nine most popular female names.
- 2.5% of women bore a name that is attested only once in our sources [Drusilla, Rhoda].
It is not surprising that the female names do not match the general population as closely as the male names since we have a much smaller statistical base for female names. Bauckham notes that the pattern of Jewish names in the Diaspora was quite different from that of Palestine.
Thus the names of Palestinian Jews in the Gospels and Acts coincide very closely with the names of the general population of Jewish Palestine in this period, but not to the names of Jews in the Diaspora. In this light it becomes very unlikely that the names in the Gospels are late accretions to the traditions. Outside Palestine the appropriate names simply could not have been chosen. Even within Palestine, it would be very surprising if random accretions of names to this or that tradition would fit the actual pattern of names in the general population. In Palestine we might expect the addition of popular names like Joseph, Judas, Jonathan, or Mattathias, but not Zaccheus, Jairus, Nathanael, Malchus, Cleopas, or Nicodemus, just to mention some of the male names that have most often been suspected of being late additions rather than original in the Gospel traditions. (p. 74)
Why Were Some Names So Popular?
Though not necessary for the purposes of his book, Bauckham briefly explains why some names were so popular. Six of the nine most popular male names (Mattathias, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan) and the three most popular female names (Mary/Miriam, Salome, and Shelamzion) were names of members of the Hasmonean ruling family. The Hasmoneans had won Jewish independence in the second century BCE and so these names were expressions of patriotism. Other names were popular because they were associated with “nationalistic religious expectations of national deliverance and restoration by God” (p. 77).
How to Tell Simon from Simon
With so many people with the same name people had to come up with ways to distinguish these individuals from each other. Bauckham lists eleven ways ancient Palestinian Jews (not Diaspora Jews) distinguished persons with the same name:
- Variant forms of a name (e.g., Joseph/Joses [Matthew 13:55/Mark 6:3]).
- Patronymic added (e.g., Levi son of Alphaeus [Mark 2:14], John son of Zechariah [Luke 3:2], Jesus son of Joseph [John 1:45]).
- Patronymic substituted (e.g., Bartimaeus, Barabbas, Bartholomew, Bar-Jesus, Bar-Jonah, Barnabas, Barsabbas]).
- Names of husband or sons added (e.g., Mary of Clopas [John 19:25], Mary of James [Luke 24:10]).
- Nickname added (e.g., James the little [Mark 15:40], Simon the leper [Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3], John the baptizer).
- Nickname substituted.
- Place of origin or dwelling added (e.g., Jesus the Galilean [Matthew 26:69], Mary Magdalene, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, Nathaneal of Cana [John 21:2]).
- Place of origin or dwelling substituted (e.g., the Egyptian [Acts 21:38; Josephus, Antiquities 20.171-172]).
- Family name (e.g,. Caiaphas).
- Two names in two languages (e.g., Silas/Silvanus).
- Occupation (e.g., Simon the tanner [Acts 9:43; 10:6]).
Onomastics (the study of names) is a significant resource for assessing the origins of Gospel traditions. The evidence in this chapter shows that the relative frequency of the various personal names in the Gospels corresponds well to the relative frequency in the full database of three thousand individual instances of names in the Palestinian Jewish sources of the period. This correspondance is very unlikely to have resulted from addition of names to the traditions, even within Palestianian Jewish Christianity, and could not possibly have resulted from the addition of names to the traditions outside Jewish Palestine, since the pattern of Jewish name usage in the Diaspora was very different. The usages of the Gospels also correspond closely to the variety of ways in which persons bearing the same very popular names could be distinguished in Palestinian Jewish usage. Again these features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestianian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine. All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels. This underlines the plausibility of the suggestion made in chapter 3 as to the significance of many of these names: that they indicate the eyewitness sources of the individual stories in which they occur. (p. 84)