Naming Names

In God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), author Adam Nicholson commented on the several principles that the translators adopted to guide their work. One that I always found amusing was that:

The names of the Profyts and the holie Wryters, with the other Names in the text to be retayned, as near as may be, according as they are vulgarly used.

Some Puritans maintained that the names of the great figures in the scriptures, all of which signify something – Adam meant ‘Red Earth’, Timothy ‘Fear-God’ – should be translated. The Geneva Bible, which was an encyclopedia of Calvinist thought… had a list of those meanings at the back and, in imitation of those signifying names, Puritans, particularly in their heartlands of Northamptonshire and the Sussex Weald, had taken to naming their children after moral qualities…. Puritan children at Warbleton in Sussex, the heartland of the practice, laboured under the names of Eschew-evil, Lament, No-merit, Sorry-for-sin, Learn-wisdom, Faint-not, Give-thanks and, the most popular, Sin-deny, which was landed on ten children baptised in the parish between 1586 and 1596. One family, the children of the curate Thomas Hely, would have been introduced by their proud father as Much-mercy Hely, Increased Hely, Sin-deny Hely, Fear-not Hely and sweet little Constance Hely.

Naming people with compressed sentences was more than a Hebrew custom: it was widely practiced throughout the ancient Near East, especially in the form of “theophoric” names; that is, names that invoked the protection of some deity. Thus, around the Fertile Crescent, we find:

Sennacherib (“Sin has replaced the brothers”) of Assyria
Ashurbanipal (“Ashur created an heir”) of Assyria
Nebuchadnezzar (“Nabu save my firstborn”) of Babylon
Nabonidus (“Nabu is praised”) of Babylon
Amenhotep (“Amen is pleased”) of Egypt
Ramesses (“Ra gave him birth”) of Egypt
Balthazar (“Baal protects the king”) of Phoenicia

Any Hebrew name ending in -el is theophoric (El being “God”), thus:

Michael, Who is like God?
Daniel, God is my judge
Nathaniel, Gift of God
Raphael, God heal
Gabriel, God is my strength
Emmanuel, God is with us

And any name that begins with Jo- (like Jonathan or Joshua), or ends with -yahu (like Netanyahu) is a reference to Yahweh, the personal name of God (but changed slightly, so that we don’t actually say it).

Speaking of which, this name, given as יהוה and usually transliterated YHVH, is usually rendered as “the LORD” in most translations of the Old Testament, out of respect to the Jewish tradition of not vocalizing it. Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not follow this custom: they think it’s no matter at all to use God’s personal name, and will render יהוה (the so-called “tetragrammaton”) as “Jehovah.” Unfortunately, this is not how most scholars would pronounce it today: if it must be vocalized, it’s “Yahweh” (Hebrew, like most Semitic alphabets, does not have vowels, and if no one ever said God’s name aloud, people forgot how exactly to pronounce it.) So the Jehovah’s Witnesses are stuck with an obsolete pronunciation of God’s name.

I guess this is one argument against saying it.

I suppose the most familiar example of compressed-sentence names (with or without a theophoric element) are those of certain Native Americans, like John Running Deer or Dances-with-Wolves. I do not think that the Puritan custom of giving children such names as The-Lord-Is-My-Shepherd or Sin-No-More is due for a revival any time soon.