Earlier this autumn I was welcoming back to church a Filipino family. Prior to the pandemic they had been regular worshippers, but this was their first Sunday after some eighteen months. To my shame I was no longer sure of the name of the husband. I vaguely remembered that he had been called ‘Jes’, which I presumed was an abbreviation for Jesse. On checking I discovered that his name is Jesus, “but”. added the wife, “we fondly call him Jes”!
Immediately my mind went to Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, which ends with the words, “and he [Joseph] called him Jesus” (Matt 1.26 AV) – or more accurately, “and he named him Jesus” (NRSV) or “he gave him the name of Jesus” (NIV). But, I asked myself, did Mary and Joseph (and later the family) always call him Jesus? Did they ever ‘fondly’ call him ‘Jes’?
I confess that this thought had never occurred to me before. In the words of an old chorus, Jesus is such a ‘beautiful name’ that the idea of abbreviating it to ‘Jes’ is tantamount to sacrilege. Indeed, in the English-speaking world it is almost unthinkable to call a child ‘Jesus’. And yet, if Jesus did truly become one with us, then it is quite conceivable that, like any other family, his parents together with his brothers and sisters did at times abbreviate his name.
Take our family, for instance. We chose the names of our four children with real care. Caroline felt very strongly that a surname like Beasley-Murray required us giving each of our children a three-syllable name followed by a one syllable name. So our three boys are called Jonathan Paul, Timothy Mark, and Benjamin James – while our daughter is Susannah Caroline Louise (at that point Caroline failed to follow the logic of her argument). Initially we were determined never to abbreviate their first names. But not least because of the influence of the children themselves, we often ‘fondly’ call them Jon, Tim, Susie, and Benny!
I wonder, did Jesus’ family always call him ‘Jesus’? Or did they ‘fondly’ abbreviate his name? The truth, of course, is that Jesus’ family never called him ‘Jesus’. Jesus is a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Joshua’. So did they ever call him ‘Josh’? Strictly speaking, that too is a false question, because in Hebrew and the related language of Aramaic, which Jesus and his family will have spoken, he was called Yeshua, which itself was an abbreviation of Yehoshua (‘Joshua’). However, hopefully you can see the point that I am seeking to make. If Jesus’ family was like any other family, then in our terms, he could well have been called ‘Josh’.
For although for us the name of Jesus is special, it was probably no more special than the names of the rest of his brothers, all of whom had interesting names: James (an alternative form of Jacob) and Joseph were named after two great Jewish patriarchs, while Simon and Judas were named after two heroes of the Maccabean revolt. Although Mary and Joseph would have been aware of the special circumstances of Jesus’ birth, there is every reason to believe that Jesus in his early years was just ‘one of the boys’. Indeed, I would argue that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires us to believe in such a possibility. Jesus was both fully man and fully God. This is the wonder of Christmas.