Naming & Culture

A number of people in the Bible were either born with non-Jewish names or were given names that were not Jewish.   In the Old Testament, we can see the following:

(1) Joseph was given the name Zaphenath-Paneah (Gen. 41:45). There have been numerous suggestions made by scholars as to what this name mean. Two prominent meanings suggested are that Joseph means “The god said: he will live” and another prominent meaning is “the one who is called Ip-`ankh.”

(2) Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were also given new names by King Nebuchadnezzar’s chief official.

“The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego” (Daniel 1:7).

It is interesting to note that while the Bible continues to call Daniel by his Jewish name, it refers his three friends subsequently by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. We in fact have done the same down through history.

(3) In the New Testament we see do not see a renaming phenomenon where peoples names are changed from something Jewish to something non-Jewish.  Instead we see a number of people – Christians – who are either Jews or non-Jews by birth and their given birth names are Hellenistic (i.e. Greek) names.

For example the list of Deacons in Acts 6:5 is full of Hellenistic names:  “This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.”

Similarly so with Acts 13:1:
“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.”

The name Niger means black. It is quite likely that Simeon was from North Africa and that he was a black person. So his name may not even be Hellenistic. Antioch back in the day was a veritable melting pot. It had all kinds of people from all kinds of places.  And good coffee too. Just kidding.

So why I am ranting and raving about all of this?
Some people wonder if a person ought to change their name if he or she becomes a Christian. If a person wants to then fine, go ahead. If they do not want to, then that is fine also. The Bible gives no grounds for going one way or the other. What matters is the character of a person.

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