Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses makes a case that many named characters in the gospels were eyewitnesses whose testimony was specifically known to the Yeshua-community. One of Bauckham’s interesting streams of supporting data comes in comparing the names in the gospels with broader lists of Palestinian Jewish names (as opposed to Diaspora Jewish names). The survey of names is from Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE. It includes the gospels, Josephus, ossuaries, and Dead Sea Scrolls (ossuaries provided the most results).
What were the top men’s names in Yeshua’s time? The top women’s names? How does this relate to the overall theory of named characters as eyewitnesses?
Statistics are fun. It might interest readers of the gospels to know that:
15.6% of men were either Simon or Joseph (Shimon or Yosef).
41.5% of men had one of the top nine names.
28.6% of women were either Mary (Mariam/Miriam) or Salome.
49.7% of women had one of the top nine names.
The main source for names in Yeshua’s time is (some may find this surprising) the names of the Hasmonean rulers and their family members (the Hasmoneans are the Maccabean conquerors and their descendants). Mariam and Salome were important women in the Hasmonean dynasty (Queen Salome Alexandra and Mariamne the Hasmonean, Herod’s first wife).
The name Yeshua (Jesus, a short form of Joshua that was common at the time rather than the longer Yehoshua) was the sixth most popular name. It was likely so popular for two reasons: it was theophoric (it had a prefix indicating the divine name) and the figure of Joshua as the conqueror of the land sat well in an age of messianic and revolutionary hopes (at least for a return to the glory days of Hasmonean sovereignty).
The top nine male names were:
6. Jesus (Yeshua)
The top nine female names were:
3. Shelamzion (related to Salome)
The tricks for differentiating people (how to tell Simon from Simon, for example) included:
(1) Using variant forms of the name. For example, Yeshua’s brother Joses (Yoses) was known by this short form instead of Joseph (Yosef) to be differentiated from his father.
(2) Patronymic added (father’s name). For example, Levi bar (son of) Alpheus.
(3) Patronymic substituted. For example, Bartimaeus = bar (son of) Timaeus.
(4) Name of husband or son added. For example, Mary of Clopas.
(5) Nicknames added. For example, James (Jacob, Yakov) the Lesser or John the Baptist or Simon the Leper.
(6) Nickname substituted. For example, Cephas (Kefa) for Simon Peter.
(7) Place name added. For example, Judas Iscariot (man of Karyot) or Jesus the Nazarene.
(8) Place name substituted. Rare.
(9) Family name. Caiphas was Joseph bar Caiphas and Caiphas was not his father’s name, but perhaps a family nickname.
(10) A double name in two languages. For example, Simon Peter.
(11) Occupation. For example, Matthew the tax collector.
Reasons This Study Matters for the Eyewitnesses Theory of the Gospels
First, the names in the gospels correspond very well to the larger list of Palestinian Jewish names. Frequency is about the same for the top names.
Second, in the Diaspora the top Jewish names were quite different (Bauckham lists examples). The fact that the evangelists used names, even for minor characters, corresponding to Palestinian usage corroborates their validity.
Third, the manner in which individuals are differentiated un the gospels corresponds to the larger patterns in Palestinian Jewish names (again, corroborating authenticity).
Fourth, the popularity of names associated with Hasmoneans reinforces the notion that a revolutionary (messianic) spirit was in the air.
Fifth, as Bauckham shows in the following chapter on “The Twelve,” the naming conventions in the four lists of the core twelve disciples are carefully preserved and fit the patterns discussed above. Not only their primary names, but their more complete designations, are accurately passed down through the lists of the Twelve (Mk 3:16-19; Mt 10:2-4; Lk 6:13-16; Acts 1:13). (Also, Bauckham has a theory about the absence of a list of the Twelve in John.)