Transliterating Biblical Words and Names

Evyoni Font Used Here

Is Jew-hatred and Poor Transliteration Related?

Have you ever used the biblical Hebrew names when speaking to people who have been exposed to the "Bible" all their lives? I once had a supposedly educated churchman tell me, "You go Yahweh, I'll go mine." Cute, no? I wonder if he ever really arrived. I have also heard people compare 'Yahshua' to 'shoe' ("What kind of shoe are you talkin' about agin'?"). And there are some who say, "I don't speak Hebrew!" not understanding the concept of proper nouns. So I realize that the subject of names is not important to a good number of people.

But names were important to the ancient Hebrews. Should Hebrew names in the Bible not be important to us also? The Bible, after all, is the product of a ancient Hebrew culture, a culture very different from most of us find ourselves in. But, perhaps, that is where the problem lies!

The Bible has been "naturalized" and, due to a cultural handling that can be described as anti-Hebrew, i.e., anti-Jewish, also "sanitized." Christianity is the driving force of Western Civilization. It propounds the idea that it is a "new Israel." If a religion that sees itself as a replacement of "Israel" is constantly reminded that the persons in their holy book are not Greeks, Romans, or even gentiles, and that living Jews, the victims of their hate, bore the same non-gentile names, is there not a paradox? Is there not an ongoing jealousy? And would there not be a tendency to de-emphasize the biblical Hebrew names as a manifestation of gentile angst?

Does it matter if we use the "proper" pronunciation? Aren't the characters of the Bible fictional, or allegorical? Allegorizing the Bible was one of the first steps gentile philosophers took in refining the Tanak for their Hellenist audiences, and it is no accident that many of the Christian "Fathers" were philosophers and rhetors foremost. And some of the most celebrated biblical scholars of the past century have considered biblical persons to be simply representations of embodied tribal recollections.

So let us sort out the people that undermine the acknowledgement of Hebrew culture via their treatment, mistreatment, or ignorance of biblical names:

Strangely enough, many biblical critics are familiar with accurate transliteration, and some Jew-hating neo-nazi "new Israel" types use at least some variation of Yahweh and Yahshua!

A Little More Is Involved

Of course, jealousy or deliberation does not explain all of how most languages have a version or replacement for the biblical Hebrew names. There is a matter of the inability of many phonetic systems to represent or even reproduce the sounds of Hebrew. That is why we use a transliteration font on our web site! (Actually, several of the "Roman" characters we use in English represent the same sounds as they did two or three centuries ago.)

Truth be known, in all fairness, Greek and Latin translators have (and probably many languages since) somewhat to transliterate biblical names more than my previous section would lead you to believe. Also, the first European translations came closer, as their readers, in pronouncing Hebraic names. But English has changed phonetically, just as the English language has come to mispronounce Latin phonemes.

The Greeks had a problem with the sh sound, and this has helped give us biblical names like Saul or Absalom instead of Sha`ul and 'Abshalom (though some will argue the development of Hebrew sheen versus seen---but not here). But most of the problems have come with modern misunderstanding.

For example, the yod became Greek's yota (iota) represented with I but still with the consonantal 'y' sound. Hebrew yod also came to represent a vowel sound, usually an ee () later in history. This continues in Greek, Latin, and English. (The situation for other languages, I leave to others.) But in the initial position of a word, until recent times, the value for I was 'y' and this came to be represented by attaching a small tail to the I making what we now call a "jay." So when Wicliffe, Tyndale, and through to the Authorized Version uses Iohan, Ihon, Iohn, etc. these and other names, based on Latin based on Greek examples, were pronounced with a y sound. And the "jay" sound, as we now know it, is quite recent. This means that the name "Gee-zus" is also very recent.

Some see the Greek version of Yahshua as being pronounced "EE-ay-zoos" and talk of it being modeled after a god, Ea combined with Zeus. More likely, there was an attempt made to transliterate the Hebrew (or Aramaic) original. The Greek letter eta (h), as other Greek vowels and consonants were not always so firmly fixed (and originated with the Canaanite/Palaeo-Hebrew brought by "Cadmos" [Hebrew qdm =east] that you have seen used on this site). Today, the sound of eta is ee and earlier ey, but in ancient times the bleating of sheep, at least in one ancient fragment surviving from an Attic comedy, is represented with beta-eta (bh bh). The Greek diphthongs were probably not always used or pronounced as they were later either. For example, the name Zeus ("Zoos") comes from the same source as its two syllable parallels from Indo-European Dyaus* including diwos used at Mykenai, and eventually Latin Deus. Zeus was originally pronounced perhaps, Zay-oos or even Dzay-oos. By the same token, when Greek tried to transliterate the language that it got its alef-bet from, it is not hard to imagine that it transliterated with -souV. And when the Greeks wrote "IhsouV" they were saying, 'Yah-so-us' (Yah-suh-oos) or possibly 'Yey-so-us' --an honest attempt to pronounce a Hebrew name within the confines of the Greek tongue. (This is not to say that pronunciations or mispronunciations of Yahshua did not sound like deities that pagans were already familiar with.)

The same understanding of language change applies to the Greek variants (attempts) in transliterating the sacred name, Yahweh.

For other letters used in Roman characters we also have recent changes in pronunciation from those used in especially Latin and English. The modern u and v were interchangeable, and still are on some monument inscriptions and the like. But like the i, they were vowel and consonant (as today), but with a u / oo vowel sound or w consonant value. Somewhere there was a northern influence that effected even early Greek, causing it to lose the digamma it had borrowed from the Semitic waw. Even today the descendants of the northern peoples the Greeks and Romans came into contact with do not pronounce the w, and English and even (Ashkenazi) Hebrew has traded w / u for a v sound as it is now pronounced under the same influence. Also consider the ch sound now used that originally carried a soft k sound evidenced by the similarity of kirk and church (compare German Kirche and Dutch kerk).


What To Do?

The corruption of Hebrew names came from the inability for the characters of tongues without sufficient similar sounds to fully bring across Hebrew pronunciation, in spite of attempts to do so. The deliberate continuation of this mis-pronunciation and the attitudes of indifference possibly attached to it is something more negative.

We who would embrace ancient Hebrew culture and who have turned away from the Western misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Yahwism should restore the ancient names as much as possible. This should be done as another active rejection of the Western system of religion, and as an acknowledgement of where our religious heritage truly originates. This is just an extension of the sentiment that using 'god' or 'lord' is not the same as calling upon Yahweh 'Elohim. Also, we now have the means to show and reproduce transliteration characters that will represent Hebrew correctly. These have been used by biblical scholars for some time, and I have made them available to you on this site. Use them, learn to read Hebrew, use the real biblical names and also the Hebrew names of the Tanak books!

The transliteration table, or key, if you will, provides the pronunciation guide you need and a link to download the Evyoni font..





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Copyright 10/04/99 Shemayah ben-Avraham