Jesus of Nazareth is a central figure in the faith of more than two billion Christians around the world. Yet what we know about the man comes mostly from sources that were penned some time after his death on the cross. But just how accurate is what we think we know about Jesus? Well, it turns out that there is one widely assumed fact about the Son of God which is palpably wrong.
For most people, the principal sources of knowledge about Jesus are the four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Though the accounts given of Jesus’ life in the four gospels do not always tally. Nevertheless, they give a rounded picture of Jesus’ time on Earth and for most believers that is good enough.
It’s believed that the four gospels were written sometime between 66 and 110 A.D. So although they were penned after Jesus’ death, the time lapse is not extreme. It’s likely that these gospels were not in fact written by people who witnessed the events of his life for themselves. Rather, the anonymous writers were setting down the accounts which had been passed from person to person.
The fact that the gospels were not written by first-hand witnesses means that there is, of course, room for error in their accounts of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, some mistakes have been carried through right up until the present day. And as we’ll discover a little later, there’s one detail in particular that is surprising in its inaccuracy.
Along with the gospels, there are other sources which scholars turn to for the facts about Jesus’ life. Two notable ones are the writings of Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Flavius Josephus. The former was a Roman historian who lived from around 56 to 120 A.D. In his volume entitled Annals, he references the fact that the Roman Governor of Judea Pontius Pilate had Jesus put to death. And this confirms the gospel narrative.
Titus Flavius Josephus – to give him his Roman name – was actually Jewish and took the Hebrew name Yosef ben Matityahu at birth. He was born in Jerusalem, which was in the Roman province of Judea when he came into the world around 37 A.D. In his works, Josephus refers to Jesus and to his brother James.
So we have good historical evidence for the existence of Jesus – better than the proof we have for the life of Alexander the Great, for example. However, unfortunate errors can still creep into the information we have about the Messiah. The four gospels were obviously not written in English. But nor were they written in Hebrew, as were the books of the Old Testament. The gospels were, in fact, written in ancient Greek.
And it is in the translation – or transliteration – of the Biblical texts that errors can slip in. There’s an important distinction between translation and transliteration which is worth highlighting at this point. Transliteration is when you transfer a word from one alphabet to another. This can be severely complicated where two different alphabets don’t have exactly corresponding letters – such as the Roman one we use and the ancient Greek one.
Translation, on the other hand, is the simpler act of changing a word in one language to the corresponding word in another one. Although translation is generally more straightforward than transliteration, it too can have its pitfalls. The upshot is that the scholars who translated – or transliterated – the words of the Bible were faced with various tricky problems. And sometimes they lapsed into error.
There have been some absolute howlers involving both mistranslation of the Bible as well as basic typographical errors over the centuries. And as far back as 1562 an edition of the book included an unfortunate mistake. This was the Geneva Bible’s second edition in which instead of “Blessed be the peacemakers,” “Blessed be the place-makers” was printed. This book thus became known as the “Place-makers’ Bible.”
One particularly glaring example of Biblical error comes in an edition of the Bible published in English in 1631. The individuals behind this particular version of the Bible were two men called Robert Barker and Martin Lucas. Their version of the good book came to be known as the “Sinner’s Bible” – or sometimes the “Wicked Bible.”
In fact, Barker and Lucas were not trying to create a new translation of the book. Their intention was simply to publish a new edition of the King James Bible – simply reproducing it exactly word for word. Barker had in fact been the publisher of the very first edition of the King James Bible in 1611, so he must have seemed a good bet as the publisher of another edition.
But a terrible error crept into their work. In fact, the mistake was probably due to the carelessness of a compositor. This was the skilled worker tasked with setting the individual lead letters into wooden blocks ready for the printing press. And if the compositor – or typesetter – made an error, then this would appear in the final printed text.
And unfortunately, this typographical error was slap bang in the middle of one of the most important passages of the Old Testament: the Ten Commandments. Even worse, it was in one of the best known of the principles, and the error succeeded in completely reversing its meaning. The commandment should have read, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
But in the Barker and Lucas Bible the mistaken passage read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The crucial word “not” was entirely omitted by the compositor. So it’s easy to see why this edition of the book was also dubbed the “Adulterer’s Bible.” And the consequences of this inexcusable blunder for the publishing partners were dire.
The reigning king Charles I was said to have been furious with the error. Barker and Lucas were summoned to appear before the Star Chamber – a powerful special court of the day. The two men were fined the large sum of £300 and their licenses as printers were revoked. Most of the copies of the wicked Bible were then tracked down and burned.
But not all of the Wicked Bibles were destroyed. No one knows for sure how many are still in existence today, but the consensus is that they are rare indeed. One came up for sale at auctioneers Bonhams in 2015 and sold for some $40,000. So, if you happen to come across a very old Bible, check the Ten Commandments; you might just have hit the jackpot.
Another error that crept into a printing of the King James Bible came in 1653. This mistake was in the New Testament’s first book of Corinthians and was in an edition published by the Cambridge Press. The passage in Corinthians should read, “Know ye not that the righteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” That, of course, makes perfect sense to any practising Christian.
However, the Cambridge Press managed to change the meaning entirely by the simple expedient of adding an unintended “un.” The passage printed read, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” That of course is not at all the message that Corinthians intended to convey. And this edition of the good book became known as the “Unrighteous Bible.”
Up popped another typographical lapse in the King James Bible in 1682 – giving rise to what was to be dubbed the “Cannibal’s Bible.” In a passage in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy dealing with divorce, the phrase, “And if the latter husband hate her…” comes up. But in this edition of the Bible it was rendered as, “And if the latter husband ate her…”
Yet another unfortunate error in an impression of the King James Bible came in 1716. The Old Testament book of Jeremiah includes the phrase, “Sin no more.” But when it was printed this had been changed to, “Sin on more,” which obviously has a quite different meaning. Apparently, some 8,000 copies of this edition were printed before they typo was spotted.
Then in 1795 along came what was to become known as the “Child Killer Bible.” The Gospel of Mark, chapter 27, verse 27, should read, “But Jesus said unto her, let the children first be filled…” The Messiah meant that the youngsters should be allowed to eat first. But the meaning changes dramatically if – as in this edition of the Bible – you replace “filled” with “killed.”
Then there is the plain bizarre edition of the holy book which is known as the “Owl husband Bible.” This mistake brings us up to the 20th century with an edition of the King James Bible printed in 1944. In one passage, women are beseeched to “submit yourselves to your own husbands.” Substitute “owl” for “own” as this Bible edition did, however, and the entreaty becomes strangely surrealistic.
So, we have a choice collection of errors that have been printed over the centuries in various editions of the Bible. And the examples that we’ve cited are only a selection. But there is one error which puts the others in the shade. That blunder concerns Jesus himself, and it’s related to the very name that we know the Messiah by.
Before we get on to this monumental error, let’s just take a moment to consider the names that we know Jesus by. Perhaps the most commonly used name for the Son of God is Jesus Christ. But we should note that Christ is not actually a name at all. It is, in fact, a title. So, Jesus’ last name was emphatically not Christ.
Christ is an honorific which comes from the Greek word christos, which in turn derives from the Hebrew term mashiakh. This means “the anointed” and English speakers usually transliterate the word to messiah. Outstandingly righteous people were anointed with a special holy oil in the Hebrew tradition. But the Messiah would not have been known in his everyday life as Jesus Christ.
In fact, in Jesus’ time, the Jews had their own particular system of naming. Each person had one single name which would be followed by “son of.” So, the Messiah would have been known as Jesus son of Joseph. Alternatively, the “son of” formula could be replaced by location. Therefore, the Messiah could also have been called Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact, this system of naming as “son of” – ben in Hebrew, or “daughter of” – bat – could be extended further. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, the Messiah is referred to as “the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon.” This brings to the table Jesus’ entire family – with the notable exception of his father Joseph.
But an error we all make almost every time we refer to the Christian Messiah has to do with the very name “Jesus.” This was not the name that the man was known by during his own life. In fact, his Hebrew name, and the one used in the Gospels in their original Greek, is Yeshua. And in modern English, it’s incorrect to render Yeshua as Jesus. Yeshua is, in fact, the Hebrew version of Joshua.
There are actually several other Yeshuas in the Bible. The name appears no fewer than 30 times in the Old Testament – referring to four different characters. And we don’t call them Jesus. We transliterate Yeshua as Joshua. Perhaps the Bible’s most famous Joshua is the one who brought down the walls of Jericho and seized the Canaanite city – massacring all of its inhabitants.
So, since the Messiah was actually called Yeshua in his own time, how have modern Christians come to refer to him as Jesus? And why do we refer to the four Yeshuas in the Old Testament as Joshua? The explanation largely comes down to mistakes of translational and transliteration.
Let’s remember that the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with some Aramaic, and it was translated from those languages into English. The New Testament – including the four gospels – was originally written in Greek and translated to English from that language. As we’ve seen, when scholars came across the Hebrew name Yeshua in the Old Testament, they transliterated that as Joshua.
But when the name Yeshua came up in the Greek language in the New Testament, it appeared somewhat differently. The ancient Greeks did not have the sound “sh” in their language. So, they substituted the “sh” with an “s” sound. An extra “s” was then added to the end of what would have been Yesua to conform to Greek grammar rules. And that “s” at the end made the name masculine.
So with those Greek changes to the Son of God’s name, we end up with Yesus. But the initial “Y” was also changed in the Romanized transliteration – becoming an “I” to end up with Iesus. We can see that name Iesus in the letters was said to have been inscribed on Jesus’ cross: INRI. Those letters stand for the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
The “J” that we are familiar with at the beginning of Jesus’ name only appeared much later. None of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin had a “J” in their alphabet. Nor did they have that sound in their languages – hence the Latin use of “I” instead. And even in English Iesus was the form frequently used for the Messiah’s name right up until the 18th century.
Even in the English language there was no distinction between “I” and “J” until sometime around the middle of the 17th century. The first King James Bible published in 1611 used the form Iesus. Similarly, Jesus’ father’s name was rendered Ioseph. So where did the “J” eventually come from? The surprising answer to that question is most probably Switzerland.
And that Swiss origin of the “J” in Jesus came, interestingly, because of an English queen. Mary I came to the throne in 1553 and was a determined Roman Catholic at a time when many of her people had left the Roman church to become Protestants. Her persecution of religious dissenters was so cruel that it earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Indeed, during her reign, some 280 Protestants were burned at the stake.
In the face of this persecution, many English Protestants fled their homeland and went to Switzerland where their religious beliefs were tolerated. While there, the English refugees began work on a new English edition of the Bible. These people also came across a linguistic innovation: the Swiss “J.” And the first complete Geneva Bible published in 1560 used the form Jesus for the Messiah’s name.
Even though, as we’ve seen, the 1611 King James Bible used the form Iesus, over time the Jesus form was the one that prevailed. By 1769 the Geneva Bible’s formulation of Jesus was the only way that the Messiah’s name was spelt. In English, Yeshua, Joshua and Iesus had been completely replaced, and today they are largely forgotten.
So, it’s possible to argue that the most glaring error in all contemporary Bibles written in English is the Messiah’s name. A purist could argue that it should be Yeshua, though perhaps it would be more accurate to argue that it should be Joshua. But in the real world Yeshua became Iesus, and finally that became the name which resonates around the world: Jesus.