Keeping track of every Joseph and Mary
Imagine if no one had a last name. No Smith, Jones, Letterman, or Rivers in the phone book. Just first names. How would you know this David from that one? How would you know which Joan you met yesterday? What names would you give people to tell them apart?
Answer that question. What solutions did you come up with?
In Bible times, they used the same solutions you would use.
Common names were a common problem. Newborns were usually given a relative’s name, one from the family ancestry (Luke 1:59-61). Israel was one big family. They had only so many names in the family, but many people to name. In the time of Christ, there were many men named Joseph, John, Jacob (James), or Joshua (Jesus). Jesus alone encountered at least three women named Mary.
How did they keep them apart? Each Joseph and Mary was given an additional name based on the situation and context.
Here are the common solutions:
Father and family members. In Nazareth, his home town, Jesus was identified as “son of Joseph” (John 6:42). Mary, mother of Jesus. James and John were the sons of Zebedee. This worked in the person’s home town, where everyone also knew the family.
Home town or location. When a person traveled, they became known by their home town. Outside of Nazareth, Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” or "Jesus the Nazarene" (John 1:45). Mary Magdalene means she was from Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (not Jesus’ mother Mary).
Title or occupation. Christ is not Jesus’ last name, it is his title, his position: “Jesus the Christ.” Joseph the carpenter. Luke the physician (Colossians 4:14).
Nicknames. With so many people running around with identical names, nicknames were very useful. Jesus called Simon “Peter” (Petros in Greek, in Aramaic Cephas, in American English “Rocky”; John 1:42).
Here’s one man with three additional names: Acts 4:36 identifies
- Joseph (birth name)
- from Cyprus (location)
- a Levite (family tribe)
- who was so encouraging that he was nicknamed “son of encouragement”— in their language, Barnabas.