Is 'Isa the true name of Jesus?

Jochen Katz

Jalal Abualrub, a Florida Imam, author and translator of Muslim literature into English has published an article, supposedly in response to some questions from an unnamed Arab Christian, in which he seeks to elevate Islam over the Christian Faith in various ways.

One of his many claims and allegations is that Christians do not even have the correct name for God and for Jesus. He states:

... Christian Arabs do not even call Esa by his European name ‘Jesus’, but by his Arab [and true] name ‘`Esa’, or by another name they invented: ‘Yasu`; they do not use the word ‘god’ to describe the Creator, but the Creator’s true name ‘Allah’. ... (Source originally, later moved here)

Since I heard it ever so often from various Muslims that Esa ('Isa) is the true name of Jesus, it may be helpful to use this occasion to give a public answer to this claim. Abualrub's other claim regarding the true name of God is extensively and sufficiently answered elsewhere (1, 2). Abualrub's entire article is analyzed here.

Abualrub apparently confuses two distinct linguistic concepts. (A) What is Jesus' original name? (B) What is the most appropriate way of rendering (transliterating) a name in a different language?

(A) What is Jesus' original name? The historically correct answer can only be that it is the name that he was given at his "naming ceremony" (Luke 2:21), the name by which he was called by his mother, his foster-father, his siblings and other relatives, his neighbors, his friends and his disciples during his life on earth. There is no disagreement about the fact that Jesus was not an Arab but a Jew who lived in Israel and was born into a family of pious Jews. He had without question a Hebrew name. His original (i.e. true) name is neither European nor Arabic, so it was neither Jesus nor Yasu' nor Esa. A close phonetic transliteration of Jesus' Hebrew name into modern English would be Yeshua'. In fact, the choice of his name receives considerable attention in the Gospels. His name was not arbitrarily chosen by his parents, but he received his name based on God's direct command (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31) because the meaning of this name expresses the purpose for which he was born (Matthew 1:21). [Highly recommended further reading: 1, 2]

(B) is a very different question. How are names in one language most appropriately rendered in another language, particularly if the two languages in question have different alphabets? Should it be Mohammed or Muhammad, Mecca or Makkah, Koran or Qur'an in English? Should the quranic name of Jesus be transliterated as Esa (the spelling used in Abualrub's article) or 'Isa which seems to be the more common spelling?

Whenever the Gospel is first preached in a new language group, and the Bible is translated into a new language, one has to make a decision on how to render the name of Jesus (as well as many other Biblical names) in that new language. Most European languages derive their spelling of Jesus' name from its spelling in Latin which in turn was derived from the Greek rendering of the Hebrew.

Abualrub's rather strange argument begins with the clause, "Christian Arabs do not even call Esa by his European name ‘Jesus’, ..." Well, why would anyone expect that they should? Russians call him by his Russian name, Chinese call him by his Chinese name, and Arabs call him by his Arabic name, all of which are different transliterations of his original name into different language systems. In fact, although the spelling of Jesus' name in the European languages English, German, French and Spanish is very similar, the pronounciation is quite different since the same letters have different phonetic values in those languages. [It is therefore questionable whether it makes even sense to speak of a European name.] That his name sounds and looks even more different in a non-European language is to be expected.

Had Abualrub said that Jesus' true Arabic name is Esa, then he may have been making the claim that Esa is a better or more appropriate Arabic rendering of Jesus' original (Hebrew) name. However, that is not what Abualrub wrote. He claims: "Christian Arabs do not even call Esa by his European name ‘Jesus’, but by his Arab [and true] name ‘`Esa’, or by another name they invented: ‘Yasu`". That statement actually contains several claims:

  1. Arab Christians usually use the name Esa for Jesus — though Abualrub acknowledges there exists a second name, Yasu', that is used by Arab Christians as well.
  2. There is a considerable qualitative difference between the names Esa and Yasu'. In particular, he claims:
    1. Yasu' is a mere (human) invention. As the source of the invention he indentifies Arab Christians.
      By implication, this claim suggests that the name Esa was not invented (by humans) but was divinely revealed.
    2. Esa is Jesus' (correct) Arabic name. Yet, not only that,
    3. Esa is his true name.

Though Abualrub does not clearly define what he means by "true name", most readers would understand this term to refer to his original name. Altogether, these claims are quite a mouthful. However, for historical and linguistic reasons, Abualrub is wrong on all of these points.

The crucial claim (2.c. in this list) has already been answered in section (A), above. The following paragraphs will clarify the other claims.

The traditional Arabic name for Jesus is Yasu'. Until very recent times, all Arab Christians used no other name for Jesus. And even today, that is the name used by more than 99% of all Arab Christians. Just walk into any Arab Christian church, turn on Arabic Christian broadcasting, read Arabic Christian literature written for Christians. You will only find Yasu', never Esa. Only very recently (perhaps some 25 years ago) some Christians started to use the name Esa in Arabic publications written specifically for Muslims in the hope that they may more easily accept their message if they see the quranic name for Jesus instead of the traditional Christian one.[1] Nevertheless, among themselves, Arab Christians do not use Esa. Abualrub's statement suggests that Arab Christians commonly use Esa, and that is simply wrong.

The traditional Arabic rendering or transliteration of the original Hebrew name (Yeshua') is Yasu'. Every choice of transliteration of a foreign name into a different language is a human "invention". The English spelling "Muhammad" is just as much an invention as "Jesus" or "Yasu'" or "Esa". Problems only arise when people like Abualrub make the claim that the quranic invention "Esa" is the true (i.e. original) name of Jesus. That is merely a polemical attempt to elevate the Islamic invention not only above all other renderings in other languages, but even above the original. That is unacceptable, and it is bad scholarship.

Linguistically it is clear how the rendering of the Hebrew Yeshua' () developed into the English Jesus:

Yeshua' (Hebrew) —> Ιησους (Greek) —> Iesus (Latin) —> Jesus (English).

The crucial transition is from the Hebrew to the Greek. This step was taken already more than 200 years before Jesus was born. The translators of the Septuagint (LXX), the classical Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, rendered Jesus' Hebrew name as Ιησους in Greek. The Gospels were written in the Greek language and merely followed this long-established practice.

Since Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, and they are closely related, there are certain well-known rules which sounds/letters in Hebrew correspond to which sounds/letters in Arabic. Specifically, the Hebrew letter Shin regularly turns into the Arabic letter Sin, e.g. the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, corresponds to the Arabic word salam. According to those linguistic rules and relationships between Hebrew and Arabic, Yasu' is the proper Arabic equivalent for the Hebrew Yeshua':

   Yeshua' =  Yod + Shin + Waw + 'Ain
     Yasu' =   Ya + Sin  + Waw + 'Ain

Again, the linguistically most appropriate Arabic equivalent for the Hebrew Yeshua' is Yasu'. Thus, the traditional Arabic name for Jesus is the linguistically most appropriate one. The transition from Yeshua' to Yasu' follows the common rules of phonetic changes from Hebrew to Arabic. In that sense, Yasu' is the true Arabic name of Jesus. There is nothing arbitrary about it. On the contrary, Yasu' is the natural equivalent of Yeshua'.

On the other hand, it is a long-standing mystery where Esa, the quranic name for Jesus, is coming from. Although there exist a number of theories that are more or less convincing, we will probably never know for sure.

To summarize, Jesus' original name was certainly not Arabic — neither the version Esa, found in the Qur'an, nor the version Yasu' used in Arabic Bible translations. His original and therefore true name was Hebrew. The linguistically most appropriate transcription of the Hebrew name Yeshua' into Arabic is Yasu', the very name that has traditionally been used by Arab Christians, probably already before the advent of Islam. Since Esa was not Jesus' original name, it cannot be maintained that it was divinely revealed since that would imply that God revealed a wrong name. Therefore, the name Esa was invented just as Yasu' was invented, the difference being that Yasu' is the linguistically appropriate transliteration of Yeshua', while Esa is not. The only question remaining is how did the name Esa arise?

Because of the above stated facts, the following verse presents a real problem, at least to some or even many Muslims:

(Remember) when the angels said: "O Maryam (Mary)! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word ["Be!" - and he was! i.e. 'Iesa (Jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary)] from Him, his name will be the Messiah 'Iesa (Jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah." Sura 3:45 Al-Hilali and Khan

Stripping the statement from all the various insertions added in by the translators, the message of the angels to Mary allegedly was: "O Maryam! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him, his name will be the Messiah 'Iesa, the son of Maryam, held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah." Because of this verse many Muslims like Abualrub feel obligated to claim that Esa is the true name of Jesus. After all, that is his divinely revealed name according to the Qur'an!

Historically, it is impossible, but what should or could Muslims do? Somehow the name Esa must be justified if they do not want to admit an error in the Qur'an.

One theory makes a connection between Esa and Esau, the name of Jacob's twin brother. Interestingly, this is a theory that has been argued by both Muslims and non-Muslims — although for very different reasons. One Muslim who clearly made the connection between the name given to Jesus in the Quran with that of Esau was the late Ahmad Deedat. He wrote:

Eesa Latinised to "Jesus"

The Holy Quran refers to Jesus as Eesa, and this name is used more times than any other title, because this was his "Christian" name. Actually, his proper name was Eesa (Arabic), or Esau (Hebrew); classical Yeheshua, which the Christian nations of the West latinised as Jesus. Neither the "J" nor the second "s" in the name Jesus is to be found in the original tongue - they are not found in the Semitic languages.

The word is very simply "E S A U" a very common Jewish name, used more than sixty times in the very first booklet alone of the Bible, in the part called "Genesis". There was at least one "Jesus" sitting on the "bench" at the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Josephus the Jewish historian mentions some twenty five Jesus' in his "Book of Antiquities". The New Testament speaks of "Bar-Jesus" a magician and a sorcerer, a false prophet (Acts 13:6); and also "Jesus-Justus" a Christian missionary, a contemporary of Paul (Colossians 4:11). These are distinct from Jesus the son of Mary. Transforming "Esau" to (J)esu(s) - Jesus - makes it unique. This unique (?) name has gone out of currency among the Jews and the Christians from the 2nd century after Christ. Among the Jews, because it came to be a name of ill - repute, the name of one who blasphemed in Jewry; and among the Christians because it came to be the proper name of their God. The Muslim will not hesitate to name his son Eesa because it is an honored name, the name of a righteous servant of the Lord. (Deedat, Christ in Islam, Chapter Two : Jesus in the Quran; online source)

South African Christian Apologist and author John Gilchrist responded to Deedat’s assertions:

We do not hesitate, from the outset, to say that insofar as Deedat has endeavoured to discredit the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and personality he has failed dismally. A good example appears as early as page 6 of his booklet where he claims that the original name of Jesus was "Isa" (as it is the name given to him in the Qur'an) and that it derives from the Hebrew "Esau". He suggests that Esau is a "very common Jewish name" and that it is "used more than sixty times" in the first book of the Bible, namely Genesis (Christ in Islam, p.6). Deedat's overall ignorance of the Bible and Jewish history thus appears early in his booklet, for there is only one Esau mentioned in Genesis and he is the brother of Jacob, the true father of the Israelite nation. On every one of those more than sixty occasions it is this Esau alone who is spoken of, and there is no mention anywhere in the Bible of any descendant of Israel being called Esau. The Jews just simply did not call their children by this name.

Jacob and Esau were enemies for most of their lives and their descendants, the Israelites and the Edomites, were often at war with each other. No Jewish children were ever named after the brother of Jacob, the father of the Israelites, for he stood against Jacob and was rejected by God (Hebrews 12:17). It is thus a fallacy to suggest that the original name of Jesus was Esau.

An obvious historical blunder thus appears very early in Deedat's booklet, though the error is not entirely his own. Christian Arabs have always called Jesus Yasu after the Aramaic Yashua from which comes the Greek "Iesous" and the English Jesus. For reasons that have never been apparent Muhammad chose to call him Isa. Deedat’s interpretation of this name as "Esau" tends to lend support to the suggestion made by some that the Jews in Arabic cunningly misled Muhammad by subtly perverting the true name of Jesus into the name of their forefather’s irreligious brother. If Deedat’s conclusion is correct, it militates heavily against the supposed divine origin of the Qur'an.

There can be no doubt, however, that Esau is no nearer to the original and true name of Jesus than Muhammad's Isa. This fundamental error sets the tone for the whole of Deedat’s treatment of the contrast between Christ in Islam and Christianity and it is hard to resist the conclusion that the Jesus of the Bible, rather than the Isa of the Qur’an, is the true Jesus. We shall proceed to analyse other subjects in Deedat's treatise which relate the Isa of the Qur'an to the true Jesus of Christianity. (Christ in Islam and Christianity)

With only a little thought it should be obvious that Deedat's construction is completely ludicrous. However, Deedat apparently understood one thing that Abualrub has not yet grasped: Esa, the quranic name of Jesus, can only be his true name if it was also his original Hebrew name. Can we find an "Esa" in the Bible? "Esau" looked like the closest candidate. Thus, Deedat simply asserted that "Eesa (Arabic), or Esau (Hebrew); classical Yeheshua" are all the same name. That is wrong. Just compare the sequence of consonantal letters:

  Yehoshua' =  Yod + He + Shin + Waw + 'Ain
    Yeshua' =  Yod + Shin + Waw + 'Ain
      Esau  = Ayin + Sin + Waw

Esau is very different from both Yehoshua' (long form) or Yeshua' (short form of the same name). Thus we are back to square one. There is no Esa in the Bible, and it was certainly not Jesus' original name.

The idea to name the Messiah after Esau, a man who was rejected by God, is absurd for anyone who knows what the Bible says about Esau:

"The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Mal'achi. ‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. But you say, ‘How hast thou loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob's brother?’ says the LORD. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.’" Malachi 1:1-3

"See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears." Hebrews 12:15-17

As Gilchrist pointed out in the above quoted response, no Jew would ever have named a child after Esau.

To repeat: As silly as Deedat's argument was, he at least recognized that he must connect the quranic Esa with a genuine Hebrew name in order to make it credible that Esa is the real (original) name of Jesus. Abualrub, on the other hand, simply declares that the Arabic name Esa is Jesus' true name without giving any reason or evidence for his assertion. As indicated above, he apparently assumed that since this is the name that Allah gave him according to S. 3:45, therefore it simply had to be his original name. Period. If that is what the Quran implies, then it is another reason to reject the Qur'an as false.

However, does the Qur'an have to be understood this way? To be fair, I think there is a different way to read S. 3:45 which resolves part of the problem. Compare these two passages:

But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Ιησους (Jesus). He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." Luke 1:30-33 (Bible, New Testament, written in Greek)

(Remember) when the angels said: "O Mary! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him, his name will be the Messiah 'Iesa (Jesus), the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah." Sura 3:45 (Qur'an, written in Arabic)

The original text of the Gospel of Luke is in the Greek language. Nevertheless, the angel did not speak Greek to Mary. The Greek text is a translation of what was really spoken in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic). Therefore, although the original Gospel text contains the Greek name of Jesus, Christian scholars are convinced that the true, original name was the Hebrew equivalent of it.

Could the verse in the Qur'an not be read the same way? Instead of assuming that Esa is the original name of Jesus, we understand this verse as an Arabic translation of an angelic announcement that was really spoken in Hebrew. Just as the Greek Ιησους, the Arabic Esa would then not be the original name, but simply an Arabic rendering of his original Hebrew name Yeshua'.

This understanding may be uncomfortable to Muslim literalists, but would it not resolve the greater part of the problem outlined above? It would absolve the Qur'an from the error of ascribing a completely unhistorical name to Jesus. There would, however, still remain the smaller problem that as a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua', Esa is of bad quality, the Arab Christian transliteration Yasu' being much more appropriate by all accepted linguistic standards and rules.

In either case, the conclusion remains the same. Abualrub's claim is wrong. Esa is not the original name of Jesus.

Finally, I want to return to the question how the name Esa may have arisen. As I stated above, it is a mystery, and we may never know for sure. But it may be interesting to list what kind of suggestions have been made. There may be more, but the following are those that I am aware of.

Basically there are three different kinds of theories seeking to explain the quranic version of Jesus' name. They can be categorized under the adjectives derived, duped and deliberate.

I have not given a detailed reasoning for any one of the theories listed in the above three categories. For now, the above given outlines of these categories, and some of the theories that belong to them, should suffice. Even if the theories were presented in full detail, one would then only see that all of them have some good arguments speaking for them, and other arguments speaking against them. We will probably never know the real reason because hard evidence is lacking.

Further reading:


[1] I think this is a questionable methodology, particularly since Jesus did not have any arbitrary name, chosen by his parents for unknown reasons, but his name was deliberately chosen by God. The name should express the purpose of Jesus' mission, his life and death. It is intimately connected to the Gospel message itself and should therefore not be sacrificed. The Islamic name 'Isa does not have this meaning.

[2] On Youtube, AbuKhamrAlMaseeHee published a two part video rebuttal on Ahmed Deedat and the Islamic Name for Jesus (Part 1, Part 2). In Part 2, starting at the time 2:52, the author introduces the hypothesis that the quranic name may have come from a Mandaic source. The problem with this potential explanation is that this Mandaic source is probably post-islamic, so that it may well have been influenced by Islam, after the Islamic empire had conquered the area in which the Mandeans lived — rather than the other way around.

Responses to Jalal Abualrub
Answering Islam Home Page