Why Are the Names in the Old Testament Different from Those in the New Testament?

Even the most casual reader of the Bible senses vast differences in the types of materials included in the Old and New Testaments.

One obvious example of differences that we encounter between the Old and New Testaments appears in common personal names. In the Old Testament, we become familiar with the names Jacob, Joshua, Miriam, Hannah, and Elijah.

In the New Testament, we read regularly of James, Jesus, Mary, Anna, and Elias. In actuality, those New Testament names are the English equivalents of the Greek and Hebrew names in the Bible. The case is much like the names of Paul and Paulo. They are the same name, but one is English and the other is Italian.

The Old Testament has come down to us in Hebrew, with a few Aramaic sections, and the New Testament comes to us in Greek. Some New Testament names have no Old Testament equivalents, as Greek and Latin names had been introduced into Jewish nomenclature by the beginning of the first century.

For example, Andreas (Andrew) and Philippos (Phillip) both were Greek names. Marcus (Mark) and Paulus (Paul) are Latin names. As we would expect, when the gospel message spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, Paul encountered an increasing number of people who bore Greek and Roman names that had no relationship to the names of the Old Testament.

Some names found in the New Testament are of Jewish origin but do not appear in the Old Testament. For example, Martha and Cephas are Aramaic names. The New Testament preserves several Aramaic names through transliteration, with the transliterated name in Greek, followed by a translation of the Aramaic into Greek.

For example, Mark preserves the Aramaic name of the blind man Jesus Christ met in Jericho and then translated it for his audience as “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus” (Mark 10:46). In some cases, the author did not provide a translation of the name—for example, “And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus” (Act 1:23). Barsabas derives from the two Aramaic words bar and sabas. The passage could be rendered, “Joseph, the son of the elder, whose surname was Justus.” Justus is Latin.

In one example, the English form of a name (James) is used in the New Testament even though the Greek provides the transliteration lakōbos of the Hebrew name Yakob. In another, the Old Testament and the New Testament preserve the same name of Joseph.

The New Testament name Jesus (Greek lēsuos) is based on the Hebrew Yēshua (meaning “salvation”; see it in use in Isaiah 12:2, last word). Although linguistically related, Joshua (Hebrew Yehoshua, meaning “Jehovah saves”) and Yeshua are not the same name.

The following list attempts to approximate the possible etymological origins of several prominent names in the four Gospel narratives (the Hebrew Old Testament name and the New Testament equivalent). In each case, the name has been transliterated into English:

  • Eleazar (Lazarus)
  • Elisheba (Elizabeth)
  • Elijah (Elias)
  • Hannah (Anna)
  • Miriam (Mary)
  • Noah (Noe)
  • Simeon (Simon)
  • Jonah (Jonas/Jona)
  • Isaiah (Isaias)
  • Judah (Judas/Jude).