Names in the Bible: Did They Have Last Names?

Names in the Bible: Did They Have Last Names?
Mosaic of Abraham in the Palatine Chapel. Abraham is famously known for his *name* being changed from Abram to Abraham.

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on March 22, 2024, which can be found here.

 

Q. How come we never hear the last names of the people in the Bible? Did they have last names?

A. The short answer is: No, the biblically attested figures did not have last names in the conventional sense. That is to say, they generally did not have hereditary or “family” names—what we often call ‘surnames’—following their first or “given” names.

The convention of surnames was brought to England by the Normans in the 11th century, and they were not first of all inherited, but coined, to differentiate (as one might expect) one person from another with the same given name, by appealing to certain aspects associated with that individual: one’s father’s name, perhaps, or a distinguishing physical feature (John the Tall), or one’s trade (John the Tanner vs. John the Blacksmith), eventually dropping the article ‘the,’ and occasionally morphing according to pronunciation. So, John Tull. John Tanner. John Smith.

This connects nicely to your question about the absence of last names in the Bible. While in the eras of the production of the books in our sacred canon, surnames were not yet in use, this is not to say that other words weren’t called into service to help distinguish one person from another, just as the English began doing much later in the medieval era. “Simon Bar-Jonah,” Jesus calls Simon/Peter in Matthew 16:17, using the Aramaic word ‘bar’ (son) to clarify for future generations that it was this particular Simon—the son of a man called ‘Jonah’—and not some other Simon that had made the confession that Jesus is God’s Messiah (and probably to emphasize as well that it was not Simon’s earthly father who enlightened him to this truth, but his heavenly Father instead).

Other examples abound. There were lots of Marys, so they are distinguished by additional words that have become more or less conventionally part of their “full” names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas. Numerous Josephs, too, in the ancient world. So, Joseph of Arimathea. Even ‘Jesus’ was a popular name! But there was one called Jesus of Nazareth who was set apart from the others.

Things are even more interesting in the Old Testament, where names are fabricated from whole phrases or sentences mashed into a single world used to describe someone’s life story or to draw attention to a special role a person plays. The name of the prophet ‘Elijah’ means ‘my god is Yahweh’ (the proper name for himself that God explains to Moses from the burning bush). The Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ means ‘Yahweh saves,’ the Greek equivalent of which is ‘Jesus’ (cf. Matt 1:21). Long before American Indians used language in this way (think ‘Dances with Wolves’ in the popular movie with that title), the heroes and heroines in the Bible (and some antiheroes as well!) had already standardized this practice.

One last point to ponder about names in the Bible. As an an Old Testament specialist, one of the good questions I often receive from students is what to do about all those genealogies; the long lists of names that no one can pronounce and that give lectors panic attacks when they discover it’s their turn to read them in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. Why were they included in Sacred Scripture? What good do they do?

Well, one helpful thing they do is to provide a resource for us to consult when—as we read through the various large and sweeping narratives in the OT—we are introduced to someone whose name is strange, and whose back story we struggle to remember. Ah, let’s check the genealogies to discover whose son or daughter this new character is/where he or she comes from! And whether there are any additional details the genealogy includes, that may help us to get hold of the author’s purpose in bringing up this person!

That’s what good Bible reading seeks to do: to notice when details from one text call to mind details from another text, many pages—or even books—away, producing a deep and meaningful revelation about God and his ways with the world, which we won’t be in a position to understand unless we pay attention, even to the “fly-over” zones.