The first section of this article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple (comprising names 1 and 2), appeared in Christian and Jewish Scene, a publication of the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, in December 2012.
1. JUDAS ISCARIOT
A common view connects “Iscariot” with the Sicarii, nationalists who opposed the Roman regime. They hid daggers (sica = dagger) in their clothes in order to murder their victims, often at festival time (Josephus, “Wars”, Book II). Josephus uses a Greek name, Sikaroi, which may have been the name which the occupying forces used for this group.
Josephus elsewhere indicates that the Sicarii were Zealots, followers of Judah the Galilean. If Judas Iscariot had Sicarii connections it might suggest not only hidden daggers but hidden political motives which could have led him to betray Jesus.
Though the Acts of the Apostles (21:38) report that the Roman officers thought that Saul/Paul of Tarsus was an Egyptian Jewish member of the Sicarii, it is unlikely that the term was in wide enough use as early as the time of Judas to warrant a link between Iscariot and the Sicarii.
It is more probable that Iscariot has a geographical connotation. Seeing that Judas was the only one of Jesus’ twelve apostles not to come from Galilee, his nickname indicates his place of origin or residence. Iscariot is thus Ish Keriyot, “a man from K(Q)eriyot”, a town in the tribe of Judah (Josh. 15:25; see J Klausner, “Jesus of Nazareth”, 1925, pp. 285, 324). Geza Vermes notes, however, that K(Q)ir’yah generally = “town” – i.e. any town (“Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus”, 2005, p. 16).
Stating one’s place of residence was a common way of designating persons with common names like “Judah” (there is another Judah(s) in the Gospels, in John 14). The Mishnah refers to J(Y)ose the son of J(Y)o’ezer, “a man of Tz’redah”, and J(Y)ose the son of J(Y)ohanan, “a man of Jerusalem” (Avot 1:4). In some versions Judas is the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6:66-71); elsewhere Iscariot is Judas’ own name (John 14:22, Mark 3:19).
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus has no connection with the nickname Iscariot. The details of the betrayal are rather vague; it is not enough to be told by Luke (22:3), “Then Satan entered Judas Iscariot” (cf. John 6:66-71).
J(Yeh)udah becomes Judas as part of a process of grecianisation. Similarly, J(Y)e(ho)shu’a or Yeshu became Jesus, and because others had the same name, he was described as “of Nazareth”. Because Saul is also a well known name, the Saul/Paul who figures so largely in the New Testament is Saul/Paul “of Tarsis”.
2. MARY MAGDALENE
Several Marys figure in the New Testament. Our concern is the name Magdalene. It may be that the Mary (Miriam) who bore this name – a close associate and supporter of Jesus but not his mother – was a hairdresser, megaddelah. From a root that means “great”, it is connected in Aramaic with a word meaning to plait the hair. If we accept this derivation it provides one of many clues as to the social life of the times.
It is not a derogatory name. Surnames as we now know them did not exist in those days, though nicknames did, and one of the ways of identifying a person was by means of their occupation – Isaac the blacksmith, Yohanan the bootmaker, etc. Once, however, Mary was accorded a higher status, her name was reinterpreted by some Christian commentators as denoting her appearance, i.e. a woman with plaited hair.
Others linked the name with a place. Since migdol is a tower, as in the verse (II Sam. 22:51), Migdol yeshu’ot malko – “God is a tower of salvation to His king”, it was thought that she lived in a tower – the tower of Astrat (Caesaria Stratonis) or the tower of Shilo’ah (Siloam). There were also homiletical views that she built herself a tower of righteousness.
Nonetheless, the references to towers seem to lose their credibility when one takes into account Talmudic passages which know of a certain Miriam hamegaddela se’ar nasha, “Miriam, the plaiter of women’s hair” (Hagigah 4b; cf. Shabbat 104b). But whether this Miriam was Mary Magdalene is still debatable.
There is an off-chance that Magdalene is connected with a word that indicates bringing up children. The Talmud (Hagigah 4b) refers to megaddelah dardekei, “a woman who raises children”, though there is no evidence that this is a reference to a New Testament personage. We know of course that many New Testament names and incidents echo names and events in the Old Testament. The original Miriam was associated with the baby Moses, which might provide a parallel or precedent for Mary (though not Mary Magdalene) in the New Testament and the baby Jesus.
However, there is a strong possibility that the name is geographical and that Mary Magdalene came from Magdala near K’far Nahum (Capernaum) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), a fishing village which was the place of residence of some of the Talmudic sages. Magdala is mentioned in the New Testament several times. Possibly the word “the” needs to be inserted in Mary’s name so that it reads “Mary the Magdalene”.
3. SIMON PETER
Peter was the leader of the Apostles. His original name was Simon or Simeon (Shimon in Hebrew); his nickname was Kepha or Cephas, which means a rock in Aramaic – hence the name Petros (Peter), which has the same meaning in Greek. He was the son of a certain Yonah (Jonah). He was probably known as The Rock before he ever met Jesus.
In the Hebrew Bible, it is God Himself who is the Rock (e.g. Deut. 32:4), possibly meaning “unchangeable”.
Jesus is reported by Matthew (16:18-19) as calling Simon Peter the foundation stone of his Church (“You will be the rock on which my Church shall be built”), though as a rock he sometimes proved rather shaky.
He was a fisherman from Capernaum (K’far Nachum); Jesus called him to be “a fisher of men”. He had a wife and possibly children. In Christian tradition he later became bishop of Antioch and subsequently Rome. The Roman Catholic communion regards him as the first Pope.
In Jewish tradition he is more highly regarded than Paul because he had a greater regard for Jewish law and practice. But there is a mystery about him. Was he a Jew or a Christian?
There is a story that he composed one of the leading Jewish prayers, Nishmat, a lyrical poem read on Sabbath and festival mornings which asserts that no human can ever find the words to praise God sufficiently. Some also claim that he wrote Ahavah Rabbah, said daily before the morning Sh’ma as a praise of God who showed His love by giving Israel the Torah.
The commentator Rashi denies that the author was the Simon Peter of the New Testament, but Rashi’s grandson Rabbenu Tam still believes that this Simon was a Jewish liturgical poet and wrote a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) hymn, Etein Tehillah (“I will utter praise”).
There are Midrashic sources that say that Simon Peter spent his last years as a faithful Jew and prevented the new Christians from infiltrating Judaism. Some even claim that he was planted as a Jewish agent amongst the early Christians. However, other views are also found in the literature which suggest that his Hebraic knowledge was too scanty for him to be regarded as a rabbinic sage.
The truth is that there were several Shimons. It is a common name after all. The Nishmat poem has several sections which probably derive from different sources. It is a magnificent poem, but there is no proof that Simon Peter had a hand in writing it.
Matthew is one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. In the sequence of the gospels his book stands first, though it was not the first to be written. Despite some versions of Christian tradition, he may not have been the actual author of the Gospel of Matthew at all.
Like most of the names of the disciples, “Matthew” derives from Hebrew, though it has been through Aramaic (Mattai), Greek (Matthaios) and Latin (Matthaeus) before getting to its present form. Technically it should not be pronounced with an English “th” as in “the” or “then”, but with a doubled “t”, giving us a pronunciation like “matt-yoo”. Matthew is probably originally Mattityah (“Mathias”) or Mattityahu (“Mattathias”). The name means “Gift of God”. Hebrew Scriptures mention at least five individuals who have versions of this name; most are Levite singers, and one stood beside Ezra in the pulpit (Neh. 8:4).
In Aramaic, Mattai has the same form as Shammai and Yannai (see Talmud Sanhedrin 43a).
Not much is known of Matthew’s background. The New Testament supplies very little data about his life and career and texts other than the Gospel of Matthew he seems to be Levi the son of Alphaeus (see Mark 2:14). He was a tax gatherer, not the most popular of professions. Jesus, because he reached out to such people, became known (Matt. 11:19) as “friend of tax collectors and sinners”
The great paradox is that Matthew’s language and teachings seem quite close to Judaism and indicate an easy familiarity with Jewish terminology and practices, whilst at the same time he says terrible things about scribes, Pharisees and Jews in general. The imprecations of the famous Chapter 23 echo through history as the model for some of the most vicious hostility towards the Jewish people.
He says on the one hand (Matt. 10:6) that Jesus cared for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”, seemingly borrowing the phraseology from the Hebrew Bible’s descriptions of Moses and David as shepherds. On the other hand, he says that Jews will be excluded from the Messiah’s banquet of the righteous (Matt. 8:11-12).
Some of the strong language he uses echoes passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls, e.g. “hordes of Satan”, “hypocrites”, and “sons of darkness”. He is aware of the robust and bitter arguments flung from side to side in the sectarian conflicts of that period. This does not excuse his acrimony or invective but it helps to explain it.
5. SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
Scribes and Pharisees are unpopular in the Gospels. Though much can be said in support of the Pharisees, the scribes need some defence. “Scribe” is usually an amanuensis. Some of the ancient scribes actually were copyists. But the Gospels are not attacking secretaries or copyists: their target is the sofer, the teacher and transmitter of the tradition, the moulder of minds.
The Sh’ma says, “Teach them (the commandments) thoroughly to your children” (Deut. 6:7). The responsibility for education is on the father, a task which a father might be unable to fulfil. He might be absent, ignorant, or incompetent; a child might be an orphan. Hence the verse was read broadly, allowing substitutes for the father. The rabbis said, “‘To your children’ means, ‘to your pupils’”. Thus arose a teaching profession, called morim, melam’dim and zekenim (Deut. 32:7, Psalm 119:99, Prov. 5:13).
The teachers were not necessarily priests, though the latter were “guardians of the Torah” (Deut. 33:10, Mic. 3:11). The people were told, “Ask the priests for instruction” (Hag. 2:11; Deut. 7:8-9). Passages such as II Chron. 15:3 about priests as teachers indicate merely that they had schools in the Temple and taught the priestly traditions.
Record-keepers were needed in the Temple and were more literate than some of the priests. A retired priest might become a teacher, a less onerous role. Teachers were not necessarily prophets. Prophets were preachers, not imparters of education on a systematic basis. Some were capable of teaching, but the prophetic schools trained prophets, not the general masses.
The term sofer was known from the time of the Judges (Jud. 5:14). Scribal guilds developed (I Chron. 2:55). A sofer was a recorder, copyist and editor – and tutor. In the Talmud, the scribe was a learned man, the repository of tradition, the intellectual influence in the community.
Professor Alan Crown writes: “Many years ago I wrote an article called ‘Tidings and Instructions’ (about) how news travelled in the ancient Near East, in the Journal of the Social and Religious History of the Orient … In it I showed that the term Mar Shiprum (Akkadian: royal messenger) came into Canaanite and Hebrew as sofer. Ezra’s description as a sofer mahir probably has nothing to with being a scribe (which is a later reference to his circumstance) but his being a royal messenger of the Persian speedy message service. As such anything he was obliged to say on behalf of the Persian monarchy would be dat – fixed law, and the law was always represented by a standard copy of what in writing was being applied.”