What’s in a name?

If you’re anything like me, you shudder as you remember your parents yelling out your full name.

Richard Alan Rhodes, come here this very instant!

Vocatives—those expressions used to draw the attention of the intended addressee or to direct an utterance at a particular addressee—are not well understood by linguists. Vocatives can take the form of names:

Sarah, could you come over here a minute?


Excuse me, sir, can you tell me how to get to Coit Tower?

Your Honor, I had no idea that there was marijuana in the trunk of his car when I borrowed it.

or epithets:

Silly rascal, get out off my bed! (speaking to your pet)

There’s almost no literature about them. (The most comprehensive article was published in a volume of conference papers over thirty years ago, and it’s barely more than a catalog of kinds. It can be found here.) Vocatives are enormously complex semantically and pragmatically. And I’ve been thinking about them recently.

So when Pastor Andrew had John 21:15-18 read for his Sunday after Easter sermon. I sat bolt upright in my seat. I heard something there I’d never heard before. Jesus addresses Peter by his full name.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV)

Jesus doesn’t normally address his disciples by their full name. Here he does it three times. If you know your pragmatics, it’s hard to miss that there is something significant going on here. When you say more than is conventional, it is by definition meaningful. Why does Jesus use Peter’s full name?  Exegetically, we don’t know enough about street-level Koine to know precisely what that meaning was. But given the context, it’s certain that it’s not scolding, the way full names are in English. Still it must have been arresting – demanding the full attention of the addressee.

No translation lets the English speaker hear this. Every version from the KJV on translates the vocative as Simon, son of John (or based on a weaker textual variant, son of Jonah). Such phrasing just doesn’t sound like a full name to English ear.  We can talk and talk about the significance of using full names as vocatives as part of a sermon or Bible study, but nothing beats hearing it.

So how do we make that part of Jesus communication come across? How do we make the Semitic father’s name sound like a last name?

Well, there are patronymics in English. Those based on John are Johnson or Jones and maybe Johns. Substitute one of these and suddenly you hear it the force of the passage.

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon (the one called Peter), “Simon Jones, do you love me more than they do?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Jesus asked again, “Simon Jones, do you love me?”
Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 A third time Jesus asked, “Simon Jones, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked a third time. “Lord,” he said, “you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I’m telling you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV, modified)

But … the objection will inevitably come that such a move makes the Scripture sound too much like Jesus, or at least Peter, was English. The Scripture should — the argument will go — retain its essential foreignness.

That’s the trade-off in translation. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Is it more important to have the message strike you where you live? Or is it more important to preserve as much of the original form as possible — and then study to reconstruct the impact of the passage? I, of course, favor the former approach.

Possibly, one could find a middle ground here, for example, using Barnstone’s idea of making the translation sound more Jewish, especially in the names, one could translate:

15When they had finished eating, Jeshua said to Simon (the one called Peter), “Simon Janowitz, do you love me more than they do?”
“Yes, Rabbi,” he said, “you know I love you.”
Jeshua said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Jeshua asked again, “Simon Janowitz, do you love me?”
Peter answered, “Yes,
Rabbi, you know  I love you.”
Jeshua said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 A third time Jeshua asked, “Simon Janowitz, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because
Jeshua asked a third time.Rabbi,” he said, “you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jeshua said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I’m telling you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:15-18, NIV, modified)

This is beyond where I’m willing to go at this point, but it does illustrate that if you are willing to think outside the box you can marry foreignness and naturalness in a single passage — something that much of the argument about how to translate has not admitted is possible.

30 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    such a move makes the Scripture sound too much like Jesus, or at least Peter, was English.

    Not English, Welsh. Here in the UK the surname “Jones” is a strong marker of Welsh identity or at least ancestry. The English name is “Johnson”.

    Meanwhile “Janowitz” sounds to me more Polish than Jewish, but maybe that’s because we don’t have many Jews of eastern European origin in my area.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    Rich, You make Barnstone’s points, unwittingly.

    Kurk, could it have been wittingly? It seemed to me that Rich knew what he was doing when he cited Barnstone’s clever attempt to translate the actual meaning of the Semitic naming convention to an English translational equivalent while retaining the Jewishness (foreignness) of the source text.

  3. Rich Rhodes says:


    So many Jewish families in the US are Slavic (mostly Polish or Russian), that the right Slavic patronymic surnames sound Jewish to us — especially to those of us who grew up in the cities of the East coast where there a large Jewish communities. Janowitz, Josephowitz, Jacobowitz, Rabinowitz, etc., etc.

    Does Johns work as a Jewish name to your English ears?

    The fact that you, as an Englishman, hear these names differently is at the root of why I’m hesitant to go there. There comes a breaking point at which the little things start to be very local. That’s the glory and the downfall of the Cotton Patch Version. It works great: getting all sorts of details right and having lots of allusions work as in the original — but only if you happen to be from Georgia. I have to study it the same way I have to study any other translation to be told the significance of named towns in the local culture of Georgia, and the like.

    I was only vaguely aware that Jones is markedly Welsh. I shied away from Johnson because that has a Scandanavian feel to me. (I’m a member of a Swedish-American denomination. We’re up to our eyeballs in -son‘s, Johnson, Peterson, Carlson, Anderson, etc., etc.

  4. Rich Rhodes says:

    The work of the translator is to take that which is outside and make it inside. The question is: how far inside do you take it? Barnstone (the way I read him) is surprised to find how Jewish the NT is. He wants to express that. Names are a really good place to work. I wasn’t intending to poke fun at Barnstone, but some 30 years ago I was at a big charismatic conference in Kansas City and one of the speakers from Jews for Jesus gave a talk on how Jewish Christianity is. He spoke in plain English — in the sense we at BBB mean — but by the judicious use of Yiddishisms and Hebrew borrowings, made his point perfectly and cogently clear. He had none of the awkward/archaic wordings of the English of Barnstone’s translation.

    BTW, I am very conscious of the rhetorical stance I am taking. Assuming that we share no assumptions (and hence logic is impossible) is a dead end street, as deconstruction shows. NB, this is not a Platonist position. If I were arguing to an Ojibwe audience, my rhetoric would be quite different, but logical argumentation sells to this audience.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, You are right – I do appreciate Rich’s attempt at acknowledging Barnstone and at striking some balance (sincerely appreciate it). Barnstone, however, believes that the Christianizing of Jewish names (there’s only 1 “Jesus” in Christian English bibles) is part of a translator’s anti-semitic moves. I’m saying that Rich isn’t wittingly, by translating, wanting to be antisemitic (however. . . .).

    Rich, I really do know you mean no harm to Barnstone! And I’m not calling Plato a platonist either. Marginalizing the other (from one’s own default position of power, of presumed naturalness that won’t be archaic or foreign) isn’t always intended. Thanks for cross-posting your comment. Notice (in my post “Barnstone on ‘Barnstone'”) how a Jew must play with names.

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think you’re right, Rich. And I like the Barnstone idea, though it would invariably fail in the acceptability department.

    I think we want our operas to be written by the likes of a Giuseppe Verdi. Somehow or other an opera written by a Joe Green just doesn’t cut it.

    I wonder how the original audience heard the name? Was it [dramatic drum roll goes here] “Giuseppe Verdi presenta…”? Or was it, “we got a opera here by some guy named Joe Green.” [ba-da-boom]?

    Surely it was neither. Probably more like, “And now we present an opera written by the well known composer, Rich Rhodes.” [and the music begins].

    Though that probably sounds odd to you. 🙂

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Surely it was neither. Probably more like, “And now we present an opera written by the well known composer, Rich Rhodes.” [and the music begins].

    Though that probably sounds odd to you.

    I happen to know that Rich is quite musical. I wish we could get him to sing some of his blog posts for us!

  8. Rich Rhodes says:

    Well …, mostly I’m playing bass nowadays. (And I haven’t composed anything in years.)

  9. Rich Rhodes says:

    You put me (us) in a catch-22. As I said above, the translator’s job is to make what is outside inside, so it always has some measure of foreignizing effect relative to the original audience.

    The fact that feminist theory problematizes everything for the dominant group makes you think the problem is in our translations. I’m not willing to go there. If I were translating for a minority group, I’d be making the same moves nativizing (i.e., foreignizing) the Scripture as I make in English.

    I’d say the problem with Barnstone is his more than mine. Jews have been taught for centuries that Christianity is other. So Barnstone is surprised to discover what serious Christians already know — that Jesus is Jewish. It’s not my responsibility to fix the historical alienation of the Jews by our theological forebears and I’m unwilling to hold my translating captive to that problem.

    I guess you and I part company there.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Rich, the signals from some of these names are very subtle. “Johns” doesn’t sound Jewish to me, but it is much less common here than “Jones” and “Johnson” – in our local phone book (this is not Wales) there are 14 entries for “Johns”, over 300 for “Johnson”, and about 500 for “Jones”. Meanwhile “Anderson” is Scottish, “Andersen” is Danish, “Anderssen” is Norwegian, and “Andersson” is Swedish – the English version is “Andrews”. Unfortunately US immigration officials sometimes confused these distinctions. There really shouldn’t be any “Johnson”s in your Swedish congregation, the genuine Swedish version is “Jonsson”. There may be similar subtleties in biblical names indicating precise ethnic origins in ways which we don’t always appreciate today, but the distinctions are sometimes obscured in Greek.

  11. Rich Rhodes says:

    Names in the US are not so cleanly original. Johnson is the way Swedes were enrolled. See under J in the staff directory of the Evangelical Covenant Church here. Likewise, Anderson, Olson, and the various -storm‘s and -gren‘s, which don’t always have the right spellings, like Lungren for Lundgren.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m not sure why we’re assuming that Jewish equals foreign.

    The term “foreign” or “foreignness” in Bible translation recent Bible translation discussions refers to retaining a foreign feel to current readers of translations. In other words, those who wish to maintain a foreign feel in a Bible translation will try to preserve features of the original Biblical languages which will strike the ears of English speakers as sounding non-English.

    You may be thinking–correctly–that Jewish is exactly *not* foreign when it comes to the original Biblical texts. But the original cultural and linguistic setting of the Bible is not the reference point used when speaking of retaining the foreignness of the Bible. The foreignness, instead, is with reference to the language and culture of those who are using a translation.

  13. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’m not sure that it’s exactly Jewish equals foreign, as much as it is that Jewish culture, even British or American Jewish culture, isn’t the same as British or American dominant culture. (For one thing, they have better food.)

    There is a significant portion of the translation community who believe that it is important to reflect that the context into which Scripture was written is foreign. A small portion of that foreignness is retained in 21st century Jewish culture.

    In case it’s not clear I don’t buy into that position — that the translation needs to do much to reflect the cultural distance.

  14. Rich Rhodes says:

    That would be Shimon ben Yohanah, Peter is Greek for Kefah ‘rock’.

  15. Michael Nicholls says:

    I like Patrick’s idea. Using Shimon ben Yohanah, for English ears, might be going too far, especially since we’re translating Greek, not Hebrew.

    Peter ben Jonah sounds like a name, and also has a Jewish flavour. It’s a tough one, and I’m sure people will disagree, but I like it.

  16. dru says:

    I agree with everything Peter Kirk says, but then I’m in England. Like Jones, John without an ‘s’ sounds Welsh to me. Johns with an ‘s’ is less frequent than Johnson. Janowitz sounds Polish or Russian – vaguely Eastern European. However, the whole idea of translating surnames in this way is a bit Cotton Patch, and to me just sounds kootchy-koo. This isn’t actually a surname anyway, it’s a patronymic which changes every generation. The Russians use them in addition to surnames, and I think the Icelanders do still. The Anglophone world doesn’t, and a lot of English surnames are places or jobs that people lived in or were doing in the early middle ages. The Welsh – since we’ve been talking about Wales – used patronymics and switched sometime in the C16, when everyone kept their most recent one. It’s why there are so many fewer Welsh surnames than English ones – the Swansea telephone directory has about 15 pages of Williams.

    But as to what sounds foreign, it isn’t just that the inhabitants of C1 Judea and Gallilee were Jewish. They were also first century. ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. There’s an extra dilemma about translation. There’s not just how far one translates the language into the language actually used by the target speakers. There’s also whether one transposes the culture so as to make it accessible (or in the case of some recent approaches, acceptable) to the target audience.

    One of the reasons why things like the Cotton Patch Bible do nothing for me is that they are so keen to get in under your emotional radar, that they are no longer cultural faithful to the original. I’m very grateful for the point you’ve made, Rich. It has made me think. I regret to say, though, that for me, giving Simon Peter an Anglophone surname is all right as an interesting point to make in a sermon, but is not all right as a change to make in the written text itself.

    On the culture point, I’d always say that one should be faithful to the original culture, to translate so as to describe it rather than change it – even if one doesn’t like what one finds there. The alternative is following Marcion.

  17. Rich Rhodes says:

    You have several points that go right to the heart of the dilemma.

    On the one hand you need the names to sound like names to get the impact of Jesus interaction with Peter. The question is what is the optimum point between the need to sound like a name and the need to retain (C1) Jewishness. It’s just the special case of the general problem, namely, that any translation foreignizes the text relative to the original. Good translation finds the best compromise between the original and the meaning and impact of the translation.

    You’re right about temporal foreignness, too. The metaphor I usually use is remoteness, that is, that there is a distance between the text and us. (I got this from Alton Becker, one of Pike’s students and later a colleague of his.) Some texts are distant by time, some by culture, some by both time and culture.

    That said, however, there are not a lot of things in the NT which are mystifying about the way people act. In theory C1 Jewish Palestine is more remote than the NT actually reflects.

    I get the reaction to the Cotton Patch version, but then how much do we miss things like what it meant to use the cross as a sign of your identity. It would be more like us wearing jewelry depicting hangman’s nooses. We miss the morbidity, shame, and horror associated with the cross.

    Of course, we can always sit around and listen to sermons that clarify the material, but that makes Christianity an intellectual enterprise. I think it’s more holistic than that. If the stories in the Scripture don’t hit you in the heart, you haven’t heard the Scripture. When the translator absolves him/herself of the responsibility for making the translation emotionally accurate as well as referentially accurate, I believe he/she has missed the mark.

  18. Aaron Armitage says:

    Wayne Leman;

    No, my point is that Jewishness is not foreign to me. Granted, I did grow up in one of the most Jewish counties in America, but it was in one of the poorer towns were there weren’t any Jews.

    But while Jewish surnames strike me as hardly less English than my own (and this is true, I think, of many if not most American Gentiles), the fact that Peter had no surname is foreign to us, even without the cheap trick of calling him Shimon ben Yohanah rather than Simon son of Jonah.

    Rich Rhodes;

    Depending on which Jews you have in mind, a portion indistinguishable from none.

    Also: We are not the original readers, and trying to get the same emotional reaction from us that Scriptures got from them is hopeless. You can’t even really know what reaction you’re aiming for, and even if you did, we may not be capable of it. For example, we don’t care about family like they did, and therefore cannot hear the parable of the prodigal son or “whoever does not hate father and mother…” like they did.

  19. dru says:

    Rich, I think it’s difficult to say how mystifying the C1 Near East is to a person who has not grown up hearing books set in it Sunday by Sunday and being taught about it. I still think though that it’s better to try and translate the text into the target language and then let it speak for itself, than to try and translate it into the target culture as well. So on that compromise, I’d be well to the ‘don’t’ end of the spectrum.

    I’d also say that the Cotton Patch bible only really has something reliable to say to those who both are already familiar with ‘normal bibles’ and also live in a particular subculture. I meet one of those criteria but not the other, and it does nothing for me. I think it would be lethal if all ‘normal bibles’ changed to its approach.

    I would certainly want to discourage anyone from changing the passion narrative so that Jesus was hanged or went to the electric chair.

  20. Michael Nicholls says:

    I would certainly want to discourage anyone from changing the passion narrative so that Jesus was hanged or went to the electric chair.

    I think most translators would agree that making ‘teaching’ passages more culturally relevant is ok, but changing ‘history’ is a different matter. I think the Cotton Patch Bible could be a useful tool, but it goes too far in that it changes historical facts, such as place names.

  21. Rich Rhodes says:

    We clearly disagree. I have no doubt that we can know with high degree of confidence what the emotional impact of many passages was — and we can mimic that in no small number of cases.

    I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that the Scripture is solely an intellectual document. To translate it as such, is therefore also a mistake. The fact that I’m raising a point on which this is tricky, doesn’t take away from the general availability of referentially and emotionally accurate translations.

  22. Rich Rhodes says:

    Dru and Michael,

    I have no interest in changing the report of history. I insist that translation needs to be transparent. (In fact, that’s what motivates my commitment to DE, which, I maintain is significantly more accurate that way.) So I’m opposed in principle to the extreme approach of the Cotton Patch Bible on those grounds.

    But that’s different from saying that Peter’s full name was Simon Peter Johnson or Simon Peter Jones or Simon Peter M(a)cIan or Simon Peter McSean or Simon Pyotr Ivanovitch or Simon Piotr Janowitz. It was all of these — and none. In fact, it was Shimon Kefah ben/bar Yohanah, the very name that people decided they didn’t like.

    In part, that’s because Jesus name is translated, first from Aramaic to Greek and then transliterated from Greek to English. So why all the Ach und Weh about translating Peter’s name? Doing so has a long and honored history.

  23. Aaron Armitage says:

    Michael Nicholls:

    What does making a didactic passage culturally relevant look like in practice?

    Rich Rhodes:

    I’m not going to dispute what you can do with most passages most of the time; a more literal translation will produce the same emotional reaction most of the time. Human nature doesn’t change in the essentials. What I will dispute is that this is enough to justify a theory of translation according to which the translator should decide what the emotional impact was, and then decide what will produce that impact in his readers.

    Also, unless I’m mistaken “Ivanovitch” is exactly what Peter was, but only for native speakers of Russian.

  24. Michael Nicholls says:

    Rich, don’t get me wrong, I’m with you on this. Trying to find a way to express Peter’s name in a certain target language is different from turning Jerusalem into Atlanta.

    Aaron Armitage wrote:
    What does making a didactic passage culturally relevant look like in practice?

    Matthew 20:1 might be a good example.

    “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (NIV).

    If you’re translating in a culture that has no idea what grapes are, I would suggest that it’s ok to choose a concept that translates the same impact that ‘vineyard’ had to Jesus’ audience, such as ‘corn field’ or ‘rice paddy’.

    If it had been an historical account of a man who had a vineyard, then I wouldn’t like to see it changed. But since it’s ‘didactic’ and Jesus’ point isn’t about grapes, I would be happy to change this to be culturally relevant and understandable. Feel free to disagree, but I feel that that’s what the original author/speaker would have wanted, so as not to miss his point.

  25. Aaron Armitage says:

    Michael Nicholls;

    The underlying idea of your example seems to be any kind of agricultural field would do to make the point. You’re probably right, but in that case, why not just indicate that Jesus mentioned a kind of field they don’t happen to have?

    You don’t know what impact “vineyard” had to Jesus’ original audience.

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