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Evolution of the Letter J in Biblical Language

 

By:  David Deschesne,

Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal

April 3, 2013

Many of the familiar Biblical names we use today would have been foreign to the original Bible writers due to the changes to our alphabet that have occurred over the centuries.

One common change is the familiar letter J. It makes up the names Jesus, John, Jeremiah, Joshua and many others found in the Bible. However, in the original languages, the letter J was not used and neither was the sound associated with it.

We get our modern European alphabet, which makes up the English language, from the Roman and Latin alphabets. Latin was adopted from Greek around 7 B.C. and Greek derived many of its letters from the Hebrew and Aramaic earlier than that. In the original Latin, there were no letters J, U, or W. In fact, prior to the Roman addition of the letter J around 400 years ago, none of the major alphabets featured it.

In early Greek and Latin, the letter I was used instead of the J. In Hebrew the י, yod, similar to our Y was used where we now translate a J today in many instances.

J was not differentiated from I until around 1600 A.D. It was the custom in mediaeval manuscripts to lengthen the letter I when it was in a prominent position, notably when it was an initial...The process of differentiation began about the 14th century but was not complete until the 17th. For certain purposes, an alphabetical series for example, the letters I and J are not even yet regarded as distinct, the enumeration passing generally from I to K. The original consonantal sound represented by the letter [J] was the semivowel or spirant i (the sound of y in yacht). This passed into dy and later into the sound d˛ which the letter represents today. This sound was already established in the language in words of Romance origin in which it was represented by g (e.g., in words such as gesture, ginger) and these words retain their spelling. J represents the same sound in all positions. (see Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958 Ed., Vol. 12, p. 849)

One of the most commonly mistranslated and mispronounced names in the Bible is that of our Savior. Commonly called “Jesus”, he did not go by that name with any of his apostles and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would have been wondering who we are talking about if they heard that name.

The name we translate as “Jesus” comes from the Greek Ιησους. The name Ιησους begins with an I and is pronounced ee-ay-sooce’. Ιησους has it origins in the Hebrew name, יהושׁוּע, Yehoshua pronounced yeh-hoo-shoo’-ah, which modern English corrupts as Joshua.

Another common corruption that J causes is the title, LORD. Many people commonly refer to the LORD as “Jehovah”. However, Jehovah is a mistranslation, just as “Jesus” is. In Hebrew, LORD is written יהוה, using the letters (from right to left) Y, H, V, H. “The original pronunciation was most likely Yahveh, but since Jewish tradition permitted the name to be voiced only by the High Priest it became customary, after the destruction of the Second Temple, to substitute the word Adonai (meaning “my Lord”) when reading יהוה. The Masoretes who vocalized the Hebrew texts therefore took the vowels from the word Adonai and put them with Yahveh to remind the reader not to read Yahveh but Adonai...A Christian writer of the sixteenth century who was unaware of this substitution transcribed Yahveh as he saw it, namely, as Jehovah, and this has since entered many Christian Bible translations.” (see The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ©1981 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, W. Gunther Plaut, ed., p. 31)

Other J names that have been mistranslated are:

John; Greek, Ιωάυυης

ee-o-an’-ance, Yehoance

 

Jeremiah; Hebrew, ירמיהוּ

yir-meh-yaw’-hoo, Yermeyaho

 

Jew; Hebrew, יהוּדי,

yeh-hoo-dee’, Yehodee.

Greek, Ιουδαῑοϛ,

ee-oo-dah’-yos, Yehodeyos

Nearly all of the J words in the Bible can be translated back into their original language, either Hebrew or Greek, by replacing the J with a Y or an I and using those sounds in the pronunciation. A Strong’s Concordance of the Bible is recommended for those who would like to do further research on the subject of original languages of the Bible.