What’s Your Name? – Names and Naming of Persons in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (PART 3)

The last couple of weeks we have investigated in the themes of (1) the significance and value of a name and (2) the practice of naming children – which will lead us with the theme of (3) changing of names.
Before we will start with today’s topic though, let us quickly reiterate what we have been seeing so far. In the first part we discovered that the significance and value of a name in the ancient Near East and the time of ancient Israel (as well as the Greco-Roman world) helps us to better understand Scripture like Matt 6:9; John 5:43; 14:14; and Rev 19:16 and that names do not only let us identify people in a given narrative, but can employ social status, power, prestige, and dignity. In the second part we discovered that names and the practice of naming was done with careful thought. Throughout Scripture we observed that to name someone is to a certain aspect to have power over that person.
This last observation leads us right into today’s topic: Changing of Names.
            The occurrence of changing of names is known throughout the ancient Near East. The purpose varies depending on the different cultures and periods. Some people changed their name or name of others because of religious, national, ethnic, or socio-economic reasons. Adoption can also be a reason for the change of someone’s name. Some were renamed by emperors or common people, others by God himself. Pike points out: “Changing another’s name displayed the power of the changer and the allegiance owed by the one whose name was changed.”[1] In Akkad the practice of “adults serving as state officials often adopted a new name extolling their king’s god-like status”[2]  is already an indicator of very early practice of changing names.
            [Just as an “aside”: An important change of a name occurred in Egypt. Horsley writes that “Amenhotep IV, pharaoh of Egyptin the mid New Kingdom, altered his name to Akhenaton to promote a unique monotheistic reform in Egypt.”[3]]
            Let us now come to later periods (e.g. SecondTemple and New Testament period) where a shift in Israelcan be seen from pure Hebrew names to foreign and/or double-names. According to Fuller, “From at least the Persian period onward, Jews often were given a non-Hebrew (Babylonian, Greek, Latin, etc.) name in addition to their Hebrew names. Biblical examples include Hadasah/Esther, Simon Peter, John Mark, and Saul/Paul.”[4] After the conquest of Alexander the Great “a free citizen could have both a Babylonian and a second, Greek, name.”[5]
            In Rome the changing of names is most clearly seen in the practice of adoption. Adkins states:
An adopted son took his adoptive father’s name [two names were common in the early republic, but later three names became common] but could add as cognomen the a adjectival form of his own original name – for example, C. Octavius became C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian) when adopted by Julius Caesar.[6]
In the biblical account the change of a name is similar to the practice of the ancient Near East. The only exception appears when God intervened and changed a name and therefore history. Names changed by God (the Father and the Son):
  1. Abram to Abraham                 (Gen 17:45)
  2. Sarai to Sarah                          (Gen. 17:15)
  3. Jacob to Israel                         (Gen. 32:28).
  4. Simon to Peter                        (Mark 3:16)
Examples of names changed by a human authority:
  1. Eliakim to Jehoiakim               (2 Kings 23:34)
  2. Mattaniah to Zedekiah            (2 Kings 24:17)
  3. Daniel to Belteshazzar            (Dan. 1:6, 7).
            In conclusion the study of names and the practices involved in the ancient Near East as well as the Greco-Roman period enriches the student of the Bible with a deeper understanding of how God used common practices of the ancient world and utilized it for His purposes and His people. Furthermore it gives a profound appreciation to biblical narratives where names are usually abundant and stimulates for further study in understanding of Scripture.


[1]Dana M. Pike, “Names.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary. (edited by Paul J. Achtmeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 734.
[2]Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 1. (edited by Jack Sasson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 491.
[3]G. H. R. Horsley, —. “Names, Double.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. (edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1016.
[4]Russel Fuller, “Names and Namegiving.” The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible. (edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford, New York: Oxford, 1993), 208.
[5]Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 1. (edited by Jack Sasson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 491.
[6]Lesley and Roy A. Adkins, Handbook to life in ancient Rome.(New York, NY : Facts on File, 1994), 243.

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