Why do several people in the Bible have more than one name?

Various people in the Bible have multiple names, and the reasons for this vary depending on the person. Some, like Ahasuerus in Esther 1:1, are known biblically by one name and remembered in history by another, Xerxes in this case. Others have names as understood in two languages, some had their name changed by a ruler or authority, and some had their name changed by God Himself.

Abram had his name changed by God to Abraham, transforming its meaning from "exalted father" to "father of a multitude" (Genesis 17:5). His wife Sarai ("my princess") became Sarah ("princess") (Genesis 17:15). Jacob's name, meaning "heel-catcher" or "deceiver," was changed to Israel, meaning "God's fighter" (Genesis 32:28). In the New Testament, Peter, meaning "one who hears" had his name changed to Cephas, meaning "the rock," by Jesus (John 1:42). This was a bit of a play on words as Peter is a Greek form of the Aramaic Cephas. These name changes had to do with God's work in the person's life.

Sometimes, a ruler or authority changed someone's name. When Joseph was sold into slavery and ended up working in Egypt for the ruler, Pharaoh gave him the name Zaphenath-paneah (Genesis 41:45). Daniel's name was changed by Nebuchadnezzar to Belteshazzar. Nebuchadnezzar also changed the names of Daniel's friends to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in honor of Babylonian gods (Daniel 1:7). In 2 Kings 23:34, King Josiah's son Eliakim was changed by Pharaoh Neco to Johoiakim. Esther's name was Hadassah originally. It was changed in Persia most likely to honor the goddess Ishtar.

Significant events sometimes caused a name change. Gideon was called Jerubbaal ("let Baal contend") after he destroyed the false god's altar (Judges 6:32). Naomi called herself Mara ("bitter") after her husband and two sons died in Moab (Ruth 1:20). Mara is a form of the name Mary.

Sometimes multiple names are simply due to translation. For example, Joshua is the Anglicized version of the Hebrew Jesus, and John is the Greek form of Jona (Jonah).

At times, there is no explanation given for the same person having different names. For example, Moses' father-in-law is known as Reuel and Jethro (Exodus 2:18; 3:1). When Saul (a Hebrew name) meets Jesus on the way to Damascus his name is changed to Paul (a Roman name) and we don't know why. He began using the name Paul exclusively on his first missionary journey, so it is possible that Paul had both names from childhood and used his Roman name the further he went into the Roman empire (Acts 13).

Understanding that multiple names are sometimes used to refer to the same person can be helpful in researching supposed biblical discrepancies. For example, in Matthew 1:9 Uzziah is listed as the father of Jotham. But in 2 Kings 15:1–17 and 1 Chronicles 3:12 his name is given as Azariah. Reading further in 2 Kings 15, though, we see that Jotham's father was known both as Azariah (2 Kings 15:7) and Uzziah (2 Kings 15:32).

The concept of one person having multiple names is not foreign to us. Today, it is common for a person to go by many names. Someone named James may be known as Jim or Jimmy by some, Red by others due to his red hair, and Junior to his family due to his being named after his father. James might even go by his middle name Fredric. If he traveled overseas, translations of his name would be used, for example in Spain he would be called Santiago. Each of these names still refers to the same person.

The most wide-spread change of names will come when we get a new name from Jesus: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it" (Revelation 2:17).

Related Truth:

Why did some people's name change in the Bible?

Did the people in the Bible have last names?

What are the names of Jesus Christ? What titles are ascribed to Jesus in the Bible?

What are the names of God? What do the names of God mean?

What names and titles does the Bible use for the Holy Spirit?

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Truth about People in the Bible

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