Today marks the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, which features new studies on the meanings and origins of nearly 50,000 surnames.
Names are deeply important to human beings, a crucial way of understanding not just the world around us, but each other. A surname roots us in history and family tradition, while first names establish more particular identity and personality; you may become quite attached to your name, or you may wish you were called something else.
But does it really matter what your name is? Do you become what you're called, or are you called what you are? The Bible is full of names, and those names are full of meaning. Turning to Scripture may help us see whether we determine our names, or if they determine us.
A story of origins
The book of Genesis is full of names enriched with meaning. The word 'Genesis' means 'beginning'; the first book of the Bible is a book of origins, and we see many stories where people's names are rooted in how they began.
Consider the first man we meet in the Bible: Adam. The name 'Adam' is so common in Western society now that one might not think to enquire about its meaning. However, the Hebrew word Adam doesn't simply mean 'generic first human' but is rather likely derived from the Hebrew word Adamah meaning 'ground'. Adam was formed "from the dust of the ground" and so, his name (and the general Hebrew name for 'man') is rooted in how mankind began.
Genesis goes on to explain the names of many of the Bible's most famous characters. "Many sons had father Abraham" says the children's song, and indeed Abraham's name (an extension of his old name 'Abram') means 'father of many'. God made a radical promise to childless, 99-year-old Abram that he would be a "father of many nations". This new name embeds God's mighty promise to Abraham into his very identity.
Other names aren't quite as deep, but still relevant. Sarah and Abraham's first-born child is named 'Isaac' because Sarah says, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." (Genesis 21:6) Isaac's child 'Esau' is so named simply because his name means 'hairy', and Esau is indeed hairy. His brother Jacob is so named because Jacob means 'he grasps the heel', which is a Hebrew idiom for 'he deceives'. In this case, Jacob really is named after what he will become.
Many other interesting names abound beyond Genesis. David means 'beloved' in Hebrew, which is appropriate because he was Israel's favourite King, albeit a deeply flawed one. Many other classic names from the Old Testament have God rooted in them – just look out for the 'El' (Hebrew for 'God'): Daniel, Nathaniel, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha etc.
Fast forward through Scripture, and of course Jesus is given many names. He is the Christ, which is not his surname, but rather the royal title for the Jewish Messiah – New Testament scholar N.T. Wright translates 'Jesus Christ' as 'King Jesus'. His first name is a common Jewish name 'Yeshua', which is derived from the word meaning 'to rescue/deliver'. As Matthew's Gospel explains it: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21) Matthew also describes Jesus as 'Immanuel', which means 'God with us', because, familiar though it may be to us, Matthew was highlighting the radical truth that Jesus the Messiah was indeed God himself dwelling with mankind.
Who do you think you are?
So, names have great symbolic import in Scripture. Sometimes though, there is a time for re-naming. In the prophecy of Hosea, God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer, and name her children 'Lo-Ruhamah' and 'Lo-Ammi', which mean 'not loved' and 'not my people' respectively. Gomer and the children represent Israel's infidelity to God, but in the story God ultimately remains faithful and restores Israel, saying: "'I will say to those called 'not my people,' 'You are my people.'"
The fisherman Simon is renamed 'Peter' by Jesus. 'Peter' means 'rock', and he is to be the rock of Jesus' Church (Matthew 16:18). Ironically, Peter shows himself to be quite lacking in the stability and integrity one expects from a rock, often completely misunderstanding Jesus, and denying him three times. But despite his failings, Jesus continues to trust him to fulfil his calling (John 21).
Saul was a fierce persecutor of Christians, so when he became a follower of Jesus himself, a name change seems appropriate. Saul (Hebrew name) also had the Latin name 'Paul' and so it seems he used the new moniker as a symbol of his change, as well as his mission to the Gentile; 'Paul' being a more familiar name to a Roman Gentile audience.
Historically, many Christian parents name their children with biblical names, perhaps as a sign of the spiritual heritage in which they hope their children to grow up. Some Christians today take naming very seriously, and may have their name legally changed in adulthood as a symbol of a particular moment of transformation or the realisation of new identity.
Naming is one of the great privileges given to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the power to define the world in certain terms, to label reality and determine people's perceptions of it. To ask what your own name is, is really to ask: 'Who am I?,' or indeed: 'Who will I become?'