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Were the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John common names in the time of Jesus? If not, what were their real names and why were they changed?

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The names of the authors of the Gospels have been adapted into English from the Greek of the New Testament.1 However, Hebrew and/or Aramaic were likely the mother tongue(s) of three of the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and John), and their names reflect this background. Luke's name is Greek.

All of these are normal, common names, and there is no reason to think anyone's name was changed for the purpose of assigning him to a Gospel.

Matthew
Matthew's is a Hebrew name that comes awkwardly into Greek as Μαθθαῖος (Maththaios). When speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, his friends and family likely called him by the Semitic version, מַתִּתְיָ֫הוּ (Mattith-yahu) or several of the available shortned versions thereof (Mattaʾi, Mattiyaʾ, or Mattiyah). These are derived from the Hebrew nātan ("he gave") and mean something like "gift of God". This name and its variants were very common in Hebrew.2

Matthew appears to have also had a second name, Levi (see Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27). Levi (Λευὶ) is, of course, a Hebrew name for one of the twelve tribes: לֵוִי (lēwı̂). It is also a common male name from the OT. Why Matthew had two different Hebrew names and the nature of the relationship between them has been a matter of much scholarly discussion.

Mark (a.k.a. John Mark)
The full Greek names is Ἰοαν(ν)ες Μαρκος (Ioan(n)es Markos). This has two components. Markos is a Greek name (cf. Latin Marcus), one of the most common in both Greek and Latin speaking communities in the Hellenistic period.3

Ioannes is a Greek adaptation of the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן (yôḥānān, "Yahweh has shown grace"). When speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, it is likely that yōhānān alone was used.4 Among the evangelists' names, only yōhānān ranks among the top six most common male names in Palestine at the time (#5).5

Luke
Luke's is a normal Greek name – Λουκας (Loukás) – by which he likely addressed. Luke was a Gentile whose command of Hebrew and/or Aramaic is unknown, but in any case we are not given a Semitic name.

John
As noted above for Mark's Semitic name, Ioannes is a Greek adaptation of the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן yôḥānān ("Yahweh has shown grace"). Because this was a common name among Greek-speaking Jews (see above), John is often referred to with the patronymic τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου ("[son] of Zebedee").


1. Of course, the Gospels are technically anonymous. However, the traditional attributions of authorship were clearly identified with particular men who are known to us from within their pages (and Acts).

2. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (citation below) finds at least ten mattaniah's, in addition to one or more each: mattatha, mattathiah, mattathias, mattattah, mattenai, matthat (all derived one way or another from "gift" and "yhwh") in the Old Testament and Inter-testamental literature, s.v..

3. Paul J. Achtemeier. "Mark, Gospel of" in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Ed. David Noel Freedman (Random House, 1992), 4:541.

4. Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006), p 67ff. The author points out that likely many more people than we realize had both Greek and Semitic names, but because only one was generally used in a specific setting, these are often difficult to trace based on the limited texts available.

5. Richard Bauckham, ibid.

Data on Greek-Semitic equivalences are from New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Moises Silva (Zondervan, 2014).

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  • What evidence is there that Luke was a Gentile (as opposed to a Hellenic Jew for instance)? Jan 5, 2017 at 6:43
  • @bruisedreed - read colossians 4:7-14. Verses 7 to 11 identifies all who are "of the circumcision" ie Jews. Luke is named with those who are thus not of the circumcision. Had Luke been an uncircumcised Hellenistic Jew it is likely he would have sought to be circ so as not to cause offence to circ Jews, just as Timothy was, acts 16:3. Mar 26 at 8:17
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The name john did not exist. I learned this in 1962. The first day of first grade. Our teacher explained that the letter j symbol and sound was about 250 years old as she explained our language history. So I have know that none of the bible or book of mormon story names with that symbol could not have existed. So I was not going to accept any religion or person who did not understand this. The more I studied the more I knew I would be an Atheist. The name christ did not exist. The ch symbol and sound is about 1100 years old. Why do Christians want to argue a case they can not win ?

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  • So, Ghengis Khan didn't exist, Mao Tse Tung didn't exist, Xerxes didnt exist, we could go on. Or thise writing about these names are simply unreliable. It is an absurd opinion. When names in one language move to another language their pronunciation usually changes. According to the very scholarly work of Richard Bauckham "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" mentioned in another answer the names found in the Gospels are one of the most powerful arguments for their authenticity. Mar 24 at 6:25
  • Christ is not a name at all, it was the title. "Christos" in greek means "anointed one" which in turn is the same as "Chosen One". It is the Greek version of Messiah, the English translation of the Hebrew word meaning Anointed One. The practice of anointing with oil someone who has been chosen to be king or high priest is found in the Old Testament, such as king David's anointing by Samuel the prophet when God chose him to be king. As for the Mormon beliefs, they have no archaeological support. The Bible has lots. Mar 24 at 6:50

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