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Why are mostly Western European style names like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used for Middle Eastern people? I mean why are those names still spelled that way in the Bible when we could find all the originals (Barnabas, Saul, Yeshua, etc. )?

I know this looks like kind of a mundane question. But, as I have not found similar questions under the language tag I hope it is acceptable to post it here.

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    The transliteration of names is quite common when translating texts and not exclusive to Scripture. I don't think there is a question about Christianity here. It might be better asked at Linguistics linguistics.stackexchange.com – bradimus Jul 14 '17 at 14:28
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    They're common Western European names because Western Europeans have been reading the Bible for thousands of years... – curiousdannii Jul 14 '17 at 14:40
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    You're stuck on too minor a point — the same argument can be made to ask why we even have Bible translations, and that we should use the original Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic, in the case of a few of the Deuterocanonical books). In any case, it's not true that they're Western European names; they're Hebrew or Greek names which have, over the course of 2,000–3,000 years, regularly or analogically morphed into these forms you see today. – Wtrmute Jul 14 '17 at 17:15
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    As to the objection that it is "not that common a thing just to change the names to something that fits ones regional standpoint" You can simply look at the names of countries to see that this is indeed very common, We call Brazil Brazil, but but they call it Brasil. We say "United States" People in Mexico say "Estados Unidos". Thats just a few examples but its very common. Also, the new testament is in Greek, were as most of the characters names were not greek – L1R Jul 14 '17 at 17:29
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They are not "Western European" names per se, instead these names are common in Western Europe, America, etc. specifically because they spread along with Christianity.

Names are transliterated because of a desire to keep these words as close to the original as possible, but there are differences between languages, such as how words are used and what letters and sounds are available. The nature of these changes is fairly consistent for words outside of the Bible writings which are transliterated.

The exact nature of these transliterations are a better discussion for a linguist group, but I will give some simple examples to help explain how we use the literal words from the translations.

Take Mark, for instance. The original word is "Μάρκος" in Greek. That's actually what they called him. That's the actual letters they wrote in the original manuscripts. At least, that's a digital representation of the Greek phenoms which were written down by people who knew him. The originals were probably all upper case with no spaces or punctuation. All of these letters have a a very consistent transliteration into Roman characters (which is what English uses), and even the letters look a lot like the original Greek letters. In that sense, you could spell it in roman characters as "Markos". But in Greek, the last to letters, the "ος" are part of the word that marks it's place in the sentence. In this instance, it's in the singular nomitive case. You might also see it as "Μάρκον", "Μάρκου", and so fourth, depending on where it is in each sentence. In English, we don't have any need for that ending because we determine part of speech by location in the sentence. So, we simply drop that changeable part, and that leaves us with "Mark". It's literally the English way to write the word that appears in the manuscripts. The same is true for many other names.

Some transliterations aren't as obvious. Of most interest is "Jesus". In Greek, that is "Ἰησοῦς". To a casual observer, it's hard to see the connection here. However, to a Greek student, it is obvious. The "σ" and "ς" are both the same letter, and is the only Greek letter which changes grapheme by location. It relates to the roman "s". The "η" is a little hard to transliterate into roman letters. That transliterates as "e", though it technically has more of a vowel sound like "hey", which is different than epsilon, also transliterated as "e". The "Ἰ" is an "iy" like sound, explicitly without aspiration. So, you might think it should be transliterated as "I". However, the Greek had no "J" character or sound, and the "Ἰ" was as close as they could come for words that had "J" like sound. So, if the Greek Jews were trying to write something like "John" or "Joshua", they would have had to use "Ἰ" instead. It is very common when transliterating Greek words, especially those which may have been based on Hebrew words, to transliterate "Ἰ" to "J". That leaves the "οῦς". Once again, in the Greek, the ending can change based on part of speech, but this form is a bit different. The "οῦ" is a dipthong which doesn't quite have a good one to one relationship with roman letters. Even though you could probably get away with "ou", it has been very common to tranliterate "οῦ" as "u" in English. That leaves us with "Jesus".

As for "Yeshua", that comes from a transliteration of the Hewbrew. As to which is preferred there, between the Greek or the Hebrew, that can be a very different matter. But neither is arbitrary. That may be a good question for another time.

Sometimes, the name can be transliterated differently into roman characters but different languages. One example is "Πέτρος". A close transliteration of the characters might be "Petros", and it's basically the Greek word for a stone. The "ος", as stated before could be dropped for English. And English likes "er" better for the "r". Spanish, on the other hand, doesn't like the "t" in favor of a "d". In English, it becomes "Peter", and in Spanish it becomes "Pedro". Both are very popular names in their respective languages in regions where Christianity has spread.

We do see "Saul" and "Barnabas" in the Bible. And when that's what is used in the Greek text, that's what's used in at least the KJV and probably most other formal equivalent translations. One exception to this rule may be "Calvary" and "Easter", which in the KJV may be dynamic equivalent variants rather than simple transliteration. However, to my knowledge, all of the names of people were simply transliterated. The Bible authors themselves, under inspiration of God, chose which names they wanted to use. The translators just copied that. If you are asking why Peter is sometimes called Simon and sometimes Cephas, etc. by the original authors, that's a good question, but a different question. The reasons would likely be different for each person and each instance. Each author (Paul, Luke, etc.) may have different reasons, such as target audience, or they are quoting a person speaking, or even to emphasize a new name, etc.

The names you mentioned were common Greek names, not Anglo-Saxon names. These names became popular because they were in the Bible and as the Bible spread, particularly throughout Western Europe and the Americas, people named their children after the famous names in the Bible. Some names were more famous, like Mark, and Peter, and John. Some names just didn't get mentioned as much and weren't as famous, like Dorcus or Barnabas. Sometimes, people still do pick out the lesser common names. But the more popular the person or name is in the Bible, generally the more likely that people will use that name.

The same thing is true of Hebrew names, too, like Daniel, Jonathan, David, etc., which break down into Hebrew words. Those Hebrew words, just like the Greek words, spread into English and other languages because of the spread of the Bible.

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    Phenoms->phonemes? – DJClayworth Jul 15 '17 at 1:01
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DKing's response fabulously answers the question "Why are Western European style names ... used for Middle Eastern people?" To answer the second question, "Why are those names spelled that way ... when we could find all the originals?" which is a much more opinion-based question, I start with what I found reading Bibles in a number of languages. It appears common to me that the liguists who created those editions tried to use that culture's or that language's best rendition for the name from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or whichever it may be. After all, the point is to help the people of the target culture best understand Jesus' teachings. Therefore, I wonder why we would want to change them today? It doesn't change the Gospel. It wouldn't make me a better person, nor help me understand what Jesus tried to teach. I apologize if I'm jumping to a conclusion, but isn't the question best answered, "beause Christianity isn't improved by political correctness."

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  • Yes, that is how it is best answered. – KorvinStarmast Jul 15 '17 at 18:40

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