Does the Name ‘Jesus’ Actually Mean, ‘Hail, Zeus’?
- Candice Lucey Contributing Writer
- 2020 9 Jul
One commentator says that if you say “Jesus” the Spanish way it sounds like “Hey Zeus.” This amusing fact is offered by conspiracy theorists as “proof” that the name of our Savior actually means “Hail Zeus.” As outlandish as this might sound, the writer explains, proponents of this belief seem to suggest that Jesus is Zeus.
The theory starts with a faulty grasp of Hebrew. If “Roman Church officials changed the Messiah’s name from YAHSHUA (which they say means “YAH is Salvation”) to “Iésous,” a hybrid Greek/Latin word,” meaning “Hail Zeus” then a secret within the name of Jesus has been decoded, He was the Greek God of thunder all along. Or, at least, Jesus’ name was changed “to make [Christianity] more acceptable to pagan culture.” Zeus was the most respected deity in Greek mythology, their god of gods.
But this “bizarre argument” starts with an error. “YAHSHUA is not even correct, as the Hebrew name for the Savior is Yeshua.” And the name “Iésous” means “Jehovah is Salvation.” Also, Christ’s name “is properly ‘Jesus the Christ.’ As “Christ” is “the Anointed One.”
The Relevance of Greek Culture
Why argue that Jesus means “Hail Zeus” and not “Hail Dagon” or “Hail Baal?” After all, the biblical world offered many religious alternatives to the new faith. The argument stems from more than phonetic similarity.
The Roman Empire, in general, tolerated most religions as long as they did not threaten Rome’s authority. As Paul traveled the Mediterranean regions spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, he saw evidence of numerous belief systems.
In Athens, Zeus was the “chief deity,” worshiped alongside other gods. “The city was full of idols” to assorted deities, including an altar to “an unknown god” (Acts 17:16,23). Zeus, however, “was called the father (i.e., the ruler and protector) of both gods and men.” In Rome, Zeus was king over the spiritual world.
Paul’s discourse in Athens depicts many “symbolic encounters between the world of the gospel and the many aspects of the world it was destined to transform.” The gospel and mythology literally met in Athens where “Paul’s proclamation of the Christian message in this most famous of Greek cities represented a formidable challenge” to Greek culture and every culture destined to be influenced by Greek philosophers.
Here he engaged with the similarities between Athenian beliefs — including but not limited to mythology — and the new faith, leading to a firm repudiation of all gods apart from the Triune God.
It’s All Greek to the Greeks
Many of the men Paul preached to in Athens already agreed with much of what he said. It would be no stretch to imagine that Jesus was just another deity, living in the heavens, preferring not to interfere with humanity. Zeus was recognized as the father of a pantheon of gods. “Paul begins his speech by noting the Athenians’ piety,” pointing to their “altar dedicated to “an unknown god.”
Paul offered one more topic for “intellectual debate for which Athens was famous” and his ideas even echoed with elements of their existing philosophies. Some thinkers promoted morally upright living and friendship as Christ did. Zeus was the father of all gods; Paul said we are “the offspring” of God (Acts 17:28) — He is our Father. Paul’s message of contentment was also familiar. “The Epicureans and the Stoics [...] taught how to achieve pleasure and happiness despite one’s circumstances.”
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). He agreed with them but was motivated and strengthened by faith in the one true God. Paul expertly engaged these men in debate and one-on-one discussion using commonalities as a gateway to conversation. “By identifying the true God with the Athenians’ unknown god, Paul adroitly defends himself against any charge that he is proclaiming ‘foreign divinities.’”
Fork in the Grecian Road
But Paul’s discourse led to a fork in the road, explaining that God is their Father, Father of all people, not father of the gods. The Lord is not remote but present, inviting us to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). Zeus et al. do not make this kind of offer.
And when Paul spoke of the resurrection, “some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (Acts 17:32). Some listeners were content to conflate Jesus with Zeus, but others believed in Christ through Paul’s preaching (Acts 17:34). While the names Jesus and Zeus both evoked themes the crowd recognized — light and universality — Paul’s discourse made it clear that Zeus and Jesus were not the same.
1. Light: As the god of thunder and lightning, “Zeus’ name is thought to have originated from the Ancient Greek word for “bright.” Perhaps word had gotten to Athens of the angel at Christ’s tomb whose “appearance was like lightning” (Matthew 28:3), causing confusion about who Jesus was. Was this truth or just an appealing story? Could Jesus have been Zeus in the flesh? Or was Jesus an emissary of Zeus who was, in fact, the angel at the tomb?
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that stories about Christ had reached Athens long before Paul got there which was “probably about AD 50.” Christ had died and risen into heaven around two decades earlier. Paul, in his various personal discourses with the local people, might have had to steer his audience away from a new kind of mythology built up around the Messiah to the real Jesus’ own words about Himself: “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
2. Universality: “Zeus’ very universality tended to reduce his importance.” Temples and monuments were dedicated to various lesser gods long before they were dedicated to him. These depictions of Zeus suggest that he was universal in a negative sense — as morally frail as any mortal. He did not promote peace or virtue either by word or example. Zeus did not demonstrate self-control but selfishness by being unfaithful to his wife, having “many love affairs with both mortal and immortal women. In order to achieve his amorous designs, Zeus frequently assumed animal forms.” He was every man in the worst possible way.
Jesus came to earth as a man, not to satisfy the desires of the flesh. He came in the flesh to “condemn sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Jesus ate with and befriended every sort of sinner without sinning, preaching God’s word, and showing us how to do likewise.
The universal invitation of salvation through Jesus drew people to Him, especially those weary with religion, the marginalized, and Gentiles previously excluded from religious communities. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). While salvation is not universal, it is universally available to all who repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ Jesus.
Even though “Jesus” does not mean “Hail Zeus,” such a suggestion potentially finds its root in Paul’s address at Athens; in intellectual connections, which transcend time, just as many ideas from antiquity have influenced popular philosophy in the 21st century. It is possible that certain thinkers reframed the truth about Jesus into a merely theoretical shape, which posed no challenge to their way of life.
Perhaps Paul’s address in Athens sparked a strange new mythology, or an extension of existing mythology around Zeus and the lesser gods, among those who did not quite understand what he was saying about the Messiah; as though Jesus had actually been the incarnation of Zeus. As we have seen, they were symbolically similar as ideas. But Paul made it plain that, while the Grecian gods were distant, the real God was close. “He is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
Athenian philosophers discussed possibilities. Paul preached about a person. Athenian thinkers valued knowledge for its own sake. Paul preached that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). These men were intelligent, but their knowledge was of no value to God since they were ignorant of Him.
The stance that Zeus and Jesus are the same is untenable. There is one truth, one God in three Persons. Jesus is not hypothetical, and He does not sit on a thundercloud aiming lightning bolts at the earth. Paul clearly described the real and only Son of God seated at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:20). But as God said, “He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 3:27).
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.