Essay / Theology

Names for the Nameless

There is a delightfully quirky entry by Bruce Metzger in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, entitled “Names for the Nameless.” (pp. 546-548)

It is a report on characters in the Bible whose names are not provided. Metzger notes that “through the ages, readers of the Bible have felt the need to identify some of these anonymous figures… and so names (at times more than one) have been provided for many of these unidentified persons.”

The Old Testament entries are all female. Important women whose names are not provided. For example:

Cain’s wife. Never mind where she came from, what was her name? Awan. And Seth’s wife was named Azura. Where does this information come from? the apocryphal Book of Jubiliees, chapter 4.

Noah’s wife? Metzger says that over 100 different names have been assigned her! Emzara is the one given in Jubilees.

Potiphar’s wife? Zuleika, according to postbiblical Jewish legends.

The daughter of Pharaoh who took Moses from the water and raised him as prince of Egypt? Thematis, or maybe Bithiah.

Job’s wife? Well, the first one was named Sitis, and the second one was Dinah, the daughter of Jacob.

Jephthah’s daughter? Seila.

The witch of Endor? Sedecla.

In the New Testament, there are several important anonymous males. The wise men who visit baby Jesus are named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar by the sixth century, and Bede says they are descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth respectively, and representing Asia, Africa, and Europe. But another tradition names them Hor of Persia, Basanter of Saba, and Karsudan, king of the East. Notice how many postbiblical traditions assume that there were three wise men. The Bible, however, does not say how many there were; it says they brought three gifts, which led to the unsupported assumption that there were three wise men. But other traditions say there were a dozen wise men, and of course name them all. And provides their fathers’ names, to boot!

There is apparently a thirteenth-century compendium in Syriac, with the odd title The Book of the Bee, which excels in providing names for the nameless. Seven shepherds at Bethlehem, named Asher, Zebulan, Justus, Nicodemus, Joseph, Barshabba, and Jose. The sheep, at least, are not named, even in the ambitious Book of the Bee.

Jesus chooses twelve apostles, but sends out seventy in Luke 10. Do you think those seventy had names? Of course they did. And lists have been provided.

If the Old Testament apocrypha focused on naming anonymous women, The Book of the Bee goes out of its way to name children. And if you think about it, any of the children mentioned in the gospels could have grown up to be second-generation Christians in the earliest church. So not only did the imaginative tradition fill in their names, but identified these infants as people who later became important. When Jesus blessed children, he was blessing Timothy and Titus, later to become bishops under Paul’s ministry. And when he set a child in the midst of the disciples and said that the Kingdom belonged to these little ones, that child was… wait for it… Ignatius, bishop of Antioch! Yes!

Are you tired of calling the thieves on the crosses “the good thief” and “the bad thief?” Well, call them Zoatham and Camma. Or Joathas and Maggatras. Or Dysmas and Gestas, according to the same, relatively early, source that names the centurion at the foot of the cross Longinus.

“Few if any of these traditions are based on accurate historical data,” says Metzger. This tendency to name the nameless shows “the fertile imaginations” of earlier interpreters, and their “reluctance to accept unknown elements in biblical history.”

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