Column: ‘What’s in a name’ depends on the language

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Once, I baptized a baby named Cassandra. I was tempted to, but did not, reveal the origins of that name to the parents.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a woman cursed by the gods with the gift of accurately predicting disasters, who at the same time would be unable to convince anyone of her warnings.

In Greek mythology, the name “Cassandra” connotes bad luck — both the bad luck that she foretold and the bad luck she experienced. So why would parents choose that name for their child? They undoubtedly liked the sound of the name. They most likely knew nothing of its origins.

If we delve into them, we discover that all names have a history. But they also can acquire new meanings. They evolve through our usage of them.

Both principal actors in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 10:46-52, are identified by a phrase which begins “Son of ___.” The blind man Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as “Son of David.” Similarly, the Gospel writer clarifies Bartimaeus’ name as meaning “Son of Timaeus.”

In calling Jesus “Son of David,” Bartimaeus does not imply that David is the father of Jesus. He realizes that David is the remote ancestor of Jesus. Instead, by giving Jesus that title, Bartimaeus is recognizing him as the Messiah, who would be descended from David. Bartimaeus is placing his faith in Jesus.

By breaking apart “Bartimaeus” into “Son of Timaeus,” the Gospel writer gives a literal translation of the blind man’s name. But what about his father’s name, “Timaeus”? In Greek, “Timaeus” served as a very acceptable personal name. It meant “honored one, respected one.” That is how Greek speakers would hear this passage.

On the other hand, in the Aramaic language, the language in which the original conversation between Jesus and Bartimaeus most likely took place, “Timaeus” sounds like the word which means “uncleanliness.” That hints at a more sinister connotation for the appellation. It suggests that Bartimaeus is the product of uncleanliness, perhaps even of sin. (We should note that one could incur uncleanliness by accident as well as by sin.) It suggests that his blindness is the punishment for that uncleanliness, a popular notion rejected by Jesus (in Jn 9:2).

In yet a third language, Latin, the name “Timaeus” points to still another meaning. In Latin, the verb “timeo” means “fear.” That would make Bartimaeus the “son of fearfulness.” Since Jesus directs Bartimaeus to take courage, that understanding of his name would suggest yet another insight into his nature.

Admittedly, Latin would have been the least familiar language for the early Christians who first heard this Gospel account. On the other hand, the Latin language eventually grew in importance, until it dominated the Western church. For those Christians, the name “Timaeus” would have resonated with that meaning of fearfulness and enriched the text of the Gospel, even if it was a meaning not originally intended.

I have never met anyone named “Bartimaeus.” On the other hand, we all are Bartimaeus. We all have been blind, but now can see, as the song “Amazing Grace” informs us. Christ has enlightened us all. In that sense, we all can claim the name “Bartimaeus.”

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