Protestant names: New Testament influences on men’s names (part 1)

The month is nearing the end, but what we have to say about Protestant influences on naming practices in the second half of the 16th C certainly isn’t! The list of men’s names drawn from the New Testament is long enough that we may not get through all of it in one post, but let’s give it a go and see how far we can get. As we did with the woman’s names, we’ll organize these according to linguistic origin — Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Other — with the exception of two groups of four names.

If there’s one group of Biblical names whose popularity was thoroughly entrenched in Christian Europe from a relatively early date, it’s the names of the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Two of the names are Hebrew in origin, one is Greek, and one is Roman: And all four were enduringly popular. It is hard to say, given our current data, when their popularity dates from, specifically, but there is clear evidence that there was a sea-change in naming practices across Europe in the 12th C: At the beginning of the century, secular Germanic names are still numerous throughout much of continental Europe, while by the end, John in all its variants is clearly beginning to be favored; this century marks the beginning of ascent to the position of “most popular name”, a position it dominated in pretty much every western Christian culture from then until the late 20th C. The names of the other evangelists were never as popular — in comparison, Luke was relatively rare — but the names were equally embraced by Protestants, Catholics, and Puritans alike.

The other group of four names is mark out by the conspicuous absence of one of them: Of the names traditionally given to the four archangels, only Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael ever made it into common use (all three were used throughout Europe, but only Michael can be said to have been popular). In the more than two decades that I have been researching names, I have not yet found a pre-1600 person named Uriel. (Which is not to say we won’t still, in our research: If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s to never say never. If you hunt long enough, you’ll find pretty much any name.)

Names of Hebrew origin

Ananias: In our previous post we noted that Ananias was so closely associated with Puritanism in England that it became a cant term, and we also pointed out that both Ananias and his wife Sapphira are surprising choices of people to name your child after. So it is especially interesting that the one example of this name that we have so far isn’t even from English contexts, much less Puritan. Instead, our single example is French.

Joachim: This name was both the apocryphal name of the father of Mary as well as the name of a number of minor Old Testament characters, so it could be classified as either a NT or an OT name. Evidence that it was the father of Mary more than the Old Testament characters that influenced the use of this name comes from the surprising lack of examples of this name in the three Protestant contexts that we are particularly interested in. We have no English examples, and only one each in Dutch and French contexts. This name was markedly loss popular than a lot of other otherwise obscure Old Testament names.

Nathaniel: The name of one of the disciplines, we find it in 16th C Dutch and English contexts, but it was rare elsewhere and elsewhen (interestingly, hearkening back to our discussion of nicknames, there are a number of 16th C diminutive forms of it in 16th C Estonia). A curious fact about the name: The earlier spelling of the name was Nathanael, more clearly reflecting the Hebrew form, but it was later altered to match the spelling of Daniel.

Tobias: Not strictly speaking a New Testament name, this was the name of the main character in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The name was rare in England before the Reformation, and we have no French examples, but in the 16th C, it was a moderately popular Dutch name (and continues to be so today).

Zacchaeus: The data we have for this name is singularly curious: A single 16th C citation from England, a single 12th C citation from Germany, two 13th C examples from Italy, and a 13th C example from Poland. Quite why this name was used when and where it was — rare, but dispersed — we wouldn’t even want to hypothesize. However, its English usage does provide some confirmation: It was not used before the 16th C, and became quite common in the 17th, according to Withycombe. [1]

Names of other origin

All the names we consider under this heading are Aramaic, and two of them were originally nicknames.

Bartholomew: The patronymic by which the discipline Nathanael was better known. It is instructive to compare the use of this name with Nathaniel above: While Nathaniel suddenly became significantly more popular in the 16th C, Bartholomew was perennially popular throughout Europe. While it is always extremely tricky to speculate about intentions behind the choice of names, one might be tempted to say that Nathaniel could be seen as a Protestant alternative to the popular Bartholomew.

Thomas: Another nickname, meaning ‘twin’, Thomas is one of the few names that can rival John in popularity, in certain data sets at certain times and places, and even when it wasn’t more popular than John, it remains one of the solid choices for a man’s name throughout most of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Thaddeus: This name doesn’t fit any of the patterns we’ve seen so far: It’s the name of an apostle, but it was never popular; it was rare pre-Reformation, but does not seem to have become any more popular afterwards. This is another name where only more data collection will allow us to have a better understanding of when, where, and why it was used.

This gets us through about half the list, so we’ll pick up the names of Greek and Roman origin in the next post!


[1] Withycombe, E.G., The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd. ed. (Oxford University Press, 1977).



Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic

2 responses to “Protestant names: New Testament influences on men’s names (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Protestant names: New Testament influences on men’s names (part 2) | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

  2. Jörg Knappen

    Speaking about named archangels: In typical protestant bibles you find only two of them (Michael and Gabriel), in Catholic bibles and Protestant bibles with apocrypha you also find Raphael (in the book Tobit). Uriel occurs in a part of the bible that is only recognised by the Eastern orthodox church, so it is no wonder that this name is rare in Western Europe.

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