In continuing through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, I find a fascinating couple of chapters on the personal names found in the NT. Bauckham’s suggestion, which I believe has a good deal of merit, concerns the NT phenomenon of disclosing the names of certain people, but leaving similar people anonymous. For example, Luke 24 names Cleopas but not his companion on the road to Emmaus. Why not? Bauckham suggests it is because the named individuals were “eyewitnesses who not only originated the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions.” (39)
In his research, Bauckham engages the work of the Israeli scholar Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE (2002). He comes up with some interesting conclusions about the “really rather extraordinary popularity of a rather small number of names.” (77). Based on Ilan’s work, and incorporating his own modifications of it, he concludes that
15.6% of men bore one of the two most popular male names, Simon and Joseph.
41.5% of men bore one of the nine most popular males names [Simon/Simeon, Joseph/Joses, Lazarus/Eleazar, Judas/Judah, John/Yohanan, Jesus/Joshua, Ananias/Hananiah, Jonathan, Matthew/Matthias/Mattathias]
28.6% of women bore one of the two most popular female names, Mary and Salome.
49.7% of women bore one of the nine most popular female names. [I note the first six only, because the total attested occurrences of each name drops below a dozen after that: Mary/Mariam, Salome, Shelamzion, Martha, Joanna, Sapphira/Shiphra] (71-72)
In addition, Bauckham judges the popular names to have popular largely because they were names of the Hasmonean ruling family (Mattathias, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, Jonathan), not because they were names of biblical characters (even when they were names of biblical characters) . The three most popular female names were also members of the Hasmonean family: Mary/Mariam, Salome, and Shelamzion (longer form of Salome). Or to state it more broadly, “not only the names of the Hasmoneans, but also several of the other most popular male names were popular because of their association with the nationalistic religious expectations of national deliverance and restoration by God” (hence, “Joshua/Jesus” makes the “top ten” list of popular male names).
Another interesting twist is that there is no evidence that the names “Moses,” “David,” and “Elijah” were EVER bestowed upon Jewish children in the period studied (300 BC – 200 AD) (“Elijah” is attested once in a Samaritan context). Why ever not? Bauckham plausibly suggests,
This conspicuous avoidance must also relate to the eschatological hope, in which three eschatological figures were required to lead the new theocracy: the royal Messiah (the son of David), the eschatological high priest (the returning Elijah), and the prophet like Moses. It may have been thought that to use these names for one’s own children would be a presumptuous expectation that these children were actually the expected eschatological deliverers. So the non-use of these names is itself a kind of negative form of evidence for the messianic hopes of the period. (78 )