Mining Meaning Behind Biblical Names

“The Bible contains thousands of proper names and an awful lot of genealogies, so if we are serious about studying all of it, these names are an important area of research.”

Dr. Elizabeth Robar, Project Manager of the Onomastics Project, the study of Old Testament names in the context of the wider ancient Near East.

American Friends of Tyndale House recently journeyed to the United Kingdom to see the Tyndale House scholars at work. We spoke with several academics to learn how their research will benefit the global Church, and are delighted to share the latest news with our supporters. Our first interview is with Dr. Robar of the Old Testament Onomastics Project.

“There are a huge number of names in the Bible — people’s names, names of people groups, place names — and as we carry out the Old Testament Onomastics Project, we want to deal with these names historically, linguistically and theologically. We’re looking at the trends of the names and the stories the names tell, both in the Bible and in the ancient world.

“Bible names are hard to translate and can seem impenetrable. In, for example, Native American literature, names are translated and have discernable meaning such as ‘runs with wolves,’ or ‘dances with the wind.’ But when it comes to Old Testament names, unless the reader understands the original language the name is void of meaning. We believe that the names in the Bible, whose meanings are opaque to many of us at the moment, are an integral part of the text and provide important detail that we’re currently missing out on. We’d like to change that.

“The aim of the scholar is to uncover what exists in the Bible. We are not making things up; we want to unveil what is already there. That is what is so beautiful about this job. We get a chance to dig in and discover forgotten meanings in the text.”

Understanding the Bible’s historical background is essential to this project. “It is difficult to study a name without context, but we have access to a significant amount of relevant material from outside of the Bible to help us see that context. We have thousands of names from Akkadian and Ugaritic texts — in other words, from the dominant culture of the day — which are very helpful to us.

“Anyone interested in how the Bible fits into its historical context can benefit directly from this project. It means that you can read a story in the Bible and then look something up on an archeological website, and see how the two connect. Our job is to align the names from the biblical text with the names we find in the same geographical area and time period.”

“We believe the work will benefit pastors, seminary professors, and everyone who is influenced by pastoral teaching. Findings produced from this project will trickle down into commentaries, studies on books of the Bible, and teaching about every text that contains a personal name. There is a plethora of unmined meaning in names. Once we discover the original meaning of the names, we hope to connect what before seemed disconnected. The names are like beads on a necklace: we appreciate each bead more as the entire strand becomes visible.

“Names are exciting to us partly because they have been under-studied, but we realize that they are not exciting to very many people. However, by looking closely at them we can add detail to what we know about the Bible, and then suddenly names do become exciting.”

Working on the project with Dr. Robar is Dr. Peter Williams, Project Advisor, alongside Dr. Caleb Howard, Dr. Kaspars Ozolins and James Bejon.

Working in community strengthens the scholars and produces a wonderful iron-sharpens-iron esprit de corps. “Stereotypically most people visualize scholars at work in the isolation of ivory towers, and that is not what the Church needs. At Tyndale House, scholars not only research and study, but we share our ideas with other academics. We must all be willing to be corrected, challenged and encouraged. I don’t want to be satisfied with what I can do on my own. I want to be held accountable, and we want to hold each other accountable.”

As we concluded our time with Dr. Elizabeth Robar, American Friends of Tyndale House is eager to present this story to our supporters. It is exciting to see and hear first-hand the deep respect for the Bible — something that is a consistent and visible part of the ethos that guides scholars and staff at Tyndale House.

Romans 11:33 exclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” The gifted scholars at Tyndale House are committed to mining the depths and riches of the Bible and sharing their insights for the benefit of the Church and the wider world.

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