c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Lot’s wife and daughters. The two thieves crucified with Jesus. The three wise men. They’re all iconic figures with well-known stories from the Bible, yet they all have one thing in common _ officially, they have no names.
Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are riddled with famous or infamous people who went nameless _ in some cases forever, and in others for decades or centuries after their stories were recorded.
How and why they were eventually named, and why they initially went nameless, are the types of questions that intrigue scholars. And while anonymity is often equated with unimportance or insignificance, some scholars have challenged that assumption.
Adele Reinhartz, professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa, is the author of “Why Ask My Name? Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative.” While some anonymous biblical figures simply aren’t that important, she cited several times when an unnamed person is essential to the story.
The unnamed are often described by their social role _ someone’s wife, daughter or servant _ so looking at how they fulfill or subvert their social role is key, Reinhartz said.
Take Lot’s wife and daughters. To protect visiting angels, Lot offers up his daughters to the rapacious Sodomites. Later, when God ushers Lot’s family to safety, his wife disobeys and looks back at the doomed city and becomes history’s most famous pillar of salt.
Reinhartz said the anonymity of Lot’s wife underscores her powerlessness and silence. When Lot offers his daughters to the mob, the question arises: Where is the mother to protect them?
(Her name, by the way, is sometimes known as Ado.)
Later, when Lot’s daughters seduce their drunken father in a bid to repopulate the earth, the father-daughter relationship _ not necessarily the girls’ names _ is what makes the story interesting. Or, as Reinhartz put it, it’s what “gives the story its spice,” said Reinhartz. By that point, their names are irrelevant.
So what’s in a name? William Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but for biblical figures, a name _ or no name _ can mean a lot.
Cleveland Evans, psychology professor at Nebraska’s Bellevue University, is a name specialist, and said names are important because they are the anchor of one’s identity from childhood.
“Personal names are one of the few cultural universals,” he said. “There isn’t any culture in the world that doesn’t have specific designations for specific people.”
What’s more, having a name makes someone in a story more real. “Somebody who is completely nameless is somebody who doesn’t seem quite human,” said Evans.
In the Bible, gender plays a large role in who is unnamed.
Michael Coogan, professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., edited “The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible,” with a chapter titled, “Names for the Nameless.” Women more frequently go unnamed, reflecting the patriarchal culture in which the Bible was produced, he said.
Karla Bohmbach, religion professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., said women represent no more than 8 percent of all the named people in the Bible. Reinhartz added that while there are actually more unnamed men than women in the Bible, proportionally within each gender, there are more unnamed women.
“The cultural context that gave rise to the Bible is very male oriented. So it’s not only that the culture more highly values males and gives them most of the authority and leadership, but also the text itself was largely authored by men, and so they’re naturally going to focus on themselves,” Bohmbach said.
The power of naming starts at the very beginning of the Bible. God named the heavens and the earth, but didn’t assign names to Adam and Eve until after they had sinned. Adam was also given the power to name all the animals _ and his wife. “Naming denotes a sort of authority over that person,” Bohmbach said.
In post-biblical texts, starting around 200 B.C. and going all the way through the 13th century, Jewish rabbis and others bestowed names on the nameless. Bohmbach said assigning names to previously anonymous biblical figures was part of a broader tradition of enriching and explaining biblical stories. She said there were many unexplained holes in the biblical narrative _ not just names _ that were being filled in.
Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who wrote “Antiquities of the Jews,” also was a source for many of the names. “The anonymity was noticed and kind of bothersome to people from quite an early point,” Reinhartz said.
People started giving names to the nameless using a variety of tools, from oral tradition to borrowing from place names. Sometimes, Reinhartz said, an unnamed person would be matched with a named person elsewhere, with the idea that there should be a story for every name, and a name for every story.
For example, Job’s second wife is unnamed, but she is later deemed to be Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. Some names carried political motivations; Dinah’s Israelite connections give Job, an outsider, more legitimacy.
Sometimes name assignments were purely random and inconsistent. The magi who visited Jesus in Bethlehem were given the names Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar _ or Hor, Basanater and Karsudan, depending on the source. Noah’s wife, meanwhile, has more than 100 different names, according to “The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible.” One of the most common is Naamah.
While modern readers may interpret the assigning of names to people centuries later as pure fiction, Bohmbach says the post-biblical authors no doubt felt they were being faithful.
“The line that we draw between truth and fiction I do not think was as strongly drawn for many ancient people. Some of them may well have understood they were working under inspiration of the divine in some way, shape, or form,” Bohmbach said.
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Don L. F. Nilsen is an English linguistics professor at Arizona State University and co-president of the American Name Society. He said the reworking of historical figures in literary fiction is common.
“People’s need to name people after the fact in post-biblical texts is part of the human need for narrative, even in a fictional way,” he said. “People are always rewriting history. When we hear the names of Richard III, Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, or Mark Anthony, we are more likely to think of Shakespeare’s rendition of these people than of the actual historical accounts.”
Ultimately, the multiple interpretations and names for unnamed biblical figures speak to the human need for narrative and finding meaning.
“That’s what we really learn from these texts _ the power of narrative and the drive to create it, to transmit it, to think about it, to use it as a way of understanding spiritual truth,” said Reinhartz.
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