Why Don’t the People in the Bible have Last Names?

From Issue: Discovery 2/1/2011

Dear Peyton,

This is another terrific question from a reader who is obviously reading his Bible. Keep that up. As you have noticed, you do not see names in the Bible like John Smith or Simon Johnson. So how did the people in Bible times tell the difference between two people with the same first name? As you read the Bible, you will come across the answer. Often, when a person with the same first name as someone else is mentioned, there will be an additional piece of information given. For instance, in Acts 10:6, we read about a man named “Simon, a tanner.” A tanner was a person who prepared animal skins by tanning them. So to show which Simon was being mentioned, his job as a tanner was given as well. Instead of a “last name” he was given “a last job.” That was often done in Bible times. People were often given names like John the blacksmith or Saul the tailor. In fact, that is where many modern last names like Smith and Tailor come from. On other occasions, the Bible might mention who a person’s dad was. For instance, Numbers 11:28 talks about “Joshua the son of Nun.” By telling the father’s name, it sets Joshua apart from others who might be named Joshua. Interestingly, many modern names like Johnson originally meant, “the son of John.” Also, sometimes a person was labeled by a certain trait or characteristic he or she had (like being a twin—John 11:16, Didymus means “twin”), or based on where they lived, like Mary Magdalene (since she was from Magdala). There you go, Peyton, thanks for the question.


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