“The Angel Spake Unto Me That This Should Be His Name”

Brant Gardner

Translation: Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet in their Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon interpret quite literally Jacob’s statement: “… Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name.” According to them, many titles become names, and Jacob’s apparent confusion between the two terms is therefore not unusual. Many modern readers, perhaps by analogy with modern given names and surnames, unconsciously consider “Jesus Christ” to be a name, rather than a name and a title. Joseph Smith may have had the same understanding. This is not, however, an adequate explanation of the underlying text, as “Christ” and “Messiah” are equivalent. “Christ” is anglicized from the Greek for “anointed,” and “Messiah” is anglicized from Hebrew for the same word, “anointed.” (See commentary accompanying 2 Ne. 25:19 for more information on the assumption that Christ is a name rather than title.) The name that the angel told Jacob was most likely the name we translate as Jesus (the Greek form of the Hebrew “Yeshua,” which we transliterate as “Joshua”), meaning, “Yahweh saves.” It is not just a name, but a meaning conveyed by the verbal phrase. Therefore, if we assume that this revelation comes to Jacob in his native language (Hebrew), then the name simultaneously contained the meaning of the verbal phrase used as a name. Jacob receives not just a name (Yeshua) but the meaning of the name (Yahweh saves). The name becomes a declaration of the Messiah’s mission and a confirmation that this Messiah is the Atoning Messiah. (See 1 Nephi, Part 1: Context, Chapter 1, “The Historical Setting of 1 Nephi.”) The angel’s declaration of the name, whose meaning Jacob would have understood, confirmed that identity in a way that is much stronger than our modern understanding of Jesus’s names/titles. This name was the name by which humankind would be saved. This same concept emerges in Acts 4:12: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

2 Nephi 25:19 provides a similar explanation: “For according to the… word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Nephi apparently quotes Jacob’s revelation; the “name” included the proper name Jesus. As with Jacob’s declaration, “his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” it is not required that we see “Christ” as a name any more than we do the phrase “the Son of God.”

“Christ” as a name rather than a title is also a possible deduction from the King James Version:

Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. (1 Cor. 1:2)
And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. (1 Jn. 3:23)

Modern societies have a casual relationship with names, using them simply to distinguish one person from another. For much of the world, however, the name was the person and was intimately bound with the “meaning” of the person. This more ancient understanding of the importance of the name may tell us that there is more going on in the Book of Mormon than just pointing out the identifier that we might use to speak of the Messiah. It may be related to the importance of the Name, a concept intimately tied to the Israelite God. Margaret Barker, a scholar who has traced the evidences of preexilic Israel in Christianity, notes:

We see that the first Christians used “the Name” in a highly significant way. One strand of the Old Testament tradition shows that the Name had been used as a substitute for the presence of the Lord in the temple, but those who did not accept this new convention of the Deuteronomists kept to more ancient ways. For them the Name was simply one of the many ways of describing Yahweh. Thus in Philo… the Name was one of the titles of the Logos. Early Christian writings kept to the non-Deuteronomic ways and are evidenced that not only was the Name used as a designation of Jesus but also that the cultic patterns associated with the Name in the Old Testament were retained in the new Christian context. Yahweh was the Name, the chief of the sons of El Elyon. Jesus was the Name, the chief of the archangels and the Son of God. If the distinction between the ancient El Elyon and his sons is kept in mind, and also Justin’s statement that “To the Father of all… there is no name given… ” (Apology, II.6), we see in these early Name texts, too, a clear expression of the belief that Jesus had been the manifestation of Yahweh. Further, his followers, in that they were the body of Christ, continued to be that manifestation (cf. “he gave them power to become children of God” John 1:12). It is a mistake to read these texts with the conclusions of later Christian teachers in mind; left to speak for themselves they say something very interesting.
As early as the Fourth Gospel we find “Father glorify thy Name” (12:28) and “Glorify the Son” (17:1). John knew that the Name was the Son; he said that Jesus had “manifested the Name in the world” (17:6), almost as though the Name had been something separate which Jesus took upon himself.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2