The Bible Answers Short Questions From Our Readers
Plain Truth Staff
"Why do people in the Bible never seem to have last names?"
God gave the first man but one name — "Adam." He didn't need another. Yet today people have at least two names and many times three or more. And still there are individuals with exactly the same names. WHEN and BY WHOM additional names were added is a surprising — and fascinating — story. From Adam until shortly before the time of Christ, each person usually received but a single name at birth or shortly thereafter. These names were largely borrowed from nature or from some incident connected with the birth of — an individual. Later in life, when character had developed, a new name was sometimes given as expressive of it. God Himself did this on several occasions as when He changed Abram's name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob's name to Israel (Gen. 32:28). It was also possible to receive an additional name or what we today would call a "nickname." These were very widely applied and used, and served much the same purpose that family names now serve" declares the Britannica! Vol. 16, art., "Names." These names generally fell into five categories: (1) they were descriptive of one's appearance or character; (2) they recorded an incident or exploit; (3) they identified the individual by his connection with some other person — usually his father; (4) they gave his residence or former residence; and (5) obey specified his occupation. Biblical examples of these are many. In the Greek of the New Testament the added names are called "surnames." A few are Simon surnamed Peter (Mark 3:16; John 1:42), Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43), Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:45), Simon Zelotes (Acts 1:13), and Matthew the publican, James of Alpheaus, Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot all found in Matthew 10:3-4. These surnames were the equivalent of our last names today because it was from these names that family names gradually developed. These names — whether they happened to be meaningful and complimentary or odd and embarrassing — were the starting point for our last names today. "The family name is a comparatively recent development in European tradition" (Britannica, Vol. 16, "Names"). The Romans are considered the first Europeans to have made regular use of family names. Every Roman had three names: (1) a praenomen, which was his personal name and stood first; (2) a nomen, which was that of his gens or house and stood second; and (3) a cognomen or surname which was that of his family and came last. This system was at first bitterly opposed by Catholics. But in the Middle Ages this old Roman naming system revived — this time to stay. "Its modern development began with the royal and noble families of that time, and the modern revolution in naming thus seems to stem from feudalism and the family pride associated with it" (Britannica, Vol. 16. "Names"). Once started, the growth of the use of hereditary names proceeded steadily. Greatly aiding this trend was the growth in population and the more careful keeping of written records. So today, first names — as well as any middle names — are usually given shortly after birth as has always been the custom. But in addition, we today have also inherited a family or "last" name which was once a nickname often descriptive of a feature or event in the life of a forefather who lived many generations ago. Because the need for a family or last name came into existence long after the Bible was completed, the Bible does not give last names. However, it does give surnames from which our last names of today developed.