What’s in a name? Everything in this case. The question I want to explore
today a little bit is the use in Old English and in Old Saxon of the name
“Heliand” for Jesus Christ and suggest that it is not as straightforward a
choice as one is accustomed to consider it. The term is sometimes used as a
name for Jesus, sometimes as Jesus’ title; but most modern commentators are
accustomed to translating or glossing it as “the savior.” I am now uncertain
that we should, and that it actually means something else which effects the
image, the Christology presented by the Heliand poet.
The term occurs only in Old English and Old Saxon as a reference to
Jesus. We have no examples in Old Franconian or anything early enough from
that language to tell us how Jesus was conceived in the vernacular there. In
Gothic we have of course most of the New Testament, and no equivalent form of
“heliand” as a name or title exists there. Nor is such a term used in Old
Norse Christian texts. So we must ask why those two vernaculars, English and
Saxon, adopted that term and for what purposes.
We may at the outset here posit two things: that the Anglo-Saxons were
converted before the Saxons and that the Anglo-Saxons had a hand in the
eventual conversion of the Saxons. So to find our answers, we must first look
at the Anglo-Saxon material.
. The term is defined as “healer, savior” in the Bosworth Toller, an
issue to which we will return shortly. Often Hælend appears alone as a name,
often in conjunction with the definite article signifying a title. Most often
in a homily or biblical translation, this is the Old English term to use for
many words referring to Jesus: Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, salvator are the
chief examples. The name derives from the past participle of the halian which
means “to heal, to save (in the sense of healing, making hale)” and is
related to the adjective hale and the noun health. The –end ending is a
word-formation tool in Old English and added to make an agent, often used to
create agent nouns from past participles of active verbs. Thus, the word
means “a healer.” 1
Here the scholar encounters something of a difficulty. Bosworth Toller
is slowly being superseded by the Dictionary of Old English project at the
University of Toronto. These lexicographers have defined Hælend as
specifically referring for the most to Jesus Christ, a or the Savior. 2 The
difference between these two lexicographical tools in defining this term has
in large part to do with a shift in the methodology employed in delimiting
the semantic fields of morphemes between the late nineteenth and late
twentieth, early twenty-first centuries. This difference, however, also
illustrates an important issue in Old English with regard to Jesus, the
That issue is: when and why did the past participle of the verb “to
heal” become the name and title for Jesus glossing the Latin “salvator.” The
answer to this is not very simple. As is well known, the name “Jesus” is a
Latinization of IhsusIhsus) in Greek, itself a transliteration of the
Hebrew יֵשׁוּעַ (Yesua), a shortening of the earlier form יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yehoshua)
which our modern English Bibles render Joshua. It is the meaning of the name
“Jesus” though that captured the attention of the church fathers and our
early Anglo-Saxon writers. Yehoshua means “God saves,” a combination of the
Tetragrammatan (YHWH) with a verb “yasha” meaning to save or rescue. Thus,
This information was widely available to late antique and medieval
readers: Moses changes Joshua’s name in Numbers 13 commemorating God’s
salvation of Israel; this name change is mentioned again along with a
reference to the meaning in Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus) 46:1-2. In a work
1 See Bosworth, Joseph. "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online." Hǽlend. March 21, 2010. Accessed December 23,
2 Dictionary of Old English: A to H online, ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey et
al. (Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2016).
titled in Latin Interpretatio Hebraicorum Nomium and ascribed to Philo of
Alexandria, the Greek author specifically mentions the change of name and its
meaning. 3 Origen knew this work and added to it names of the New Testament.
Origen’s work influenced Eusebius of Caesaria. St. Jerome knew both Origen’s
work and Eusebius’; he edited and added to create his own influential Liber
Interpretationis Hebraicorum Nominum. 4 Eusebius’ work was translated into
Latin and with the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, Pseudo-Philo’s work,
Eusbius’ work, and Jerome’s all available in Latin to the early medieval
interpreters of the Bible, the equation of “Jesus” with “God saves” was
The Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament contains a number of names
that the text explains their meaning, especially if there is a name change.
The authors of the New Testament picked up on this. And so did the Anglo-
Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons enjoyed word games. The Old English Riddles
demonstrate this clearly; naming conventions and the importance of names is
also evident. 5 While so far as is known there were no known Hebrew readers in
3 Philo, and Charles Duke Yonge. 1993. The works of Philo: complete and unabridged. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson
Pub. And Philo. On Flight and Finding. On the Change of Names. On Dreams. Tnslated by F. H.
Colson, G. H. Whitaker. Loeb Classical Library 275. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.In
addition to the train of tradition outlined subsequent to this note, this text was also translated into Latin in the Late
Antique period, and was available in Anglo-Saxon England.
4 Jerome. n.d. Liber interpretationis hebraicorum nominum. Library of Latin Texts. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.
5 On the importance of word-play in Old English see also: Frederick Robinson, “The Significance of Names of Old
English Literature,” Anglia 86 (1968): 14–58. See also Frederick Robinson, “Some Uses of Name Meanings in Old
English Poetry,” Neuphilologishe Mitteleiungen 69 (1968): 161–71. 1. Kintgen, Eugene R. "Wordplay in The
Wanderer." Neophilologus 59 (1975): 119-27. Hall, J. R. "Perspective and Wordplay in the Old English Rune
Poem." Neophilologus 61 (1977): 453-60. Bately, Janet. "Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle." Saints, Scholars
and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Charles W. Jones. Ed. Margot H. King and Wesley M.
Stevens. Collegeville, MN: HMML, Saint John's Abbey and University, 1979. 1: 233-54.Stewart, Ann Harleman.
"Inference in Socio-Historical Linguistics: the Example of Old English Word-Play." Folia Linguistica Historica 6
(1985): 63-85. Martin, Lawrence T. "Bede' s Structural Use of Wordplay as a Way to Truth." From Cloister to
Classroom. Ed. E. Rozanne Elder. Cistercian Studies 90. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western
Michigan University, 1986. 27-46.Wollmann, A. "Early Christian Loan-Words in Old English." Pagans and
Christians: the Interplay between Christian Latin and Traditional Germanic Cultures in Early Medieval
Europe. Ed. T. Hofstra, L. A. J. R. Houwen, and A. A. MacDonald. Mediaevalia Groningana 16. Groningen: Egbert
Forsten, 1995. 175-210.Damon, John Edward. "Disecto capite perfido: Bodily Fragmentation and Reciprocal
Violence in Anglo-Saxon England." Exemplaria 13 (2001): 399-432. Stanley, Eric Gerald. "Playing upon Words,
I." NM 102 (2001): 339-56. Stanley, Eric Gerald. "Playing upon Words, II." NM 102 (2001): 451-68.
Anglo-Saxon England, the explanation of Jesus’ name’s meaning was not lost on
Old English authors.
The locus classicus for this is Matthew 1:21. In that verse, the angel
of the Lord is appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him that he is
about to be a father miraculously. Furthermore, the boy’s name is to be
Jesus. The Latin Vulgate reads: Páriet autem fílium : et vocábis nomen ejus
Jesum : ipse enim salvum fáciet pópulum suum a peccátis eórum. 6 To a person
reading Hebrew or Aramaic, as some posit the original readers of Matthew may
have been able to do at least on a limited basis, 7 this understanding is
somewhat obvious. The wordplay of “God saves” and “Yeshua” though is
completely lost once the text is in Greek. In fact, the Greek text does not
even attempt a linguistic connection between the name and the reason the text
gives for that name. The Greek text simply gives the verb “to save” in the
explanatory phrase and transliterates the name into “Iesous.” 8
The Latin text of the Vulgate follows the Greek text for the most part.
As in Greek, the linguistic connection between Jesus’ name and its meaning is
a connection that does not work in Latin. So once again his name is
transliterated. There is a slight difference in most Latin texts. Rather than
as in the Greek text where the name Jesus is explained with the verb “swzw”,
to save, the Latin text reads as given above contains a variation seldom
noticed, though likely not of
does show a potentially different understanding of the Christ event. 9
6 The Vulgate text is taken from: Weber, Robert, Roger Gryson, Bonifatius Fischer, Hedley Frederick Davis Sparks,
and Jean Gribomont. 2007. Biblia sacra iuxta Vulgatam versionem. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.
7 At least since the second century Church doctrine taught that Matthew was the first gospel written and that it was
originally written in Hebrew. This derives directly from the subapostolic writer Papias, whose writings are no
extant. Several early writers, however, cite Papias’ statement, including Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, and later
Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome. Papias was a disciple of the apostle John, or so Irenaeus informs his readers, and
if true his testimony goes back to the first century. Papias states: περὶ δὲ τοῦ Ματθαῖου ταῦτ’ εἴρηται· Ματθαῖος μὲν
οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ τὰ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ’ αὐτὰ ὡς ἧν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος. Concerning Matthew,
he writes: Matthew wrote the oracles of the Lord in Hebrew and each interpreted (or translated) as best
he was able.
8 τεξεται δε υιον και καλεσεις το ονομα αυτου ιησουν αυτος γαρ σωσει τον λαον αυτου απο των αμαρτιων αυτων
The grammatical structure of the Latin sentence in Matthew 1:21
encourages the Old English translator. Combine that structure with meaning
discussed above and the love of word play, and the name Hælend becomes an
obvious choice. Though late in the period when the name for Jesus, Hælend, is
already traditional, Aldred’s gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels at Matthew
1:21 translates: “…genemne đu nama is hælend đa ilca ec forđon hal doeđ he
gegewerccas folc his.” The connection between the name Hælend and “hal” in
the next clause reflects the meaning of the name, at least as Anglo-Saxons
understood it, as well utilizes a word play between the adjective and the
past participle. Unlike the Latin and previous translations, however, the
literal meaning of the Old English is: “You will call his name Healer because
he will make his folk whole/hale/healed.” The linguistic connection between
hal and Hælend is made obvious. 10
The gospel glosses are not the only texts that make these
identifications. Ælfric of Eynsham repeats this identification often.
Catholic Homilies I.6 is one example: þæt is iesus: & on urum
gereorde hælend: for þan þe he gehælde his folc fram heora synnum. 11 The Old
English Martyrology likewise remarks on this connection. 12
These examples, however, are rather late in the history of the
Christianization of England. The change from “God saves” as the understood
name to Haelend, Healer, as the vernacular name of Jesus in Old English must
9 In addition to the Vulgate, most Vetus Latina manuscripts containing this verse also have this reading. Three
exceptions are Codex Bezae d, Codex Sangallensis δ, and Codex Bobbiensis k. These three follow the Greek text
with a verb “to save” explaining the meaning of the name.
10 London, British Library, Cotton ms. Nero D.IV fol 29v.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Nero_D_IV. The gloss to the Rushforth Gospels
reads: þu nemnest his noma hælend he selfe soþlice he gehæleþ folc his from hiora synnum following the secondary
reading in the Vetus Latina mentioned previously. the West Saxon Gospels at Matthew 1:21translates the Vulgate as
follows: Witodlice heo cenđ sunu ond þu nemst his name Halend. 10 The text leaves the subordinate clause out of the
equation. The West Saxon Gospel text transcribed from London, British Library, Royal ms. 1.A.XIV fol. 34r.
11 Aelfric, and Peter Clemoes. 1997. Æelfric's Catholic homilies: the first series : text. Oxford: Oxford University
Press for the Early English Text Society.
have come before it becomes so frequent in tenth and eleventh century texts.
Even the late ninth century martyrology is late for these purposes. The first
reference to Jesus as Hælend comes from the poem Dream of the Rood, line 25
where Hælendes treow, the Healer’s tree is used to describe the cross. If
then Jesus is already known by Hælend that early, the identification and use
of hal, halian, and Hælend for “saved, to save, and Savior” must have already
occurred. It is difficult to trace how early this understanding of the person
of Jesus entered into Anglo-Saxon thought since most of the early Anglo-Saxon
texts that speak of Christianity were written in Latin. Nonetheless, they may
give us some idea of how this developed.
The Venerable Bede would be a likely place to find the equation of
Latin “salvator” with Old English Hælend. Regrettably the equation is not in
Bede. Bede does discuss the meaning of Jesus’ name regularly. In his sermon
on the Naming of Jesus (Homilia I.6) Bede cites Isidore of Seville in saying:
“Iesus hebraice latine salutaris siue salvator dicitur.” 13
It is this phrase from Isidore that may have given the Anglo-Saxon
church the idea to translate “Jesus” as Hælend. Salvator is defined as a
savior, a preserver and is used by the Latin fathers, the Vulgate, and
medieval writers to translate the Greek “soter”, savior. Salutaris on the
other hand indicates health, well-being, wholeness. It is this slight
difference in semantic fields that may have suggested to the Anglo-Saxons a
somewhat different approach and understanding of Jesus.
Bede does not mention the Old English wordplay, not in his sermons on
the birth of Jesus nor on his naming. In the Commentaria in Lucam, Bede
discusses the meaning of Jesus’ name with numerology. Even though Bede is in
fact quite interested in Hebrew meanings of names and words, including Jesus
13 Bede’s homilies. “In Hebrew Jesus is called “salutaris” or “salvator” in Latin.” Isidore book 6.
and Christ in his theology, very much reading the New Testament into the Old,
he eschews delving into his native tongue. 14
Given Bede’s, and other Anglo-Saxon writers working in Latin, choice of
language, then, as well as audience, the choice of Hælend for the name of
Jesus emphasizing a healing aspect did not come from the monastic or Latin
Christological concerns. It is more probable that the choice was made for
evangelical reasons, even if suggested by Isidore’s phrase. As Bede
illustrates in his lives of Cuthbert, while the nobility received some
catechetical instruction, especially those taught Latin, the people received
little. Bede’s ideal bishop traveled his diocese teaching the lay people in
their own language as much as ministering to monks, priests, and nobility. 15
Turning to the Heliand then, the text knows the names/terms “Jesus”,
“Christ”, and the like but the poet chooses to give Jesus’ name as “Heliand”
at least at the Annunciation where Gabriel instructs Mary on the name to give
Jesus. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly is the fact that the poet calls
Jesus/Heliand the “heleandero bezt”, the best of healing men, four times
throughout the text. The only other epithet used more often is “barno bezt”,
best of children. The poet also uses the term “neriando Crist” four times as
well; nerian in Old Saxon is a word defined as “to heal.” This emphasis on
the healing power, and deeds of Jesus, illustrates the importance that
healing had for the Germanic populace during this conversion period.
In addition, the Heliand poet emphasizes the healing miracles of Jesus,
Heliand. Perry Harrison told us a year ago that the poet excises many of the
miracles recorded in the Diatesseron and chooses instead to focus on certain
miracles. Of the thirty-one miracles in Tatian’s harmony, the Heliand poet
chooses thirteen. Of that thirteen, seven deal with healing the sick or
raising the dead. Further, two of the healing miracles are sections of the
15 Bede’s lives; abbots of…, letter…..
epic that the poet uses to demonstrate key elements of Christology. In fitt
28, the healing of the lame man, the poet emphasizes Christ’s divinity in
terms that the ninth century would understand. In the healing of the men born
blind, the poet expands on the nature of sin and salvation. In fact, it is in
that scene too that the poet at last engages in epic address, addressing the
audience of the poem for the first and only time, as well as other epic
The Heliand is important in this study in that it provides a window on
Anglo-Saxon missions not otherwise afforded to us. The Carolingians in
converting the Saxons relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon monastic foundations,
particularly that of Fulda, where the Heliand was likely written. One may
speculate that Old English biblical poems such as Genesis A and Exodus
influenced and inspired biblical literature of the Saxons, Genesis B and The
Heliand. The source text for the latter, Codex Fuldensis, spent time in
Anglo-Saxon England in the late seventh and early eighth centuries before
coming to Fulda where that version of Tatian’s Diatesseron had an influence
on readings in the Lindisfarne Gospels among other texts. 17 Certainly the term
“hælend” as the name of Jesus and which the Anglo-Saxons seem to have
invented, would have been exported to Saxony as it is not the most obvious
term to translate Latin salvator or the semantically unknown Jesus.
Briefly the Christological implications of Jesus as healer extend
beyond the healing of the body that the miracles preserved in the Heliand
would indicate. In Augustine of Hippo’s notion of sin, sin and evil are
twisted good that Christian salvation puts to rights, a hurt that needs
healing. Jesus, Healer, in these terms then makes explicable to a Saxon
audience the need for the incarnation and passion. All this without giving up
the notions of the warrior Christ, whose vicar is the king himself.
Suggesting that the king, while a warrior, is also a healer of his people,
leading very quickly to notions of the Healing touch of the King and other
Christianized sacral rolles of that king. These Christologies, the healing
warrior king, are in the forefront of The Heliand and were aids to converting
the Saxon people.
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