Jerusalem: Some Notes on the Greek Spelling

(The following notes are a response to several queries from my first year Greek students upon encountering the plural form of “Jerusalem” in John 2:23. They are posted here for whatever value they may be to others who have puzzled over the same question.)

So, what’s what on “Jerusalem”? In particular, why is it a plural form in John 2:23?

The word “Jerusalem” has some oddities in koine Greek. Here are a few relevant notes. (Perhaps more then you ever wanted to know! If it will help you rest easier, so long as you recognize any of the forms given a bit later as = ” Jerusalem,” you know what you need to know to read the NT. And for that, all you have to do is pronounce it and you’ll be able to figure out what word it is.)

  • The word can be written either as a neuter or a feminine form.
  • When it is written as a neuter, it is always plural. This is apparently a “stereotyped”/” frozen” form and the plural carries no particular significance. (This may be a carry-over from Hebrew which is a “frozen dual” form: Yerushalayim [perpetual Kethiv form: Yerushalem. See additional note below.)
  • It can have either a rough or smooth breathing mark.
  • The various vowels can be either: O or A; O or OU; U or H (see variant spelling list below).
  • In the NT it occurs in all case forms (in the Hellenized spelling).
  • It can be used as an indeclinable form (though only in the transliterated spelling).
  • Usually occurs without the article, but does have an article a few (5) times in the NT. (This is always the “Hellenized” form below, never the “transliterated” form.)

Some of this is because it is a “foreign” word, not a Greek word. That is, it is a Hebrew word being transliterated into Greek letters. (Actually, the name is older than Hebrew. The oldest known reference to this name of the city outside the OT is 19th C. BC in Egyptian records. It was a “pagan” city long before the Conquest. Gen. 14 is the oldest biblical ref., and there it is simply “Salem.”) The Hebrew letter yodh is usually transliterated as iota with smooth breathing, but sometimes iota with rough breathing. (This is esp. prevalent with proper names, esp. geographical ones.)

All these factors (and probably some others I’ve not listed) result in quite a variety of possible spellings, divided into two groups. (The form in parentheses below uses a Unicode font, Gentium. Hopefully your browser will substitute an appropriate Unicode font if you don’t have it installed. If not, the first entry uses my Galilee font.)

The “Hellenized” form:

  • (Ierosoluma (Ἱεροσόλυμα)
  • )Ierosoluma (Ἰεροσόλυμα)
  • (Ierosalhma (Ἱεροσάλημα)

The “transliterated Hebrew” form:

  • )Ierousalhm (Ἰερουσαλήμ)
  • (Ierousalhm (Ἱερουσαλήμ)

The last two are the more technically correct transliterations from the Hebrew spelling. The first three spellings listed here are due to being “Hellenized”–assimilated to Greek spelling. (And it may even reflect an [invalid] popular conception that the word comes from iJeroV [ἱερος], “holy, pertaining to the temple.” Thus the city was seen as a “holy city” even by its name. The rough breathing in the 5th variant above may reflect this conception.) Some of these spellings reflect personal practice. That is, the first one above (Ἱεροσόλυμα) is what you usually find in Matthew, Mark, and John. The fourth one (Ἰερουσαλήμ) is the normal form in Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation, as well as the LXX. Luke, interestingly, uses mostly the fourth in the early chapters of Acts (where the church is seen in a largely Jewish context, 1-12), but shifts to the first use (the Hellenized form) when the church emerges into largely Gentile territory (chs. 13f). This may reflect his intent to be sensitive to the social/historical context of his narrative. (The proportion is not dramatic, but it is noticeable: 1 [Ἱεροσόλυμα] = 5/17; 4 [Ἰερουσαλήμ] = 22/15.)

And then the original question–why the plural form in John 2:23? Although it may refer to “the precincts/environs of Jerusalem” (thus Bernard, ICC 1:98), it should probably be treated as insignificant–that’s just the way they spelled it, and there is nothing significant in this (or any other context that also has a plural). It may “look odd” to you here since it has the article which makes it more “noticeable” as a plural. In most of the plural instances (61x in the NT), it does not have the article, so we tend to just read it as a name and don’t pay much attention to the fact that it is a plural.

(Very select bibliography: BDF, sect. 56.1; MHT 2:147-8; TDNT 7:292-338, esp. 319, 327-8; DNTT 2:324-30; Waltke-O’Connor, 7.3.d.)

Additional note on the Hebrew word from my OT colleague, Dr. Alan Ingalls:

There is disagreement as to whether Yerushalayim comes from Shalom or the OT writers are simply making a play on the word. Even if it it does come from Shalom, the dual-looking form has not been adequately explained and is widely regarded as a word that appears in the dual, along with a few other place-names and several other unexplained words (“mitsrayim” = Egypt; “mayim” = water). Zellig Harris’s classic Development of the Canaanite Dialects discusses the historical development of the diphthongs in which unaccented diphthongs contracted in Hebrew but both accented and unaccented elsewhere in the Canaanite dialects (pp. 29-32; I haven’t seen anything that seriously contests his basic view). This also involves issues of the loss of final, short-vowel case endings, etc. Harris even suggests that the diphthongs originally contracted in Hebrew as well and then later reappeared. In other words, it’s much more than simply saying that unaccented -ayi- becomes -e-. Could the mem be part of the root? Certainly. There are other nouns with diphthongs in the root (“bayit” = house). Are all Hebrew words built on a tri-radical root? Probably not. The triradical root system seems to be secondary–there were words which were apparently not originally tri-radical but were later “standardized.” Does, then, the mem HAVE to be part of the root and make a tri-radical root? In a very ancient name? Or is it so ancient? In some cases Jebus seems to be the older name of the city, but perhaps Shalem (Salem), an even more ancient one? Have the Massoretes (10th-11th C. AD) smoothed the MT any? Do the DSS offer any variants? Insufficient Data. In other words, there’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know. Call it “an unexplained dual-like form” if you wish. Languages (and linguistic changes) don’t always make sense. That is the language and that is just the way it is. For purposes of elementary Hebrew, I tell my students it is a frozen dual (compare Seow, p. 29, who treats them as unexplained duals, as does Waltke-O’Connor) and that they should learn it and treat it as such.