Jesus has many names in the Bible. In fact, there are well over one hundred of them—almost seven hundred according to one count.
In Scripture, a name signifies the mission and character of the one who bears it. Saul becomes Paul when he converts and becomes an apostle. Peter’s name is taken from the Greek word for rock, which he is as the first pope. Jesus’ name itself means “he who saves.”
Many of the names for Jesus are quite familiar to us—the Christ, our Savior and Lord, the King of Kings, a high priest, a shepherd, the lamb slain for us, a New Adam, to name a few. But others are downright bizarre and baffling. These serve as a reminder that the advent of Christ on earth is a thing most unexpected and surprising—even though it had been prophesied in ancient Israel. The stranger names for Jesus hidden throughout Scripture invite us to marvel anew at the mystery of the Incarnation. Here are ten of the weirdest ones:
Owl in the Ruins: Jesus is identified with a number of animals in Scripture. Some of them immediately make sense to us—the eagle that renews our youth in Psalm 103 or the lion, the king of beasts. But the prophetic description of Jesus as the “owl in the ruins” in Psalm 102 certainly has to be one of the oddest ones. For St. Augustine, those ruins represent Christians who have lapsed in their faith—symbolism that is reinforced by the owl itself, a creature of the night. “He is an owl in the ruined walls; for he forsakes not even the darkness of those who dwell in night, he wishes to gain even these,” Augustine writes in his commentary on the Psalms.
Commentators identify this bird as the “little owl” which inhabits ruins as well as tombs and other abandoned places. The little owl is a particularly vocal bird whose “low wailing” note “is sure to be heard at sunset”—certainly a moving metaphor for Christ calling all of us to return to him. In the ancient world, the little owl was known as the Athene Persica, because of its association with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Greek myth held that Athena dispatched the owl as a messenger, sometimes appearing in the form of the owl itself. All this—the little owl’s association with wisdom, divinity, and divinity manifested to man—makes it all the more a fitting symbol for Christ.
Pelican of the Wilderness: Psalm 102 makes another odd-bird reference to Jesus, calling Him the “pelican of the wilderness.” For Augustine, the pelican offers us an image of Jesus bringing the gospel to those who had no belief in the first place—those living in the desert of doubt and secularism, one might say. One nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister, William Thomson, visited then-Palestine and offered this description: “It was certainly the most sombre, austere bird I ever saw. It gave one the blues merely to look at it. David could find no more expressive type of solitude and melancholy by which to illustrate his own sad state.” It’s also a fitting description for Christ—who took upon Himself our humanity in its entirety, even experiencing our very sense of abandonment by God in the forty days he spent in the desert and, most intensely, in his last moments on the Cross.
Cleft of the Rock: In Exodus 33, Moses pleads with God to see His glory. God grants his wish, but first conceals Moses in an opening in a rock, allowing him to only see God from behind. This “cleft in the rock” is universally regarded as an image for Christ. God had warned Moses that no one could see Him and live, but in Jesus, we behold God and have life in abundance. As commentator George Haydock writes, “The rock was Christ … in whose sacred humanity we discern, at a distance, the majesty of God.” Often, the Exodus passage is directly connected with the crucifixion, hence opening lines of the eighteenth-century Anglican hymn: Rock of Ages, cleft for me/ Let me hide myself in Thee/ Let the water and the blood/ From Thy wounded side which flowed/ Be of sin the double cure. This echoes the old medieval prayer, the Anima Christi: O good Jesus, hear me/ Within Thy wounds hide me.
Meat from the Eater: This phrase makes no sense—meat is eaten, it does not come from the eater. It didn’t make sense to those who heard it in the Book of Judges either. It’s a phrase in a riddle Samson told to the Philistines in Judges 14: “Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” They never figured it out. Backing up a bit further in the chapter, we learn that Samson had tackled and torn to pieces a menacing lion. When Samson later examined the remains, he found a swarm of bees and honey inside it. This solves the riddle but only leaves us with a greater mystery—how did bees and honey end up inside the lion? Scripture tells us that the “spirit of the Lord” had come upon Samson as he faced the lion. So, we can infer that this was a miraculous event, but its meaning still eludes us.
The full significance of the event could not be known until the Passion of Jesus Christ, according to St. Ambrose. In his treatise, On The Holy Spirit, St. Ambrose sees the lion as a figure for Satan and the nourishing honey as a type of the Eucharist: “We have escaped from the slayer, we have overcome the strong one. The food of life is now there, where before was the hunger of a miserable death. Dangers are changed into safety, bitterness into sweetness. Grace came forth from the offense, power from weakness, and life from death.” Indeed, in the Eucharist we have spiritual meat that not only nourishes us but also has all the sweetness of sanctity.
Fuller’s Soap: Malachi 3:2 makes the following prophecy about Christ: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand firm when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye.” The refiner’s fire is not a stretch for us. However, “fuller’s lye” or “soap” sounds more like a brand name than a biblical image. In ancient Israel, a “fuller” cleaned woolen cloth before it was converted into clothing. This was no ordinary laundry detergent—it was a highly caustic cleaning agent that bleached the wool. “Fulling” also involved trampling or pounding the material with stones to make it suitable for crafting into garments. St. Jerome sees the soap as penitence, while some modern apologists link it with purgatory. Either way, fuller’s soap turns out to be quite a suitable metaphor for how Christ cleanses us from our sin in a process of purification that can be painful.
Bundle of Myrrh: God is not named directly in the Songs of Songs, but Christ is nonetheless everywhere in the book, depicted as the mystical bridegroom. In Songs of Songs 1:13, the bride, who embodies the Church, describes her lover as a “bundle of myrrh” between her breasts. Myrrh, according to the Jesuit scholar Blaise Arminjon, “is a resin secreted from a plant, and is very often sought after because its perfume is spellbinding, penetrating, dizzying even.” As such, myrrh “symbolizes the attraction of the Bridegroom.” St. Gregory of Nyssa interprets the verse in this way: “the Lord … has become myrrh in the sachet of my conscience and dwells in my very heart.” For St. Bernard, the myrrh, which has an element of bitterness to it, suggests the Passion—myrrh was, after all, offered to Jesus while He was on the Cross.
Bronze Serpent: Of all the figures for Christ in the Bible, this one seems scandalous. But Jesus Himself makes the comparison in John 3:14. Just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to heal disobedient Israelites from a punitive plague of poisonous snakes, so Jesus said He would be lifted up—on the Cross. Theophylact, one of the Greek Fathers, explains: “See then the aptness of the figure. The figure of the serpent has the appearance of the beast, but not its poison: in the same way Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh, being free from sin.” If the bronze serpent as a metaphor for Christ is shocking to us, it’s only because we’ve lost our sense of shock and amazement at the Incarnation, the reality that God could and did become man.
Hidden Manna: In Revelation 2:17 we read that those who repent and hear what the Spirit says to the churches will be given “hidden manna.” In the Old Testament, manna rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites. In the same way, God Himself descended from heaven to become food for us in the Eucharist. “Hidden manna” is an apt term for this spiritual food, given that Christ’s humanity and divinity are veiled, or hidden, under the appearance of bread. Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary describes this as “a happiness in heaven, which the eye hath not seen.”
Oil Poured Out: In Song of Songs we read, “Thy name is as oil poured out.” This may not sound like much of a substantive name—modern idioms like spilled milk or water under the bridge come to mind—but it’s a phrase that is rich in meaning. First, oil is the symbol of one who has been anointed to serve a mission. In fact, the word messiah means the anointed one. This is unmistakably Christ. Moreover, St. Bernard notes that oil has three traditional uses—to enlighten, to nourish (when applied to bread), and to heal. In like fashion, the name of Jesus “enlightens when we preach him, nourishes when we meditate about him, and is a calming balm when we invoke him.” It’s also noteworthy that the oil is poured out—as Christ emptied Himself in becoming man and poured Himself out for us on the Cross. (See Philippians 2:7)
A Name Which No Man Knows: The Bible may have hundreds of names for Jesus, but at the very end, in Revelation 19:12 we are at last told that Jesus has a “a name inscribed that no one knows” because ultimately we cannot know everything about God—some things remain beyond us while we walk this earth. Some commentators have seen this as a reference to an ancient Oriental custom of having a “secret name,” according to Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary. But Haydock suggests another interpretation which “understands this to be the name of the word of God … which is so comprehensive in its meaning, that human reason cannot fathom it.”