What's in a name?

Oh yes, I've played 'em all in my time.

Joseph, Chief Shepherd, Balthasar, seventh disciple at the Last Supper. Nativity Plays, Passion Plays, Mystery Plays, Miracle Plays. Been there, done that, seen the video, got the T-shirt. I like to claim I was present at the wonderful occasion when a truculent six-year-old, demoted for bad behaviour from Melchior to Innkeeper, responded to Mary's appeal for accommodation with 'Yes, plenty of room, come in, come in!' I played a one-eyed man called Lampredo in a Belgian play by a bloke called Ghelderode, and I was the Narrator in a disastrous attempt by the University Indian Society to perform Sacrifice, a heavily dramatic piece by Rabindranath Tagore, without having the audience weep with laughter.

I once scandalised an audience in a Methodist church by the callous realism with which I played a cruel, hard-drinking South African overseer. (It wasn't the cruel bit that upset them, it was the hard drinking. I was knocking back the cola and lemonade, mixed to the colour of brandy, at a tremendous rate while my unfortunate victims died of thirst.) However, as an actor with little physical talent, a potentially embarrassing memory but lots of vocal volume, a large proportion of my dramatic work has consisted of Voices Off: more specifically, and most often, the Voice of God.

I have sat, let me tell you, or clung or swung precariously and trembling, in some dark, dusty and distinctly dodgy places in order to pick up the distance and echoes usually considered necessary to this rather specialised branch of the acting profession. The fly gallery of a theatre is comparatively comfortable, usually about twenty feet in the air at one side of the stage, but infested with urgent stagecrew who rush around hauling on ropes and asking one to get out of the way in a manner in no way consonant with the dignity of divinity. Infinitely worse is the purgatory known as The Grid, an assemblage of closely-spaced beams which span the stage at a height of forty feet or so, the timbers covered in dust (watch out for Heavenly sneezes) and the spaces between them sickeningly deep and adequately wide for a nasty accident. The Grid is approached by a sort of vertical tunnel known as a Jacob's ladder, so it appeals to directors as a place to put the Almighty. In one theatre, the counter-weight for the front tabs (curtains to you amateurs) ran alongside the ladder, and one of God's secondary jobs was to ride down on it if extra weight were needed at curtain-up time. Churches, too, have equally terrifying eminences. At St. James', Grimsby I was God twice, once from the gallery (a foot wide and unsupplied with any guard rail) halfway up the transept wall and once (best of all) from high inside the Organ. On the only occasion when I was asked to position another person for this purpose, the God in question chickened out at the westernmost end of the gallery and clung gibbering to the woodwork throughout his performance.

I used to wonder why God nearly always repeated himself (Moses, Moses! or Samuel, Samuel!), until I got so used to this that I was surprised when He didn't. In the Garden of Eden it's Adam, Adam! every time, on the road to Damascus I would boom Saul, Saul!, but I never had to repeat, whether as God or Gabriel or Jesus, the name Mary. I sometimes addressed Peter as Simon Peter, but never as Peter Peter.

It was that last one that gave me the clue. Simon was the man's given name, but Peter was added later. When Jesus called him Simon Peter, he was saying Simon the rock. After that, I realised that all the Old Testament duplications are examples of the technique of repetition in Hebrew poetry. In the Old Testament everything gets said twice. Look at the Psalms. 'O come let us sing unto the Lord, and make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.'; 'Bless the Lord, O my Soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name'. So when God says, Samuel, Samuel, what He means is Samuel, the one God hears; it's a sort of heavenly pun. The same sense of humour can be deduced in 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?', considering that Saul means 'the one I asked for'.

Of course, Saul once converted took a new name. He declared himself the least of the apostles, and Paul means little. it was, in fact, a nickname. Though Hebrew names all have meaning, and though some changes (Jacob to Israel, for example) are recorded as far back as Genesis, the most notable Old Testament use of a nickname in addition to the given name, and the only prophecy concerning a name, is closely bound up with this time of Advent. 'Behold', said Isaiah, seven hundred years before the event, 'a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel'. When he came, of course, his name was Jesus; but Simon Peter, to whom Jesus himself had given a nickname, was the first to point out that he was also Emmanuel, God with us.

This idea of giving people extra, descriptive names wasn't simply an idiosyncrasy of Jesus and his followers, any more than it was the invention of modern schoolchildren. In Wales, where literally half the population bears the surname Jones, they are differentiated as 'Jones the Post' or 'Jones the shop'. When I lived in a little French village, nicknames sorted out the tangled web of cousins. The Greeks and Romans did it all the time, even to the extent of formalizing the procedure. Julius Caesar, for example, was called Gaius (given name) Julius (family name). The word Caesar was added later; it means hairy. (Oddly enough, that was one of the names I was called at school. Caesar, as it turned out, had as an adult about the same amount of hair as I have. In a word, none.) All the best Romans had nicknames. Cicero means chick­pea.

This fashion for nicknames can be used to work out what language was in use at various times. When God addresses somebody by his given name twice over, He's speaking Hebrew; when He uses a nickname, God speaks Greek and the New Age has begun. After the conversion of Paul, the voice from Heaven stops repeating itself.

And incidentally, this gives us an answer to the old question, What was Jesus' full name? If we were to name our Saviour, who was after all born in the Roman Empire, on the Roman pattern given name, family name, nickname  he would be Jesus David Emmanuel.

 Remember, you read it here first.