No matter where you look, the well-known name Boanerges is said to translate to Sons Of Thunder. But this is most likely incorrect. Let us show you why:
Sons Of Thunder
The name Boanerges occurs only once in the Bible. Boanerges is the nickname that Jesus gives to James and John, the two sons of Zebedee (Mark 3:17). Jesus doesn't explain why He gives them this name, but author Mark explains that Boanerges means υιοι (uioi meaning sons, or figuratively, partakers) βροντης (bronthes meaning of thunder). This word is only used once in the New Testament but it's the regular Greek word for thunder or "the state of one struck with thunder, astonishment" (according to Liddell and Scott—a Greek English Lexicon).
The construction "sons of" has a much wider range of application in the Biblical languages than in English (see our article on the name Ben). It may denote biological offspring, but it's also used to describe the citizens of a town, the members of a group or even people who share a certain quality or skill. When interpreting a construct that contains the words "son of," care should be observed to align the meaning of the source text with the applications of the target language. The epitaph Sons Of Thunder does not denote men who have thunder as their father, but rather men who engage in thundering, or perhaps other kind of noise making. In this sense, "sons of" has nothing to do with sonhood or some centralized patriarchy.
It's not immediately clear why Jesus gives James and John the epithet Thunder Boys but it's a complete enigma how the otherwise non-existing appellation Boanerges can be made to correlate with that, or even from what language it's supposed to be taken.
Proposed etymologies of Boanerges
Most commentator align the Boane-part with the plural of the Aramaic word בר (bar) or the Hebrew equivalent בן (ben), both meaning son or figuratively, partaker in some collective, or quality or skill. The problem here is that although we have no sound recordings of those days—only transliterations from one language into another—this plural noun would not likely transliterate to the Greek boane but something like benay.
The word for thunder (bronthe) that Mark uses is the regular off-the-shelf Greek word for thunder. But the regular off-the-shelf Hebrew or Aramaic word for thunder is רעם (ra'am—see the name Raamah). Most commentators then assume that the second part of the name Boanerges comes from the verb רגש (ragash), which indirectly may mean thunder, but only figuratively, and probably also because our languages lacks proper synonyms:
Ergo: to tie a meaning of Sons Of Thunder to the name Boanerges requires a phonetic warping of the Semitic word for sons and a misappropriation of a very negative verb meaning to congregate for dubious (= destructive or conspiratorial) reasons.
Did Mark goof?
Some scholars propose that author Mark worked off Aramaic texts, and that he misread the letter ם (mem final, corresponding to our M) for a ס (samekh corresponding to our S), and blundered on by wrongly transliterating the Aramaic benay ra'am (meaning Sons Of Thunder) to the incorrect Greek Boanerges, which he then swiftly explained to mean Sons Of Thunder.
Admitted, it's a common lament among beginning students of Hebrew or Aramaic that the letters ם (M-final) and ס (S) look confusingly alike, as do the letters מ (M-regular) and ט (T) as do the letters ד (D) and ר (R) as do the letters ו (W) and ז (Z) as do the letters ה (H) and ח (CH) as do the letters ע (') and צ (TZ).
But usually, after a lesson or two, the apt neophytes learn to recognize these letters and their obvious differences, and very few mistakes ensue. On the same note, foreign students of the Latin alphabet usually complain about the similarities of our letters O and Q, or O and D, or O and 0, or I (upper case i) and l (lower case L), but that also doesn't last long.
Possible, but highly unlikely on both accounts.
Name or names? Translation or paraphrase?
Well, to start with, most translations will tell the reader that Jesus gave our boys the name Boanerges, which means Sons Of Thunder. And yes, the version of Mark published by Westcott and Hort (1881) indeed uses the word ονομα, the acquisitive singular noun meaning name. But the Textus Receptus (1551 and 1894), Tischendorf (1869-1872) and the Byzantine Majority Text (2000) use the plural ονοματα; names.
Moreover, the Greek phrasing that ties the two monikers together is ο εστιν (o estin), which translates to our English "that is to say" (says Spiros Zodhiates in his Complete Wordstudy Dictionary). This phrase occurs often to reflect a far-less-than-perfect symmetry: Mark 7:11 reads "Corban, that is a gift devoted to God," yet the word corban does not translate into "a gift devoted to God" (see our article on the word Corban). Mark 12:42 reads, "two lepta which is a quadrans," but two lepta does not translate into a quadrans. And so on (Mark 15:16, 15:42, Ephesians 6:17, Colossians 1:24, Hebrews 7:2, Revelation 21:8, 21:17).
In other words: it's by no means certain that Boanerges and Sons Of Thunder are one and the same name in different languages. It's much more likely that they are two distinct names but each other's paraphrases.
From which language is Boanerges?
The name Boanerges, most probably and almost certainly, does not come from a Semitic equivalent meaning Sons Of Thunder. And that is most convenient if not quite expected, because Mark wrote for a predominantly Latin audience who were also fluent in Greek. A play on words in Semitic, that is too hard even for us modern scholars to crack, would most probably have flown by them. The origin and meaning of the name Boanerges has to be identified in either Greek or Latin and preferably both.
And that means the hunt is on for alternative interpretations. Here is our guess:
A much more likely etymology of Boanerges
The first part of βοανεργες (Boanerges) looks like it has to do either with the verb βοα (boa), meaning to shout or cry; or the related verbs βοαω (boao) or βοη (boe), both meaning to shout or cry. Lewis and Short (A Latin Dictionary) report that these Greek verbs are reflected in the Latin root bo-, meaning roaring, which also leads to the Latin noun bos, meaning an ox or bull (hence our word bovine). And sure enough, the Greek word for ox or bull is βους (bous). Ergo, to a Greek and Latin audience, the name Boanerges would look like it starts with the verb to low (the sound a cow makes).
The second part of the name Boanerges looks like it has to do with the word Ενεργεια (energeia), meaning activity or operation (hence our word energy). And sure enough, this word in Latin is energia. Obviously, the name Boanerges is a compound, and sure enough, the word Ενεργεια comes in all kinds of compounds: ανενεργης (anenerges), meaning inefficacious. αυτενεργεια (autenergeia), meaning self-moving energy. δυσενεργεια (dusenergeia), meaning lassitude (= weariness of body or mind; languor; lack of energy resulting from fatigue, says the Oxford Dictionary) Συνενεργης (sunenerges), meaning active simultaneously.
Boanerges doesn't mean Sons of Thunder but Busy Lowing, that is (They) Act Like Oxen.
Contexts of the name Boanerges
Jesus gives some of His disciples a nickname, and since we like to believe that Jesus was always full of love for His people, we also readily assume that His nicknames reflect that appreciation. But quite contrarily, Jesus very often expresses His disappointment towards His disciples. Right before Mark mentions Boanerges, he reports that Jesus renders Simon the name Peter. Peter doesn't mean rock as many believe, but pebble (see our article on the name Peter). Peter is the footloose pebble, but his faith is the petra upon which Jesus would build His church. In Matthew 16:23, Jesus even goes as far as to call Peter satan.
So also He doesn't praise the sons of Zebedee with a lofty-sounding Sons Of Thunder, but rather Thunder Boys, that is Bunch Of Windbags, or All Bark, No Bite. And why? Even though James and John would grow to be giants of the faith, their career started off with some serious hiccups. And those hiccups were invariably met by Jesus' insistence for the boys to pipe down. Luke tells the story of how Jesus and the disciplines are denied lodging in a Samaritan village. James and John helpfully offer to command fire from heaven to destroy the town. Jesus rebukes them by telling them that they have no idea of what kind of spirit they are, and supposed to be (Luke 9:51-56).
Fire from heaven is lightning, and the lightning part is the damaging part. All visible lightning comes with audible thunder, but not all audible thunder comes with visible lightning. Jewish writing tells of a hot spot for Rabbi's called Bene-barak, which is a town in Dan (mentioned in Joshua 19:45), and Bene-barak means Sons Of Lightning. Calling James and John Sons Of Thunder when they propose to command fire from the sky, is highly satirical.
Further up, Luke reports that a dispute arose among the disciples on who would be called the greatest in the Kingdom (22:24-30). Mark adds the detail that James and John were at the heart of the dispute, with their request that Jesus would let them sit at His left and right hand (Mark 10:35-44). But Matthew reveals that behind the two men's impetuous request was the ambition of their mother Salome, who obviously also still had a lot to learn (20:20-28). When Jesus calls James and John the Sons Of Thunder, He may very well have had Salome in mind.
A more sinister parallel
But Jesus may even had had something darker and more complex in mind. Humans asking fire from God to come down and consume the enemy is rare in the Bible, possibly because it would require:
- A clear view on what is worthy to be saved and what should be incinerated.
- The absolute certainty that the requester is part of the first category.
- Either the godliness or else the audacity to ask the Living God to do something horrible, which He obviously isn't doing by Himself.
- The humility to morally survive such a successful request.
The only person in the Bible to pull this of is Elijah the Tishbite, when he challenges hundreds of Baal priests on mount Carmel into a kind of contest to see whose God is real. The fire comes and sets Elijah's sacrifice ablaze, but the Baal priests God leaves unsinged. Elijah nevertheless rounds them up and personally executes every last one of them near the brook Kishon (1 Kings 18).
The word Baal is a collective word, which may denote every kind of idol. One of the most important deities of the Semitic realm was a Baal called Hadad. Baal-hadad isn't specifically mentioned in the Bible, but the name Hadad survives in a few compound names, for example Ben-hadad. But Ben-hadad was probably not a personal name, but rather a royal title of the kings of Aram (like Pharaoh in Egypt and Caesar in Rome).
In the Bible, Aram is the collective name for any city or territory of the people who spoke Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew (the square "Hebrew" letters in which our extant Hebrew texts are written are in fact Aramaic) and closely associated to the Persian empire, and thus the exile. That is why after the return, Ezra had to organize a group of proto-rabbi's to explain in Aramaic the words of the Law which was written in Hebrew, and it is also why the Jews in Jesus' time still mostly spoke Aramaic.
Aram and Aramaic are strong symbols for the overbearing world in which the church is trying to exist. And the difficult challenge that faces the church is that the ways of Christ are unlike the natural ways of the world. Christ loves, forgives and teaches while the world retaliates, destroys and assimilates. Now when we realize that the bull was the symbolic animal of Hadad, and that Ben-hadad means Son Of Thunder, Jesus' words to James and John clearly also contain the urge to be not like the world, but like Christ.