🔼The name Bethphage: Summary
- House Of Unripe Figs
- From (1) the noun בית (beth), house, and (2) the noun פגה (pagga), unripe fig.
🔼The name Bethphage in the Bible
The name Bethphage belongs to a village at the Mount of Olives, close to Jerusalem. It's from there that Jesus sent two disciples to acquire the donkey's foal upon which he would enter Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1, Mark 11:1, Luke 19:29).
Only Matthew explains Jesus' curious decision to enter Israel's royal city on a colt, by linking it to Zechariah's prophecy, which speaks of Zion's daughter's humble king "mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (as opposed to a war horse; Zechariah 9:9), but the significance goes much further than that.
To most modern Christians, the essence of Jesus is mostly theological and derives little from the historical context of Jesus the Nazareth (which is fine, by the way). But to the people of first century Palestine, contemplations on the ministry of Jesus were swept up wholly in the discussion on how to interpret the destruction of the Temple of YHWH in 70 AD by general and Caesar-to-be Titus, and how to move on as a religious people formerly centered on that Temple. In fact, the conclusion that the destruction of the temple was more than instrumental in the forwarding of Jesus' new teaching, is defendable with great confidence. If the temple had not been destroyed, the gospel would have been much less relevant to a lot of people, Judaism would have evolved completely different and its doubtful that Paul had been ever remembered beyond a possible footnote (and we're using a human argument now, to which Paul would probably not have objected; Romans 3:5).
It should be remembered that Paul was the first publishing evangelist, and although the gospel genre probably took some time to evolve, the gospels we have now (with the possible exception of Mark) stem from after the destruction of Jerusalem, and make obvious use of that event.
The father of general Titus was general Vespasian, who was proclaimed emperor while trying to subdue the Jewish Revolt that would finally lead to the sack of Jerusalem. Some years prior to that, Vespasian had been on the verge of bankruptcy, and took to speculating as a contractor of mules to raise funds. Hence he became known by the derogatory sobriquet Mulio; the Muleteer, which would translate in terms of today as "Transport Operator" (A. B. Bosworth Vespasian and the Slave Trade, 2002, quoting Barbara Levick's Vespasian, 1999).
Very few people in the original audience of the synoptic gospels would have missed the link between Jesus triumphant entry on the colt of a mule and the destruction of that same town by the son of Mulio.
In Hebrew (or Aramaic) this nickname would probably have been derived from the word גמל (gamal, the source of our word camel as well as the name Gamaliel), which derives from the verb גמל (gamal), an economic term which is also used in the sense of to ripen or bear ripe fruits (and by all means, check out our article on that verb for more patterns and connections).
🔼Etymology of the name Bethphage
The name Bethphage is a Greek transliteration of the (not occurring) Hebrew name Beth-pagga, and that name consists of two elements. The first part comes from the familiar noun בית (bayit) meaning house, temple or place:
The noun בית (bayit) means house. It sometimes merely denotes a domestic building, but mostly it denotes the realm of authority of the house-father, or אב (ab). This ab is commonly the living alpha male of a household, but may very well be a founding ancestor (as in the familiar term the "house of Israel"). The אב (ab) may also be a deity, in which case the בית (bayit) is that which we know as a temple.
In the larger economy, a house interacts with other houses. These interactions are governed by the אב (ab), or "father" and executed by the בנים (benim), or "sons": those people living in the house, irrespective of any biological relation with the אב (ab). The "sons" combined add up to אם ('em), which means both "mother" and "tribe".
The second part of our name comes from the noun פגה (pagga) meaning unripe fig:
The unused verb פגג (pagag) has to do with unripe fruit (it does so in other languages). Noun פגה (pagga) means not-yet-ripe fig, and is used once in the Bible.
For a meaning of the name Bethphage, NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads House Of Unripe Figs and Spiros Zodhiates (The Complete Wordstudy Dictionary) proposes House Of Green Figs.