The fascinating world of personal names
15th December 2022
How the study of onomastics has captivated generations of researchers at Tyndale House
Late in the evening at the end of September 1986, acting warden Don Carson welcomed me into Tyndale House. I was a young American post-doctoral researcher who had just spent a year working in Israel on historical geography research about Bible times.
I came to Cambridge, along with Leslie McFall from Northern Ireland and David Tsumura from Japan, to join a new Tyndale House research project looking at questions posed by Genesis 1–11. Little did I realize at the time how my research would fit into work already being done by Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, and Donald Wiseman, the three highly respected advisers of the Genesis 1–11 Project. My work would be on the personal names in those early chapters of the Bible.
The legacy of Kitchen, Millard, and Wiseman
Kenneth Kitchen had worked on Egyptian names in the publication of his many volumes of Egyptian inscriptions from the later second millennium BC.  He was already applying this and other research to his study of names in Genesis 12–50 and how they fit best in the early/mid second millennium BC . Alan Millard had published and would continue to release research articles and monographs on many personal names connected with the ancient world of Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Bible – especially in conjunction with his numerous studies of West Semitic and Akkadian texts.  Donald Wiseman had also done very important work on names on tablets from the great Alalakh archive.
Alalakh, a site about 24 km (15 miles) east of ancient Antioch (modern Antakya) on the Orontes River, had been excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in seasons before and after World War II. In the early 1950s, Wiseman received the task of publishing hundreds of the tablets with only eighteen months to study them.  While other Syrian sites such as Mari and Ugarit also contained important collections of names from the early and later second millennium BC (Middle and Late Bronze Ages), Alalakh was unique in revealing two major troves of names from both the earlier and later periods. This permitted the study of how naming practices and cultural influences changed from one period to the next in the same city. Later, Donald would generously share with me his unpublished notes on Alalakh as I pursued research on these names.
Donald had also studied biblical names, including the publication of an important article on the place names of Genesis 10.  He and the other advisers shared generously of their time and knowledge to make my main work, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1–11, of value.  They also provided guidance on other projects, such as my opportunity to write about most of these names for the important Anchor Bible Dictionary (the most popular entry being, ‘Nephilim’).
A lifelong pursuit of knowledge
Spurred on by my time at Tyndale House, and benefiting from the insights and assistance of these three wonderful advisers, I have gone on to look at the religious aspects of what the names in Genesis teach us about what the people of the Bible believed and whom they worshipped. For example, Abram and Sarai came from a polytheistic context in Ur of Harran (Genesis 11:27-31; Joshua 24:2). Their names are an early form of West Semitic (a precursor of languages such as Hebrew) and parallel to names found from the early second millennium BC at Alalakh, Mari, and elsewhere. Abram may mean, ‘the god Ram is (divine) Father’, while Sarai may mean, ‘(a particular god) is Prince’. When the God of Abraham changed their names, they become confessional names of the true God and his covenantal promises to them of land and offspring. Abraham is identified as ‘father of many nations’, while Sarah forms the feminine form, ‘princess’ (Genesis 17:15).
A name like Abram fits this early period and not later, as witnessed by similar names in the roughly contemporary Alalakh and Mari texts. It fits the names found in the culture of Harran and the north Syrian (and southern Turkish) regions, known to us now as Amorite. It also bears witness to the extraordinary work of God in providing new names of salvation and hope, the first of many new names promised to all those who believe and overcome by faith (Isaiah 62:2; Revelation 2:17; 3:12).
The study of personal names in books such as Exodus, Joshua, Judges, and back to Genesis, as well as personal names in the extrabiblical texts discovered around ancient Israel also provided additional evidence for dating the texts and books in which these names appeared to the early periods from which they claimed to come. Thus, the book of Joshua contains names of some figures that are parallel to names from the same region in the fourteenth century BC and not later (e.g., Japhia in Joshua 10:3), as well as names from Hurrian cultural and linguistic contexts that disappear from the region by the time of the early first millennium BC (e.g., Piram in Joshua 10:3 and Talmai in 15:14). These names, and perhaps the narratives around them, were not later fictional compositions of the middle of the first millennium BC when scribes would no longer have known of such name forms.
The Tyndale House Old Testament Onomastics Project today
It was therefore with great excitement that Peter Williams invited me to advise on the current Tyndale House Old Testament Onomastics Project which aims to deepen and extend this work with a comprehensive database of all biblical and relevant name collections of the ancient Near East. The project began in 2019 and has continued under the capable direction of Caleb Howard. Along with research centers in Germany, Israel, and elsewhere, the team has worked on many names in the Hebrew Bible. Their distinctive contribution has been in the study of names found in the ancient Near Eastern texts most closely related to the Bible.
In the past few years, the Onomastics Project has worked to produce a database for the published Alalakh texts, including full grammatical and linguistic analysis for each of the hundreds and thousands of names, as well as a complete prosopography (the known relatives of each name bearer as well as his/her occupation and the relative time when they lived). This is now also being undertaken for other ancient Near Eastern archives, above all Ugarit. Given the thousands of texts and the many names contained in them, as well as the cultures and languages represented, a complete database of this material will provide an important contribution to ancient Near Eastern studies. It will also give us a full resource for identifying name elements in the earliest biblical books and traditions as found in the Pentateuch and the early historical books.
Like me, this generation of researchers not only contribute to the work of the names project, but receive back from the blessings of that research. Our work at Tyndale House has given us the benefit of advancement into full-time college, university, seminary, and graduate school positions and professorships. We are grateful for the generous support of the Onomastics Project to enable us to do the work God has gifted to us, and to continue in this as a primary means of providing for our families and of building into the lives of our students by nurturing their academic and spiritual growth.
With the Alalakh database we come full circle to complete the work so ably begun by Donald Wiseman more than seventy years ago. It will provide a lasting tribute to this significant area in which Tyndale House and its scholars have played a key role during those years. Advising the present project has given me the privilege of a front row seat as the results begin to appear from the massive and detailed work of the onomastics team. It has been exciting to see how the seeds planted by Donald Wiseman and others so many years ago continue to grow into a harvest of valuable research for both Bible readers and scholars. Alan Millard, there from the beginning, continues to provide valuable advice and input.
Thanks to the unnamed donors who have made this work possible. Thanks also to Peter Williams for his vision and continued oversight, to Caleb Howard for his diligent direction, and to all those researchers, past, present, and future, who are making an unparalleled contribution to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. And thanks to all who have participated as researchers in the present project since it began in 2019:
- James Bejon (from January 2019)
- Hannah Clardy (during 2019-2020)
- George Heath-Whyte (from May 2022)
- Caleb Howard (from January 2019)
- Robert Marineau (from September 2022)
- Kaspars Ozolins (January 2019-August 2022)
- Elizabeth Robar (January 2019-mid-2020)