Two Kinds of Submission

During the conflict in Syria, refugees have been pouring into Wadi al–Nasara, the Valley of the Christians.

In the middle of my prayers for this nation in crisis, the word ‘nasara’ struck me as a very unusual name. It doesn’t look anything like the western word Christian. So what sense did it have for the Arabs?

Now Christians have been called by many names over the last two millennia. It’s a bit trendy to be a Christ–follower these days, rather than a Christian. A couple of decades ago, Jesus–freak was by no means a derogatory term.

The names change, even while the Lord remains the same. Even back in the first century, there was no standard terminology. Luke, for instance, uses seven different names in the Book of Acts:

  1. Saints
  2. Believers
  3. Disciples
  4. Brethren
  5. Followers of the Way
  6. Those being saved
  7. Christians

Still, I’ve got to admit I pricked up my ears at Nasara. In the book I’ve been working on most recently, God’s Panoply, the Hebrew word ’nasa takes prominent place. As soon as I heard of Wadi al–Nasara, I wondered whether there was any connection between the two words.

As it turns out, nasara is an Arabic word. It’s old. So old it’s used in the Quran, the Islamic holy book. Subsequent commentary on the passage which refers to Christians as nasara is exceedingly interesting. The expected word for Christians should be Masihiyyun (followers of the Messiah) but it’s not.

Rather, nasara is used 18 times in the Quran. By contrast, Christian is only used 3 times in the New Testament.

Nasara is also said to be related to Nazareth (some websites translate it ‘Nazarenes’) and to mean the supporters, the helpers, the ones who assist.

The meaning assigned by the Muslim commentators clearly indicates that nasara is derived from the same root as the Hebrew word ’nasa.

And that’s even more interesting: because, you see, ’nasa is such a rich and complex word its translation depends greatly on the context. It can mean support and help, but it can also mean—amongst many, many other things—submit or forgive.

Thus, in Arabic, there is a curious irony. Islam means submission.

So, in one of its senses, does Nasara.

But in an entirely different way.

The sense of submission with ’nasa is not one of being put down but of lifting up. It’s important to keep in mind that the Hebrew concept of submission is not one of allowing ourselves to be put down by another person but of lifting another up, so that they may lift us in turn. Mutuality.

And although the name Nazareth is said to mean the guarded one, I do wonder if the Arabs haven’t preserved an alternative and curiously apt meaning.

You see, I’m more and more convinced that the Gospels were, originally, bubbling with a kind of effervescent humour even within the serious stuff. The English Standard Version translates Luke 2:51 as: ‘And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.’

What a cool way to end the story of Jesus’ childhood. So He went down to the place of lifting up and lifted them up.






  1. Thus, in Arabic, there is a curious irony. Islam means submission.
    —I don’t see the irony. The Quran says in surah 3 that the diciples of Jesus declared themselves muslim (as in—“one who submits”) —so the quran clearly makes the connection that not only jesus Christ (pbuh) but his followers were “muslim’ or “those who submit” (to God)

  2. You never cease to amaze me Annie with the things you discover. But praise God that you do, because you enrich us with your knowledge – thank you 🙂

  3. Annie,

    For your interest in naming (and much more), please see this post, which contains a letter from a Messianic Jewish missionary. In the letter, the missionary quotes a person to whom she’s bring the Gospel. This Jewish Israeli asks her: ‘Are you still Jewish then or are you now a Christian (Notzrei) and not Jewish?’ Notzrei… ? Hmm.

    Your post is VERY interesting. I love hearing about how we are named as Those Who Belong to Jesus Christ. Christian is blessed, it is perfect.

    In His joy,

  4. Ken Rolph

    “A couple of decades ago, Jesus–freak was by no means a derogatory term.”

    That would’ve depended largely on who used it and in what context. Decades ago? Ouch! Or do you mean way back last millennium?

    In Sydney in the 1960s to 70s the commonly accepted label was Jesus family, or to a lesser extent Jesus people. All labels wear down to opaqueness. My approach these days, when asked “are you a . . .?” is to ask, “What do you mean by that?” People feel the need to put you in a box so they don’t have to actually encounter you. I just want to know the size and shape of the box before I admit to being in it.

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