The Truth About Biblical Baby Names

Jun 19th 2013

Take a look at the most popular names for American boys:

#1. Jacob
#2. Mason
#3. Ethan
#4. Noah
#5. William

Three of the five -- Jacob, Ethan and Noah -- come to us from the Bible. Reporters often notice this link, and ask me about the apparent hot trend toward biblical names. (See, for instance, this Washington Post article noting that "for new parents, God is in."

I usually point out that the Bible has always been a hugely popular source of baby names. 50 years ago, you would have found Michael, John, David and James in the top five. 100 years ago it was John, James and Joseph. What Noah and friends represent is a stylistic shift away from the classic English Christian names of the New Testament and toward Old Testament/Hebrew Bible names that were little heard in the 20th Century.

But does the rise of Ethan and Noah really make up for the decline of John and Mary? What is the overall picture on biblical baby names in America? I tracked the historical popularity of over 300 names from the Bible, and here's my conclusion:

The popularity of baby names from the Bible is at an all-time historic low. The classic Christian Bible names have been plummeting for the past half-century. For a while, a dramatic 1970s rise in Old Testament names made up for this, but for the past decade Old Testament names have been falling nearly as fast as New.

Increasingly, "biblical" is a marker of style more than origin in baby names. As parents seek distinctive, eye- and ear-catching names, they're turning to names that shout their throwback biblical style from the mountaintops. (An American boy is more likely to be named Ezekiel than Peter today.) This appears to hold true even in cases where the biblical forebear was a villain (Delilah outpaces Rebecca), and even when the biblical style comes without any Bible origin at all (see previous post on Lilah and "biblicized" names).

A Look at the Data

You can see the historical trend below. The top green line represents all biblical names, normalized to occurrences per million babies born. The dotted lines break that total down into New Testament names (blue), Old Testament (red), and names occurring prominently in both (purple; think Michael).

Usage of Biblical Names Over Time


Over the past 50 years, the usage of New Testament names has declined by 68%. But during the 1970s, an extraordinary run on Old Testament names kept pace. Between 1970 and 1980, names like Jonathan, Benjamin, Jesse and Rachel soared. The popularity of Joshua rose by over 1500%. The Old and New lines crossed in 1976, and the essence of American biblical names was fundamentally changed.

The New Bible Name Landscape

If you grew up in the '70s or later, it's probably hard for you to hear names like Rachel and Joshua as remotely revolutionary. They're biblical classics, after all. But in earlier American generations, Bible names largely meant Christian names. I've heard from a number of Christian parents who were stunned when elderly relatives objected to their choice of a "Jewish name" like, yes, Rachel or Josh. I can only imagine how they'd respond to choices like Ezra, Elijah, Levi, Josiah, Eli, Isiaiah, Ezekiel or Malachi, all of which are top-200 names today -- let alone Nehemiah, Hezekiah, or Zechariah, which make the top 1,000.

Doubtless some of the parents choosing names of Old Testament Jewish prophets today are, in fact, signalling their Christian faith. The biblical connection gives the names a clear religious grounding. Others, though, are more drawn to the names' old-fashioned pioneer style. Realistically, Levi signals "Levi Strauss & Co." along with "third son of Jacob and Leah."

And still others are simply looking for an unusual, attention-grabbing name that doesn't sound made up. Many parents are eager for fresh, creative ideas, but will only accept names they consider "legitimate." A biblical origin confers unquestioned legitimacy, which can give Bible names a powerful allure even to non-religious parents. Consider that some of the most strongly "biblical-styled" names are most popular in states with the lowest rates of church attendance. (Ezekiel is hottest in Hawaii, Ezra in Oregon, etc.)

It's also clear that as a group, the Bible names that most directly represent Christian role models, such as the names of the apostles, are in sharp decline. This is in keeping with a broad trend away from "naming after" in general: hero naming and family namesakes are on the decline. Baby names today tend to send cultural signals via style or sometimes via literal terms (like Miracle or Angel), rather than connecting the child to an individual role model.

But if "biblical" has become a style category, what is its future? Styles, after all, come and go, and the biblical style is a limited commodity. With names like Hezekiah already ranking in the top 1,000, it's easy to imagine style-minded parents running out of biblical options.

The 15% decline in the use of Old Testament names in the past decade suggests that might already be happening. It also puts to rest the idea that America is experiencing any kind of Bible baby name boom. That boom was many generations back -- back when, perhaps, John and Mary were still seen as biblical names.

Comments

1
June 19, 2013 12:12 PM

I'm a Christian namer who's turning to more obscure OT names because the pool of 'available' names is shrinking. Many names that I would otherwise use (Jonathan, Samuel, Matthew, Andrew, Stephen, David, Aaron, Isaac, Joseph, Joshua, the list goes on) have been 'taken' by my large, close, religious family. 

I've gotten to the point that I'm seriously considering Solomon if this next baby is another boy. Solomon. I would have called myself crazy a few months ago but it's growing on me. I'm fine with 'naming after' King Solomon, (after all, he's known for being wise) the name has a good meaning and the nickname Sol is solid. I just never would have gone so far afield from where I started if -

Crap. I just realized that Sol rhymes with our one-syllable last name. Not sure how I didn't notice that before.

2
June 19, 2013 2:26 PM

I love New Testament names and can hardly believe how much they've been dropping.  For parents wanting a name that is familiar, easy to pronounce and spell but won't require the child use a last initial in class the New Testament favorites are a treasure trove.  For example Paul, Mark, Peter, and Timothy are all out of the top 100.

3
June 19, 2013 3:39 PM

Our two oldest have bilical names.  We happen to be Christian but that had very little to do with our name choice.  Our oldest has the old testatment name Ezra.  I've always loved names with E's and it happened to be the one my husband and I could agree on.  Our parents thought it sounded old.  Our grandparents didnt' like it so much but it has grown on everyone.  We lived in the middle east briefly when he was about two.  Interestingly enough all the muslims we'd met would say, "Oh that sounds like a girl name we have Izra."  Only one time did we find a really push against the name.  A Iraqi Christian heard the name and told me I should make my husband change it. Obviously we didn't.  Our next oldest has the name Grace Elizabeth.  I think it must be the most popular two names every placed together.  We again choose it because we it was name that flowed well that we could agree on that played homage to my mother and my own middle name.  Our two youngest have completely unreligious names that play homage again to family members.  I know some people who pick bible names because they want to say something about their own personal feelings about religion but I also know there are people like me who pick them because they like the familiarity or the uniqueness, like the flow, want to pay homage to family, etc.  I've been surfing this site since 2006 while looking for names for my GE.  I love it so much.  Send all my pregnant friends here.  It gives me a kick how much thought we put into names that are children are then saddled with for life that really say more about us then they do about them :)

4
June 19, 2013 7:38 PM

"With names like Hezekiah already ranking in the top 1,000, it's easy to imagine style-minded parents running out of biblical options."

 

Current namers have barely scratched the surface of biblical names. There is no risk of running out any time soon. Now some names are long and unwieldy (e.g., Jehosaphat) and some have developed other meanings (e.g., Jereboam--not many would want  to name a son after a super-sized bottle of champagne).  But there are many that might work.

 

Names used in the past  which fell out of fashion and haven't yet been revived or are used only very sporadically:  Amos, Enoch,  Gamaliel, Gedaliah, Obediah, Gideon, Hosea, Jedidiah, Jephthah, Jethro, Eber, Jubal, Oren, Zebulon, Reuel (J.R.R. Tolkien's second middle), Abel, Adlai, Hiram, Elihu, Enos.

 

In a recent blog entry Laura W. pointed out some beginning interest in names ending in -iel: Abiel, Adiel, Ammiel, Azriel, Eliel, Ithiel, Malchiel.

 

Then there are two-syllable names ending in -n for those who want to avoid Aidan and its rhymes; Elon, Alon, Amnon, Canaan, Gershon (also Gershom), Oren, Rimmon, Mahlon, Jadon (a genuine biblical name, not Jayden), Kenan, Laban, Dathan. 

 

And then there are names that to my knowledge have had little or no use in the US or UK:  Asaph, Ehud, Oded, Gilead, Issachar, Ithamar, Joab,  Joash, Manasseh, Napthtali, Omri, Kilion, Lamech, Ram (nothing to do with sheep).

 

There are many fewer female names in the Bible, but here are some receiving little to no use in the past that might work for some: Avital, Atarah, Bilhah, Huldah, Levana, Merab, Shifra, Rina, Tirzah,  Jerusha, Mara, Keturah, Kezia, Naamah, and Zillah.

 

There are many many more names, but I picked the above as examples because they were relatively easy to spell/pronounce, might have had a certain amount of usage in the past and/or fit into some modern naming trends/preferences.  Since these are all transliterations, many of them have alternate English spellings.

5
June 19, 2013 7:56 PM

"Current namers have barely scratched the surface of biblical names. There is no risk of running out any time soon"

Certainly, there are plenty more names of Biblical *origin*. It's at the intersection with biblical *style* that things tighten up.  A name doesn't hit the mark unless it has a recognizeable biblical-antique style that's more cowboy than hayseed. (Or rabbi. Even in this age of Christian Joshuas and Ethans, we don't see a lot of kids named Abraham or Moses.)

6
June 19, 2013 9:36 PM

one factor you didn't mention in the rise of biblical names is the higher rate of mixed marriages. with two religions or two languages (or more) spoken in the home, biblical names are often familiar to all. that was certainly the case for our family (3/4 kids have biblical names). for us the important factor was to choose a name common in both english and french. i imagine both english and spanish or portuguese would work well with biblical names too.

7
June 19, 2013 10:36 PM

I personally love the name Moses, and we considered it before we knew we were going to have a girl. It would have been a pretty brave choice. With my husband's last name of Levine, a name like Moses Levine sounds like the kid would be born with a long beard and side curls. I think you can get away with Moses much more with a contrasting last name, like Campbell or Kawasaki.

8
June 19, 2013 10:39 PM

The definition of cowboy and the demarcation between cowboy and hayseed is highly subjective.  Yes, Levi says cowboy because of Levi Strauss's great contribution to the history of the American West, and there is Jesse James, but, as you say, Jesse is falling, not rising.

" ...choices like Ezra, Elijah, Levi, Josiah, Eli, Isiaiah [sic], Ezekiel or Malachi, all of which are top-200 names today -- let alone Nehemiah, Hezekiah, or Zechariah, which make the top 1,000."  Other than Levi, I'd be interested to know exactly what is cowboy about these rising names.  Isaiah and Elijah, for example, have been popular for a while in the African-American community.  Malachi has been identified with the Irish, being as it conflates an anglicized version of an Irish Gaelic name and a biblical name.  I personally would classify Hezekiah as more hayseed than cowboy, but, as I said, these associations are highly subjective.

You went on to say "And still others are simply looking for an unusual, attention-grabbing name that doesn't sound made up. Many parents are eager for fresh, creative ideas, but will only accept names they consider "legitimate." A biblical origin confers unquestioned legitimacy, which can give Bible names a powerful allure even to non-religious parents."  This in particular spurred my own list.  Nothing about cowboys or pioneers in this observation (which btw I think is likely correct).

In your post on boys' names on the verge, you wrote: Adiel (Obscure biblical name, rising with the huge popularity of -iel names among Spanish-speaking parents).  Lots of other biblical names follow the pattern of Adiel, as I listed.  I don't think Spanish parents are picking these names because they are pioneer/cowboy names.

So let's look at the names I suggested as possible biblical choices.  Many of the names I listed under formerly popular are in fact names associated with pioneers and the West:  Zebulon (Pike of Pike's Peak), Jubal (A. Early, Civil War general).  Many American pioneers were named Jedidiah, although Jed Clampett may have "hayseeded" the name, if anyone is old enough to remember that character.  Jethro was also a popular early American name, again "hayseeded" by the Beverly Hillbillies, but certainly rehabilitated by Jethro Gibbs, main character of NCIS, the most popular (crime/military) drama on American tv.  Gideon strikes me as more cowboy than hayseed, and Hiram maybe more hayseed than cowboy, but again that's only a subjective reaction.  Oren is the name of Oren Hatch of Utah, a son of the West, a very powerful politican and no hayseed.

Again as to style, two syllables ending in -n has been a hugely popular style. For those "looking for an unusual, attention-grabbing name that doesn't sound made up....[and who] are eager for fresh, creative ideas, but will only accept names they consider "legitimate," why not some of the way underused biblical names fitting that pattern?  "Unusual, attention-grabbing" but not "made up": Dathan (for those who like Nathan but think it's played out), Jadon (for those who want a twist on Jayden, but with biblical legitimacy), Kenan (a biblical name, not an Irish surname that's not on the parents' family tree), Alon (a fresher version of Alan and a bit of a "raindrop"), Kilion (yes, it's got an extra syllable, but it also has a popular initial and popular sounds).

As for this, " (Or rabbi. Even in this age of Christian Joshuas and Ethans, we don't see a lot of kids named Abraham or Moses.)," in this very thread we see someone contemplating Solomon (and others have discussed Solomon on the forums).  Solomon is pretty rabbi-y.  As it happens it was my grandfather's name, and thirty-odd years ago when my son was born I would have hesitated to use it as his civil name, and now non-Jews are starting to use it.  And from my perspective, being as I am familiar with a great many rabbis, most of the names you cite as rising sound a lot more rabbi than cowboy to me.  Of course, those who don't know many rabbis wouldn't have the same associations as I do.

In sum, while I thought your blog entry was interesting and thought-provoking, I think that your addendum on cowboy/pioneer style was on the constricting side.  There are many ways that underused and less familiar biblical names can mesh with current styles, including the simple yearning for something fresh, but "real," besides evoking denim pants with copper studs.

 

9
June 20, 2013 8:36 AM

"The definition of cowboy and the demarcation between cowboy and hayseed is highly subjective."

Absolutely. And in the end, I think that's exactly the point: that "biblical" has become a category defined increasingly by subjective style rather than objective origin. (You'd be astonished at the number of reporters who have been surprised to hear from me that names like Michael, James, and even Jacob are "biblical.")

Even the role of historical examples is very much about perception. In reality, Levi Strauss was a German Jew who became a successful dry goods wholesaler, while American-born Abner Blackburn zig-zagged the Old West discovering gold, helping to build the Mormon Church, and fighting in the Mexican War. But Levi, not Abner, represents the rugged western biblical/antique style favor.

10
June 20, 2013 10:46 AM

I was reacting to your statement about "running out of biblical names," pointing out that there are still plenty that could (for future namers) fit into current naming trends.  So, yes, Levi is a "cowboy" name because of the jeans, but Abner could certainly be resurrected.  At the moment I imagine Abner is perceived through the lens of the Lil Abner comics and thus is associated with the Mountain South, not the most romantic and fashionable of regions.  That perception may well change. I doubt whether young parents today even remember Lil Abner.  Daisy Mae has been replaced by Daisy Duke, and it's been a long time since I have heard of a Sadie Hawkins dance.  Now Sadie has made its way partly back as a "spunky little girl" nickname, although to my ears it is the fustiest of the fusty and the frumpiest of the frumpy. (BTW like jeans, Lil Abner is also a Jewish invention.)

In your original post you did not restrict biblical "style" to "rugged western."  You mentioned it briefly along with other style observations (namely, fresh but legitimate).  I think the latter, more expansive view is the more accurate.  I think you missed on the effect of African-American style preferences on resurrecting names like Isaiah and Elijah.  Those names and similar came to the national attention as it were through African-American public figures like sports stars and then crossed over into the wider populace.  AFAIK there are no obvious Isaiahs and Elijahs (and Hezekiahs and Ezekiels) riding the range.  Those names first were popular among African-Americans and then spread.  I suspect whatever appeal there is for Hezekiah and Ezekiel comes from ppeople wanting the nickname Zeke as a fresher Zach, in which case why not Jedidiah to get to Jed and Zebulon to get to Zeb?  A bit of anecdotal evidence:  I have a three-year-old African-American grandson.  We were told that his birth mom didn't give him a name and that my son and daughter-in-law should pick one.  They picked Elliott which is now his legal name (I chose the double L double T spelling).  We then found out that his mother had given him a name, in fact a little used biblical name of the very rabbi-y sort, but which nonetheless fits into African-American  naming style (and it has a cute nickname which his birth family uses).  For a number of reasons I think this particular name will remain in the orthodox Jewish and African-American spheres and won't break out any time soon.  When the adoption became final, my son and daughter-in-law switched this name to the surname slot, so our little one is Elliott Very Rabbi-y surname.  Frankly I think in future there are going to be some surprised potential employers when he goes for an interview and turns out to be African-American and not Jewish.  (As a given name this name would hint--or more than hint--African-American; as a surname it's Jewish all the way: I googled it.)

So I am not saying that "cowboy" appeal doesn't factor into which biblical names are resurrected.  My argument is that there is more to it than that: that some of the newly popular biblical names arrived through the African-American churches' biblical roots, perticularly their interest in the Hebrew prophets (there is a reason why Andy's friend was called Amos).  And that other names have been "anointed" because their sounds/nicknames are fresher versions of already popular sounds and nicknames.  And I see no reason why young couples won't light on some of these other little used biblical names that fit popular sound patterns and/or have cute nicknames.  If young non-Jewish, non-African=American couples are considering and using Solomon (and they are), then other non-cowboy Hebrew biblical names are in the potential mix.  Only Mel Brooks would consider naming a cowboy Solomon :-).

11
By RB
June 21, 2013 3:53 PM

After seeing John Hawkes's brilliant portrayal of Solomon (Sol) Star in the TV show Deadwood, I can see it as a plausible "cowboy" name :)

12
June 25, 2013 1:52 PM

Totally agreed with Laura and pp#2.
These are GREAT names that you aren't hearing on the playground! You cannot go wrong with James, Mark, Luke and their friends from the Bible, Just so happens those are the names we used for our sons, all born since 2006. They are timeless, classic English and Biblical names that speak well of the owner.
Also, they are familiar names -easy to spell and pronounce, and yet they are no longer that common. My children have yet to have a problem with another child in their class or group having the same name.
However, the new and trendily named kids certainly do have that problem. My oldest son had two Riley (boys), two Hailey (girls), and two Jada/something else but so very similar they still had to use last names (girls) in his Kindergarten class. Crazy. 
I've even heard TWO Nico (boys) in the same preschool class (10 kids!) around here!
I live in the South, btw. As Laura has reported before, the more conservative Christians are more likely to be out there with the names! It's certainly true around here.
My suggested standards for naming our children were as follows: (Bear with me, I'm cutting this from an old email)

 

  • *You can't go wrong with a classic, English, and Biblical name.
  • *It should be familiar enough that there will be no problems for most people to pronounce and spell it properly. Absolutely no "kre8tiv" spellings.
  • *it should be NOT currently common enough that there will be multiple children with the same name in the same group.
  • *It cannot start with a "P" or an "F" because of our last name being "U". (haha!! NOT)
  • *It shouldn't be too exotic because they will already have to deal with our odd (for America) last name (rhymes with Susan).
  • *It shouldn't give the wrong ethnic idea- i.e. Ari, Jesus, Shanequ'a.
  • *It shouldn't be trendy or time/date stamped. By this I mean, imagine you are to meet someone named John. He could be any age, 9 months to 99 years. Now imagine it's Jayden. You know he's going to be under 12 years old.
  • *Family connections are desirable, if the family member they are named for is nice. Or else so long gone that no one remembers or knows if they were nice. ;)
  • *Family surnames, are very cool if they work as a first name. It's a Southern tradition. Bonus points for historical figures. But only if it follows all the other rules. 
  • *Girl names should be feminine, and boy names masculine. I don't like androgynous names. In general this includes  those you can't tell by the pronunciation. Remember names will be hollered across a playground, used in reference in conversation, introductions, etc. For instance Lee cannot be distinguished from Leigh in that situation. 
  • *It should be cross-cultural to honor our American-European family. At the very least be pronounceable for them. Best would be names that are used in both English and Slavic languages, such as Anna and Mark/Marko.
  • *I am not a fan of nicknames in general but can deal with them, especially for girls.
  • *The name should be a good fit for any occupation or life path. Low/high socio-economic and education levels, blue or white collar. Try it out on a mom/dad, jet setter, teacher, plumber, businessperson, or musician....Julia could be any of those. Tiffany? er, probably not so much.
  • *Even if you want to use a nickname on a daily basis, give the full classic name. This gives more authority and options. Ex: Robert is your lawyer, Bobby watches football with you. KWIM??
  • *Coordinate but not over-match with the existing names in the family. 

14
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