The Truth About Biblical Baby Names
Take a look at the most popular names for American boys:
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).
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.