Few books have inspired more baby names than the Bible. Epic tales of miracles and catastrophes, the creation of the world, and the divine hand of God depict the triumph of the human spirit and faith. In times of uncertainty and war (or peace and prosperity), Biblical names are enduring and timeless. Here are some common themes and namesakes.
Jacob’s Ladder: Biblical Names in the Top 10
Jacob is the most popular boy’s name in the United States (according to the 2007 US Social Security Administration). It took the patriarch of the 12 tribes of Israel just five years to move from number nine to number one in 1999, and it has remained at the top ever since. Joining Jacob in the top 10 are the names Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Daniel, Christopher, Matthew, and Andrew.
Like a group of tussling, unruly brothers, the top five boys’ names have jostled each other for position. Jacob bumped Michael to number two in 1999. Then last year Ethan pushed Joshua, which has been in the top five since 1983, out of the third spot to number four. In the Old Testament, Joshua led the Israelites to the Promised Land, succeeding Moses as the leader of his people.
There are even more Biblical names crowded in the top 20: Alexander, David, Joseph, Noah, James, John, and Nicholas. By comparison, only two Biblical names—Abigail and Hannah—stand in the top 10 girls’ names.
Rising star: The third son of Jacob and Leah, the prophet Levi counted Moses and Aaron among his descendants in the Levite tribe. In the New Testament, Levi was the original name of Matthew. Currently at #132, Levi is fast approaching a popularity it has not enjoyed since the late 1880s and will only continue to rise now that Matthew McConaughey has chosen the name for his son.
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of creation, follows the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their sons Cain and Abel, Noah‘s ark, and the Tower of Babel. Genesis, which means “beginning” in Hebrew, has become a fashionable name for girls in recent years, climbing from #757 to #139 between 1988 and 2007.
Not surprisingly, Eden has also become a trendy girl’s name, evoking visions of paradise on earth and a garden of delights. Desperate Housewives star, Marcia Cross, named one of her twin daughters, Eden. Between 1986 to 2007, the name has risen from #958 to #257. A slight variation on the spelling, Edun is the name of a socially-conscious, nature-inspired clothing company co-founded by Bono.
Rising star: Another name with utopian connotations for parents is Zion, which means “highest point” in Hebrew. A symbolic name for the city of Jerusalem, Zion first debuted as a girl’s name in 2005 at #1002, but quickly progressed to #576 within two years. Today Zion is more popular as a boy’s name. In 2007, it was ranked #236.
Soul Survivors at Sea
Noah saved his family from a flood by building an ark and stocking it with enough provisions and livestock to repopulate the earth. 16,373 newborn Noahs were born last year, making Noah the 14th most popular boy’s name in the country. (Now, that’s what we call being fruitful and multiplying!)
Moses is a Hebrew and Egyptian name meaning “drawn out of the water.” In the Book of Exodus, Moses played an important role by leading the Israelites from captivity in Egypt and handing down the 10 Commandments from God to his people. One of his most dramatic moments: parting the Red Sea with his staff. He is known as a prophet, leader, and lawgiver. Popular over a century ago, the name Moses achieved recent prominence as the name of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin‘s son. However, the name hasn’t gone retro quite yet; it was most recently ranked at #464, the traditional form, Moises, is slightly more favored at #367.
Rising star: When the prophet Jonah refused to deliver a message from God to the sinners of Nineveh, he got a time-out by spending three days in the belly of a large fish. Nevertheless, the name Jonah is holding steady at #165, and faring better than its Greek counterpart, Jonas, at # 331. Will Jonas surpass Jonah one day? Perhaps when the Jonas Brothers’ thrilled teen and preteen fans grow up and become mothers themselves.
Resilient Women of the Old Testament
Abigail, currently the 8th most popular girls’ name in the country, was known as the third wife of King David in the Old Testament. She referred to herself as David ‘s handmaid. Abigail Adams was the First Lady and wife to the second President of the United States, John Adams, and mother of the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams.
Sarah was the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac. Sarah means “princess” in Hebrew. Ranked at #18, variations include Sara (#81), Sarai (#399), and Sarahi (#894). The name achieved its greatest popularity as a top 10 name between 1978 and 2002.
Rachel, the sister of Leah, was the second and favorite wife of Jacob, and mother to Joseph and Benjamin. Between 1983 and 1999, Rachel was a top 20 name for girls; it is currently ranked at #60. Its variation, Rachael, is ranked at #393. Celebrity chef and talk show hostess Rachael Ray is a famous bearer of the name.
Rebecca was the resourceful wife of Isaac and the mother of twins Jacob and Esau. Between the late 1960s and 2000, this name was frequently in the top 25 or 50, but it has fallen in recent years and is currently ranked at #105.
Rising star: Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, resurfaced in the top 200 in 1997. (Compare Naomi’s #124 ranking in 2007 to its #128 ranking in 1915.) Variations of Naomi include Nayomee, Naomie, and Nomi.
Of Kings and Queens: Biblical Royalty
David was the young shepherd boy destined to become the king of Israel. His claim to fame? Slaying the giant Philistine Goliath with one stone from his slingshot. After his capture of Jerusalem, the city came to be known as “the city of David.” During his reign, David had many wives, including the beautiful Bathsheba (with whom he fell in love while she was still married to Uriah the Hittite). Their son, Solomon, succeeded David as king and became known for his fairness and wisdom.
The name Darius was very popular among Biblical royalty. There are three kings in the Bible named Darius, including the fourth king of Persia and Darius Mede, the Babylonian ruler who threw Daniel into the lion’s den.
It’s not all about the guys! Female royalty also plays an important role in the Old Testament. Esther, the heroic Jewish queen, saved her people from Persian persecution when they were threatened by a member of the court named Haman.
Rising star: Josiah was the boy king who had a spiritual awakening at the age of 8, and during his reign, dedicated himself to restoring his people’s covenant with God. He is one of many Biblical names in vogue right now that starts with J and possesses an –ah ending. Inches away from the top 100, Josiah has patiently risen from #891 to #106 in the past 33 years.
The Israelites followed Joshua into the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River. The river is also the site where Abraham and Lot parted ways, and Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As a result, Jordan continues to be a popular name for both boys (#45) and girls (#100).
Along with the river Jordan, Shiloh and Bethany are among the many Biblical places that have found themselves woven into baby names.
Joshua and the Israelites gathered in the town of Shiloh before entering the Promised Land. Shiloh was also the site where Hannah dedicated her son, Samuel, to God. A name associated with prophets and messiahs, today the most famous Shiloh is Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter, Shiloh Nouvelle.
Bethany was the village where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and where he blessed his disciples before being carried up to Heaven. It is also the place where he came to Mary Magdalene‘s defense after she was criticized for anointing his feet.
Desert Blooms and Glorious Gems
Names blossom in the Bible! Lily is a flower that symbolizes rebirth, purity, and innocence throughout the book—at #27, it’s in full bloom. Myrtle is a small, flowering tree or shrub with white flowers that makes an appearance in Isaiah 55:13, when God promised the people that “instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle,” as a sign of peace and strength. Hadassah, the original Hebrew name for Esther, means “myrtle tree.”
Other Biblical word names include Beryl, a precious stone known as “God’s ornament,” Reed (Moses‘ baby basket was made of reeds), Cypress, and Shepherd. Zac Hanson, of the pop group Hanson, named his son John Ira Shepherd, but calls the boy Shepherd. Jerry Seinfeld also named his second son, Shepherd.
Rising star: At #471 in 2007, Jasper, the name of a gem stone, was popular as a boy’s name prior to the 1940s, and is beginning to shine once again. Considered precious and treasured in ancient times, Jasper is also the name of one of the Three Kings, or Magi, who traveled far to bring gifts to the newborn baby, Jesus. He also can be known as Caspar.
Since 1958, Michael has been the first or second most popular boy’s name in the United States. In the New Testament, Michael is one of the seven archangels and the leader of heaven’s armies. Emperors, kings, and saints have been named Michael, and the name reigned for 38 years, between 1958 and 1999. Both Kelly Ripa and Mark Wahlberg have sons named Michael. The Hebrew form of Michael is Micah, which has risen steadily since 1959, when it entered the Top 1000 at #957, to its present perch at #126 in 2007.
September 29th is the feast day of the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Gabriel appeared to Mary to herald the birth of Christ; the name ranked at #38 in 2007. Raphael (#705) is currently less popular than Rafael (#228).
Rising star: Malachi, the name of a minor prophet and Old Testament author, means “messenger of God” in Hebrew. The name rose from #993 to #155 in the past 20 years.
Elijah, one of the most determined prophets in the Old Testament, survived drought and the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, eventually rising up to Heaven in a chariot of fire with a whirlwind. His name first reached the Top 100 in 1995, and is currently ranked at #30. It’s abbreviation, Eli, is 100 places behind, at #130.
At #67 Jeremiah is experiencing a surge in popularity, surpassing Jeremy, Jerome, and Jermaine. An Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah wrote the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. Robert Redford starred in the 1972 film, Jeremiah Johnson. Its variant, Jeramiah, is much less common at #827.
Rising star: Nehemiah, a Jewish leader in the Old Testament who resurrected the walls of Jerusalem, is enjoying a resurgence on the name charts. Last popular in 1886, Nehemiah began its revival in 1998, rising from #828 to #363 in just 10 years.
The New Testament
Jesus, whose life and teachings are detailed in the four Gospels of the New Testament, is the central figure of Christianity. (Get advice on names pertaining to his birth—Christmas!—and other holy days and holidays.)
His name entered the top 100 in 1990 at #90 and has risen to #77. Many of the names of his 12 Apostles—Peter, Andrew, Matthew, Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew, John, James, Simon, Jude, James the Less, and Judas–continue to be beloved today, along with the names of early evangelists, Paul and Luke. Of these Matthew (#9), Andrew (#10), James (#15), and John (#19) were the most popular in 2007.
The most popular female name in history belongs to Mary, the mother of Jesus. A favorite of Catholic families, Mary was the most popular or second most popular name for girls in the United States for over 80 years, from 1880 to 1961. It is currently ranked at #93. Outside the U.S., Mary is known as Marie, Maria, Maura, and Madonna and hailed as Regina, Victoria, Deirdre, Pilar, Mercedes, Lourdes, and Concepcion.
Rising star: Stella. The Virgin Mary is also known as Stella Maris, or the “star of the sea.” Popular in the late 1880s and in the first half of century, Stella slowly declined and then returned to the lists in 1997, rising from #907 to #244 in the past decade.
Women of the Early Church
Chloe, currently ranked at #16, was the name of a Corinthian woman described in Paul‘s letters. In Greek mythology, Chloe was the goddess of flowers, and wife to Zephyr, the West Wind. Other female names in the New Testament include Claudia, Julia, Lydia, Martha, Sapphira, and Susannah.
Rising star: Phoebe was a Christian woman who served as a deacon and benefactor in the early Church—and the first person Paul described in his letter to the Romans. In Greek mythology, Phoebe was one of the original titans, the mother of Leto, and grandmother to the twin gods Apollo and Artemis, and the goddess Hecate. At #338, Phoebe is being rediscovered as a girl’s name, and was last popular in the 19th century.
Thanks to the 2004 hit single “Hey, There Delilah” by the Plain White Ts, the name Delilah is charming parents who will happily overlook the name’s history as one of the Bible’s most infamous temptresses who seduced and betrayed the herculean Samson. Although the name has been intermittently popular throughout the decades, it’s risen to new heights with its current ranking at #298 (up from #547 in 2006). The name has leaped 600 places in the past 11 years.
Other controversial figures include the beautiful Bathsheba, who led King David astray, the dancer Salome who demanded the head of John the Baptist after a performance, and Mary Magdalene, a devoted disciple of Christ from whom it was said that Jesus cast out seven demons.
Rising star: Damaris, a woman who was converted to Christianity by St. Paul in the New Testament, may be poised for a breakthrough. The name first hit the top 1000 in 1971 at #952. In 2007, it was ranked #678.
Z is for Zacharias and Zechariah
Zacharias is the Greek form of Zechariah and appears in the New Testament, most notably as the father of John the Baptist, who was struck mute for doubting the angel Gabriel‘s message that he would bear a son. (His voice returned when he scribbled the boy’s name as John on a tablet.) Thirty one Zechariahs can be counted in the Bible, the most notable being a minor prophet in the Old Testament who foretold the coming of the Messiah.
There are also many names in the Bible that begin with Z. Zillah was the second wife of the polygamous Lamech, a descendant of Cain. Zorah was the name of Samson’s birthplace, a town in Judah. Zemirah was the son of Becher and the grandson of Becher, the leader of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. (The name is used for both men and women.) Zipporah was the daughter of Jethro and the Midian wife of Moses.
Rising star: Zoe, which means “life,” was a popular name among the early Christians who looked forward to the promise of an eternal life with God. The name also belonged to a Byzantine empress and two martyrs. In 2000, Zoe hit the top 100; today it is ranked at #56. Its counterparts, Zoey and Zoie, have also found new life on the popularity charts, with Zoey debuting in 1995 at #874 before rising to its current spot at #111. Zoie, once the 1124th most popular name in 1881, emerged at #928 in 1998 and has risen to #569.
Data above is from the US Social Security Administration from 2007 and before.