Old Testament names okay for Catholics?

A reader emailed me with this intriguing bit of info:

I was reading an article a while back (I wish I could find it again) about Catholics and how we shouldn’t use Old Testament names. Instead of going back to the old covenant, we should look towards the saints for name inspiration and looking at the Old Testament was a protestant thing to do. What do you think about this? Do you think using names from the Old Testament is fine as a Catholic?”

I might have felt the tiniest bit ragey while reading it, because my initial reaction was That’s a bunch of bologna! and whoever is spreading this kind of info is spreading untruths, and can’t you just see a good-hearted well-intentioned mama of an Elijah or Esther starting to twitch upon hearing that the names she gave her babies in good faith are actually not okay?

hate that kind of thing. We have enough to worry about without worrying about things we don’t need to worry about. Right? I mean, really.

I get that sometimes it’s an honest mistake. I also get that certain things used to be different from now, so the older generations might have a certain idea about things that the younger generations are unfamiliar with and vice versa. Just in the arena of baby names, as I noted on my “About this blog” page,

In the old days, you may have heard, parents who wanted to have their babies baptized in the Catholic Church had to bestow a saint’s name — or the priest would. Indeed, the old Code of Canon Law (in effect from 1917 until 1983) did stipulate that the baby needed to be given a Christian name, and if not, the priest was to add a saint’s name to the baby’s given name. (Canon 761)

The Code of Canon Law changed in 1983, and the new naming requirements are not so strict. Canon 855 states that, “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given.” That’s it. Basically, most names are totally fine.”

So I decided to look into it, and found this post on Nameberry, which asks,

I posted here last week that we finally found our perfect boys name: Tobias. I love it, and so does my husband. I’m just a little confused about using Old Testament names, as a Catholic (I’m new to Catholicism). My mother in law told us that Catholics traditionally use New Testament names/Saint names for Catholic babies, and that Old Testament names like Tobias are traditionally considered to be Hebrew/Jewish names. I would love some clarity on this subject. Is the name Tobias traditionally considered a Jewish boy’s name? Of course, it won’t make or break using the name for us; I am just curious. Thanks!

I immediately zeroed in on “My mother in law told us” which, to me, smacks of older generation vs. younger generation. I’m sure her mil was not trying to deceive her — the mil likely believes that New Testament and A.D. Saints’ names are the best to be used — perhaps that was even the definition of a “Christian name,” since I suppose pre-Jesus names aren’t considered technically “Christian.”

So then I looked into whether or not the Old Testament holy people are considered Saints — I always thought they were, but maybe not? I found this good article, “Old Testament Saints?” by Fr. Ray Ryland on Our Sunday Visitor’s site, which explains that “the Church does in various ways venerate and ask for the intercession of Old Testament saints,” as in the litanies of the saints, the First Eucharistic prayer, and one of the general prayers of the funeral liturgy. Fr. Ryland also notes that the Roman Martyrology, which lists “all the saints whom the Church had officially recognized up to” its publication in the 1600s, “remembers, among others, the following Old Testament saints: the prophet Habakkuk (Jan. 15); Isaiah (July 6); Daniel and Elias/Elijah (July 20 and 21); the seven Maccabees and their mother (Aug. 17); Abraham (Oct. 9); and King David (Dec. 29).”

My own grandfather’s first name was David, and he was born in Ireland and baptized Catholic (an interesting example, considering he was born in 1904 — definitely “old generation”). Another good example, using David again, is my other grandfather, who was a convert to Catholicism, and when he converted, since neither his first nor middle names were recognized as “Christian names,” he changed his middle to David.

And what about St. Isaac Jogues? Isaac is OLD TESTAMENT, and yet (as far as I can tell) Catholic parents in the very early 1600s gave it to their son. (I say “as far as I can tell” because I can’t find any evidence that Isaac is his religious name rather than his birth name. But even if it was not his birth name, it only bolsters my argument that Old Testament names are fine fine fine for Catholics, if even a priest can choose it for his religious name.)

Have any of you heard this perspective before, that Catholics should stick to New Testament and other post-Jesus Saints’ names?

37 thoughts on “Old Testament names okay for Catholics?

  1. I definitely plan on researching this a bit more. Off the top of head I do know that many Old Testament names came into fashion after the Protestant split with the Churh because New Testament names and saint names were seen as too Catholic. Puritans introduced virtue names to further distance themselves with Anglicans. So it seems that the older generation of Catholicsay have been adopting the attitude that Old Testament and virtue names were less Catholic because many were first used as an anti-Catholic statement.

    David by the way is an important Welsh saint!

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  2. Thanks for answering my question! This has been bugging me for a while, and when I stumbled upon your blog I just thought you would be one of the perfect people to answer. When reading the article, I thought the same thing as you (that it was bologna) but then I was like “but what if it’s true!” And so I’m very happy you could thoroughly answer my question 🙂 I 100% agree with you

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  3. Sorry for another post – according to ancestry.com Isaac was a commonly used name by Catholics in Medieval Europe. A bit of an exception perhaps. I’m very interested as to whether there might have been an earlier St Isaac that these babies were named after.

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  4. This is so interesting! My grandmother (born in the 30s) is an Esther, who was named after her mother. So that Esther was born in the 1890s. That side of the family is French-Canadian, having come over from France in the 1600s – a long history of Catholicism. 🙂 I always thought that was a bit odd, because Esther seems a bit more Jewish than other OT names but when I mentioned it to my grandmother, she looked at me like I was crazy. 😉

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  5. I always grew up under this impression. I don’t know what gave me the impression, but I always had it. I agree with the points you made here—especially with the 1983 Canon, it seems fairly clear that just about any name would be ok.

    Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, the Church does make it abundantly clear that we’re not to engage in other Old Covenant practices. We do not celebrate the Jewish feasts, circumcision and eating kosher foods (and other adherence to the Law) were removed as requirements at the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts, and great care is made to instruct the faithful that we are not to play at being Jewish. (Not that a parent naming their child Tobias is “playing at being Jewish” of course.)

    Perhaps, though, this same instruction from the Church has been applied to naming practices within the Church, whether officially or not.

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      • It’s definitely out there. I even read about it in an article that I thought you had linked because it poked fun at some Catholic naming practices. The author says

        “There’s no absolute reason, I suppose, why Catholics ought to avoid Old Testament names. We honor Jacob, David, and the rest for the part they played in salvation history. But if it’s true, as I hear anecdotally, that once upon a time it was expected for Catholics to go with saints’ names and only saints’ names (with some priests even refusing to baptize children without one), well, I can understand why. To me it makes sense to want to shine the brightest light on those models of faith who knew and lived for Christ by name.”

        http://www.catholic.com/blog/todd-aglialoro/the-catholic-answers-guide-to-naming-your-baby

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      • Oh that is weird. I did link to an article called that, by that author, and I laughed and laughed over it the first couple times I read it way back when … but when I clicked on your link now, half of it was familiar to me, and the other half wasn’t — I don’t remember ever seeing the Old Testament bit! So I just searched my blog and found the link I’d posted and clicked — thinking maybe he re-worked it for another site or updated it at another time — nope, the one you linked to here is the one I linked to before. My mind is failing me!

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      • Yes, very much so! So much, in fact, that it even marred the name Joseph for me for years. Obviously I KNOW good St. Joseph is one of our most revered saints and I actually love him dearly, but his name seemed like too much of a link to the Old Covenant! It’s weird, because I don’t think my parents particularly ascribed to this belief, but I was an obsessive reader and I think I read a lot of stuff from the middle of the 20th century when Catholicism in the US had this really dogmatic feel. (I know the actual Catholic faith was not, but the “feel” in the US, at least from what they were writing, seemed that way.)

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  6. Oh, my…I guess the old Grandmom has to speak up here…With all good Faith, we named our two fine sons, Benjamin (tribe of Benjamin) and Jonathan (best friend of King David)…both names came from their Dad’s and my deliberate seeking out of the Bible for possible names for sons God might bless us with. How could God not be pleased with that?
    I have loved their names from that time and are grateful they are so fine!

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  7. For me, the character of the Old Testament figure should be one worth emulating. For instance, I would much rather name my child after someone like Tobias, Ruth, Esther, or David, instead of Cain, Jonah, or Judah. (Some of those are more clearly negative than others.) I think as long as the Patriarch or Matriarch is a good example of faith before Christ, there shouldn’t be a problem. As other readers have said, if they are in Heaven, they are a saint, so a good example and companion for a child.
    The meaning of a name can also influence my perception of whether I would give the name to my child or not. Some Old Testament names have really great meanings Issac, for example, means “laughter”, which balances out my ambiguous feelings toward the character of Abraham’s son…

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    • I agree with this. For example while I like the name Eli more than the name Elijah, the Biblical story of Eli isn’t as good as Elijah which would be a major strike against using just Eli on the birth certificate.

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  8. I had heard of this practice too, although, perhaps not described quite the same way. While we aren’t Jewish, I don’t particularly like the idea of going out of the way to avoid intersections of Judiasm and Christianity. It has undertones similar to some of the anti-Semitism I’ve encountered in certain super traditional, schismatic “catholic” circles. I would rather err on the side of celebrating our connection to Judiasm than the other end of the spectrum, thank you very much. 🙂 I also think avoiding such a large chunk of scripture for naming inspiration just feeds into the stereotype that Catholics don’t know and love the Bible as much as Protestants. No need to perpetuate that.

    I was born in 1981, and my Catholic parents obviously gave me a Hebrew name. I think the matriarch Sarah is plenty “Catholic” as far as Saints go. My middle name is Marian, though, so maybe that was the “Saint name”? Benjamin was at the top of our list for a son until we ended up with two Godson’s named “Ben”… and Rebekah was also on our list for girls. So yeah, I am all about OT Saints. DS’s name is an NT name with an OT feel… many confuse it for an OT name. I do agree that when choosing biblical names, that it’s ideal to look closely at the story… some characters in the Bible aren’t saintly.

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  9. I have heard of this idea, however as the mother of a Hannah and an Abigail (and we are Catholic), I obviously don’t adhere to the tenet too strictly. As Joanna said above, many of the patriarchs and people of the Old Testament are considered to be in Heaven and thus saints. We generally don’t refer to them as St. Jacob or St. Abraham, because they were born before the time of Christ, but they are saints nonetheless and therefore worthy examples to emulate.

    Also, I think it’s kinda silly because many of the people from the New Testament were Jewish and had Jewish names. Like St. Anne, Mary’s mother, her name in Hebrew would have actually been Hannah. Anne is simply the Anglicized version of her name. So it seems silly to say Anne is okay and Hannah is not (or yes to Mary and no to Miriam), when essentially they are the same name and same person. You know?

    Okay, my little rant is over. Interesting topic!

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  10. This topic has stayed on my mind all week perhaps because I have 4 boys with New Testament first names and 3 of them have a New Testament middle as well. When considering names for a possible 5th son I feel like we’ve used most of the New Testament ones we like so perhaps we should consider an Old Testament one. But nothing zaps my budding interest in a name more than reading on behindthename that the name came into use after the Protestant Reformation. And while of course the Church embraces many of the Old Testament heroes as saints, their feast days aren’t celebrated like their New Testament counterparts. Feast days are such a big part of our family’s life with grandparents even calling because they went to daily Mass and learned it was a grandchild’s feast day.

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    • Ack, such a bummer! I know what you mean about reading that a name came into use after the Reformation. Funny, I was telling my husband about all this, and he was sort of baffled by it. He said, in his experience (he was raised Protestant [Evangelical] and has witnessed some anti-Catholic sentiment), Catholics just do their thing, and it’s everyone else who doesn’t want to do something “because Catholics do it.” Like using Saints’ names. The idea of Catholics not wanting to use a name because it’s associated with another faith was foreign to him. I liked that perspective.

      Fortunately, there are so many OT names that have also been the names of A.D. Saints, and have feast days. St. Elias, for example (feast day: July 20).

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  11. It’s so funny to read this article, because in my experience, even the Old Testament saints have feast days. The Carmelite Order celebrates them, and uses the prefix St. for all of them (St. Moses, St. Noah, St. Ruth). They are in Heaven, after all! I don’t know where to go specifically for information on the specific feast days, though.
    I do think that historically the use of Saint’s names specifically came up to give the baby a patron saint, someone special to pray to, look after them, and to imitate. I read a book where for adults in Mexico, the birthday festivities were replaced by feast day celebrations (called My Heart Lies South).
    I also don’t think that all older Catholics are anti-OT names. My family is practically all Old Testament names, and there are quite a few in my Mom’s and Grandparent’s families.

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  12. I 100% do not agree with this idea. My son’s name is Zachariah. It is in both the Old and New Testament. There was even a Pope St. Zachary. Yes, it came in greater usage after the Reformation, so what? It doesn’t change the meaning or history of the name. I studied at a Catholic University where a Rabbi taught my Old Testament course. If we disavow our Jewish heritage, our faith becomes insulated, narrow and ungrounded. There is no valid historical or theological reason that Catholics should avoid Old Testament names.

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  13. Reading up on the Roman Martyrology on this site http://biblesaints.blogspot.com/2011/02/roman-martyrology-book-of-saints.html?m=1 and came across this:

    “Before Vatican II, many holy Old Testament people were listed in the Roman Martyrology (For example: Elijah, Moses, Hosea, Melchizedek …). At some point, they were dropped/shelved/suppressed (except for the archangels Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael), possibly during some revisions in 1969.

    However, these Old Testament individuals (along with some New Testament holy ones who had also been set to the side at some point, such as Dionysius, Prochorus, Aristarchus, Salome, and more) are in the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology.”

    Thought this might explain some of the mixed feelings about Old Testament names in Catholic families.

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  14. It’s funny, my parents named me Joshua which is about as old testament as you can get and my mom is irish and a former catholic who became a born again christian in.the 80s. Most of.my friends are irish and italian american and catholic so people always say to me “isn’t Josh a Jewish name?”. But if you look at most catholic names like joseph, matthew , jonathan and David, they are all Hebrew and used in the old testament. I grew up on long island where every other Josh I knew was Jewish, but when I moved to.tulsa Oklahoma Josh was one of the most popular names among evangelical protestants. It’s strange because some old testament names like mine and Jacob or Isaac ,are rarely used among catholics, yet other biblical old testament names like Adam, David, Sam, and benjamin seem to be very popular among Roman Catholics. I’ve known italian Americans with names like Adam or Joel who were both old testament prophets yet people always ask me if I’m Jewish because of the.name Joshua, “not that there is anything wrong with being jewish” lol it’s just I get asked that a lot. So in conclusion Hebrew names are also christian names and Catholics can use old testament names

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience! Joshua’s actually one of my favorite names, and if it didn’t sound horrible with our last name I would definitely want to consider it for one of my boys. In fact, my parents considered it for me, if I’d been a boy! I’ve never thought of it as an overwhemingly Jewish name — I grew up with a bunch of Josh-es in my Catholic school and Catholic friends, not too far from where you grew up. But then, Long Island is a strange place. 🙂 (I say that with all affection, as I have relatives there, and one of my best friends is from there.)

      I know you’re speaking from experience, but I just have to tell you — most of the people I’m surrounded by are Catholic, and Jacob is very used here, as well as Isaac for St. Isaac Jogues! You’re right though about the other names — David’s huge on both sides of my family, and I have a brother Benjamin.

      Thanks again!

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