Q. I just read an article about Joshua. It gave his last name (ben Nun) I was intrigued by this because the other day I was just thinking about how the Bible didn’t use last names and wondering how and when they got started. Do you have any insight on this? Do you know any of the last names of characters in the Bible?
A. Last names originated as a way of distinguishing between two people with the same first name. Ben Nun means son of Nun in Hebrew, so the Joshua being referred to was the one whose father was Nun.
Peter’s full name was Simon bar Jonah as Jesus indicated in Matt. 16:17. Bar, like Ben, meant “son of “. Some modern translations just say “Simon son of Jonah” and reading “son of …” after a man’s name is a good way to know that the original text included the person’s last name.
In English some of the earliest last names were similar. Johnson, son of John, and so on. Sometimes a man’s last name was his trade or occupation. Cooper, for instance means the person was a barrel maker. Smith identifies him as a blacksmith. Potter, Gardner, and Cook are other obvious examples.