How did the name "מֹשֶׁה‎" come to be transliterated with a [z] at the end?

The OED entry notes that "Moses" derives from Biblical Hebrew "Mōšeh" and that the earliest attestations with a strident coda on the second syllable are Hellenistic Greek "Μωσῆς", "Μωυσῆς" but fails to show how or when the former gave rise to the latter. Are there other examples of open syllables or final vowels having "ς" appended like this in Greek transliteration?


4 Answers 4


Moses is transliterated this way because of the way it is declined in Ancient Greek. While the root of the proper noun משה in Greek is indeed μωυση, which is roughly transliterated "moyse" or "moise", it can take the following forms based on its function in a sentence:

  • Nominative: μωυσῆς (Moises): e.g. Deuteronomy 1:1: "These are the words that Moshe said". Used when Moshe is the subject of a sentence.
  • Genitive: μωυσῆ (Moise): e.g. Joshua 1:1: "after the death of Moshe", and in the same pasuk, "servant of Moshe". Used to indicate possessive.
  • Dative: μωυσεῖ (Moisei): e.g. Exodus 31:18: "He gave [the luchos] to Moshe"; Exodus 16:22: "and they told it to Moshe". Used when Moshe is the indirect object. (Note the subtle difference between להגיד inducing the dative versus לדבר inducing the accusative.)
  • Accusative: μωυσῆν (Moisen): e.g. Exodus 2:15: "Pharaoh wished to kill Moshe". Used when Moshe is the direct object. Also all the "vayidaber Hashem el Moshe"'s are in this case.
  • Vocative: μωυσῆ: e.g. Exodus 3:4: "He said 'Moshe! Moshe!', and he replied 'hineni'". Used when calling out Moshe's name.

These declensions follow particular rules, such that any noun with a certain type of stem will be declined following a particular pattern; so it is not just Moses that has a sigma added to its root to form the nominative. Some other names in the Torah that are found declined in the Septuagint are Judah/יהודה/Iουδας/Iουδα/Iουδαν, Joshua/יהושע/Ἰησοῦς/Ἰησοῦ/Ἰησοῖ/Ἰησοῦν and Sarai/שרי/σαρας/σαρα/σαραν.

The nominative form, as opposed to the root or vocative, could be considered the "primary" way to refer to the person, since it's how you form sentences having them be the subject, or the main actor.

  • 7
    @Yosef Thanks! Were the English translators naively defaulting to the nominative in every instance of משה? If so, why did the same not happen in the cases of the other names you mentioned, which made it into the Christian bible, if I'm not mistaken, with no such vestige?
    – WAF
    Dec 13, 2010 at 23:11
  • 7
    That's a good question, I don't know! It seems that in other languages into which the Bible was translated, there aren't the same problems with inconsistency in transliteration. However, with English, the main early translations were even internally inconsistent (Judah/Judas is one example in the King James version). Also, even English spelling in general was in great flux at the time the early translations were done. But that still doesn't explain why Moses consistently retained the final 's'.
    – Yosef
    Dec 14, 2010 at 12:15

In Chumash Binas Miqra, by Rav Aryeh Leib Gordon (author of Siddur Otzar HaTefilos) he brings that he saw in old secular sources that in ancient Egyptian the word mo means "water" and the word yses means "was saved from", hence the Alexandrian translator always refers to Moshe as "Moyses".

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  • 2
    "Moses" does sound kind of like an Egyptian name, when you think about it. Like Raamses. So, who Hebraicised it? Par'o's daughter? Dec 13, 2010 at 21:27
  • @Isaac I agree with your question about how it went from Moyses to Moshe (scratching my head) but is there more reason - based similarly on the root "yses" - than the sound to conclude that these names sound Egyptian?
    – WAF
    Dec 13, 2010 at 23:05
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    @Yahu Just for linking to that, a new answer was added to 42 from things I was just reading this week.
    – WAF
    Dec 16, 2010 at 5:50
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    I just discovered that @josh_waxman has an extensive piece in which he expresses strong doubts about the Egyptian origin of this name: parsha.blogspot.com/2005/04/vayikra-1-moshes-name.html Dec 23, 2010 at 20:41
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    I don't know about these 'mo' and 'yses', but I do know that Rameses contains the root mese ('born'), as that was one of the clues Champollion used to decipher Egyptian. I have a strong suspicion that the -s on the end of Rameses is no more Egyptian than the -s on the end of Moses is Hebrew.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 25, 2012 at 0:02

Well, another example (lehavdil) is "oso ha'ish"'s Hebrew name, ישוע (a shortened form of יהושע found in a few places in Tanach), which ends up in Greek and English with a final S.

I can't recall the source for this now, but somewhere I read that this is because in classical Greek, names ending in a vowel were (or at least sounded) feminine or barbarian.

  • If it were so it would be the perfect addition to @Yosef's answer.
    – WAF
    May 24, 2011 at 11:07

In the audio course on the History of Ancient Egypt, professor Bob Brier mentions the similarity between the name Moses and the names of Egyptian pharaohs like Ramses or Thutmose. In ancient Egyptian "mes" is the word for "son", and "mesu" means "to be born". So "Ramses" means "the son of Ra" or "Ra is born", and "Thutmose" means "the son of Thoth" or "Thoth is born". Bob Brier argues that since Moshe was born in Egypt and raised as a member of the Egyptian royal household, his name may well be Egyptian in origin.

  • 2
    Ibn Ezra says he was called Monios in Egyptian, which means "drawn"; the Torah is translating the name into Hebrew for us. Netziv says she in fact called him something that means "son" in Egyptian but "drawn" in Hebrew; she could call him "son" because she drew him out of the water.
    – Shalom
    Dec 15, 2010 at 17:30
  • @Dima - Do you know exactly where in that course he draws this conclusion or how etymological/correlative it is? Also, do you think this explanation can be reconciled with Yosef's above? Thanks!
    – WAF
    Dec 15, 2010 at 17:40
  • @Shalom - Can the Ibn Ezra's opinion explain the connection to the name "Moses"? Is the Netziv explaining the Ibn Ezra so as to reconcile his opinion with that of Bob Brier above (so to speak), or is he arguing on Ibn Ezra to claim that the name she gave him was actually "Moshe" and not "Monios" or something else? And is the Netziv really ascribing all of this knowledge to the daughter of Par'o or simply stating that it is true enough for the Torah to tell us as "narrator" of the event?
    – WAF
    Dec 15, 2010 at 17:45
  • @WAF: 1.) I don't know. 2.) Arguing. 3.) She said "I'm calling him 'son' because I rescued him." The Torah narrated it (and I think possibly tweaked the word slightly) to imply the water-drawing word.
    – Shalom
    Dec 15, 2010 at 19:49
  • @Isaac Moses: thank you for your kind words.
    – Dima
    Dec 15, 2010 at 20:29

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