We typically associate names like John or James with the Western European and North American culture. But these names started out as biblical names, and they conquered Europe together with Christianity. Originally they were just latinized or greekified versions of Middle Eastern names.
We also consider names like Achmad, Mustafa and Muhammed with the Middle East, but these names started out as Arab names and they conquered the Middle East together with Islam, coming from the Arabian peninsula.
So what did it look like before Christianity conquered Europe and Islam conquered the Middle East? Well, the Hellenistic culture of ancient Greece was widespread all over the Middle East, and Greek names were very popular. In the New Testament we can see Jews using Greek names like Andreas (“man” in Greek) which the English Bible anglisize to Andrew. We see Greek names in the Talmud too, such as Rabbi Tarfon or Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.
But many Jews would have Jewish names such as Yehoshua, Yochanan, Ya’akov or Shim’on. Sometimes they would be translated or greekified to Iesous, Iohannes, Iakobus or Simon. Sometimes a more Aramaic version would be used, such as Akiva instead of Ya’akov, or Yeshua instead of Yehoshua.
In Europe names were descriptive or pagan. In Germanic areas there were names like Ælfred, Sigfried, Heinrich or Günther. In Celtic areas it could be Arthur, Duncan or Brian. In Slavic areas you’d see names like Boleslav, Vladimir or Ludmila. Among the Greeks and Romans there were names like Andreas, Sebastian, Antonius, Georgios, Phoebe, Laurentius. Because of the spread of the Greek and Roman culture, these names were used side by side with local customs in the conquered areas.
As Christianity conquered Europe, names from the New Testament started to be popular, and mixed with the existing names. The biblical names reached the west Europeans in their Latin form, which would then be translated to a local flavor. Thus Yaakov became Iacobus which became Iacomus which became James. Yochanan became Iohannes, which became John in English, Juan in Spanish, Jean in French. Even nicknames such as Petrus (the rock in Greek), Magdalena (from the city Magdala) or Te’oma (the twin in Aramaic) turned into proper names like Peter, Magdalena and Thomas.
And then in the 7th century there was the Muslim invasion of the Middle East. But the names the Arab Muslims brought with them are not as different as we might think. Take the name Abdallah for example. Abd means slave or servant in Arabic, so Abdallah means servant of God. In Hebrew, “Yah” is often used as a short for God’s name, so the equivalent name in Hebrew would be Ovad-yah. If you own a Bible you might know that Obadiah is the name of the shortest book in the Old Testament.
Names like Muhammed or Ahmad all come from the root Ch-M-D which also exists in Hebrew, with a slightly different meaning. In Arabic it means praise, while in Hebrew it means dear, or darling in words like chemed, chamud, nechmad or machamadim. It is not used in Hebrew names, but in the Song of Solomon the bride once calls her groom “machamadi,” my sweet one.
There are even more similarities though. Since Islam is basing itself on the stories of the Bible, biblical names are not that uncommon in the Arab world. They are just arabified. Abraham, Joseph and David become Ibrahim, Yussuf and Dawoud. Ya’akov (James), Iohannes (John) and Petrus (Peter) become Yaqub, Yuhanna and Boutros. There’s even an Arabic form of Jesus – Issa.
Maybe finding people named John, James and Peter in the Middle East isn’t as weird as one might think. Not two thousand years ago, and not today.