23 December 2009

The Name

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Language — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

[For three years I’ve been a lurker on a Biblical Hebrew online forum. Usually I ignore the discussion threads, but here’s one that caught my fancy. Call this my Christmas post.]

It’s pretty widely known that the Biblical name of the Hebrew God, transliterated into English, is YHWH. There’s a longstanding Jewish tradition of not writing or speaking the name of God as a token of respect. In most English translations of the Old Testament the name Yahweh is usually written as LORD, which conforms to the time-honored Jewish practice of substituting adonai — Hebrew for “lord” — for YHWH when reading Scripture aloud. This euphemistic substitution was evident also in the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible completed in the second century BC. The Septuagint translators generally replaced YHWH with kurios = Greek for “lord.” The New Testament writers, who wrote mostly in Greek, never used the name YHWH when referring to God. When they quoted passages of the Hebrew Bible they followed the Septuagint precedent of substituting kurios for YHWH.

However… Most of the earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint date to the 2nd C AD. In the very oldest fragments, from the first century BC, YHWH still appears in the text and has not been replaced by kurios. Is it possible that Jesus and his followers spoke the word YHWH, that the original New Testament documents likewise wrote YHWH and not kurios, that the prohibition against speaking or writing the name of God didn’t happen until later, say in the 2nd C AD? This seems unlikely, since not a single one of the early New Testament manuscripts or fragments contains the name YHWH instead of kurios. The first-generation Christians frequently engaged in heated public debates about how Jewish they should be with respect to following the laws and traditions. Never is there a mention about whether the name of God should be written or spoken. It would seem that either the issue hadn’t come up yet, or else it had already been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

So when did the tradition of not speaking God’s name begin? There’s no prohibition against it in the Bible itself. To the contrary: when God reveals his name to Moses at the burning bush, he tells Moses that “This is my name forever, and this is my memorial name to all generations” (Exodus 3:15). In telling Moses what to say to the elders of Israel, YHWH explicitly says that Moses should speak the name YHWH. The text of Exodus probably reached its final edited form in the 5th century BC. The original Septuagint continued using the name YHWH in the 2nd century BC. By Jesus’ time, the name of God had probably already been euphemized to adonai, kurios, and even the more indirect version KS (abbreviation for kurios). So that suggests a time period around the first century BC.

Between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, the Hellenes extended the Greek civilization throughout the Middle East, where most of the Jews lived. Greek became the official language throughout the region. Even after the Romans conquered the Hellenes, the Greek language maintained its dominance among the educated classes in the eastern sectors of the Roman Empire. In Hebrew the word YHWH looks like this: יהוה — read from right to left. But by the time of Jesus Hebrew had become virtually a dead language even in Israel. Someone encountering this Hebrew word in a Greek text might well have thought it looked like the nonsense Greek word πιπι — read from left to right, that’s pipi. According to St. Jerome this is exactly what happened, although how in the 4th century AD he would know isn’t clear (unless there were still texts in circulation using the Hebrew name). So there’s  one pragmatic reason for making the change. But why not just transliterate the Name from Hebrew letters to Greek? For one thing, there’s no Greek letter corresponding to ה (transliterated as H in English). But if people were used to hearing the name pronounced aloud the pipi error would likely not have happened, suggesting that the prohibition on speaking The Name was already in effect.

It’s possible that the non-Jewish population among whom the Jews lived would use the name of YHWH in vain, thereby violating the Sinaitic commandment. Surely blasphemy against the Jewish God had been common during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, but no evidence of the naming prohibition appears that early in Jewish history.

Here’s my guess, though I’m open to counter-persuasion. During the 150 years before Christ, Israel witnessed a significant upsurge in messianic and holiness and nationalistic movements. The successful Maccabean liberation of Israel from the Seleucids and the subsequent Roman conquest and occupation provoked an internal conflict within Israel between the conciliatory pragmatists and the separatists. Both factions might well have agreed on no longer speaking the name of the Hebrew god. Those Jews who wanted to blend in with the Greco-Roman culture wouldn’t want to call attention to their Hebraisms, whereas those who wanted to purify themselves from the outside corruption permeating Israel would want to emphasize their God’s transcendent separateness by withdrawing even his name from unworthy human voices and ears and eyes.

But now this question comes to mind. We’re presuming that the prohibition against speaking/writing/reading the name YHWH was already practiced by Jesus and his followers. The Epistle to the Philippians is widely regarded as authentically Pauline, written around 62 AD. Included in the letter is the so-called Kenosis passage, which may have already been a well-known Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his text. It says:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios], to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)

It sounds as if the Hebrew God, who isn’t named here but who is referred to as “the Father,” regards the name “Jesus” as the highest of all names. But it also sounds as though God the Father assigned the name “Jesus” to this guy after he had been crucified. But that’s not right: he was named Jesus at birth (Luke 2:21), and everybody called him Jesus during his life. Maybe a distinction is being made between the guy’s well-known human name, Jesus, and the name bestowed on him by God: the “name which is above every name,” which is the name. The name “Jesus” is to be proclaimed far and wide, but let it be understood: that name also points to another name, the highest name, a name which must remain unwritten and unspoken, the name he shares with God the Father.

I’ll keep my eyes open for further clarifications from the Biblical Hebrew discussion. And of course if’any readers of this post have insights or knowledge I hope you’ll divulge.



  1. What comes to mind is a sense of confusion that I got when trying to ‘separate out’ christological themes using names. It seems to me that Paul uses Jesus here, in Philippians, interchangeably with messiah, or christ. If so then the further step to roping in kyrios seems quite natural. I think the various names became almost cognate after a while. While the Pauline emphasis then seems to be on the crucifixion-resurrection, perhaps in a sense the better understanding is more with Bultmann and even Barth and their students “Christ event” and so explicitly including the incarnation, and life of Jesus.


    Comment by sam carr — 24 December 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  2. Yes I agree about the cognates, Sam, but Paul also alludes to the “name above all names,” which in Judaism is certainly the name YHWH. Is Paul ascribing this name also to Jesus, along with messiah and lord? Or Paul saying that the name of Jesus is higher even than the name of YHWH?


    Comment by john doyle — 24 December 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  3. To add to the conundrums we also have that enigmatic introduction to John’s gospel, the so called ‘Prologue’ where the logos becomes the only begotten of the Father…


    Comment by sam carr — 25 December 2009 @ 9:27 am

  4. So here’s a potential problem. We’re told in Exodus 3 that the Hebrew God first revealed his name YHWH to Moses. But now, back in Genesis 14, we’ve got Abraham, the great great etc. grandfather of Moses, telling the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to YHWH the God most high…” (v. 22). So how is it that Abraham is swearing to YHWH when nobody knew his name yet? By tradition Genesis was written by Moses: he might well have wondered at the seeming anachronism in his historical reportage.

    One theory supported by many of the Karaitic Jews, for whom the Bible is the ultimate authority, is this: Abraham did know that God's name was YHWH, as did the other patriarchs Isaac and Jacob (aka Israel). However, they didn't understand the meaning and significance of the name. At the burning bush YHWH didn't just tell Moses his name; he explained the name.


    Comment by john doyle — 25 December 2009 @ 10:52 am

  5. A simpler theory is that over the many intervening generations, the Hebrews have simply forgotten this name and God is forced to reiterate that it is indeed this very name that is more apt. Perhaps the fact that El is more of a generic found across many contemporary Levantine cultures is a factor. The Hebrews are being particularized just before they are to be transplanted -reterritorialized. And in that case, for both Moses and God, it’s surely a shrewd move!


    Comment by sam carr — 28 December 2009 @ 3:04 am

  6. Another Karaitic theory is that Moses, as purported author of Genesis, simply “glossed” the YHWH name into the patriarchs’ discourses. It’s intriguing that subsequent editors left the seeming anachronistic use of The Name in place, since surely they recognized the apparent inconsistency. Reading Exodus 3, God never says that Moses is the first human to whom he has ever revealed his name. It’s even conceivable that Moses was putting the burning-bush god to the test: if you’re really the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you’ll know your own secret name.

    “Then Moses said to God, ‘Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.” Now they may say to me “What is his name?” What shall I say to them?'” (Ex. 3:13)

    At which point the god replies: ‘tell them YHWH sent you,’ like a password in a spy movie.


    Comment by john doyle — 29 December 2009 @ 7:51 am

  7. Is god being very particular, or is man forcing god to be particular? I remember meeting some really sweet folks from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as long as the question was about god’s name the debate was acrimonious. The minute we started talking about other stuff, it quickly became evident that the particularity of ‘the name’ actually had little impact on individual humans and our individual opinions and ethics…


    Comment by sam carr — 29 December 2009 @ 6:16 pm

  8. Returning to Paul’s letter to the Philippians that I quoted in the post: “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…” For Paul the name itself seems to bestow power and authority. Similarly in the Genesis 1 creation story it seems that the naming of things is an act of power and creation. Being able to speak a god’s name may imply a certain level of power over that god, resulting perhaps from the coventantal relationship to which that god committed him/herself by name. Of course we don’t have to believe these things, but it seems that they once were believed.


    Comment by john doyle — 30 December 2009 @ 8:23 am

    • Thanks for the post and the discussion comments.

      I don’t have anything to add, but I appreciate the discussion. I wasn’t familiar with the details you presented.

      Happy holidays to you both.


      Comment by Erdman — 30 December 2009 @ 4:15 pm

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