Doctrine Article
Expanded Internet Edition - May 1, 1991 

The Divine Names
and the New Testament

by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1991

 

 

Listen to the Byte Show Interview on this article:

Divine Names and the New Testament - ListenDownloadMP3

More Byte Show Interviews...

The earliest texts of the New Testament were canonized in the Greek language. It is evident that this was the tongue in which the divine documents were first placed in the Bible. In Acts 11:26 Luke wrote that the disciples were first called Christianous in Antioch and that this purely Greek name (in English it is "Christians") was divinely given (chrematisai) by God himself. There can be no higher authority for using Greek terms as divinely inspired than this. And when Paul saw the Greek term theo for "God" on an inscription in Athens, Paul told the Greeks that the divine being they wrote about on that inscription was the Deity he served. There can be no doubt that the Greek language was the divine vehicle used by God and Christ to convey the official New Testament teaching to the world. But why do we not find the Hebrew names for deity within the New Testament? Paul and the other apostles consistently used substitute names and that is what should be done today in any translation of the New Testament. This Doctrinal Report will explain the importance of this.

All of the apostles of Christ were well aware of the proper meaning and pronunciation of the Hebrew names for deity, yet in all of the twenty seven books of the New Testament they never used those Hebrew terms to describe God the Father or Christ Jesus. The principal words they used were theos (which we in English have translated as "God") or kyrios (which we usually render as "Lord"). This is perfectly proper to do so. Indeed, it is essential that we translate the New Testament words as close to the meaning and usage of the apostles as we possibly can. Under no circumstances should the original Hebrew usage be substituted for these generic Greek terms used by the apostles. This particularly applies to using and pronouncing the divine name called the Tetragrammaton which has the true pronunciation of something close to "Yah-weh." In this Doctrinal Report I will explain the important reasons why this pronunciation should not be used and why the apostles avoided its use in the original Greek New Testament.

An Important Command in the Old Testament

Let us get straight to the point. You will not get any orthodox Jew or any Samaritan today who will dare pronounce the Tetragrammaton (the four letters YHWH) which is the name for "God" used almost 7000 times in the Old Testament. It is not because of superstition that they refrain from doing so, it is because of the direct commandment of Yahweh himself that they are not to do so in public or in their public services.

It is not comnonly recognized or acknowledged but in the sixth century B.C. there was a command of Almighty God that the public and outward use of his divine name (YHWH) was not to be allowed by any Jew while they were in the land of Egypt. This prohibition was placed on them as a punishment for their refusal to obey what the prophet Jeremiah had commanded them to do. Note what Jeremiah revealed. [In quotations from the Old Testament I will use the divine names as they appear in Hebrew.]

"Therefore hear you the word of Yahweh, all Judah that dwell in the land of Egypt. Behold, I have sworn by my great name, says Yahweh, that my name shall no more be named in the mouth of ANY MAN OF JUDAS in all the land of Egypt, saying ‘Yahweh Elohim lives’."

This command applied to "any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt" and not simply to those Jews who took Jeremiah to Egypt (though the command included them as well). The command meant that no Jew should ever utter the name of Yahweh while in Egypt until the Messiah would rule over all the world as other scriptures state. The command forbade the Tetragrammaton to be pronounced in Egypt even in the synagogues or in reading aloud the Holy Scriptures. Yahweh was serious about this matter and the Jews in Egypt took him seriously. When the seventy (or the seventy-two) translators rendered the Law of Moses into Greek around 285 B.C. (called the Septuagint Version or LXX, they kept Yahweh’s command to the letter. They simply substituted the Greek word kyrios (Lord) when they came to the Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew scriptures. And this was the proper thing to do.

The LXX even went further than that. When in Leviticus 24:16 Moses wrote that no one should blaspheme the name of Yahweh or face the penalty of death, the LXX translators changed the text for those in Egypt and they rendered it: "Who names the Name shall be put to death. This is quite a different rendering from the original Hebrew but the translators had no apprehensions in modifying their version for those who lived in Egypt because they had the later command of Yahweh which forbade this very thing.

One might ask if the LXX translators had the authority to change the wording of Moses in this regard? Yes they did as far as the LXX was concerned. This is because the LXX Version was not intended to be a word-for-word translation. At the time of its inception we are told that it was understood only to be "an interpretation of the text (Letter of Aristeas 15). The LXX was really a type of "Greek Targum" (the word "targum" means ‘translation’) in which it was understood that some leeway was allowed in rendering for readers in the third century B.C. Targums were intended to make the text of Moses and the Prophets clear and up-to-date for later readers. The LXX translators had biblical authority to make such "interpretations" because Ezra the Priest (who canonized the Old Testament) did the same thing in the fifth century B.C. when he "gave the sense" of the original biblical language to the Jews in Jerusalem who were unable to understand the early Hebrew (Nehemiah 8:1-8). Such things were allowed for teaching purposes because these targums were not intended to take the place of the original inspired scriptures which remained the standard for all legal matters.

The Prohibition Extended Beyond Egypt

Though the command in Jeremiah only applied to the Jews who would be in Egypt, it was soon realized that "Egypt" came to mean the whole of the world outside the temple at Jerusalem. Even in the New Testament it was common to call Jerusalem itself by the spiritual name of "Sodom and Egypt" for the wrongdoing that was being done there (Revelation 11:8). Coupled with this was another Old Testament command from Yahweh that had no geographical boundaries associated with it. This was found in Amos 6:7-11 and this applied to Israelites everywhere.

The prophet Amos said that Yahweh became so displeased with the actions of Israel and Judah that he promised he would take them into a captivity. He would scatter them among the Gentiles. He had promised in the Law of Moses that if his people forsook him that he would hide his face from them (Deuteronomy 31:16-18). Significantly, on a person’s face or brow is where the name of an individual is depicted in a figurative sense (Revelation 7:3; 14:1; 22:4). Thus, when Yahweh sent Israel into captivity, he turned his face from them. This prevented them from "seeing" his name any longer. In Amos 6:7-11 it says that Israel would be taken into captivity as a punishment and that they would no longer be able openly to proclaim his name.

"Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed… And it shall come to pass, if there remain ten men in one house, that they shall die. And a man’s uncle shall take him up [the last of the ten, of the ten per cent to remain in the land -. Amos 5:3] and he that burns him to bring out the bones [to cleanse the land of plague] shall say unto him that is by the sides of the house, ‘Is there yet any with thee?’ And he shall say ‘No.’ Then shall he [the man’s uncle] say, ‘Hold your tongue; FOR WE MAY NOT MAKE MENTION OF THE NAME OF YAHWEH, for behold, Yahweh commands [it], and he will smite the great house with breaches and the little house with clefts."

In other words, Yahweh prophesied that a captivity was coming on Israel for their rebellion to him. Even the ten per cent of the people who would be left would find their houses broken down and destroyed. Since their "fathers" and "husbands" had been killed or taken captive, an uncle (the only elder or close relative left) would say to the remnant: "Hush, for we must not make mention of the name of Yahweh, for behold, Yahweh is commanding [it]."

The Hebrew of this verse is interesting. The part that records that "Yahweh is commanding it" is an imperative clause that represents the final portion of the uncle’s statement. In Hebrew, the word "for" (which is found in the King James Version) presents an intensive force which is intended to conclude (and emphasize) the subject of the previous clause. The word "for’ is not a conjunction which introduces the next sentence. See Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew Lexicon, p.472 for an explanation of this usage. The word should actually be rendered "because" since it finalizes the discussion of the preceding subject. Thus, when the full force of the Hebrew is utilized, the man’s uncle said: "Hush, for we must not make mention of the name of Yahweh, because, behold, . Yahweh is commanding it"

The inability of Israel to utter Yahweh’s name in a public way (even in appealing to him for help) was given as a punishment to them. The same restriction is recorded again by Amos a few verses later and it concerned the same subject.

"There shall be many dead bodies in every place; they shall cast them forth with silence."

In actual fact, the phrase "with silence" is also an imperative and it is precisely the same grammatical construction as Amos 6:10. What we find Yahweh commanding was: "Hold your tongue," or "Be silent!’ Israel was being prohibited from calling on his name or to ask his favor because a bond had been broken between Yahweh and them. Indeed, Amos had said even earlier in his prophecy that the wise among them would learn to "keep silent." Note Amos 5:13.

Therefore the prudent shall keep silent at that time: for it is an evil time.

Yahweh was stating that even the righteous among the Israelites would also "keep silent" during the time of Israel’s captivity into the world. In the language of the prophets, telling people to "keep their mouths shut" was common in the biblical period when people were being punished for their ways. When Jeremiah condemned the Jews for their idolatry and their abandonment of Yahweh, he told them:

"Why do we sit still? Assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the fenced cities, and let us be silent there; FOR YAHWEH OUR ELOHIM HAS PUT US TO SILENCE, and has given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against Yahweh."

The command of Yahweh for the Jews to hold their tongues was a punishment for going astray from him. And they indeed remained silent when they were taken captive.

"The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground and keep silence."

This means that the silence imposed by Yahweh was not restricted simply to those in Egypt as commanded in Jeremiah 44:26, but in Amos 6:7-11 the injunction embraced all Israelites who had sinned and were in captivity (Lamentations 2:10). The ban also included those who remained in the land of Palestine (Jeremiah 8:14).

What About the New Testament?

While Jewish records show that the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton was allowed to be used in the temple at Jerusalem (and, of course, it was proper in private prayer and for fathers to teach their children at home), it was not permitted to be publicly uttered in any other way. Since some of the writings of the New Testament were intended to be sent to Jews for instruction, the common custom was to follow the example of the LXX Version and to use substitute names for the Tetragrammaton. All Jews would have known the true meaning and pronunciation of the Name, but to keep the commands of Yahweh against its public use, Christ and the apostles (with the writers of the New Testament) simply adopted the common Jewish custom of using the surrogate names. And this was clearly the proper thing to do in order for the New Testament to be used openly in all societies.

Since the New Testament documents were intended to teach both Jews and Gentiles (even in mixed audiences in the Gentile world), the apostles felt it was essential to use the surrogate names. The apostle Paul adopted this procedure even in the latest of his epistles and even though he was writing almost exclusively to Gentiles at the very end of his career. This was the common way that the LXX Version did it as well. There are, however, a few rare manuscripts of the LXX that have the Hebrew letters for the Name amongst the Greek translation. Even if this were done in some cases, one can be assured that the Tetragrammaton was still not pronounced out loud in any public service. The easiest way to prevent this was simply to use surrogate words all the time. This is what the apostles did when they wrote the New Testament books. And this is what we should do today. The point is how can we improve on the methods of the apostles? We can’t! We should follow them precisely in how they rendered the divine names.

One of the principal reasons why the apostles decided to use the substitute names for deity is because all writings in the first century (and in all periods of late antiquity) were written to be read ALOUD. That’s right. An excellent study on this very matter was given in the Journal of Biblical Literature 109/1 (1990) pp.3-27 by Paul J. Achtemeier. It was almost the universal practice for all letters, documents and treatises to be vocalized by the readers. Writings were designed to be read aloud. This was not an easy task for the amateur reader because the alphabetic letters were written without any breaks between them as we have today and without punctuation. But reading aloud was the normal way of reading all literary works. It may seem a strange thing to us today because in our libraries it is essential that we read silently. But this was not the case in New Testament times. Virtually all written documents were intended to be read aloud,

This procedure is even reflected in the New Testament itself. The apostle John wrote at the beginning of the Book of Revelation: Blessed is he that reads [Greek: reads aloud], and they that hear" (Revelation 1:3). Since scrolls were very expensive items, it was common for a reader to take a letter and read it aloud to all in his hearing. He even read it aloud to himself as if it was addressed to him personally. Achtemeier gives many early examples to show this. This fact is important when it comes to translating the Bible. What the modern translator must do is to render his words as though they were still intended to be read aloud, and with a lot of decibels behind the delivery. It is amazing what nuances and proper meanings can be derived from the New Testament texts when this attitude is utilized.

Since all the New Testament books and letters were intended to be read aloud in public meetings, it was essential that the Tetragrammaton not be uttered. After all, the apostles themselves were Jews and Jews were also intended to read the New Testament. Reading it aloud prevented them from using the Tetragrammaton in a public gathering. To avoid this, the apostles simply used substitute names for the one that was prohibited. And though the prohibition does not extend to Christians who are reckoned by the Father as members of his own household and sitting with Christ at his right hand (Ephesians 2:6), we are allowed to use the name openly like the Jews could in the temple at Jerusalem (which was also designated Yahweh’s house). But out of courtesy to Jews and Israelites who still cannot use the Name in public, it is wise to follow the example of the writers of the New Testament and not use it in modern translations. Since the apostles adopted this method, so should we, We will do so in the Manuscript Version.

There are, however, misguided people today who wish to "improve" on what the writers of the New Testament wrote and they restore the Hebrew names and pronunciations instead of following the Greek terms that the apostles used. Their excuse for doing so is their misjudgment that Yahweh is upset unless all people on all occasions (whether public or private) must pronounce any of his names with their Hebrew vocalizations. How wrong they are! They need to get back to what the manuscripts of the New Testament reveal is the proper way to deal with the divine names. In this we should copy the apostles and follow the Greek substitutes.

Ernest L. Martin

Go to ASK Home Page •  Print Page

© 1976-2014 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions