Monday, September 15, 2008

Lord, Language, & Liturgy - Part III

. . . or why we should use "Yahweh" and not "LORD" when we read the Hebrew scriptures in church.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

11. I ended Part 2 saying that there is little or no evidence suggesting that the Jews substituted 'adonay for YHWH before the intertestimental period of decline. And even then it wasn't universal. Doing a little research on this uncovers the fact that the Jews were still pronouncing YHWH at the end of the OT period. Indeed, there is no solid evidence to suggest that the Jews did not pronounce this name at the time of Jesus. Most evidence points to the conclusion that the development of this superstitious avoidance of vocalizing the name of Yahweh comes after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, which means after the writing of the New Testament. That doesn't mean that nobody was doing it before this time. But the practice doesn’t appear to be the official policy of Judaism until after the destruction of the Temple. The superstitious avoidance of Yahweh is associated with the transformation of Judaism into a new religion after the NT period, an extension and intensification of apostate, Pharisaical Judaism.

And what about the Septuagint (LXX) translators? Well, it appears that the writers of the LXX were not yet under the spell of this dangerous error.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology notes: ""Recent textual discoveries cast doubt on the idea that the compilers of the LXX translated the etragrammaton YHWH by kyrios. The oldest LXX MSS (fragments) now available to us have the tetragrammaton written in Heb. characters in the Gk. text. This custom was retained by later Jewish translators of the OT in the first centuries A.D. One LXX MS from Qumram even represents the tetragrammaton by IAO. These instances have given support to the theory that the thorough-going use of kyrios for the tetragrammaton in the text of the LXX was primarily the work of Christian scribes. . . On the other hand, the Jews would have already replaced the tetragrammaton by kyrios in the oral transmission of the Gk. OT text" (Vol. 2, p. 512).

"In pre-Christian Greek [manuscripts] of the OT, the divine name was not rendered by 'kyrios' as has often been thought. Usually the Tetragram was written out in Aramaic or in paleo-Hebrew letters. . . . At a later time, surrogates such as 'theos' [God] and 'kyrios' replaced the Tetragram . . . There is good reason to believe that a similar pattern evolved in the NT, i.e. the divine name was originally written in the NT quotations of and allusions to the OT, but in the course of time it was replaced by surrogates" (New Testament Abstracts, March 1977, p. 306).

This, then, raises the question of whether the NT writers really were accommodating themselves to the Jews when they translated YHWH as kyrios. They must have had some other reason for doing it. What might that have been?

Notice that the divine name YHWH was given to Israel. The name of God used by non-Israelite believers was most often "God Most High" or the "Most High God." Just do a concordance search and you'll see this, from Melchizedek in Gen. 14 to King Nebuchadnezzar in Dan. 4. With the exile, however, God does a new thing in the world. He sent the Jews (short for Judahites) into the whole world to be witness for him. They no longer have their own Davidic King. Now they are subject, by God's own decree, to the world emperors of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

This new world order is different than the old tribal and kingdom arrangement of the past. Now God begins a new work of international significance. Of course, this culminates in the work of Jesus and his apostles. I don't have time to go into all the details here. But interestingly, at this time God begins to speak in tongues (non-Hebrew languages), specifically Aramaic. And the name Yahweh is not used in the Aramaic sections of the OT.

It seems best to understand that the name YHWH was given specifically to Israel and the Jews and is particularly associated with the Mosaic and kingdom phases of their history. God is for the Israelites peculiarly Yahweh. The name YHWH is not used in the Aramaic and later in the Greek Scriptures because YHWH is for Israel and the Jews. Yahweh is "the name of the God of Israel" (Ezra 5:1, in Aramaic).

Even if the evidence seems to indicate that the people of God did not use the name Yahweh as much in the exilic and post-exilic period - a time when the kingdom of God expanded to include the world emperors as guardians of his seed people - that does not imply that they refused to say the name Yahweh anymore at all. Writing new things for a new situation is one thing, reading the received Scriptures is something else. In other words, when they read the Torah in their assembly they read Yahweh, but when they wrote and spoke to their Gentile neighbors in the wider world they used more generic titles for the true God.

If the NT writers, continuing the trajectory of the new covenantal arrangement after the exile, did not use the name Yahweh in their translation of OT texts, this does not necessarily imply that they refused to vocalize the world when they read the Hebrew Scriptures publicly in their services. The revelation of God's name corresponded with the increasing revelation of his character and purposes so that finally God is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the specific "memorial name" for worship and prayer is now the name of God incarnate, Jesus.

This does not mean, however, that we should just go back and erase all the previous names of God and put Jesus or Lord in their place. Even if we don't use the name of Yahweh in the same way as the Israelites did, we need to be able to read the Scriptures in such a way that we can learn how that name functioned for them. After all, these things were written for our instruction. If hearers of the Scripture cannot discern the difference between God's personal name and the title "Master/Lord," then they will miss an important dimension of instruction concerning how the people relate to their covenant God.

12. The bottom line is the LORD/Lord business in English is confusing, especially when heard/sung in church and not simply in one's private reading. Even by making that distinction (LORD/Lord) the translators are conceding the battle. Why even do this? It just raises questions. When people read this odd translation they will look in the margin or in the explanation in front of their Bibles and see "Yahweh" anyway, so why not go the whole nine yards?

Moreover, the distinction is completely lost when the text is publicly read out loud and not just "studied." You see, for liturgical use the modern way of translation utterly fails. Hearers will have no idea when LORD or Lord is being used. Well, this is just par for the course. Not many in our tradition think about corporate/liturgical use when they do these translations. It's all about private reading and study. If we insist on not vocalizing YHWH, then we must at least do something to make the distinction audible in public reading - maybe if we use "Lord" for Yahweh, then "Master" should be used for adonay. At least the distinction could be heard. But again, why go through such linguistic contortions? Why not rather translate the text faithfully and allow God's people to hear and thereby understand the proper difference between the title Lord and the name Yahweh?

In conclusion, for reading the text in Church and for use in study Yahweh should be used. It is, after all, the unique name God revealed to Israel, and to say "by my name LORD I was not known by them" (Ex. 6:3) is grotesque and dangerously misleading.


Unknown said...


The reference at the end is wrong. I think it should be Ex. 6:3.

I still don't understand why the NT authors didn't use YHWH in their quotations of OT. Unless they wanted to stick with LXX, but as you point out we don't know if LXX used kurios anyway.

Perhaps so as not to offend Jews? But this assumes Jews were not writing/saying YHWH either which we don't know - and as you mention, many other things offensive to Jews.

Point taken about Jesus being the new memorial name. This does fit well with many OT texts quoted in NT and used in reference to Jesus - equating Jesus with YHWH.

But it still seems odd to me that they translate as kurios if they expected Christians to continue reading/saying YHWH.

Do you know anyone who thinks that autographs of NT used YHWH or a Greek form?

Dave Salyer

Kevin D. Johnson said...


Some good is my take on this issue - I left these comments on another blog but they have yet to really appear since they like to moderate what I say...

I don’t know why Internet dialog often seems so one-sided - but there is perhaps more to consider that has yet to be mentioned.

First, I’m not sure that it is inappropriate to mention that there are clear parallels between Roman Catholicism and Rabbinic Judaism that are relevant to this issue. The idea of fencing commandments with extrabiblical rules and regulations ought to give us pause when it is clear that our Lord himself condemned the Pharisees and others for just this sort of reasoning. Granted, our Lord was gracious on occasion in how He observed the laws present in His own day in the first century, but He also was not afraid to directly reference and use the Divine Name in John 8:58 in identifying Himself as YHWH when dealing with the very same men that held their own traditions in such high esteem. He spoke ‘as one having authority’ - and clearly went well beyond the fences put in place by the rulers of His own day.

If there is any saving grace to Rabbinic Judaism in this regard, it is the fact that the living traditions of the rabbis were formed over several thousand years and at the hands of a good deal of our Jewish fathers and not at the direction of one mere man. Hearing a dictate from on high regarding this one particular point from a man claiming to act in Christ’s stead on this is sharply different from the Jewish approach to this and other traditions. I believe that alone should give us pause even though in this case the Pontiff is directing Christians to act in accordance with what has become Jewish tradition.

While today and in times past, the Jewish people have lifted the Old Testament and enforcement of its laws to a standard similar to that of Rome’s regard for her tradition, it should be noted that none of this caution regarding the Divine Name actually exists in the Old Testament itself among the people of God in their practices, rituals, musical compositions and the like - the writers of Holy Writ consistently use and refer to the Divine Name as something to be pronounced and lifted up from the rooftops to the nations (see Exodus 33:19; 1 Samuel 20:42; 1 Kings 10:1; 1 Kings 13:2,6; Psalm 20:7; Psalm 96:2; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 135 and many, many more).

While you can point to NT usage of kurios for adonai rather than a transliteration of YHWH where the NT quotes the LXX, there are other considerations here as well that have yet to be brought up. The intentions of the LXX translators may not have been the same as the intentions of the New Testament writers–but it was “the” biblical text of the day and as such its usage was followed. As to why, surely it is too difficult to speculate without understanding that it is pure speculation on anyone’s part to guess an answer except that we know that the LXX was considered a faithful translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. But, the NT (and the gospels) had a specific purpose in being written in Koine Greek in the first place and that undoubtedly had to do with accessibility in the Missionary Church across the ancient world. Would a transliteration of the name of God really be something of relevance in presenting the gospel message to cultures largely out of touch with the finer points of of the Third Commandment as understood by the Jewish people? Perhaps there is some indirect evidence that following the LXX usage of kurios for adonai was implicitly done to avoid offending Jewish brothers who had yet to believe or out of further respect for the Divine Name - but, since no hard evidence exists either way it really amounts to an argument from silence to say that such things really were the case.

Also, Xon’s question is a good one and we must remember that it is the name of Jesus that is above every name and there is no failure of usage of that name by the New Testament in not only describing the person who is our Lord but also in speaking of Him as Lord - in essence equating Him with the one who has the Divine Name of YHWH. The use of kurios is undoubtedly a double-edged sword here–there is no reason why we cannot identify Jesus Christ as our Lord in the same sense (and more) as YHWH was for the covenant people of Israel and yet there is no need to fence the use of His name. We also don’t go around typing “G-d” as present Jewish works do as well. Why not?

A key component of the gospel today is that what the Jews saw in shadow and type we see in reality. Couple that with Jesus and Paul both using the even more intimate term for “Father” — Abba — and I really wonder how it is we think we know better by avoiding use of the names of God that He has given, including YHWH.

The Apostle Paul told us that all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. I really don’t see any tangible benefit to avoid use of the Divine Name with our Jewish brothers and sisters and there is certainly no real biblical prohibition. The real offense between Christians and Jews is not the use of the Divine Name but the scandal of the person of Jesus Christ–the very one who used the Divine Name of Himself. Not using the Divine Name only further serves to mask and blur the fact that Jesus Christ is YHWH and the one Person and God that our Jewish friends must submit to in order to gain eternal life.

My personal opinion is that this is one more example of the modern Roman hierarchy making it more difficult to understand the gospel and to make that which ought to be plain something other than clear.

Kevin D. Johnson

Jeff Meyers said...


Thanks for posting this long comment. I agree with what you have said here. And I appreciate the further nuancing of the issue.

Just to add to your comments a bit. I haven't done all the research yet, but in most, if not all, of the cases where a NT writer quotes an OT passage that contains YHWH the purpose of the quotation is to show that the Lord (kurios) Jesus is YHWH. The NT writers were all about the story of how it is that Jesus is Lord. Given this, it's not too hard to see why it was that they simply used kurios to translate YHWH. Their use of Kurios like this 1) had nothing to do with seeking to avoid offending the unbelieving Jews (quite the opposite, 2) was not about hedging the law so as not to break the 3rd commandment, and 3) does not imply that they would substitute the title Lord for YHWH in every pedagogical or liturgical situation in which the OT was read.

Kevin D. Johnson said...


Thanks for the kind words.

If I had to posit a reason for the use of kurios=YHWH by New Testament writers (something which I agree with wholeheartedly, btw)--I'd say it has to do with communicating the identity, person, and work of Christ to a culture and people largely unacquainted with the name of YHWH in the first place, namely, the Gentiles. Using YHWH would not have made sense to Romans and Greeks or others unacquainted with the covenant God of Israel, but "kurios" made the point in spades for the Greek-speaking world. For the remaining Jews who became believers, I would also say that "kurios" made sense to them as well and that they likely realized the even fuller covenantal implications behind the use of such a term if they were familiar with the Old Testament.

Kevin D. Johnson