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The Divine Name and Greek Translation

July 3, 2013

In comments to my previous posting (about some recently published Oxyrhynchus papyri), the question was raised about how the divine name (YHWH; יהוה) was handled in earliest Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures.  In Septuagint manuscripts (dating from ca. 3rd century CE and later), “Kyrios” (Greek: “Lord”) is used rather frequently.  But some have proposed that the earliest practice was fairly consistently to translate YHWH with “Kyrios” (κυριος), others that the Hebrew divine name was initially rendered phonetically as ΙΑΩ (“Iao”), and others that the divine name was originally retained in Hebrew characters.  To my knowledge, the most recent discussion of the matter is the recent journal article by Martin Rösel, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Masoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2007): 411-28.

On the question of earliest practice, he offers several reasons for agreeing that from the beginnings of translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek Jewish translators tended to use “Kyrios” as an equivalent for the divine name, “following a principle of replacing the sacred name with the [Hebrew] word אדני ” [“Adonay“] (p. 425).

Among his interesting findings is also an observation about how LXX translators chose to use sometimes “Kyrios” and sometimes “Theos” to render the divine name.  It appears that many times the choice was shaped by a desire to associate “Kyrios” with more positive aspects of God and “Theos” used for more punishing or judging aspects (or when foreigners are involved).

So, for those interested in this question (and I’m one), Rösel’s article is now “the first port of call.”

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  1. While we have you on this discussion, I was wondering what you might think of a novel theory about the original of the Christian ‘name above all names’ = ΙΣ. What do think about Jerome’s statement (epistle 25 to Marcella) that – “the first name of god is hel, which the Septuagint translates “god,” Aquila ἐτυμολογίαν for ἰσχυρόν, that is “strong” (primum dei nomen est hel, quod Septuaginta ‘deum’, Aquila ἐτυμολογίαν eius exprimens ἰσχυρόν, id est ‘fortem’, interpretatur.
    Deinde eliom et eloe, quod et ipsum ‘deus’ dicitur).

    Hesychius notes that the very archaic term ἴς = ἰσχύς – it was probably thought to be its root. (p. 775).

    Has anyone proposed that the nomen sacrum ΙΣ wasn’t originally the first and last letter of the rather ordinary Ἰησοῦς (a name that could hardly be the source of mystical speculation let alone ‘the name above all names’ in its own right) but was originally pronounced as an actual word – perhaps in Aquila or some other pre-Christian source?

    On the other hand there are other arguments developed by ancient authors regarding misreadings of archaic words in the gospel. The idea that itacism might be responsible for Mark 10:25/Matt 19:25’s káh-mee-los instead of an original kámilos, which means “rope, hawser, ship’s cable.” Indeed, a few mss., undoubtedly affected by this interpretation, even read kamilon (S, f13, 1010, etc.). This explanation was used by Origen, Catena, frgs. in Matt. 19.24 (GCS 41.166); Cyril of Alexandria, Comm. in Matt. 19.24 (PG 72.429D); Theophylact, Enarr. in Matt. 19 (PG 123.356D). (cf J. Denk, “Camelus: 1. Kamel, 2. Schiffstau,” ZNW 5 (1904) 256–257; “Suum cuique,” BZ 3 (1905) 367; F. Herklotz, “Miszelle zu Mt 19,24 und Parall.,” BZ 2 (1904) 176–177; “Nachtrag,” BZ 3 (1905) 39).

    FWIW one could argue that the term was a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew איש (= man but in Samaritan usage the name of an angel who among other things wrestled with Jacob). In many languages the word man is seen to be rooted in the word for strength (Latin vis, vir). ἴς is certainly the cognate to Latin vis. Might some Jew at the turn of the Common Era have transliterated איש as ΙΣ with ἴς in the back of his mind? Just a thought. Thanks for even considering this idea …

    • Stephan,
      Your comment, I have to say, is a marvelous example in a kind of Monty-Pythonesque rumination for which there is no basis, nor any take-up among scholars who know the full range of evidence.
      To put things positively: (1) The name “Iesous” is attested as specifically the name used among early Christians in baptism, exorcism, healing, ritual acclamation, etc., and specifically (as, e.g., in Justin’s Dialogue) identified as having divine significance; (2) there is no evidence that any of the other speculations that you moot was ever acted on in the earliest material.
      The two options for “the name above every name” in Philip 2:9-11 are “Kyrios” (i.e., the Greek verbal substitute for YHWH, the significance of the latter carried over into its Greek substitute) or “Jesus” itself. Most who have weighed the matter conclude that it is “Kyrios”. Among other reasons because the confession in the passage is “Kyrios Iesous Christos”, and similarly in 1 Cor 12:3, “Kyrios Iesous”, both = “Jesus (Christ) is Lord (Kyrios)”, which seems to be the crucial claim.

      • Right but the assumption that is beneath this conclusion is that the orthodox were ‘first’ and the heretics ‘second’ so to speak. I mean how are you going to argue for an idea in four short paragraphs on a blog of an authority on this subject, such as yourself. Just to lay the idea at your feet is an accomplishment, a feat achieved only by technology.

        I am not asking you to agree with me. Even considering the idea for an hour would be all that I ask because I am sure you aren’t aware of the Samaritan veneration of Moses as אישו (= His Man) but pronounced Eeshu which basically agrees with the pronunciation of Eesu in various cultures (cf. Irenaeus Adv. Haer 2.20 where he attacks certain heretics for wrongly developing identifying their Lord’s name as Ἰησοῦς). The proper name of the Lord according to Irenaeus is ישו which is an acronym apparently for ‘the Lord of heaven and earth’ (Gen 2:4).


        But this is not the Masoretic reading of Gen 2:4 (‘earth and heaven’) and the LXX is Greek and the acryonym requires a Hebrew text for which only the Samaritan provides i.e. the ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’

        If you accept Meeks arguments that the Moses typology was very influential in early Christian understanding of Jesus how is it dismissed out of hand that his most common epithet in the Samaritan liturgy אישו is at the heart of the nomen sacrum ΙΣ?…%22%20&f=false Please remember this is only Book One in the series and there are ten places where אישו appears.

        Again, I am not asking you to agree with this. Only to consider the evidence with which you are not familiar at the present moment (mainly because it has not been translated from Hebrew and Aramaic). There are numerous early Jewish texts which support this idea too, most notably early versions of the Sepher haBahir.

        The facts are that ΙΣ is demonstrated clearly to be a transliteration of איש in the LXX

        2 Samuel 4:5 איש בשת = Ις-βοσθε

        The same Justin that you cite also says that Jesus is the איש who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel. He isn’t alone in this regard. Clement also says the same thing and they and countless other Church Fathers until Jerome assume – with Philo – that איש was part of the name given to Jacob from this ‘stranger’ – Ἰσραὴλ = ‘ish ra’ah [or ro’eh] ‘El, “a man seeing God” (Ἰσ = אִישׁ). Justin’s is slightly different but assumes the presence of אִישׁ even though the whole idea is etymologically unsound.

        Tertullian also repeatedly says that the Marcionites identified the anashim אנשים (plural of אִישׁ) with Jesus. In De Carne Christi he goes one step further to connect the אִישׁ of Peniel. The very same אִישׁ argument resurfaces in De Recta in Deum Fide.

        All I am saying is that you are the expert but expertise can only be seen to be authoritative if you have actually taken the time to consider an argument and familiarize yourself with the evidence. It would be like asking a judge to decide on a case without considering the evidence. The facts are that I would gladly spend a month putting together an argument for the nomen sacrum ΙΣ being pre-existent to Christianity, being rooted in a cosmic אִישׁ figure and adapted to the veneration of an individual named Ἰησοῦς by Christians and the ἄνθρωπος typology at the heart of Pauline theology (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). It is certainly present in Philo’s writings.

        I am not asking you to agree with me, but would hope that when I finish the paper I could send it to and you would spend an hour of your life reading it explaining to me how I got it all wrong. I am sure it will be amazing for you to see how much interesting stuff related to early Christianity lays buried in untranslated Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

      • Stephan,
        I’ll do you the favor of reading your paper. I do ask, however, that you cease assuming that I’m ignorant of something just because I don’t agree with you! I’m fully familiar with the Samaritan evidence, and Irenaeus, et al. And I’m saying that you’ve got things wrong. E.g., there is NO instance of a pre-Christian nomina sacra from of “Iesous”. I’ve waded through all the manuscripts, coins, inscriptions, etc.
        Your word-association doesn’t mean what you think. And the ideas cited in Tertullian and Irenaeus as “heresies” date from the late second century or later, Stephan. Hardly indicative of origins, much less of pre-Christian phenomena. Chronology is crucial.
        And it’s really interesting that people with no proven expertise in the field of NT/Christian origins, who can’t get their work published in peer-reviewed journals (or can’t be bothered to try), imagine that they can just ball together various things and concoct some theory and then demand that scholars who’ve spent decades working in the data should be treated as if they’re ignorant or trying to suppress something. Give me a break!

  2. Prof. Hurtado,

    I appreciate the apology, and maybe its the way I write, but it was not my intention to propose anything. I was merely asking a question. I wanted to know if anyone has dealt with the issue I brought up, and what the findings were. Truth be told, I have yet to be convinced one way or the other on the issue of the original LXX, I do however have lots of unanswered questions. I know you mentioned it, but I find Pietersma’s article unconvincing and easily refuted on a number of points. My actual opinion, from a theological point of view, is that it really doesn’t matter what the original LXX used, the answer will only tell us the scribal habits of 3rd century BCE Jewish translators, and nothing about theology or what God wanted. However, I am interested in this subject because I think the more important question is whether the NT authors used LXX copies that included the Tetragrammaton or not. The NT is the continuation of the sacred scriptures and do play a part in theology or what God wanted. I just wanted to clear up any further misunderstandings. This will be my last comment on the topic.


    • Howard,
      Yes, it is an interesting question what appeared in the OT manuscripts read by earliest Christians, YHWH (in Hebrew characters) or “Kyrios”. But as important is this: All evidence suggests that, whatever stood in the Greek manuscript, “Kyrios” (typically without the definite article) was what Greek-speaking Jews read and used for YHWH. Remember, most Greek-speaking Jews likely couldn’t read Hebrew, and almost certainly couldn’t reach archaic Hebrew, and what they “read (out)” was “Kyrios”.
      Second, whatever stood in the Greek manuscripts, it is clear that NT texts reflect the appropriation of a number of OT texts that refer to YHWH, these texts read as referring to Jesus. See, e.g., David Capes’s book, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT, 2/47 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992).
      Best wishes.

  3. Prof. Hurtado, let me simplify my last comment. When we have the Greek definite article used with the divine name in ancient Greek documents, isn’t it possible that its purpose was merely to express the idea of “to YHWH” or “of YHWH” or “from YHWH” or whatever the case may be?

    For an example, in the Greek LXX manuscript, Nahal Hever Minor Prophets (8HevXIIgr) the definite article in the dative case (τω) proceeds the Tetragrammaton in Zechariah 9:1. Instead of this being evidence that kyrios was the original term, might it simply mean for Greek readers to understand this phrase as “to YHWH” as the original term LYHWH did for Hebrew readers? Many other proper names in the LXX are also proceeded by the definite article, I would think it was being used in the same way in both cases. Otherwise, we could use the same argument every time the definite article appears before the name David, and say the proper name David was probably not the original word used in the Greek translation. Am I missing something about Greek grammar here?

    • Howard, In Greek you have a variety of prepositions that can express “to” “by” “on” etc.You don’t need the article. Again, good knowledge of the languages would save you useless speculation.

      • I really hate to beat this thing, but it is clear by your side stepping and insulting comment, that you do not yet understand my point. I guess I will have to spell it out a little clearer, if possible.

        For example, in 2 Samuel 3:2, the LXX has (tw dauid) and the Hebrew has (LDWD). The English translation for both says, “born to David”. David is the indirect object in the sentence. To indicate this, I used my “useless speculation” to suspect that the LXX translator used the dative (tw) to point out that the indeclinable David is the indirect object. I then transferred this “useless speculation” to suspect that it might be possible that the LXX translator used the dative (tw) also to point out that the indeclinable Tetragrammaton is the indirect object in manuscripts that contain the Tetragrammaton.

      • Howard,
        First, my apology for my intemperate remark. Patience is, unfortunately, not consistently enough a strong feature of my personality!
        Second, I do understand what you’re trying to propose. What I should have said, and say now, is that it’s unwise to base your proposal on a selective citation of a few instances that seem to you to fit your theory, and not do a thorough study of ALL instances (e.g., all instance of oblique case-forms of “kyrios” in the LXX). Moreover, the bases are several for the view that is now more widely shared (though still debated) that the earliest practice was to use κυριος as substitute for YHWH. Yes, considered on its own, one might propose (as you do) that the presence of the definite article doesn’t prove that KYRIOS stood originally in the text. If that’s what you want to say, consider it said. But that doesn’t engage all the relevant data such as reviewed by Pietersma and now also Rösel. I don’t really “have a dog in this fight”, Howard. I’m just reporting what many of us now think, based on the work of those I’ve cited. OK?

  4. egwpisteuw permalink

    What is the easiest way to access Rösel’s article?

    • Get to a library that subscribes to the journal, or go to the journal web site and pay for an e-copy.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    George Howard cited the large number of variants involving theos and kurios as evidence for the originality of the divine name in the New Testament itself.

    • Well, maybe so. But his theory doesn’t take adequate account of all the data, including the data that “kyrios” was used as a/the vocal substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews. There’s no indication that the Hebrew YHWH ever appeared in any NT text.

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Textual scholar Emanuel Tov argues for the originality of IAO in the Septuagint and against Pietersma’s argument for kurios:

    “According to Pietersma, the first translators wrote kurios, mainly without the article, considered a personal name in the Greek Torah, as “the written surrogate for the tetragram.” However, the internal LXX evidence offered in support of this assumption is not convincing, as all the irregularities pertaining to the anarthrous use of kurios can also be explained as having been created by a mechanical replacement of Iaw with kurios by Christian scribes. On the other hand, according to Stegemann and Skehan, Iaw reflects the earliest attested stage in the history of the LXX translation, when the name of God was represented by its transliteration, just like any other personal name in the LXX.” (Page 20 in the PDF format)

    Click to access 23.Greek.2008.pdf

    Frank Shaw’s dissertation ‘The Earliest Non-mystical Jewish Use of Iαω’ also has interesting relevant information and arguments.

    • Yes, thanks. Rosel’s article interacts with Tov etc. The issue remains under discussion in the field, I think.

  7. What does the substitution IAΩ mean? That is, is it to be pronounced or is it a symbol for something?

    • We presume that “IAO” was pronounced. As shown, esp. in Frank Shaw’s PhD thesis, there are lots of examples of the use of “IAO”, especially (but not only) in magical texts, where the vocalization of divine names was crucial to the spell. (And that’s probably a reason for the attempts to discourage the pronunciation of YHWH in ancient Jewish tradition.)

      • Thanks, Larry. I am trying to figure if IAΩ meant anything. That is, where does this combination of letters come from and how does it relate to YHWH? When I see IAΩ I think of Alpha and Omega in the NT.

      • No, Bill. The IAO appears in non/pre-Christian evidence. It’s an attempt to vocalize in Greek the Hebrew name of God as, e.g., “Yahu”.

      • Thanks, Larry. I can see how Yahu (or Yaho, as I read on some sites) relates to YHW, but what about the last “H” in YHWH? Or how does Yaho relate to Yahweh? I guess I should assume the Yahu attempt is considered wrong, and modern scholars believe Yahweh expresses the more likely vocalization.

      • For whatever reason, there is evidence abundant that at least a good many ancient Greek-speaking Jews pronounced God’s name as “Iao”. The final “hey” of YHWH isn’t pronounced, which may be a reason.

  8. samtsang98 permalink

    Think i’ve seen IAO used in magical papyri.

    • Yes. As noted by others.

      • P. Vasileiadis permalink

        Frank Shaw’s dissertation makes clear that it was not magical the original use of this transcription of the Tetragrammaton. Later on, during the early Christian era, when the rabbinical Judaism prohibited completely the utterance of the divine name, the mainstream Christianity focused on the trinitarian theology and anti-Semitism increased, only in magical sources could be found readable forms of the Tetragrammaton.

      • I admire Shaw’s work (and read it several years ago). But there are some dubious points in it. I think he underplays the evidence (e.g., Philo & Josephus) that already in the second-temple period there was a widespread avoidance of pronouncing YHWH. Or to put it another way, he may exaggerate the extent to which the name was pronounced. But it’s a major piece of work with which scholars in the subject should interact:
        Frank Edward Shaw, “The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of IAO [Gr]” (PhD, University of Cincinnati, 2002)

  9. Thank you. I need a clarification, though. You say that there are different proposals among scholars regarding earliest practice for Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures.
    In particular:

    1) translate YHWH with “Kyrios” (κυριος),
    2) the Hebrew divine name was initially rendered phonetically as ΙΑΩ (“Iao”)
    3) the divine name was originally retained in Hebrew characters

    Which of these options is supported by Martin Rösel?
    Thank you

    • Rösel sides with the view that the earliest practice (for which we now have no direct evidence) was the write “kyrios” as the Greek translation/substitute for YHWH.

      • I understand, thank you! The fact that there is no direct evidence of such practice in oldest extant manuscripts does not necessarily mean anything in modern philology and textual criticism.
        As far as I know, it cannot be assumed that oldest extant manuscripts better preserve the “original” text. The good-old rule “the oldest the best” has been superseded by more comprehensive criteria.

      • Lorenzo: Basically, yes. Oldest manuscripts still have a certain automatic value, for obvious reasons, as they give witness to an early state/stage of a text. But even our oldest MSS already show the effects of copying/transmission, e.g., accidental and deliberate changes. So, critical reasoning still has to be applied, to all/any evidence. It’s not that “oldest manuscripts don’t mean anything”–they DO count as very important data. But data has to be handled intelligently, aware of it all and with critical reasoning.

      • Yes, I shouldn’t have written that “oldest manuscripts don’t necessarily mean anything”, but rather that oldest manuscripts cannot necessarily be taken as a conclusive argument.
        And I believe that this is clear also in this specific case, where in early manuscripts the Tetragrammaton is represented in three different forms. So it’s still unclear which of the three is the “original” if we assume that Kyrios was just a secondary addition 🙂

      • Yes. IF we make such an assumption, which I doubt.

  10. David Aune mentions this in his article on Graeco-Roman magic in the Apocalypse, and shows the link with Jesus/God as Alpha and Omega in Revelation.

  11. P. Vasileiadis permalink

    Dear Prof. Hurtado, it is hard to believe that more than 4 centuries of manuscripts extant today would have not included even a trace of the “Kyrios” use in the Greek Bible/LXX copies, isn’t it? That is, if the rabbinical practice of using (or better, writing) “Kyrios” (as rendering of the Tetragrammaton) into the Bible text of the Greek-speaking Judaism was the pre-Christian mainstream practice we should have at least a sample of it. But this is not the case up to today.

    So, despite the hardly attempt to convince the audience for the rightness of Pietersma’s proposal and overturn the “scholarly consensus” and “the prevailing assumption” “that the original translators of the LXX never rendered the divine name with Kyrios, but kept the tetragrammaton in Hebrew or Palaeo-Hebrew characters, or that they used the transcription IAO” (Rösel 2007:416), I think that Pietersma’s proposal is not convincing. The hard (manuscript) evidence does not support this well-built theory.

    Moreover, it seems that more and more researchers admit that the “Jewish practice of never pronouncing the name as it is written” was not as widespread as it has been believed to be until recently. It is probable that despite the fact that the Temple/priestly intelligentsia might refrain or even forbade pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, at least the knowledge of the correct pronunciation of God’s name (as was heard at least by the high priest until 70 CE) and respectively its utterance was common practice until at least the 1st century CE. The widespread use of the form IAO is supporting this view.

    Thank you for your precious thoughts.

  12. Jacob permalink

    Thank you Dr. Hurtado. My friend and I were just discussing this. He is currently working on his doctorate at a school in SE Asia focusing on the history of translating the Divine Name and Kyrios into Malay. One of the things we talked about was how in Acts, it seems that the material that is quoted from the speeches of and to Jewish people seem to be using Theos in place of Kyrios. E.g. only once, if I recall, does Stephen refer to deity with Kyrios in his sermon. Obviously there is much more to it than this, but it is interesting to speculate on what might be a transition to Theos from Kyrios in the 1st century.

    • The use of “Kyrios” and “Theos” in ACts is an intriguing matter, made all the more complicated by the many instances of textual variation, some MSS having “kyrios” and some having “theos”. Among publications (which your friend may already know), the following:
      –James D. G. Dunn, “KYPIOS in Acts,” in Jesus Christus als die Mitte der Schrift, ed. Christof Landmesser and et al. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1997), 363-78. (Some dubious judgments in my view, e.g., his take on Acts 13:2, but a good piece overall.)
      I have an essay in the publication process dealing specifically with these textual variants in Acts as indicative of what looks like a deliberately ambiguous use of them by the author. I.e., as Kavin Rowe has argued for GLuke, it looks like the author of Luke-Acts used “kyrios” with a dyadic intent. See C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006).
      (Can’t give details of my own essay, yet, as it’s in a volume dedicated to a scholar as a surprise),

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