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“Re-Hebraization” in the Graeco-Roman Period

July 17, 2013

In an earlier posting (which generated a number of energetic comments), I mentioned the widely shared view that in the earliest Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures (the “Old Greek,” from ca. 3rd century BCE and thereafter) the Greek term “Kyrios” was likely used as the translation-substitute for the divine name (YHWH, the “tetragrammaton”), and then subsequently the practice developed of writing the tetragrammaton in Hebrew characters in copies of the Greek OT writings.  (My earlier posting is here.  See esp. Martin Rösel, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Massoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2007): 411-28).

One of the things that makes this theory plausible is the evidence of a wider “re-Hebraization” in diaspora Jewish communities in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods.  One of the discussions of this that is based on a massive gathering of data is in the classic study by Victor A. Tcherikover, Alexander Fuks and Menahem Stern, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (3 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957-1964).  This 3-vol work gathers evidence especially from papyri connected to and or concerning the Jews living in Egypt in this period, and is a mine of information.

In vol. 1, there is an invaluable 110-page synthesis of the evidence that every scholar concerned with the ancient Jewish communities and/or the historical settings of earliest Christianity should study.  They note “a spirit of national regeneration in Palestine” (among Jews) in the Roman period (p. 47).  They point to a  “steady increase in the use of Hebrew names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman period,” as “the best evidence of the gradual increase of national spirit among the Egyptian Jews.” [See Vol. 3, Appendix 2, “Prosopography of the Jews in Egypt”, on Jewish names on ostrace, papyri & inscriptions].

In the Ptolemaic period (ca. 3rd century BCE), Egyptian Jews seem to have been much more ready to use Greek names for their children and conduct their business (e.g., marriage agreements, burial inscriptions) in Greek.  But as we move toward/into the Roman period, biblical names increase in frequency, and marriage agreements have codicils attached written in Hebrew, and Hebrew appears comparatively more often on burial inscriptions.

One of the factors that may have prompted this resurgence of ethnic and religious identity and distinctiveness was the attempt by Antiochus Ephiphanes to assimilate Jews culturally and religiously, leading to the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE.  That is, for many Jews the policy of Antiochus produced a sense of threat to their ethnic identity and integrity, and so a hardening of these things.  This seems to have continued on under Roman rule too, leading to several disturbances, and finally two major revolts in 66-72 CE and then 115-117 CE.

So, it does appear that there was a resurgence of Hebraic identity among Jews, at least in the Egyptian diaspora communities from ca. the 2nd century BCE onward.  And this makes the theory about the second-stage practice of writing the tetragrammaton in Hebrew characters cogent:  It fits with these other developments.

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  1. Clint Burnett permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of your work and your blog. I really appreciate your use of material Christian culture for illuminating nascent Christianity. Nonetheless, I think the “‘Re-Hebraization’ in the Graeco-Roman Period” assumes too much. No doubt some Jews in the Graeco-Roman world employed Hebrew names, e.g., Saul of Tarsus. However, one cannot generalize that there was a trend of Re-Hebraization with the evidence from CPJ, for it is skewed. It seems that the presence of Jewish names within papyri was one of the major criteria for inclusion within CPJ. However, either scholars did not consider papyri composed by Jews who have Greek/Roman/Egyptian names or they chose to ignore it. From my papyrology professor at Harvard, I have learned that there is discussion (and desire) among certain scholars on updating CPJ, but it has been hindered because no consensus on criteria exists for the inclusion of papyri within an updated version of CPJ.

    • Well, I wonder if this is entirely fair, Clint. CPJ uses the same criteria diachronically for identifying Jewish papyri, burial sites, marriage contracts, etc., and show that there is a noticeable shift from Ptolemaic to Roman times. Sure, use of names by itself is dicey. But their data-set is much wider, and I’d be surprised to find scholars dissenting from their larger conclusions that we likely see an increased Jewish particularism and nationalism across this period.

      • Clint Burnett permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        Thank you for responding to my post. I shall take your view into consideration and continue to cogitate about this topic! Thanks for sparking the discussion and I forward to your future posts!

        Grace and peace,


  2. Thomas permalink

    Dear Sir:

    I would love to see textual evidence of this. I am not an expert but I am truly interested in knowing what happened. Please just let me know, for example, what manuscripts and what I should look for for evidence. From what I have read, it is the other way around… That YHWH was in the older Septuagint manuscripts, and then removed. Most of the Septuagint fragments that I have seen have paleo-Hebrew, some square Hebrew but you see the large spaces, and some with other forms. What would help for me is if you know of a pre-Christian Septuagint fragment that had Kyrios.

    Waiting eagerly and humbly for your reply,


    • The earliest extant fragments of Greek OT manuscripts come from no earlier than ca. 1st century BCE, and so when the practice of putting YHWH in Heb characters was dominant. We have no manuscripts early enough to settle the question empirically as to whether this is the original practice or, as favored by a number of LXX scholars, was subsequent to a putative original practice of writing the verbal substitute “kyrios”. In any case, it’s clear that “kyrios” was the verbal substitute typically used, and that, whatever lay on the page, YHWH was not pronounced in reading the bib texts.

  3. Howard permalink

    One of the things that immediately stands out for me when discussing these issues, is the reverential attitude that the Jews had and still have for the divine name. From the Hebrew Bible itself to later rabbinical writings, the name has always been very important to them. Even if they had an aversion to pronouncing the name, it just seems unreasonable to me that Jewish translators would remove from a translation of their sacred writings any vestige of the name of their God. However, I can think of one situation that may have resulted in such a situation. So I would like to ask if there is any reason to believe, or if someone has already proposed anything like the following?

    If we were to accept at the very least, the main point of the LXX origin legend, that an Egyptian king wanted the Jewish writings translated into Greek, might the Jews, thinking they were just going to make the translation for the king, and then be done with the whole affair, exchanged the Tetragrammaton for kyrios so that the Egyptians would not be in possession of the Tetragrammaton?

    Then at a later point when the Jews desired this Greek translation for their own Greek speaking people. They re-inserted the Tetragrammaton back into the Greek text. Possibly along with some other Hebraizing of the text. But the LXX text that the Christians procured was a line of transmission that never had that level of Hebraizing. Now I am not proposing or asking anyone to believe any of this, simply asking if it is plausible.

    Here are some further notes of interest. According to the Theological dictionary of the New Testament, under the heading of “The Hellenistic κυριος” it says:

    “Except for κύιος with the gen. → 1042; 1044, n. 13, κυριος is never used of gods or rulers prior to the 1st cent. b.c.. It is first used of Isis in Egypt, CIG, 4897a (99–90 b.c.).” (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. 3:1049).

    If I understand this correctly, that kyrios was not used in Egypt for gods or rulers at the time of the translation of the LXX, what do you think prompted the Jewish translators to use this term as a replacement for God’s name?

    I assume that it is believed that kyrios was commonly used by Greek speaking Jews of the first century to refer to God. What do scholars believe was the reason for Josephus’ aversion to the word with reference to God? In my Greek version of Josephus, he only uses kyrios about 2 or 3 times to refer to God out of the 54 occurrences? A very minimal number compared to the 1,924 times he uses the word theos to refer to God and gods.

    • Howard, You raise some issues into which enormous scholarly efforts have been poured, and it is difficult to do them justice in a blog comment. But a brief response.
      –First, the Aristeas legend is not accepted as the cause of OT writings being translated or the situation in which this took place. The Old Greek seems to have been translated across a period (not all at once), and largely for Jewish usage. See now, e.g., Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible and Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), for a stimulating study of what it likely meant.
      –So, your proposal won’t work for explaining the use/non-use of “kyrios” as a verbal substitute for YHWH.
      –“Kyrios” as a verbal substitute for YHWH likely emerged as the Greek equivalent for “adonay”, a Hebrew verbal substitute for YHWH.

      • Howard permalink

        If you don’t mind, I would like to respond to your comment. I was a little surprised after I discovered that the book you recommended by Tessa Rajak, basically agreed with what I said. I don’t have the book myself, so I have to rely on the reviews I read. The following is a review by Reinhart Ceulemans, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.12.31

        “Rajak opens the first chapter with a treatment of the historical context of the Septuagint’s genesis. Therefore she first turns to the Letter of Aristeas and addresses the question that haunts virtually all discussions of this writing: to what extent is the information it provides historical? Labeling it a ‘historical myth’ (47), she concludes that it ‘combines memory with story in its account of the making of the Septuagint’ (64). Accepting the likeliness of Ptolemy II’s involvement with this Jewish translation activity, she continues in the second chapter by painting an interesting picture of the wider Alexandrian climate in which the Septuagint translation came to be. Hellenistic Alexandria’s cultural and political climate, Rajak argues, created opportunities for Jewish Greek Bible translation. Though initiated by Jews themselves, it was stimulated by royal Alexandrian patronage.”

        I also located another origin theory that would still provide the end results of my question. According to “The Septuagint” by Dines, J. M., & Knibb, M. A. (2004).

        “Some have suggested that the stimulus for translation was the need for propaganda to convince non-Jewish acquaintances of the nobility of Jewish religion and culture (e.g. Rösel 1998: 63, concerning LXX Genesis), or the need for texts when instructing Greek proselytes. Few scholars consider these factors to have been the primary raison d’être (Rösel is an exception), but several think they may have provided an additional motivation (see Harl, Dorival and Munnich 1988: 70, 78. Peters 1992: 1097 gives examples).”

        If this is the same Rösel that you mentioned, and he still holds this opinion, then I could see myself agreeing with him about the LXX in his proposal. But in the end, all I am saying is that if the “stimulus for translation” was based on some view that a good number of non-Jewish readers would be accessing these Greek texts, this might give us a reason why the Tetragrammaton was replaced even though the Jewish community placed great importance on the name. I think the best explanation is that the Jews were protecting, or better yet, withholding the name from outsiders, not from themselves.

      • It is likely the same Rösel. As to your final paragraph, you need to take account of indications of a spreading reluctance to pronounce YHWH among Greco-Roman Jews. As Rajak (and others) point out, translating the OT into Greek wasn’t simply (or even primarily) for outsiders, but for Jews themselves.

  4. samtsang98 permalink

    This is very interesting. I know you’ve been to Hong Kong, Prof. Hurtado (in fact, Jonathan Lo your former student, had become my colleague). Your observation parallels my observation of HK. When colonial rule departed, people were looking to rediscover their “Chineseness” by using transliterated Chinese names in English. Some things just don’t change.

  5. Prof. Hurtado,

    I’m wondering if you have considered (and please forgive me if you have, I’m a latecomer to this discussion) the significance of the tetragrammaton being written not only in “Hebrew” but in the *Old Hebrew* (or Paleo-Hebrew, as Cross would say) script. That is to say, not only was the language “re-Hebraized,” but the script as well. The use of the PH script on both coins and seals (read: official docs) beginning in the Hasmonean period and into the Common Era as well as its use in a few Torah fragments from Qumran (read: religious docs) comports well with your suggestion that these phenomena were part of a “resurgence of Hebraic identity” in the last few centuries before the Common Era.

    Sorry if that’s all old-hat, but I thought I’d mention it.


    • Jack,
      Yours is a perfectly appropriate observation. Yes, the use of archaic Hebrew characters (which at the time of usage in the Greek manuscripts was not reflective of actual writing of Hebrew) was a deliberate archaizing feature, and comports well with the other observations about a re-Hebraizing among many Jews of the time.

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