Writing & Pronouncing the Divine Name in Second-Temple Jewish Tradition
Several comments prompted by my earlier postings have raised questions about how the Hebrew divine name (YHWH) was rendered in written form and how God was referred to orally in the time of Jesus. In addition to interest in these questions for their own sake, there is also the related question of how these matters may relate to the designation of Jesus as “Kyrios” in the NT.
So, there are three distinguishable issues involved. (1) How was the name YHWH treated in ancient Jewish manuscripts, both Hebrew and Greek ones? (2) How did ancient Jews refer to YHWH orally (i.e., did they use verbal/oral substitute words)? (3) How might data relating to the preceding questions relate to the use of “Kyrios” to designate Jesus in the NT? An adequate treatment would require far more space than appropriate for a blog-posting, so I shall have to be brief, referring interested readers to the “For Further Reading” list at the end of this posting. (I was surprised and disappointed to find no entry relevant to these questions in the otherwise excellent work edited by J. J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)
Let’s take question #2 first. On the one hand, it is clear that by the late second-temple period, there was among many Jews an (apparently growing) avoidance of pronouncing YHWH. Among frequently cited evidence, note how the LXX renders Leviticus 24:16. Whereas the Hebrew text of this verse forbids blaspheming God’s name, the Greek text forbids pronouncing it. Likewise, in the list of offences and punishments in the Qumran community text, 1QS (6:27–7:2), uttering the divine name (“which is honoured above all”) results in a permanent exclusion. And in the Mishnah also (10.1), albeit later in date, uttering the divine name is one of the crimes that excludes a Jew from “the world to come”.
On the other hand, other data indicate that some Jews apparently continued to pronounce YHWH in one form or another, e.g., “IAO” in Greek, as surveyed most fully in Frank Shaw’s 2002 PhD thesis (details below).
But those who observed the rule about not pronouncing YHWH would likely have used some reverential substitute(s). Philo, for example, gives strong evidence that “Kyrios” was used by at least some Greek-speaking Jews, and “Theos” as well. Indeed, he even discusses the special connotations of “Kyrios” and “Theos,” as key ways of designating the biblical deity (Dahl & Segal essay listed below; also Royse). There is also evidence suggesting that “Adonay” was used as an equivalent substitute in Hebrew (e.g., 1QIsa at 3:7-8 has “Adonay” where the Masoretic text has YHWH).
This takes us to the way(s) that YHWH was handled in manuscripts. The data indicate a certain variety of copyist-practices, and these likely shifting across time (details in DeTroyer’s article and in Tov’s “go-to” book on Qumran manuscripts listed below). For example, in Aramaic letters from Elephantine (5th century BCE), the name is written out, as is the case in the early Samaritan texts from Wadi Daliyeh (4th century BCE). Likewise, in a number of Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran (2nd-1st century BCE) YHWH appears in the same “square” Hebrew script as the rest of the surrounding text. But in some other Qumran manuscripts, YHWH is written in an archaic Hebrew script that sets the word off visually from the rest of the text (which is written in typical “square” Hebrew script); and in others, instead of YHWH we have four dots. In some instances, where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH, we have instead “Elohim”. Marking off YHWH from the surrounding text, and/or replacing it with a set of dots, appear to be intended also to alert readers to pronounce some acceptable substitute, which is compatible with the data about avoiding pronouncing YHWH itself.
In very early (pre-Christian) Greek biblical manuscripts, there is likewise a variety of practice exhibited. In some cases, YHWH is written in Hebrew characters, which again has the effect of setting it off visually from the surrounding Greek text. It is interesting that in at least some of these instances (e.g., P. Fouad 266 b) where the copyist of the Greek biblical text left a blank space for someone subsequently to insert the divine name in Hebrew, the space is more adequate for ca. six characters. The result is that when the four letters of YHWH were written in, there is extra space left. This may suggest that the copyist of the Greek text was thinking of sufficient space for the Greek word “Kyrios,” because it was familiar to him as a common oral substitute for the divine name, a practice for which (as noted already) Philo gives evidence.
In one Greek copy of Leviticus from Qumran (4QpapLXXLev b), we have an instance where YHWH is written in Greek letters as IAO. In another (later) Greek biblical manuscript likely of Jewish provenance, P.Oxyrhynchus 656, at a few places we read “Theos” where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH.
So, in sum, we have a variety of copying practices, including writing YHWH in one or another special ways, or using dots or some other word in its place, and also a (growing?) scruple against pronouncing YHWH, and so a usage of oral substitutes such as “Adonay” in Hebrew, “Kyrios” in Greek (and also “Mar” in Aramaic, as noted by Fitzmyer).
Finally, then, what is the relevance of all this for early use of “Kyrios” as an epithet for Jesus? Well, perhaps the first thing to note is that this practice seems to follow from a prior ritual use of the equivalent term, “Mar,” in Aramaic-speaking circles of the young Jesus movement (as commonly seen reflected in the “Maranatha” expression in 1 Cor 16:22). So, the reference to Jesus as “Lord/Master” seems to take us back to the very earliest moments of the movement. Indeed, it is entirely plausible (I’d say very likely) that Jesus’ followers referred to him in such terms (with the sense of “master”) during his ministry.
But very quickly after Jesus’ crucifixion, the powerful conviction erupted that God had raised him from death and exalted him to a new, greater, even unique heavenly glory/status. In Philippians 2:9-11, this exaltation appears to include Jesus being given to share in the divine name (“the name above every name”). In other early texts the exalted Jesus is pictured as uniquely sharing and reflecting God’s glory (e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6). In these early texts also, we have reference to the ritual practices of “confessing” Jesus as “Kyrios” and “calling upon” him, apparently as common constituent practices of the early worship-gatherings (Romans 10:9-13; 1 Corinthians 1:2).
The latter expression (“to call upon the name of the Lord”) clearly draws on the biblical (OT) expression for the invocation and worship of YHWH, but in these NT texts this action is applied to the exalted Jesus. Likewise, in a number of early texts (including Paul’s letters, as studied in Capes’s book), biblical texts that originally referred to YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Romans 10:13). So, it’s clear that at a remarkably early point the exalted Jesus was associated with YHWH, such that practices and texts that originally applied to YHWH were “extended” (so to speak) to include Jesus as the further referent.
Against the contentions of a few (e.g., George Howard), however, these remarkable developments cannot be ascribed to some sort of textual confusion brought on by a supposedly later copyist practice of writing “Kyrios” in place of YHWH in Greek biblical manuscripts. The developments in question exploded so early and so quickly to render any such a proposal irrelevant.
It is, however, likely that the oral substitution of “Adonay” and/or “Kyrios” for YHWH among Jews charged these terms with enlarged significance, widening their semantic force, or range of connotations, so to speak. To be sure, the application of “Kyrios” to Jesus in NT texts has a certain variety of connotations. In some cases, however, it seems to function as applying to the risen/exalted Jesus uniquely something of the divine status that otherwise belongs to YHWH. The forces that prompted and shaped the specific conviction that it is right (even necessary) to accord Jesus this reverence and to acclaim him uniquely as the “Kyrios” were several (as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, e.g., in Lord Jesus Christ, 27-78). They cannot be reduced to Jewish copyist practices concerning YHWH. But the latter are not irrelevant either.
For Further Reading:
Capes, David B., Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT, no. 2/47 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992)
Dahl, Nils and Alan F. Segal, “Philo and the Rabbis on the Names of God,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 9 (1978): 1-28.
DeTroyer, Kristin: http://www.lectio.unibe.ch/05_2/troyer_names_of_god.htm. (Good on the textual data, but I regard her stance on the “nomina sacra” deficient in bases and so unpersuasive.)
Fitzmyer, J. A. “New Testament Kyrios and Maranatha and Their Aramaic Background,” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (New York: Crossroads, 1981), 218-35.
Fitzmyer, J. A. “The Semitic Background of the New Testament Kyrios Title,” in A Wandering Aramaen: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), 115-42.
Rösel, Martin, “Die Übersetzung der Gottesbezeichnungen in der Genesis-Septuaginta,” in Ernten, was man sät: Festschrift für Klaus Koch zu seinem 65. Geburtstag, ed. Dwight R. Daniels, Uwe Glessmer and Martin Rösel (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991): 357-77.
Rösel, Martin, “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.
Rösel, Martin, Adonaj, warum Gott ‘Herr’ genannt wird, Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 29 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000)
Royse, James R. “Philo, Kyrios, and the Tetragrammaton,” The Studia Philonica Annual 3 (1991): 167-83.
Shaw, Frank Edward. PhD thesis, “The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of ΙΑΩ,‘‘ (2002, Cincinnati): https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:ucin1014323679. (He may “over-egg” things just a bit, but his basic point is sound, that “IAO” was used as a designation of God by some Jews of the 2nd-temple period.)
Tov, Emanuel , Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), esp. 218-21.
Tov, Emanuel, The Greek Prophets Scroll From Nahal Hever (8HevXIIgr): (The Seiyâl Collection I), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)