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YHWH in the Septuagint

August 22, 2014

Further to my earlier postings and the (many!) comments elicited, especially those about the use of “kyrios” in the LXX, I point readers to an excellent essay by John Wevers:

John William Wevers, “The Rendering of the Tetragram in the Psalter and Pentateuch: A Comparative Study,” in The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma, ed. Robert J. V. Hiebert, Claude E. Cox and Peter J. Gentry (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 21-35.

First, he registers agreement with Albert Pietersma’s argument that the use of the Hebrew YHWH in some Old Greek manuscripts (as well as other devices, e.g., ΙΑΩ, ΠΙΠΙ), represents “a revision” that took place within the textual transmission of the Greek of the Hebrew scriptures.  Then Wevers gives details of the use of “kyrios” as equivalents of YHWH and other terms in the LXX.

His particular focus is on the Psalter, but he prefaces that analysis with a helpfully detailed survey of data from the Pentateuch (book by book), confirming that YHWH is overwhelmingly rendered by forms of kyrios without the definite article (“anarthrous” forms).  In contrast, forms of the word with the definite article (“articular”) are preferred to translate references to other figures who hold a lordly position in the narratives.  As one example, check out Genesis 39:2-3, where the LXX has κυριος (without article) for YHWH consistently, and articular forms of κυριος to translate references to the human/Egyptian “master” in the narrative.   The few exceptions, where an articular form of kyrios refers to God are translations of prepositional phrases and/or a very few cases where the Greek syntax requires a definite article (“post-positive” uses of the Greek δε, for Greek “techies”).

And remember that we’re talking about hundreds of instances on which to build the observation that the “anarthrous” forms of kyrios are preferred in the Pentateuch.  This pattern suggests that in these texts kyrios is being treated as if it is a name, not the common noun for “Sir/Lord/Master”.

In the final part of his essay, Wevers also makes brief notice of the pattern of usage in the “former prophets” (called “historical books” often by Christians), and it’s the same clear overwhelming dominance of the anarthrous kyrios as substitute for YHWH.

But the main/middle part of the essay is given to the translation practice in the Psalter, and here the pattern differs somewhat.  Wevers observes that it is “clear that the translator of the Psalter has not followed the strict pattern established by the translators of the Pentateuch.  To be sure, Κυριος does continue to represent the proper noun, ‘YHWH’, and it remains unarticulated in the majority of cases, but this is not a hard and fast rule” (p. 33).  And Wevers judges that in a number of instances the translator may be rendering the “qere” (the Hebrew oral substitute for YHWH that had become popular by the time of the translator, “adonay“), which the translator regularly renders with articular forms of kyrios.

As one example of the Psalter data, consider LXX Psalm 134 (Heb 135).  The Hebrew “halelu yah” is rendered Αλληλουια (“hallelujah”), but cf. the translation of the same expression in v. 3, αινειτε τον κυριον (the articular form).  It appears, however, that the translator didn’t take the “yah” to be the same thing as YHWH fully spelled out (as also the case in v. 4).  For in the psalm otherwise, he tends to use anarthrous forms of kyrios to render YHWH (5 times in vv. 1-5).  In vv. 19-21, however, the articular (accusative) forms of kyrios render Hebrew phrases with the particle signalling an accusative phrase, the Hebrew accusative phrasing here influencing the translator’s decisions (a translation-choice that we can observe in other Psalms too).

This clear dominance of the anarthrous kyrios as Greek equivalent of YHWH, a dominance exhibited already in the Pentateuch (which were the earliest Hebrew scriptures translated), suggests strongly that it had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.  I.e., the anarthrous kyrios served as virtually a proper name for God, a reverential substitute for YHWH.

There are implications for exegesis of the NT that are not sufficiently registered by exegetes and commentaries.  One would need to test things writing-by-writing in the NT, but it is a good hypothesis to test that there is often a distinction in connotation between the anarthrous and articular forms of kyrios.  I’ve noted, for example, a general pattern of usage in Acts (in the recently published essay mentioned in a previous posting here).  But conducting such an analysis through other NT writings is a project I’ll leave for the future (or for some industrious young scholar!).

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  1. I know that this is slightly off-topic, but your post reminds of something I’ve wondered about.

    You mention “The Hebrew “halelu yah”.” In the standard Hebrew form:


    there is not a vowel between the two lameds How did Greek, Latin et al. get a four syllable word out of a three syllable one?

  2. Richard Brown permalink

    I arrived here via Michael Heiser’s link to the post. Dr. Hurtado’s final paragraph especially prompts me to mention Richard Bauckham’s excellent work “Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church” wherein the above topic carries significant weight. Particularly his commendable reconstruction of Jude’s [apparent] Christology IMO would have suffered without his application of this important light from the LXX. Its a stimulating and important work well worth reading.

  3. Richard Putman permalink

    If it is to be argued that the Hebraic use of God’s name in the LXX was to alert the reader not to say the name but use kyrios instead, is it not then equally true that if the writer used iao he fully expected the reader to pronounce the name.

    The fact is that the LXX is not one book by one translator (it is not even one book by seventy translators), but a number of Greek versions of the Hebrew books which only became standardised around the time of Origen. So, some writers may have viewed the name too holy to pronounce and used some substitute whereas others would pronounce it quite freely. It seems that post Jamnia the copyists tended to substitute more and more.

    • Richard, if you read my posting more carefully you’ll see that I’ve already made precisely the points that (1) there was likely a variety of practice, at least across time, and (2) a variety of translators and translation-projects reflected in the LXX as we know it. Also, again (!), what copyists wrote and what readers read out are two distinguishable things. It’s pretty likely that the use of Hebrew YHWH in Greek manuscripts reflects the use of an oral substitute, just as the use of four dots does in Hebrew manuscripts. So, the practice of writing substitutes (e.g., four dots), and use of oral substitutes is much earlier than “Jamnia”.

  4. Dr. Hurtado,

    You mentioned:

    One would need to test things writing-by-writing in the NT, but it is a good hypothesis to test that there is often a distinction in connotation between the anarthrous and articular forms of kyrios… But conducting such an analysis through other NT writings is a project I’ll leave for the future (or for some industrious young scholar!).

    That sounds really interesting to me! Though it seems a bit daunting and complex – beyond the presence or absence of the article we would have to account for:

    * kurios referring to Jesus vs. kurios referring to a “master”
    * the grammar requiring or excluding the presence of an article
    * an Old Testament citation (or allusion) that may effect the article
    * textual variants

    I’m thinking the variants are tricky especially in an OT citation or allusion – we’ve got a lot of factors at play.

    I’d like to start collating some data about this – what’s a good place to start? Am I missing something?



    • I’d say start nowadays with a good digital means of analyzing texts, such as the Bibleworks programme. This allows you to search for specific forms, specific phrase combinations, etc.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    It seems that Pietersma and Wevers have correctly identified a pattern, namely that when kyrios stands for the divine name In the Christian LXX it tends to be anarthrous. Curiously what they have failed to do is provide any compelling reason why this pattern supports their own reconstruction of the history of the text, as Emanuel Tov pointed out:

    “According to Pietersma, the first translators wrote kyrios, mainly without the article, considered a personal name in the Greek Pentateuch, as ‘the written surrogate for the tetragram’. However, the internal LXX evidence pertaining to the anarthrous use of kyrios can also be explained as having been created by mechanical replacement of iao with kyrios by Christian scribes.” (‘The Greek Texts from the Judean Desert’, p. 20

    So yes, anarthrous use of kyrios, when it stands for the divine name, is a clear pattern in the LXX, but it no more corroborates an original kyrios in the LXX than it does iao or any other form.

    Instead, as Tov argues, the practice of transliterating proper names in the LXX, as well as the early LXX fragment of Leviticus that uses IAO, supports this as this original LXX rendering of the divine name.

    As for treatment of the divine name in the Psalms, it’s good to note that since Wevers wrote his article another early fragment of the Psalms has emerged that represents the divine name in Hebrew characters rather than kyrios. No pre-Christian manuscript supports the use of kyrios for the divine name. Each new fragment that emerges contradicts the hypothesis: around ten different fragments now and counting. These facts should be underlined in each and every discussion of the topic.

    • Yes, Donald, you’ve made your point several times now. I think it’s noted! My point is this: The manuscript evidence you cite also suggests that YHWH was NOT read out when the texts were read, but that (as other evidence suggests) a verbal/oral substitute was used. That seems to be suggested in the way that YHWH is written, set off from the surrounding text, marking it as distinguished in the way it is to be “read”.
      Other evidence suggests that the Hebrew substitute from a very early point, at least among some/many Jews, was “adonay”. The Greek substitute (increasingly in later second-temple time) seems to have been “kyrios”. To underscore the matter, we are dealing with TWO distinguishable phenomena: (1) How the divine name was written, and (2) how readers handled it in reading aloud.
      To use your own words, “In each and every discussion of the topic” we need to remember this too.
      But this isn’t the subject of my posting. So, please, don’t let’s rag on and on about the question of what “the” original mode of writing YHWH in Greek manuscripts may have been. LXX specialists are obviously divided, and it isn’t decisive for my point.

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