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The Name of God in the New Testament, George Howard, BAR 4:01, Mar 1978.

Did the earliest Gospels use Hebrew letters for the Tetragrammaton?

Many early copies of the New Testament abbreviate sacred words (nomina sacra). The earliest of these abbreviations stand for “God,” “Lord,” “Christ,” and “Jesus.” Abbreviations of these words were formed by writing their first and last letters and placing a line over them. Thus, using English to illustrate, “God” would appear asG ÷D÷ and “Lord” as L÷D÷.

The attempt to differentiate and dignify the sacred name of God goes back to pre-Christian times; it was done first by Jews.

From the Dead Sea Scrolls we know that Jewish scribes often distinguished the divine name Yahweh. (Yahweh is known as the Tetragrammaton because it consists of four consonant Hebrew letters, yod, he, vav, he, often written in English YHWH.) Frequently, the scribes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls would write the Tetragrammaton in old paleo-Hebrew script, although the scroll was otherwise written in square Aramaic script. An example is the Habakkuk commentary found in cave 1. In the portion reproduced in the color photograph, the Tetragrammaton appears twice in paleo-Hebrew script on line 7 word 3 (reading from right to left) and on line 14 word 7. The rest of the text is in square Aramaic script—the same script used as a basis for writing Hebrew today. The Tetragrammaton is used in the Habakkuk commentary only in Biblical quotations. Whenever reference is made to God in the commentary portion, the generic word el (God) is used. This is true not only in the Habakkuk commentary, but in other Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) documents as well.

The Qumran covenanters had other devices for circumventing the use of God’s name. Sometimes they would write four or five dots in place of the Tetragrammaton. In the Community Rule, for example, the writer quotes Isaiah 40-3 as follows- “Prepare in the wilderness the way of . … ”. We know from the Masoretic Text that the four dots stand for the Tetragrammaton YHWH. This same passage is quoted again in a document discovered in Qumran Cave 4 (4QTanhumim) with four dots representing the divine name. At times, dots were placed above the Tetragrammaton when it had been written by mistake, apparently as a means of canceling the word without actually erasing it.

Jews early adopted the practice of not pronouncing the divine name when Scripture was read aloud, even in prayer. The word adonai (Lord) was (and is to this day) read by Jews instead of the Tetragrammaton YHWH which appears on the page.

Such practices as writing the divine name in archaic script, of substituting dots for it, or of avoiding it altogether suggests that to Jews the sacred name for God was a special word which required special treatment both in writing and oral reading.

Christian Scriptures frequently quote passages from the Old Testament in which the divine name YHWH appears in the original Hebrew. In these quotations, however, the divine name is translated into the Greek word kyrios (Lord), or occasionally theos (God). Both of these words are generic words for God, not limited to the Hebrew God whose name is Yahweh and who is represented in the Hebrew Bible by the Tetragrammaton. Most of these Old Testament quotations in the New come from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made by Jews in pre-Christian times. The Septuagint (or at least the extant, later Christian copies of it) usually renders the Tetragrammaton by kyrios; the New Testament simply follows this practice.

In 1944, W. G. Waddell discovered the remains of an Egyptian papyrus scroll (Papyrus Fuad 266) dating to the first or second century B.C. which included part of the Septuagint. In no instance, however, was YHWH translated kyrios. Instead the Tetragrammaton itself—in square Aramaic letters—was written into the Greek text. This parallels the Qumran Covenanters’ use of the palaeo-Hebrew script for the Divine Name in a document which was otherwise written in square Aramaic script.

An even closer parallel to the practice Waddell found in Papyrus Fuad 266 comes from second century A.D. Jewish translations of the Old Testament into Greek by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. In 1897, F. C. Burkitt published some fragments of Aquila’s Greek Old Testament which had been found in the debris of a geniza (a storeroom for worn out manuscripts) of the old synagogue in Cairo. These fragments which are the underwriting of palimpsesta scraps clearly show the Hebrew Tetragrammaton in paleo-Hebrew script written into the otherwise Greek text. A number of other similar examples have also come to light.

At the end of the last century, Giovanni Cardinal Mercati discovered a palimpsest in the Ambrosian Library of Milan containing parts of the Psalter to Origen’s Hexaplab (lacking the Hebrew column). All the columns show the Tetragrammaton written in square Aramaic script, although the texts are otherwise written in Greek.

Fragments of Psalm 22 from Origen’s Hexapla, found in the Cairo geniza, were published in 1900 by C. Taylor. These fragments show the Tetragrammaton written into the Greek columns of Aquila, Symmachus, and the Septuagint in the strange form of PIPI. This is a clumsy attempt to represent with Greek letters what the Tetragrammaton looked like in Hebrew. The Greek letter pi somewhat resembles the Hebrew letter he.

The Fuad papyrus scroll is the earliest example we have examined, dating to the first or second century B.C. Here for the first time we have clear evidence that in pre-Christian times the Septuagint, at least sometimes, did not translate the divine name with the Greek word kyrios as had been thought; rather it preserved the Hebrew word YHWH itself. Could it be that Jews had always written the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew into the text of their Greek Bibles and that this practice represented a continuous tradition from the earliest Septuagint through the second century translations of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion? Or is the Fuad manuscript a maverick, the only one in its day to do such a thing?

In 1952, fragments of a scroll of the Twelve Prophets in Greek were found in a cave at Nahal Hever in the Judean Desert. Père D. Barthelemy announced the discovery of the scroll in 1953 and ten years later published a transcription of it. In all probability the document dates to the beginning of the first Christian century. Like the Fuad papyrus it too writes the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew—in old style script—in an otherwise Greek text.

At Qumran cave 4, a fragment of the Greek translation of Leviticus confirms that the divine name was preserved in the pre-Christian Septuagint. In this scroll, dated by P. W. Skehan to the first century B.C., the Tetragrammaton is transliterated with the Greek letters IAO.

Thus, we have three separate pre-Christian copies of the Greek Septuagint Bible and in not a single instance is the Tetragrammaton translated kyrios or for that matter translated at all. We can now say with near certainty that it was a Jewish practice before, during, and after the New Testament period to write the divine name in paleo-Hebrew or square Aramaic script or in transliteration right into the Greek text of Scripture. This presents a striking comparison with the Christian copies of the Septuagint and the quotations of it in the New Testament which translate the Tetragrammaton as kyrios or theos.

Why do Christian copies of the Septuagint reflect a practice so radically different from that of the Jews in designating the Divine Name? Or do they? We have already mentioned that while Christians translated the Tetragrammaton as either kyrios or theos, they abbreviated these surrogates by writing only their first and last letters and by placing a line over them to attract attention. What was the purpose of these Christian abbreviations?

In 1907, Ludwig Traube suggested that the nomina sacra were of Hellenistic Jewish origin. The first of these, he suggested, was theos, which was abbreviated without vowels so as to follow the Hebrew custom of writing consonants only. Soon theos was followed by kyrios which became an alternate surrogate and the first and last letters became an alternate contraction. According to Traube, these contractions gave rise to the belief that the important thing was to write sacred words in abbreviated form. This resulted in a number of words being written in a similar way (for example, spirit, father and heaven).

In 1959, A. H. R. E. Paap took up the issue again and argued that the system of contracted nomina sacra was of Jewish-Christian origin emanating from Alexandria about 100 A.D.

It seems to me, however, that a much better case can be made that the system of contractions is of Gentile Christian origin. The divine name YHWH was and is the most sacred word in the Hebrew language. So it is hardly likely that Jews of any sort would have removed it from their Bibles. Furthermore, we know now from discoveries in Egypt and the Judean desert that Jews wrote the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew even in their Greek texts. In all likelihood Jewish Christians felt the same way about the divine name and continued to preserve it in Hebrew in their Bibles. A famous rabbinic passage (Talmud Shabbat 13.5) discusses the problem of destroying heretical texts (very probably including books of Jewish-Christians). The problem arises for the rabbinic writer because the heretical texts contain the divine name, and their wholesale destruction would include the destruction of the divine name. This further suggests that Jewish Christians did not translate the divine name into Greek.

But Gentile Christians, unlike Jewish Christians, had no traditional attachment to the Hebrew Tetragrammaton and no doubt often failed even to recognize it. Gentile scribes who had never before seen Hebrew writing (especially in its archaic form) could hardly be expected to preserve the divine name. Perhaps this contributed to the use of surrogates like kyrios and theos for the Tetragrammaton. The contracted form of the surrogates marked the sacred nature of the name standing behind them in a way which was convenient for Gentile scribes to write. At the same time the abbreviated surrogates may have appeased Jewish Christians who continued to feel the necessity of differentiating the divine name from the rest of the text. After the system of contractions was in use for some time, its purpose was forgotten and many other contracted words which had no connection with the Tetragrammaton were introduced.

Assuming this to be generally correct, I offer the following scenario of the history of the Tetragrammaton in the Greek Bible as a whole, including both testaments. First, as to the Old Testament- Jewish scribes always preserved the Tetragrammaton in their copies of the Septuagint both before and after the New Testament period. In all probability Jewish Christians wrote the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew as well. Toward the end of the first Christian century, when the church had become predominantly Gentile, the motive for retaining the Hebrew name for God was lost and the words kyrios and theos were substituted for it in Christian copies of Old Testament Septuagints. Both kyrios and theos were written in abbreviated form in a conscious effort to preserve the sacred nature of the divine name. Soon the original significance of the contractions was lost and many other contracted words were added.

A similar pattern probably evolved with respect to the New Testament. When the Septuagint which the New Testament church used and quoted contained the Hebrew form of the divine name, the New Testament writers no doubt included the Tetragrammaton in their quotations. But when the Hebrew form for the divine name was eliminated in favor of Greek substitutes in the Septuagint, it was eliminated also from the New Testament quotations of the Septuagint.

Thus toward the end of the first Christian century, the use of surrogates (kyrios and theos) and their contractions must have crowded out the Hebrew Tetragrammaton in both Testaments. Before long the divine name was lost to the Gentile church except insofar as it was reflected in the contracted surrogates or remembered by scholars. Soon, even the contracted substitutes lost their original significance and were joined by a host of other abbreviated nomina sacra which had no connection with the divine name at all.

Is there any way for us, at this late date, to calculate the effect which this change in the Bible had on the second century church? It is of course impossible to know with certainty, but the effect must have been significant. First, a number of passages must have taken on an ambiguity which the original lacked. For example, the second century church read, “The Lord said to my Lord” (Matthew 22-44, Mark 12-36, Luke 20-42), a reading which is as ambiguous as it is imprecise. The first century church probably read, “YHWH said to my Lord.”

To the second century church, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1-3) must have meant one thing, since it immediately followed the words- “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” But to the First Century Church it must have meant something else since they read, “Prepare the way of YHWH.”

The second century church read 1 Corinthians 1-31, “The one who boasts, let him boast in the Lord,” which was probably considered a reference to Christ mentioned in verse 30. But to the first century church, it probably referred to God mentioned in verse 29 since they read, “The one who boasts let him boast in YHWH.”

These examples are sufficient to suggest that the removal of the Tetragrammaton from the New Testament and its replacement with the surrogates kyrios and theos blurred the original distinction between the Lord God and the Lord Christ, and in many passages made it impossible to tell which one was meant. This is supported by the fact that in a number of places where Old Testament quotations are cited, there is a confusion in the manuscript tradition whether to read God or Christ in the discussion surrounding the quotation. Once the Tetragrammaton was removed and replaced by the surrogate “Lord”, scribes were unsure whether “Lord” meant God or Christ. As time went on, these two figures were brought into even closer unity until it was often impossible to distinguish between them. Thus it may be that the removal of the Tetragrammaton contributed significantly to the later Christological and Trinitarian debates which plagued the church of the early Christian centuries.

Whatever the case, the removal of the Tetragrammaton probably created a different theological climate from that which existed during the New Testament period of the first century. The Jewish God who had always been carefully distinguished from all others by the use of his Hebrew name lost some of his distinctiveness with the passing of the Tetragrammaton. How much He lost may be known only by the discovery of a first century New Testament in which the Hebrew name YHWH still appears.

(For further details, see George Howard, “The Tetragram and the New Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (1977) 63–83.)

a. Palimpsests are parchments written over erased earlier writing.

Posted in: Maccabean Period

16 Comments on "The Name of God in the New Testament, George Howard, BAR 4:01, Mar 1978."

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  1. Julie Pruitt says:

    I totally agree with your article. The name of Yahweh was removed from all scripture despite the admonition not to add or take away from the word of Yahweh. This has caused great confusion. I now call on the name of Yahweh since I found out that the name exists several years ago (before that, and although I had been a Christian for over 25 years, I didn’t know the name existed). What I ALWAYS run up against is this scripture: “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved.” I used to use this scripture myself all the time. Now, I have to tell people I don’t know. I do know for a fact that people throughout the centuries have “tweaked” scriptures. I do suspect that some of the epistles are not written by whom we believe they were written. I don’t even think that the epistles were meant to be taken as the “word of God.” I don’t call Christ, “Jesus.” I call him by his real name, “Yeshua.” I’m pretty much considered a heretic. I’ve been called it to my face. However, after much fasting, prayer and study, I know that what I have discovered in the last several years is true. But since people have monkeyed with scriptures and the New Testament writings, I still believe some pieces of the puzzle are missing. I constantly pray we find them. “Do not remove the ancient landmarks which your fathers have set.” You know why not? Because people get lost without the landmarks. Taking the name of Yahweh out of his word is the biggest mistake ever made. It has robbed people throughout the centuries of having his name, which he gave us, to call upon. Thank you for the article.

  2. Darrell Bunger says:

    The name of God is sacred, yes, and I couldn’t agree more with the conclusions in this article. @Julie, one must conclude that those “monkeying” with the scriptures as you said will be held accountable. The one thing I did not see in this article concerning the divine name of God is the scriptural basis for seeing the name of God replaced by other words and symbols.

    The one thing satan desired from humans in the garden of eden was worship. To do this to the level he desired you need a name. Satan’s original name has never been revealed in scriptures as God would make sure he or his demons could never receive that which they desired most – the adulation and worship by humans calling him by name. It is only God YHWH who deserves this worship and honor. Jesus even told him so when Satan tempted the Christ himself with all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only worship him! (Matt 4:8-10, Luke 4:5-8)

    If you read the entire book of Jeremiah it is very clear in its prophecy of how the end of days would go. Specifically chapter 23 where it identifies a large group of false prophets. These prophets, under demonic inspiration, intended to make God’s people forget his name (Jer 23:27).

    I find it very reasonable to conclude that if the 1st century translating christians who wrote the copies of the Septuagint (Hebrew/Aramaic-OT in greek) made it a point to leave the hebrew YHWH intact amidst the greek translated texts then that is a strong indication of the sacredness and importance of that name being present.

  3. Julie Pruitt says:

    Thank you Darrell Bunger for sharing the Jeremiah scriptures. I will look into them. I agree with what you write.

  4. Senzeni says:

    I long to know more of the original Hebrew Scripts and even to learn the Hebrew Language. I need to know know more in detail the sacred Name and is it possible to have a Bible with the Original Name of YHWH and The Christ Jesus distintly so that I may understand when I read passage when it is talking about Yeshua and when talking about YHWH. What is the nearest best Bible translation that I can get?

  5. Senzeni says:

    I long to know more of the original Hebrew Scripts and even to learn the Hebrew Language. I need to know know more in detail the sacred Name and is it possible to have a Bible with the Original Name of YHWH and The Christ Jesus distintly so that I may understand when I read passage when it is talking about Yeshua and when talking about YHWH. What is the nearest best Bible translation that I can get?

  6. Patricia Kirschling says:

    Visit JW.ORG. You can download the Bible translation that has restored God’s name to its original place in the scriptures. There is also a bible study aid…What does the Bible Really Teach…. that helps us to understand the meaning of the scriptures.

  7. Julie Pruitt says:

    Hi Patricia —

    As sincere as the Jehovah Witnesses are, they do have the name wrong. It is not “Jehovah.” There were no “J sounds” in the Hebrew language, and there still are no “J” sounds in the Hebrew language. The “J sounds” throughout the Bible came about after the Bible was translated into English. At the time that the Hebrew scriptures were being translated into English, the English language itself was transforming dramatically.

    The English letter “J” is one of the last letters added to the English alphabet, at about the time that the Hebrew scriptures were being translated into English. You will notice a pattern in the change. Usually, any Hebrew word which began with Yod (“Y sound”) and it was followed by a consonant, it was given the letter “I” when transliterated into English. Here are some examples: Israel, Isaac, Italy, Issachar, Isaiah, Ishmael, to name a few.

    Any Hebrew word that began with Yod and was followed by a vowel, took the new letter “J” at the beginning. Here are some examples: Jerusalem, Joshua, Judah, Jacob, Joel, Joseph, Jael, and more.

    All these words in Hebrew began with the Yod or the “Y sound.” It was the transliteration into English that produced the “J” letter (which was still a “Y sound” at the time of these early English transliterations). But over the centuries, the letter J has evolved into the hard J sound we have today. German speakers still have the original “Y sound” representing their letter Y, such as in Johann [Yo-hahn] Sebastian Bach.

    The “V” sound (sometimes found in pronouncing YHWH) is a shift in the Hebrew language. In Modern Hebrew, the Vav replaced the Ancient Hebrew letter Waw; or in other words, the “V sound” replaced the “W sound.”

    All living languages are constantly evolving. This is nothing new. It has been happening since languages began. Anyhow, when God revealed his name to people, most scholars agree that the sound in YHWH that stands for the third letter in the tetragrammaton was a “W sound.”

    I have talked with people of the Jehovah Witness faith. They have agreed that what I have said is true. It’s just very hard for people to break away from traditions that we’ve been taught (often traditions that we’ve been taught since we were children).

    One thing that we all must remember is to follow God and his truth, not the traditions of man. It can be very hard. Christ was crucified because he pointed out that the religious leaders of his day were teaching for doctrine the commandments of men instead of God’s truth.

    Always follow God and not men or religion. Yes, you will probably be labeled a “weirdo,” but, so was Yeshua Christ (Christ means “anointed one” in Greek). Remember, Yeshua the Christ was “… despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).

    “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18, 19).

    In other words, don’t expect to win any popularity contests in this world if you follow God in all His Spirit and truth.

  8. love spells says:

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  9. Rachel says:

    With all due respect, I still have no idea what difference this would make. Jesus is God and Lord and His Father is God (Yahweh, Jehovah, Adonai, el Shaddai, the Tetragrammaton YHWH, etc etc…

    As time progressed, Gentiles along with Jews realized that Jesus is indeed God, the God of Torah and of their Holy Scriptures.

    This article really does nothing as far as evidence to point that Jesus is not God or that the writings in the New Testament are in error

  10. Alan Crabb says:

    Julie Pruitt : you comment “As sincere as the Jehovah Witnesses are, they do have the name wrong. It is not “Jehovah.” ” Two comments if I may? (1) This is a very anglo-centric view. Jehovah’s Witnesses internationally use the local form of the name – check out their website using the language box. This also applies to their New World Translation of the Bible. They do not insist on ‘Jehovah’, that was adopted in English speaking countries because it was common current usage (e.g. in the original American Standard Version of the Bible). (2) JW’s tend to resist ‘Yahweh’ and are probably right to do so. The original pronunciation is not known but search Youtube for Nehemia Gordon’s lectures : he favours Ye-ho-VAH. For Jesus he favours Ye-ho-SHUA. Kind regards.

  11. T H says:

    Maybe Patricia needs to watch this.

  12. T H says:

    I’m sorry…I meant Julia, not Patricia.

  13. Julie Pruitt says:

    Alan Crabb — you don’t change the holy name of Yahweh. The use of “Jehovah” was created by English translators who were incorrect. Why would you even want to continue in half a truth? When I find more truth in God — I follow it. I don’t care for the traditions of man. Don’t ever forget who had Christ (Y’shua) killed. It was the highest of religious leaders. Religion kills God’s truth and teach for doctrine the commandments of man.

  14. Alan Crabb says:

    Hello Julie : re your comment of Feb 15. I don’t defend any position, and what JW’s believe is up to them. I just suggest that you get your facts right. As for vocalisations of YHWH, ‘Yahweh’is actually LATER than ‘Jehovah’. ‘Yahweh’ was first mooted by Gesenius about 1820, whereas ‘Jehovah’ is found from 1539 onwards. No vocalisation can be defended definitively as none appears in the manuscripts (but see Nehemia Gordon for vowel pointings). Kind regards.

  15. Julie Pruitt says:

    Alan Crabb — there are no J sounds in Hebrew now or in the past. Yeshua did not speak English to people. The scriptures were written before the English language existed. The creation of the name of Jehovah is man-made by English translators.

    Somebody who doesn’t know how to use English punctuation (you, Alan) is hardly the person whom I would seek to teach English history. I am not answering you anymore, Alan. It’s obvious to me that you have very little knowledge of the subject.

  16. Alan Crabb says:

    Hello Julie : firstly I am sorry if either I or my punctuation have offended you. I will leave this conversation as follows (1) Your statements were incorrect, both about the beliefs of JW’s and the origin of the vocalisations of YHWH. (2) You have not responded to the arguments made (did you check Gesenius?), and (3) you are outraged by arguments I have not made. The points you make above are entirely unconnected to anything I have said. You simply have not understood. Yes, ‘Jehovah’ is a vocalisation made up by translators. So is ‘Yahweh’. Neither of them appear in the manuscripts, and I gave you the dates when both first appeared in English. Ignore me by all means, but please don’t ignore the evidence – check for yourself. Kind regards.

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