The Name in the New Testament

It is well known that from some centuries Before the Common Era the religious Y'hudim have refrained from pronouncing the Holy Tetragrammaton - YHWH. This practice however did not extend to it's non-use in written form, even in non-Hebrew copies of the Tanak and other religious literature. Frequently for example, the scribes who penned the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls would write the Sacred Name in old paleo-Hebrew script, although the scroll was otherwise written in Aramaic. Likewise with pre-Christian a non-Christian copies of the Septuagint where in an otherwise Greek text, the Sacred Name is preserved in either Hebrew or Aramaic script. At Qumran cave 4, in a fragment of the Greek translation of Vayikra (Leviticus), rather than translating it as 'kyrios' the scribes have at least transliterated the Sacred Name with the Greek letters IAO. Thus, on the ever mounting evidence available it can be said with near certainty that it was common Jewish practice before, during and after the NT period to write e Sacred Name in paleo-Hebrew or square Aramaic or at the very least in transliteration right into a Greek text of Scripture, rather than 'erase' it altogether by translating it as 'kyrios' or 'theos'. This of course is in stark contrast to later Christian versions of the Septuagint, as well as the Greek NT, where the Sacred Name has been 'erased' by the use of Greek substitutes.

Scholars today are rediscovering a truth which the early Church fathers took for granted, most if not all of the so-called 'New Testament' was originally penned in Hebrew or Aramaic, the most probable exceptions being Paul's letters to non-Jewish believers. As just one of many examples of this early Church knowledge Jerome(331-420 C.E.) says that "Matthew first composed a Gospel of Messiah in Judea for the benefit of the Jewish believers, in the Hebrew tongue and character. Who afterwards translated it to Greek is not sufficiently certain. Moreover, that very Hebrew Gospel is in the Library of Caesarea, which Pamphilus the martyr collected with the greatest diligence. I myself also translated it, with permission of the Nazarenes, who make use of that volume in Beroea, a town of Syria." And again, he speaks of the Gospel used by the Nazarenes and Ebionites, "which we recently translated From Hebrew into Greek, and which is by most called the authentic gospel of Matthew."

The fact that the extant Greek manuscripts of the NT use the Septuagint for quotes from the Tanak, as well as substituting 'kyrios' for the Sacred Name, is probably one of the most important pieces of evidence that the Greek NT was not composed by any o the original Jewish believers, who would have surely used the Hebrew text of the Tanak and retained the Sacred Name, but are in fact later compositions by the non-Jewish Church.

The original Jewish followers of Y'hoshua, that is, the sect of the N'tsarim (popularly, though erroneously rendered as Nazarenes) were, like all other Jewish sects at the time, zealous of Torah and continued to live by the mitsvot of Moshe as well as the Jewish traditions(see Acts 21:20-24 and elsewhere), a fact implicit in their very name - N'tsarim, from the root word 'natsar'(No. 5341 in Strong’s) meaning to obey, observe, to guard; to the Semitic ear, so fond of word association, this name would be mmediately linked to the Jewish term "Notsray HaTorah" keepers or guardians of the Law (see also Hebrew text of Jer.31:6). Accordingly, the question arises, would the original Jewish - N'tsarim scribes have been any less scrupulous in preserving the Sacred Name when first recording the life and teachings of Y'hoshua in their Hebrew or Aramaic documents? It seems most unlikely, the divine name YHWH was and is the most sacred word in the Hebrew language, and so it is inconceivable that religious Jews of a sort would have removed it from any of their religious documents. How then did the 'erasing' of the Sacred Name in the Greek NT come about?

George Howard, Associate Professor of Religion and Hebrew at the University of Georgia, postulates that the later Gentile Christians, unlike the original Jewish believers, had no traditional reverence for the Hebrew Sacred Name and no doubt often even failed to recognise it, and that its eventual replacement with Greek surrogates paralleled its substitution in the non-Jewish copies of the Septuagint. Toward the end of the first Christian century, when the Church had become predominantly Gentile, as well as anti-Jewish, the motive for retaining the Hebrew Sacred Name was lost and the Greek substitutes 'kyrios' and 'theos' were used in the Christian copies of the Septuagint. And thus the compilers of the latter Greek NT texts, using these defective Septuagints, followed suit.

What is the significant effect that this has had on the church from the second century on? Howard writes that a number of NT passages must have taken on an ambiguity which the original lacked. For example, the second century church read,

"The Lord said to my Lord" (Matt.22:24)


"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 believers it must have meant something else since they read, "Prepare the way of YHWH."

The second century church read 1Cor.l: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 believers it probably referred to God mentioned in verse 29 since they read, "The one who boasts, let him boast in YHWH."

Howard goes on to say that these examples are sufficient to suggest that the removal of the Tetragrammaton from the NT and its replacement with the Greek surrogates 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 the "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. Thus it may be that the removal of the Sacred Name contributed significantly to the later Christological and Trinitarian debates Which plagued the church of the early Christian centuries. In regards to this whole issue Howard poses a number of questions among them

(i) What part did heresy play in the formation of the NT text. Did the removal of the Tetragram play a role in the split between the Ebionites and the Gentile church; and if so, did the Ebionite movement cause the Gentile church to restructure even more ts NT toward a higher christology?

(ii) What are the implications of the use of the divine name in the NT for current christological studies? Are these studies based on the NT text as it appeared in the first century, or are they based on an altered text which represents a time in church istory when the difference between God and Christ was confused in the text and blurred in the minds of churchmen? Can it be that current scenarios of NT christology are descriptions of second-and-third-century theology and not that of the first?

As Howard himself summarises. "Whatever the case. the removal of the Tetragrammaton probably created a different theological climate from that which existed during the New Testament period for 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 only be known by the discovery of a first century New Testament in which the name YHWH appears."


George HOWARD - "The Tetragram and the New Testament", Journal of Biblical Literature, 96/1(1977) 63-83.

" " - "The Name of God in the New Testament", Biblical Archaeology Review, March 1978, pgs.12-14, 56.

[Editor's Note: George Howard is known for his work on Even Bohan or the Touchstone, a version of Matthew that may reflect the earlier Aramaic text used by the 'Evyonim before Christian rewriting and tampering. Look for more on this subject to come.]

Copyright 1997/5757 Shemayah ben-Avraham