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Name of God in the NT, the

Under the above heading appeared an article in the March 1978 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The article was written by George Howard, Associate Professor of Religion and Hebrew at the University of Georgia. His primary thesis is that the earliest Gospels, although written in Greek, used the Hebrew Tetragrammaton. (This is the technical term to describe the name "Yahweh", so called because in basic, unvowelled Hebrew it consists of four consonants -- best translated into English as "YHWH").

According to Howard, we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that Jewish scribes often distinguished the Divine Name by writing YHWH in ancient Hebrew script while the remainder of the verse was written in the more modern, or Aramaic-type script. (This is somewhat equivalent to our italicization of key words). Sometimes this differentiation was carried one step further, and four dots were substituted for the sacred name, it being felt, apparently, that "Yahweh" was so sacred that it should not even be written. We know also that conservative Jews adopted quite early the practice of not pronouncing "Yahweh" in Scripture reading or prayer, but saying "Adonai" instead. (As Christadelphians we are generally familiar with a similar practice in our devotions -- though for a much different reason: many of us regularly substitute 'spirit' for 'ghost' and 'ecclesia' for 'church' in our reading of the King James version).

These traditional practices suggest that to Jews the personal name of God was a special word which required special treatment, both in writing and speaking.

The New Testament texts that have been available to modern Biblical scholars use the Greek word "Kyrios" (Lord) and occasionally, "Theos" (God) when quoting from the Old Testament in which YHWH appears. In this they agree with the practice adopted in the only available complete texts of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made by Jews in pre-Christian times. However, a few scattered textual fragments of the Septuagint which have come to light during the last century have used not "Kyrios", but the Tetragrammaton written in Hebrew in an otherwise Greek text. This indicates that, at least in some instances, the ancient practice of a differentiated Tetragrammaton was carried forward into the Greek texts of Scripture.

These few fragments might have been dismissed as rare exceptions, were it not for the discoveries in the 1950's of Old Testament scrolls in the Judean desert that almost certainly date to the first Christian century. In these Greek writings the name of God was written either in old-style Hebrew, or transliterated with the Greek letters IAO, which would have been pronounced "YAH". With this added evidence we may now say with near certainty that it was a Jewish practice before, during and after New Testament times to preserve "Yahweh" in Biblical texts. This presents a striking contrast with the later Christian copies of the Septuagint and the standard New Testament texts.

Howard postulates that the old Jewish custom of reserving God's name in veiled symbols for the Tetragrammaton continued among the predominantly Jewish church in the first century. A famous rabbinical passage (Talmud Shabbat 13) from that period discusses the problem of destroying heretical texts (very probably containing books of Jewish Christians). The problem arises for the rabbinical writer because the heretical texts contain the divine name, and their wholesale destruction would include the destruction of that name also. This further suggests that the Jewish Christians did not translate the Divine Name into Greek, since a corrupted translation of the name would have posed no such problem to scrupulous Jews.

Further, the professor suggests that, as the wave of Gentile converts began to overwhelm the Jewish element in the ecclesias, this special treatment of God's name began to decline. Gentile scribes who lacked familiarity with Hebrew writing could hardly be expected to preserve "Yahweh" (especially in its coded forms of archaic script or dots). Perhaps this contributed to the copyists' use of substitutes like "Kyrios" and "Theos" as new manuscripts were created, and the Hebrew name gradually phased out in both the Septuagint and New Testament by the end of the first century. It is not difficult to imagine the next step, in which the understanding of the name as well was lost to a church drifting rapidly towards apostasy.

The effect of this loss was no doubt serious for the second-century church: even today we may experience certain difficulties in Scriptural interpretation due to the imprecise translation of the divine name. Examples abound:

"The LORD said unto my Lord" (Mat 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42) would be quite confusing were it not a direct citation from the Old Testament. By contrast, the early church may have read, "Yahweh said to my Lord" -- clear and simple.

"Prepare the way of..." (Mark 1:3) Whom? Yahweh (as in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1) or Jesus (as Mark 1:1 indicates)? Or perhaps both, in the sense that God manifested Himself through Christ? but who can definitely say? We possess no copy of Mark that uses the Tetragrammaton, therefore "Kyrios" is veiled in ambiguity.

"The one who boasts, let him boast in the Lord" (1Co 1:31). Whom, God or Christ?

These examples are sufficient to suggest (if Howard's hypothesis is true) that the removal of "Yahweh" from the New Testament and its replacement with "Kyrios" blurred the original clear distinction between the Lord God and the Lord Christ. "Kyrios" thenceforth was pressed into double duty -- as a standard title of Jesus "the Lord" and also as the New Testament equivalent of "Yahweh". In many passages it is nothing but guesswork as to which one is meant. As time went on, those who had known Jesus in the flesh became fewer and fewer in the ecclesias, and superstition and ignorance made a natural resurgence. Thus these two figures, God and His Son, were brought into such close proximity that it became next to impossible to distinguish them. Therefore it may be that the removal of the Tetragrammaton from the New Testament contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the related obscuring of the doctrine of God-manifestation.

It is a fairly common Christadelphian practice in some ecclesias to substitute the Hebrew names of God -- Yahweh, Elohim and so forth -- for the extremely vague "Lord" and "God" of the Old Testament. This is useful enough, provided that the true meanings of the original names are known, but it may also contribute to the confusion of those not sufficiently grounded in the Truth. For this reason this practice should be followed discriminatingly.

In New Testament reading, however, the student who wishes to know and use the appropriate Divine Name must realize (again, given the above thesis) that uncertainties due to transcription exist. He must therefore examine the context of each passage before making an educated guess as to whether "Kyrios" means God or Jesus. And still he is faced with the unsettling conclusion that the Scripture message in its original clarity is, to some degree, hidden from him.

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