Church of God, New World Ministries

Did Jesus Christ or the Apostles Use The Name Yahweh?

It is supposed in some circles that Yahweh, or perhaps Yahvah should be the principle name by which we address God. While it will be admitted on all hands that God is jealous over His name (especially its significance) one might wonder if that “jealousy” extends to the exclusive use and pronunciation of YHWH. For all of us who wish to live as God’s children, we have a divine arbiter who can settle all such matters for us, that is, our Savior.

If we can determine that Jesus Christ constantly (or even occasionally) used and pronounced the name YHWH, then perhaps there is some justification for our using it today.

But what if Christ never pronounced the name? What if He avoided its use altogether? It then becomes a different matter.

The truth is, it can be proved absolutely that Christ never used the name Yahweh even when He spoke Hebrew or Aramaic to the people of Palestine!

Jesus Christ preached to the Jews of Jerusalem, Judaea and Galilee in the period of the Second Temple. He taught publicly for over three years. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish people heard Him. If Christ had used the divine name YHWH in the midst of that Jewish community, He would have been accused of utter blasphemy and judged worthy of excommunication from that society!

WHY? Because NO ONE was permitted to pronounce the divine name in the time of Christ. This can be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Why was there such fear of pronouncing the name YHWH among Jews, in the time of Christ? It seems ludicrous, even bordering on superstition, and perhaps there is some truth in that assessment, but the Jews did have a major reason why they never uttered the divine name. There was actually a bibical command which, as the Jews interpreted it, clearly forbid the pronouncing of his name.

The whole matter seems absurd. Yet, was it? Actually, there are two verses in the Old Testament which can be interpreted as a prohibition against phonetically expressing the name of YHWH. These scriptures are found in Lev. 24:11, 16. They say in our Authorized Version the following: “ And the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord (YHWH), and he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord (YHWH) he shall surely be put to death.”

These two words “blasphemed” and “blasphemeth” come from the Hebrew verb nachav. The word nachav is clearly susceptible of more than one meaning. As Davidson’s Lexicon shows, the verb can signify “to bore” or “to perforate.” The Authorized Version does on occasion translate nachav as “pierce” (II Kings 18:21), or “bored” (II Kings 12:9), or “strike through” (Hab. 3:14). By extension it can mean “to pierce” (as in speech) or to give “cutting remarks.” This is tantamount to “cursing” or to “blaspheming.” It is also used this way a few times in the Bible. But another meaning, and one which is commonly used in the Old Testament, is “to declare distinctly” (Davidson). It means “to express precisely,” “to say clearly,” or “to mane with precision.” It is used this way in I Chronicles 12:31 and 16:41; II Chronicles 28:15 and 31:19; Ezra 8:20; Numbers 1:17; Isaiah 62:2 and Amos 6:1. There is no question about it. The word nachav can mean, as one of its prime meaning, “to pronounce or express distinctly.”

It thus becomes clear that the word nachav might mean either “to blaspheme” or “to pronounce distinctly.” And this is where the trouble comes. The Jews about the time of Nehemiah began to wonder just how nachav in Lev. 24:11, 16 was to be interpreted. While the traditional (and certainly the correct) way was to say it meant “to blaspheme,” it could just as well mean, “to pronounce distinctly.” This is a fact which no one can argue with. Now, taking the latter meaning as the correct rendering of nachav, Lev. 24:11 would read like this: “And the Israelitish woman’s son pronounced distinctly the name of YHWH, and cursed.” Verse 16 could be: “and he that pronounced distinctly the name of YHWH, he shall surely be put to death.”

Looking at nachav in this fashion, the Jews soon decided they were on far safer ground not even to express or pronounce the divine tetragrammaton. Soon after the time of Nehemiah they began “to play it safe” in regard to the name of YHWH. They came to believe that Lev. 24:11, 16 commanded one not to pronounce the name because it was so holy, which is the motive why some people today feel they must pronounce it, because it is so holy! Neither, of course, is correct!

From the time of Moses to the period of Jeremiah, the name YHWH was used freely without any fear of pronouncing it. The Lachish Letters written in the time Jeremiah used the term YHWH indiscriminately and showed that it was commonly used even in everyday parlance. Immediately after the Babylonian Captivity, we find Ezra the priest preaching before the people in Jerusalem using the name YHWH ( Neh. 8:1-8). However, a change in Jewish attitude concerning its use commences about this time. With Nehemiah (during the latter part of Ezra’s life), it has been noticed by scholars that “Nehemiah almost wholly shuns its use” ( Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 39). About the time of Nehemiah we meet with a movement to be careful in relation to the use of YHWH. The common people were told not to utter the name. Only the priests were privileged to retain the pronounciation of it because it was included in certain benedictions prescribed in the Law which they were compelled to read to the people at the Temple. The Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered Name of God, was fully pronounced only by the priests in the Temple when blessing the people. Everywhere else it was pronounced “Adonai.” (Note toAbodah Zarah, the Talmud, p. 90, Soncino).

Now, as time went on, the use of the name became even further restricted. Its use was finally confined to the high priest and even he might pronounce it only on the Day of Atonement.

The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia states: “The rabbis, however, were certain that the true name of God was the Tetragrammaton. In the period of the Second Temple YHVH was never pronounced except by the high priest on Yom Kippur vol. 6, p. 7). We are told by R. H. Charles, the translator of the Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha published by Oxford University Press, that the Day of Atonement “was the only occasion on which the Holy Name was pronounced.”

Jewish history, as related in the Talmud, shows that Simon the high priest (300 to 270 B.C.) was able to utter the divine name on the Day of Atonement throughout all his pontificate. Sirach, author of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, wrote about 180 B.C. that Simon the Righteous, while giving his glorious benedictions had been “privileged to pronounce his (the Eternal’s) name.” (Ecclus. 50:20, Jerusalem Bible). But even this allowance soon ceased. At Simon’s death, the rest of the prieshood decreed that from thenceforth no one, not even the future high priests, were permitted to pronounce the name. The later Jewish historians in the period of the Talmud record:

The Ineffiable Name could be pronounced only when there was some indication that the Shechinah rested on the Sanctuary. When Simon the Righteous died, many indications that such glory was no more enjoyed, his brethren no more dared utter the Ineffiable Name (Note to Yoma, 39b, the Talmud, p. 186, Soncino version).

There can be no doubt about it, from the death of Simon the Righteous in 270 B.C., no one, not even priests in the Temple, were permitted to pronounce the name of YHWH. Its utterance meant the death sentence ( See Sanhedrin, 56a, the Talmud). From then on, the Jewish community interpreted Lev. 24:11, 16 solely as a prohibition against anyone pronouncing the tetragrammaton, no matter who he was. As a matter of fact, in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, translated about 280 or 270 B.C., we find the two verses in the book of Leviticus rendered thus: “And the son of the Israelitish woman named the name and cursed.” Also, “He that names the name of the Lord, let him die the death.” It is clear that the Septuagint translators took the word nachav to mean “to express” or “to name.” They didn’t consider the other meaning, “to blaspheme,” as worthy of mention.

History shows how this prohibition found expression even in later literature. The author of Ecclesiasticus in the year 180 B.C., to the second century A.D., we find a complete avoidance of using the tetragrammaton even in Hebrew version of his work. He decided to use, instead, three yods ( ‘‘‘) as a substitute for the divine name (R. H. Charles Pseudopigrapha, p. 510). And when we come to the Dead Sea Scrolls, written from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., we find a complete avoidance of using the tetragrammaton.

The divine name YHWH (Lord) was omitted at Qumran through the belief that his name is so awesome that one dare not utter it. (The Meaning of Qumran Scrolls for the Bible, Brownlee, p. 83). As sectarian as the Qumran people were, they avoided pronouncing the name YHWH just like all the Jews. Professor Brownlee, who helped translate the Dead Sea Scrolls, mentions that this evidence proves that the prohibition of pronouncing the tetragrammaton was not of Talmudic origin, but goes back at least to the second century B.C. when the earlist of the Dead Sea Scrolls came into existence

A little later, in the time of Christ, a man named Onkelos translated the first five books of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into the Aramaic which was the language spoken throughout Palestine. This man was a disciple of Gamaliel who also taught the apostle Paul. For all we know, Paul and Onkelos may have known each other. Whatever the case. Onkelos was contemporary with the apostles (M’Clintock and Strong Bibical Cyclopedia, vol. X. p. 205).

Now, when Onkelos translated his Targum from the Hebrew into the Aramaic, he rendered Leviticus 24:11, 16 as follows: “And the son of the woman the daughter of Israel gave expression to the Name and cursed.” And, “He who expresseth the Name of the Lord, dying shall die.” To Onkelos the only meaning of nachav was “to express” and not “to blaspheme.” And interestingly, everytime Onkelos translated the divine name he deliberately changed the pronounciation to make sure no one would utter the true sound (Etheridge, The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan, vol. II, pp. 6-10).

We also have the plain testimony of Josephus (the Jewish historian who lived in the time of the apostles). When he came to the divine name, he studiously avoided commenting on it. In fact, he considered doing so UNLAWFUL. “Whereupon God declared to him (Moses) his holy name, which had never been discovered to me before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more” (Antiquities II, xii, 4.).

Thus, if Josephus (even though he was a priest) would not discuss the tetragrammaton, do we think that any ordinary layman would pronounce it?

There can be no doubt about it. In the time of Christ, no one (not even the priest) dared utter the sound of the name YHWH. We have the further testimony of Celsus and Irenaeus in the second century A.D., that all Jews consistently subsituted another name, or another pronunciation for YHWH (Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 40). Thus, the historical proof becomes complete.

Now, what does this history show? Very much. Notice it carefully. Had Christ ever used the tetragrammaton in public, even once, He would have been reviled by everybody in the Jewish community. The common people would never have given Him a hearing. They would have considered Him impious. The Scribes and Pharisees would have gotten rid of Him early had he ever attempted to pronounce the divine name. The Sadducees would have considered Him a clear fraud because of His disobedience to what they thought to be a bibical prohibition concerning the utterance of the name.

But, there is not a hint that any of the laypeople in Palestine, or the priests, or the Scribes and Pharisees or even the Sadducees, or His apostles of violating the precept that all Jews in the first century obeyed. Surely, this absence of condemnation is proof positive that Christ never uttered the divine name even once. Had He done so, it could not have escaped their attention because all considered it blasphemous to mention that holy and august name.

Now consider a final fact which further proves the case. When the religious leaders of the Jewish community succeeded, on trumped up charges, in condemning Jesus Christ to death for blasphemy, certain dishonest individuals sought for and purchased the testimony of false witnesses. Even so, they could find nothing in which to condemn Him (Mark 14:55-60).

Had Christ ever once uttered the divine name, there would have been no need of false witnesses. The Sanhedrin would immediately have convicted Him of blasphemy for that reason alone, and there would have been no occasion for dispensing with the witnesses as they were fully driven to do in order to pronounce Him worthy of death for blasphemy (verses 62-64).

There is no doubt about it. Jesus Christ never used that name which some today, who say they desire to follow His example, think they must pronounce. What Christ obviously did, as did all others, was to substitute the word Adonai (“Lord, Kurios in the Greek) when He spoke of the Eternal God of the Old Testament, or He used the term “Father: when referring to the other Person of the divine family. This was a common term that even many Jews utilized as a substitute for YHWH.

It is instructive to observe that when Christ told His disciples how to pray. He told them to say “Our Father which art in heaven.” When he prayed His last prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He used the term “Father” throughout His prayer. Even though He didn’t necessarily approve of the over cautious scruples of the Jewish community concerning the pronunciation of the name, nevertheless, He didn’t abuse their sensitiveness, He probably considered the matter unimportant in general, because He worshipped His Father in spirit, and in truth, not in syllables! (John 4:24).

Those who wish to use the name Yahweh have, if anything, the Bible and history against expressing the name. After all, an interpretation of nachav in the Book of Leviticus chapter 24 can truly mean not “to pronounce” the name of YHWH even if we knew today exactly how it should sound. Surely the prohibition against using the name has far stronger warrant from the Bible that the supposition that it must at all costs be used. Yet, it must make little difference to God.

One question that we need to asked: Is Yahweh really the right pronunciation? The Jews after the time of Simon the Righteous (270 B.C.) lost all knowledge of exactly which vowel sounds were to be used. They admitted they didn’t know. Then where have scholars gotten their modern interpretation of the tetragrammaton as Yahweh? If many sincere people who insist on pronouncing it in that fashion really knew what fountain it came from, one wonders, if they would persist in their teaching.

Well, here is the truth. This pronunciation itself comes from the Samaritans! Because the Samaritans never had the same scruples as the Jews over the matter, they continued to say the word in their own dialect. “The pronunciation of the divine name as “Yahweh” rests upon Samaritan tradition as given by Theodorer (5th century A.D.), also upon evidence given by Clement of Alexandria (Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 39). That’s right! Even the modern pronunciation which scholars think may closely resemble the ancient sound is clearly of Samartian origin, not Jewish!

The truth of the matter is, the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton should be of little importance to us. It is abundantly evident that Christ (and the apostles) never uttered it. Instead, He commanded and set us the example to use primarily “Father.” In this New Testament, Gospel age, we now have access directly to the Father, the Most High God (Gen. 14:18, Luke 1:32, 35; 8:28). It is His, the Father’s “name” (His character and power) which Christ emphasized. And it is His Fatherhood to all who have become His begotten children that is all-important to our divine Creator.

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