Old TestamentHow Was the Pronunciation of God’s Name Lost? Part 2 Ancient tradition divides on the use of God’s name, with no clear reason why some banned it. Andrew CaseIllustration by David FassettMay 2, 2023 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Part 1 of this series is available here. It’s important to recognize right up front that we simply do not know with absolute certainty how God’s name was originally pronounced. The common English pronunciation of “Yahweh” is an educated guess, but we’ll never know for sure how it sounded when God spoke it to Moses. Two key things prevent us from knowing: (1) Hebrew was written without vowels for many centuries, so we’re left with only four consonants: YHWH, and (2) people started avoiding the pronunciation of God’s name long before Hebrew began to be written with vowels. And when the Hebrew Bible was finally written with vowels, artificial vowels were inserted into the spelling of God’s name in order to keep people from pronouncing it! So, in this article we’ll try to understand why—why did the Israelites go from swearing by Yahweh’s name, using it in prayer, song, and greetings to forbidding its use altogether? Why did the Israelites go from swearing by Yahweh’s name, using it in prayer, song, and greetings to forbidding its use altogether? Clues from the Bible God himself gives us a clue as to what might have motivated this historical change of attitude towards his name in the book of Amos. This book goes back at least to the 8th century BC, and thus represents the oldest evidence of what might have caused the shift. Amos warns the people of the coming exile and destruction that will punish their pride and oppression of the poor and needy. As he describes the horrors of Yahweh’s imminent judgment, he says, “And if the relative who comes to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them asks anyone who might be hiding there, ‘Is anyone else with you?’ and he says, “No,” then he will go on to say, ‘Hush! We must not mention the name of Yahweh’” (Amos 6:10). Thus, there exists the possibility that some Hebrews were so traumatized by what happened under Yahweh’s judgment that they preferred not to talk about him anymore. This trauma could have easily developed into never mentioning his name for fear that they might somehow run the risk of falling under a similar judgment. This trauma-induced fear could have then evolved into the substitution of titles for God’s name, which the Jews later labeled as a sign of reverence or respect. This idea of avoiding his name out of reverence or respect, however, cannot be found in Scripture, but rather is described in later man-made traditions. It’s also important to recognize that an ancient contingent of Karaite Jews condemned these traditions, saying that those who insist on avoiding the pronunciation of God’s name should be considered unbelievers. During the intertestamental period the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (popularly called the Septuagint), and an interesting thing happened in the translation of Leviticus 24:16. The original Hebrew reads: “The one who blasphemes (naqab) the name of Yahweh shall surely be put to death.” But the Greek version reads: “The one who names the name of the Lord will surely be put to death.” Here, the act of blaspheming is translated into Greek as the simple act of naming. The manuscript tradition of Leviticus in Greek is unanimous without variation on this text. The Septuagint translators may have rendered “to blaspheme” (naqab) in Leviticus 24:16 as “to name” for any of the following reasons: In a spirit of piety, they could not even bring themselves to translate the verb “to curse/blaspheme/slander” when so directly connected to the divine name. So, they used circumlocution to generalize or soften the phrase. They simply misunderstood the Hebrew verb. They allowed a belief about pronouncing the divine name to influence their translation. Because of the Septuagint’s strong influence on post-exilic Judaism and the early Church, this reading may have led to the proliferation of sentiments against the pronunciation of the name. If an anti-pronunciation belief was already prevalent during the time of the translation, then it may have served to strengthen that belief. This is admittedly speculation, but nevertheless an important piece of evidence that needs to be mentioned and considered in the search for why the tide turned against vocalizing the divine name. Clues from outside the Bible The Babylonian Talmud offers another explanation,1Michael L. Rodkinson, trans., The Babylonian Talmud: Original Text, Edited, Corrected, Formulated, and Translated into English, vol. 1. (Boston: The Talmud Society, 1918), Rosh Hashannah 18b. but not as ancient as Amos or the Septuagint: the prohibition against the use of God’s name began as one of the anti-Torah decrees enacted by the Seleucid Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes around 168 BC. This was part of his plan to convert the Jews to Hellenism. But when Judas Maccabeus defeated the Greeks, he restored the use of the divine name and established a law requiring the use of God’s name in contracts so that every Jew would regain the habit of using it. But the Rabbis were opposed to this decree and banned its use in contracts because those contracts might eventually be burned with the divine name written on them. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The Essene community who copied the Dead Sea Scrolls also strictly forbade speaking God’s name in any context, including prayer, but they give no reason for this in their rulebook. Later writings in the Mishnah from the 3rd century AD describe a developing attitude of Jewish teaching on the issue: “The following have no portion in the world to come: … Abba Saul says: Also one who pronounces the divine name as it is written” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). Ironically, there is much rabbinic teaching that has contradicted the ban on speaking God’s name. If you read Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, 54a:1–9, 63a:7–8, Makkot 23b:10 and other Jewish commentaries on Judges 6:12, you’ll find ancient rabbinic agreement that using God’s name in simple greetings as Boaz did is not only permitted, but should be encouraged. Strangely, the typical practice and overwhelming culture around the divine name in Israel today is one completely contrary to what these traditional Jewish commentaries conclude. In my research I have not found a reason for this, and it is difficult to know with any certainty when the ban on using the name became mainstream. Clues from the Septuagint The majority tradition of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (or Old Greek) used kurios, “Lord” in place of the divine name. The great Christian manuscripts Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus all have kurios in place of God’s name. What motivated this? Some have suggested that this was a strategy used by authorities to facilitate the Hellenizing of Jews. By suppressing the special name of God and using kurios, it made it more universal and easier to harmonize with the emperors and gods of the Greco-Roman world.2Robert Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 51. Related Illustration by Peter Gurry. Images from iStock The Most Important Bible Translation You’ve Never Heard ofUsed by the Apostles and the early church, the Greek translations of the Old Testament may be the most important ever. William A. Ross But some Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament differ from the standard of using kurios for the Name, especially amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, the Nahal Hever scroll fragments of the Minor Prophets (8Hev XII gr), dated from about 50 BC to 50 AD have the divine name written in paleo-Hebrew script in 28 places. Another scroll has iao in the place of the name. So, whether the original Septuagint translators first chose to use kurios or something else remains inconclusive, leaving us to speculate. Whatever the case may be, it appears that there was controversy or confusion amongst the Septuagint translators and revisers regarding what to do with the divine name, as well as a special interest in it. The practice of substituting the title kurios (“Lord”) for God’s name was widespread, but no one ever revealed a clear reason as to why. There’s much more to say about the Septuagint evidence, which you can read for free in my book on the divine name. Conclusion It seems that ancient Jewish tradition was divided on what to do with God’s name. If you think the evidence looks confusing, that’s because it is! It seems that ancient Jewish tradition was divided on what to do with God’s name, but there is no conclusive reason as to why some banned its use. Was it due to the trauma of exile, the mistranslation of Leviticus 24:16, the prohibition of an evil tyrant, reverence, or a combination of all of these? It’s impossible to be certain with the evidence we have. What we do know is that it eventually became standard to avoid pronouncing God’s name, especially in Jewish circles, and this played a part in the loss of how it originally sounded. In the next article we take a look at what the New Testament authors did with the divine name. Related Illustration by David Fassett Why Didn’t the New Testament Authors Use God’s Name? Part 3The use of “Lord” for the divine name probably helped identify Jesus with the God of the Old Testament. Andrew Case This article is in the public domain. You may freely use, share, and reproduce it. For a more in-depth treatment, see here.Notes1Michael L. Rodkinson, trans., The Babylonian Talmud: Original Text, Edited, Corrected, Formulated, and Translated into English, vol. 1. (Boston: The Talmud Society, 1918), Rosh Hashannah 18b.2Robert Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 51. Andrew Case Andrew is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Canada Institute of Linguistics. He serves as a Bible translation consultant, and produces a podcast about his field called Working for the Word. He and his wife Bethany now work in Mexico and together founded FreeHebrew.online where they teach Hebrew to the world.