New TestamentWhy Didn’t the New Testament Authors Use God’s Name? Part 3 The use of “Lord” for the divine name probably helped identify Jesus with the God of the Old Testament. Andrew CaseIllustration by David FassettJuly 25, 2023 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level We know that the inhibition for pronouncing God’s name came before Christianity, although we don’t know how widespread it was. It’s possible that rendering the divine name as “Lord” (kurios) had already been a strong tradition for centuries by the time we get to Jesus and the apostles. What’s clear is that the New Testament manuscripts we have all follow the tradition that the Septuagint set, which was to substitute the title “Lord” (kurios) for God’s name (YHWH). So, the fact that the New Testament never uses God’s personal name as revealed in the Old Testament, or even an approximation of it, is crucial. Why did the New Testament authors choose to do this? Was it because they thought God’s name was too sacred to write out in Greek transliteration and feared that God might strike them down if they did so? Or, had its pronunciation already been forgotten to history? Were they afraid that the Jews might be angry about it? Or, was it some other reason(s)? The writers never tell us why, so everything that follows here is speculation. Nevertheless, it’s an honest attempt to grapple with the issue. The New Testament authors knew the Old Testament Because the New Testament authors knew their Hebrew Bible better than we do, it’s highly unlikely that they were ignorant of God’s desire expressed in Exodus 3:15, the way David and the prophets freely spoke to God, calling him by name, and other passages we looked at in part 1 of this series. So, it’s safe to say that they didn’t consider God’s name too sacred to use in transliteration. Finally, we can eliminate the idea that they did so out of fear of the Jews, since they consciously did many other things that infuriated the Jews and brought persecution on them. So, let’s explore some other possibilities. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The influence of the Septuagint First, it should be understood that the Septuagint became the standard for Jewish communities that were forgetting Hebrew in the midst of a world increasingly dominated by other languages like Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. The New Testament writers quoted from the Septuagint extensively, and it was a beloved text to the early Church. When a text is used as a standard for centuries like the Septuagint was, many things become ingrained in tradition. So it’s highly probable that the Septuagint’s use of the title kurios in the place of God’s name came to be a strong tradition in many circles. And because of this, it’s also probable that kurios came to be treated as a proper name, even though it’s not technically or lexically accurate to call it a name. (A modern example of a proper name would be “Joe,” and his title is “Mr. President”) If a community treats a title like a proper name for long enough, it will inevitably begin to feel like a proper name. Subsequent generations will continue to use it, not because they believe it’s wrong to pronounce the actual name, but simply because it feels like God’s name. This has happened in English and many other languages with the title “the Lord.” So it’s plausible that the New Testament authors upheld the tradition of kurios as a centuries-old tradition that people were accustomed to using to refer to God in a personal way. Since they were trying to communicate clearly to a wide range of listeners, some of whom didn’t speak Hebrew and were already familiar with calling the God of Israel kurios, they kept it as a convention for avoiding confusion in their message. At the same time, they were interested in heralding a new covenant in which a new name came to be exalted: Jesus. In Philippians 2:9–11 Paul writes: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” RelatedHow Was the Pronunciation of God’s Name Lost? Part 2Andrew CaseThe New Testament Use of Jewish PseudepigraphaDaniel M. GurtnerThe Letter and the SpiritMaurice A. Robinson I am convinced, along with many other scholars, that bestowing on Jesus the name/title “Lord,” as the equivalent of Yahweh, is how Jesus has been exalted to the highest place. The twofold result clause that makes up verses 10 and 11 is a direct borrowing of language from Isaiah 45:23, where Yahweh (the Lord) says that “before me every knee shall bow, and every tongue will swear [Septuagint has ‘confess’]” that “in the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.” This emphasis on “the Lord” (YHWH) as the one unto whom all shall give obeisance, seems to certify that what Paul has in mind is none other than the name, YHWH itself, but in its Greek form of “the Lord,” which has now been “given” to Jesus. So, “the name that is above every name” is Yahweh. And this probably has another layer of significance: the name Jesus, Yeshua (in Hebrew) means “Yahweh is salvation.” The divine name is historically embedded within Jesus’ name, and this is evident to those who understand Hebrew. But most of the people the New Testament authors were trying to reach were more familiar with Greek, so kurios served as a better way to show the relationship between Jesus/Yeshua and Yahweh. Intertestamental hyperlinks It seems that Martin Luther understood that the New Testament authors upheld this tradition of using kurios so that people could “draw the strong conclusion that Christ is the true God,”1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 248–249. by associating Christ the kurios with the kurios of the Old Testament instead of having two different proper names Yahweh and Yeshua. In other words, the Septuagint’s use of kurios was paving the way for a seamless, convenient, intelligible way to connect Jesus with Yahweh. The ability to use the same title for both Yahweh and Jesus throughout the New Testament made the overlap natural and more apparent to a Greek-speaking world. It facilitated a high Christology, and effortlessly infused the statement “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9) with a double meaning (see how this convention made Paul’s teaching possible in 1 Cor. 8:5–6). Just as Jesus saw himself all throughout the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), and just as the apostles consistently identified Jesus with Yahweh through allusion and direct quotation of Old Testament passages, the use of kurios allowed early Christians to see and hear that continuity between the testaments, identifying Christ as the God of Israel with a hyperlink across covenants (see another example in Rom. 10:13). So, it would seem that the apostles saw a few advantages in using kurios/Lord in place of God’s name: (1) it preserved an old tradition spread by the loved and respected Septuagint; (2) most probably treated kurios as a name; (3) it may have served to make extra clear that Jesus is Yahweh, the God of Israel. Does this mean that they ignored God’s desire in Exodus 3:15? Not at all. Does this mean that they ignored God’s desire in Exodus 3:15? Not at all. Since they were Jews and could read the scriptures in Hebrew, they were probably satisfied that God’s name was preserved there, in its natural habitat. They weren’t trying to publish a new translation of the Old Testament at the time. If they had, they may have made some different decisions than the original translators had concerning God’s name. Likewise, if they had written the New Testament in Hebrew, they probably would have used YHWH for God’s name. It’s important to approach this issue with humility. There are some people who would disagree with my hypothesis. Some believe that much of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew (which is what multiple Church Fathers claimed), and therefore contained the divine name. Others believe that early Christian scribes changed what the original authors wrote to kurios/Lord for reasons unknown to us. There is no physical evidence for either of these claims. An idea for modern versions This brings us to the question: Is it possible to help contemporary readers enjoy the same advantages in a new translation of the whole Bible while rendering God’s name in the Old Testament as a name? Yes. God is called by the title adonai (“Lord”) over 700 times in the Old Testament, which maintains the hyperlink between both testaments. Thus, modern versions could simply translate those occurrences of adonai as “Lord” and render all 6,800+ occurrences of yhwh as “Yahweh.” The overlap the apostles enjoyed would be preserved while still honoring God’s desire in Exodus 3:15 and making clear to the reader that God actually has a name. In conclusion, the New Testament authors probably used kurios because it ended up being a naming convention that helped identify Jesus with the God of the Old Testament. Modern Bible publishers should feel at liberty to break with the Septuagint’s tradition, since the title “Lord” occurs so many times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to Yahweh. Over the centuries some English versions have chosen to render God’s name as a name in different ways, and this fascinating history is the topic of the final installment in this series. Related Illustration by David Fassett How Was the Divine Name Translated in the Reformation? Part 4Translators have wrestled with the divine name for centuries. Some have used it only to reverse course later. 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.Notes1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 248–249. 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.