God’s Names and the Jewish Reading Tradition
By John Wheeler

Originally published in the September-October 2005 edition of the "Living Church News" and reformatted to html from a pdf file for this site by permission of the Living Church of God, who holds the copyright.

Those who insist that Yeshua should be used exclusively to represent our Savior’s name often insist that God the Father must be called by God’s personal name in Hebrew Scripture (the Tetragrammaton). Some even insist that Yahshua, not Yeshua, is the correct pronunciation of our Savior’s name. They fail to reckon with something the early Church respected: the Jewish reading tradition that accompanied Hebrew Scripture.

The Jewish Circumlocutions for YHWH

The Greek New Testament preserves (in translation) the current Jewish circumlocutions for the Tetragrammaton [in Hebrew, Yhwh or ]. By Jesus’ day, the Jews already considered the name Yhwh too sacred to be pronounced outside the Temple. Wherever Yhwh was written in a Hebrew text, the reader substituted another divine name in its place. Usually the divine name used was Adonay [ or “Lord”]. Elohim [ or “God”] was used when Adonay actually preceded Yhwh in writing. All mainstream” Greek Septuagint manuscripts, other Hellenistic Jewish texts, and the Greek New Testament translate Yhwh and Elohim as Kyrios [ Κυριος ] and Theos [ Θεóς ] which likewise mean“Lord” and “God.”

Thus when Jesus read Isaiah 61:1–2 in the synagogue of Nazareth, He read Adonay Elohim (not Adonay Yhwh) in verse 1 and Adonay (not Yhwh) in verse 2. Luke (citing the Septuagint) translated Jesus’ reading of Adonay in both cases as Kyrios (Luke 4:16–22). Had Jesus not followed this convention, He would immediately have been accused of blasphemy under Jewish law. Likewise, when Jesus cited Hebrew Scripture publicly, and when the apostles cited it in preaching and writing, they always used circumlocutions for Yhwh—never Yhwh itself. Again, the New Testament accurately records this fact. Had the apostles (including Paul) not done so, they would have aroused tremendous controversy among the Jews and Christ’s disciples alike. The New Testament is silent about any such controversy. This matter was simply a non-issue in the original Church.

Why was this so? Because in following the Jewish convention, Jesus and the apostles were breaking no law of God. Here Jewish law was extending biblical precedent, in which Abraham (Genesis 18:27, 30, 31–32), Moses (Exodus 4:10, 13), Daniel (Daniel 9:7–8, 15, 17, 19), and others used Adonay or Elohim as if it were Yhwh (that is, as a substitute out of respect for God’s personal name). These precedents were not inserted by early scribes so that God’s name might not be profaned, as the medieval Talmudists and Masoretes thought. Had the early scribes sought to do so, they should also have made similar changes in many other places (quite frequently in the same contexts where the alleged changes were made). The Jewish law, then, was not arbitrary— but was based on genuine biblical example.

Far from breaking the intent of the Third Commandment, as some charge, this judgment on God’s Law (cf. Matthew 23:1–2) was meant to help the common people keep it. This worked as long as the Second Temple was still standing, because the original pronunciation of Yhwh was repeated in the Temple service every year on the Day of Atonement. It was only after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that the exact pronunciation of Yhwh was lost. Even the Hebrew Masoretic Text, while it preserves the ancient circumlocutions used for Yhwh, does not openly state the original pronunciation of Yhwh. The meaning of Yhwh was never lost, however (cf. Genesis 21:33; Exodus 3:14; Revelation 4:8).

Some few fragments of the Greek Septuagint insert Yhwh in archaic Hebrew characters among the Greek words. For that matter, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew use the“square script” still used today, but spell out Yhwh in archaic Hebrew characters. In both cases, Yhwh is obviously being given special attention. But this does not prove that the readers of these texts pronounced Yhwh aloud. On the contrary, specialists concur that Yhwh was so written to mark the name as holy while reminding the reader not to pronounce it. The conventions of the Masoretic Text serve a similar function.Yhwh is written out in the normal square script, but most of the vowel-points for Adonay or Elohimare attached to it. These remind the reader not to try to pronounce Yhwhas written, but rather as Adonay or Elohim—just as in Jesus’ day and long before.

The point is that, even if one could prove that the New Testament (in Hebrew, Aramaic or even Greek) originally spelled out Yhwh in Hebrew characters, this would not prove that the early Christians pronounced Yhwh—in fact, quite the contrary. Rather, when the Greek New Testament translates Yhwh as Kyrios (or Theos), it accurately reflects the reading tradition that Jesus and the apostles respected. So, not only is there nothing wrong with substituting Adonay (or Elohim) for Yhwh in Hebrew, but there is nothing wrong with then translating Adonay and Elohim as Kyrios and Theos in Greek (or as “Lord” and “God” in whatever other language).

How Was YHWH Pronounced?

There is another matter to consider. Apart from a system of vowelpoints (such as the Masoretic Text uses), or else an exact knowledge of how Yhwh is derived and accented, there is no way of knowing the exact pronunciation of the name. All four letters in Yhwh are semi-consonants, each of which may be used either as a consonant or as the place-marker of a vowel (depending upon its position in a word). One therefore cannot decide between possible pronunciations from the letters alone.

Modern scholars (working largely on extra-biblical evidence) generally accept Yahweh (or something close to it) as the original pronunciation. According to the Oxford Bible,“Christian writers between A.D. 150 and A. D. 450 have Yaoua… in Greek characters [Iaoua], and early magical texts have Yhbyh (Yahveh) [sic] in Aramaic characters, all pointing to Yahweh as the original pronunciation.” Likewise the Revised Standard Version argues that “it is almost quite certain that the name as originally pronounced ‘Yahweh’.” The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon also favors Yahweh(with Yahaweh given as an alternative), citing as part of its evidence the Greek transliteration Iabe given by the early Catholic commentators Theodoret and Epiphanius. (Iaue is also known from early Greek sources).

Extra-biblical Aramaic and Greek texts, however, cannot completely settle this question. In the Aramaic letters from Elephantine (5th century BC), the normal spelling is Yhwh or even Yhw. Not even Yhbyh (with b substituting for w as a
consonant and the second y marking the presence of a vowel), as found in magical texts where the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton was part of the charm, can absolutely prove how Yhwh was pronounced in Hebrew. This is because the first h in Yhwh may mark either a consonant or a vowel. Even given that the name is active rather than reflexive in its verb stem, Yhwh in Hebrew may be pronounced in at least three ways: Yahweh, Yahaweh or even Yehawweh (as proposed by Abraham S. Halkin in his out-of-print 201 Hebrew Verbs). The Aramaic Yhw, Yhwh and Yhbyh, and the Greek Iabe and Iaue, could have come from any one of these pronunciations. (Iaoua may be explained as an independent attempt to pronounce Yhwh as Yahwah or Yahuah).

Only Yehawweh seems to fit all the current biblical and extra-biblical evidence. This includes the derivation of Yhwh from the root hayah, “to be” (Exodus 3:14–15), the explanations of its actual meaning (Genesis 21:33; Revelation 4:8; etc.), its use as the prefixes Yeho-, Yo and Ye- and the suffixes –yah and–yahu in compound personal names, its common “short form” Yah, and the received grammar of Masoretic Hebrew. The latter includes not only the vowel-points, but the accent notation, which indicates the primary and secondary stresses and the number and kind of syllables used in a word (e.g., Psalm 96:10, which demands that Yhwh have three, not two syllables).

Beyond this evidence, however, there is simply no authoritative record as to how Yhwh was pronounced. God has allowed this because He wants us to focus on the meaning of Yhwh—not on the sounds that represent that meaning.

The Pronunciation of the Savior’s Name

What, then, of Jesus’ original name in Hebrew and Aramaic? The claim that it was Yahshua rather than Yeshua is based largely on the work of Anson Rainey, a linguist in Israel. Dr. Rainey claims that the Masoretic Hebrew spellings Yhwshw [ ] and Yhwsh [ ]—both pointed as Yehoshua—reflect latter-day usage, when the w after the h was added to help reinforce the pronunciation of h. In his view, originally the h simply marked the present of the vowel a, and therefore the following w would not have been present. Yeshua would then be simply a Masoretic mispronunciation of an even shorter form [ ], likewise pronounced Yahshua originally. But this theory does not explain why, in the Masoretic Text, Yehoshua is found only in books (or citations of those books) dating from before the Babylonian Exile, why Yeshua is found only in books dating from after the Exile—nor does it explain why both names were translated as Iesous in Greek. (Iesous certainly does not derive from Zeus as some gratuitously claim).

Here again, we must look to the Jewish reading tradition for answers. The Masorete Moshe ben Asher (ca. 895AD) made clear that he and his fellow scribes did not invent the vowel-points and musical accents they transcribed; they received them—ultimately from a family of Second Temple priests called the Elders or Sons of Bathyra (Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, The Music of the Bible Revealed, pp. 105–107, 499–502, 519). Taken at face value, this testimony means that the Masoretes preserved the official pronunciation and melodic rendition of biblical Hebrew current in Second Temple times. Moreover, we know from inscriptions that [ ] was the Hebrew and Aramaic spelling current in Jesus’ day. We also know that this name was almost always translated into Greek as Iesous [ ]. We may therefore affirm that the Masoretic pronunciation of [ ]—Yeshua—is reliable.

“The Lord Jesus Christ”

Jesus’ “full name” in Greek—ho Kyrios Iesous Christos (“the Lord Jesus Christ”)—ultimately springs from Hebraic roots. In Masoretic Hebrew, that “full name” would be ha-Adon Yeshua ha-Mashiach. It is so rendered in all modern Hebrew New Testament versions. (At least one early version shortens Yeshua to Yeshu. The meaning is the same).

One day, every knee will bow at the name of Jesus, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10–11). Apart from the Jewish reading tradition, we would not know precisely how His name would have sounded in Hebrew. But its meaning—not its sound—is what will matter on the Day of Judgment! It is that meaning that the Greek New Testament conveys word-for-word and thought-for-thought.

Wheeler J. God’s Names and the Jewish Reading Tradition. www.cogwriter.com 2005/2006

More on this subject can also be found in the article Why the Names Jesus and Christ in English? Was the New Testament Written in Hebrew or Greek?

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