When did the divine name of God, the tetragrammaton, revealed to Moses at the burning bush, begin to be avoided in speaking Scripture? When did Jewish people choose to lose the “transparent” meaning of the name (יהוה= YHWH = “I am”) in favor of a seemingly more respectful word substitute (אדני = Adonai = “my Lord”).
We left our discussion in 3rd century BC Alexandria, during the great project to render the recognized books of Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language being used by the Jews of that city. Although the dating and even the scope of this project may be somewhat uncertain, the general result is the Greek Old Testament we call the Septuagint, abbreviated as the LXX. The LXX was the primary Bible of the early church in the first century, becoming even more so as Greek-speaking Gentiles enter the church.
The LXX translators chose to transliterate Hebrew names rather than translate them. Thus רעואל = Ραγουηλ = Reuel, not the translated meaning of “friend of God” (Exodus 2:18). But the LXX translators chose not to do this for the divine name, יהוה, YHWH, instead using the circumlocuted translation of אדני, Adonai. In Greek, this is κύριος (or ὁ κύριος) = kurios = Lord. Why not transliterate יהוה as was done with the rest of the Hebrew names?
One reason is that YHWH is not easily rendered into Greek, since the language has no equivalent for the Hebrew yod (“y”) or the Hebrew waw (“w”), nor is it normal to have internal “h” sounds in Greek (Hebrew he). Thus all the letters of YHWH pose challenges for transliterators. However, other difficult Hebrew names are transliterated anyway. Judah (יהודה) is nearly the same name as Yahweh as far as spelling goes, having only the additional letter of dalet (“d”). The LXX renders this name as ιουδα. There are traditions of transliteration of the divine name in some ancient Greek versions as ιαβε (Yabe or Yave) or ιαω (Yao), but these are rare and inconsistent.
The second reason is that the translators of the LXX and their community had already ceased speaking the divine name aloud. By the 3rd century BC, the Jews of Alexandria avoided saying YHWH. It made sense to them to offer a Greek translation suitable for reading in public, therefore they chose to write what they would say, κύριος = kurios = Lord. By the 1st century AD (the Christian era), consensus seems to be for Jewish Scriptures in Greek that κύριος was the appropriate equivalent for the divine name.
As I said in the first of these blogs, transliteration is the source of all sorts of mischief. In this case, a word substitution also has unique issues. Foremost among these are the various meanings of κύριος, even in the New Testament. Let me offer three:
- Sometimes κύριος is used as a title of respect, something like our use of “Sir” or “Madam.” This is surely what the Jewish leaders mean when they address the Roman governor, Pilate, as κύριος, not that he is a divine being (Matthew 28:63). This is also the intended meaning in the address of Jesus as “Sir” by the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:11). At this point in the story, she has no idea that Jesus is God in flesh.
- The word κύριος is also used to define the superior party in the master/slave relationship so common in the ancient world. The slave in the parable of the great dinner feast addresses his master as κύριος and this is not a recognition of his deity (Luke 14:11). κύριος is also the master of a slave in Paul’s advice to slaves in Ephesians 6. Paul goes so far as to distinguish these κύριοι as the “earthly masters,” literally “masters according to the flesh” (τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις).
- The third use perhaps embraces #1 and #2 in some ways, but is the frequent title for God the Father, the Lord. In this, it is the dynamic equivalent of the Hebrew יהוה= YHWH. This is clearly seen in quotations from the LXX where we would expect to see κύριος (e.g., Acts 2:25). We also find examples in which κύριος is used in the Greek Old Testament sense to refer to the divine name (see Hebrews 12:6, James 3:9). This is especially seen in references to the “angel of the Lord” = the messenger of YHWH (Matthew 1:20, 28:2, compare Genesis 16:7).
- I know I said there were three usages, but let me offer a fourth closely related to the third, the term κύριος attached to the name Jesus or Jesus Christ. This is a favorite expression of Paul, occurring 48x by my count in the letters of Paul (e.g., Romans 16:20, 1 Corinthians 15:57, Philippians 3:20). Does Paul use κύριος in these instances in the sense of “master” or “divine one.” Probably both, as in St. Francis’s use: “O Divine Master …”
So how should we render into English the Hebrew Bible’s יהוה= YHWH, the LXX’s κύριος, or the NT’s κύριος? Are we bound by the traditions of the ancient Jews concerning the divine name, or even by the traditions of the early church?
I believe this was settled by us by the New Testament authors’ choice to use the word κύριος to refer to God in the YHWH sense. We should translate this as “Lord.” Admittedly, this can be confusing, but to import Yahweh into the New Testament makes no sense to me, nor does a transliteration such as kurios or kyrios.
Furthermore, the transliteration of יהוה to Yahweh in the Old Testament makes little sense to me as a Christian. Translation intends to communicate. Transliteration tends to obscure.
Therefore, I prefer one of two options for the Old Testament:
- Follow the ancient tradition of the Adonai circumlocution and render it as “the LORD.” Indicate that this comes from the Hebrew word יהוה by using all capital letters. This is the choice of most English translations.
- Try to translate יהוה into English. “I am” is a possibility here, but seems impersonal to me. This reminds me a little of the “celebrity” who calls himself “The Situation.” I think we can do better than that. One possibility is found in the recent translation/production from Thomas Nelson, The Voice Bible. It renders יהוה/YHWH as “The Eternal” or “The Eternal One.” This seems to me to be getting at the idea behind the “I am” or the “I am Who I am.”
Thus at Exodus 3:15 in The Voice Bible:
This is what you are to tell Israel’s people: “The Eternal, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is the One who has sent me to you.” This is My name forevermore, and this is the name by which all future generations shall remember Me.
Or at Psalm 1:1:
O Eternal, our Lord,
Your majestic name is heard throughout the earth;
Your magnificent glory shines far above the skies.
Maybe not 100% satisfying, but better, I think, than יהוה = Yahweh. Even better than יהוה = the LORD.
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University