Lost in Translation?
As we have taken this journey of discovery over the past three sessions, we have learned the Shem HaMeforash–Yehovah. We have seen that our Father’s unique name was covered up and hidden through various means and for various reasons. We have learned why Yehovah wants His name to be known, remembered, and mentioned and that we honor Him when we do that. We have seen how His name was spoken by the people living in biblical times. We have learned what it means and how to say it. We have seen how the eternal nature of God expressed in the meaning of His name is expressed in the New Testament. Today, we will see how the process of translation of the Tanakh into Greek has affected the treatment and understanding of the names of the Father and the Son even up to today. While Hebrew speakers/readers can plainly see יהוה in the Tanakh, they would hear/think Adonai. In the Greek, we will see that the treatment of God’s name took a different path.
We will also explore some very old manuscripts that show that Hebrew still has a connection with our New Testament Scriptures!
First, we need to look at the history of the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into other languages, starting with Greek.
Sacred Names in Greek Translations
The Septuagint (LXX) is the first major translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into another language. It is a Greek translation of the Tanakh written by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, dating to around 250 BC. Prior to that time, the Tanakh remained in its original languages of Hebrew and Aramaic, or only small portions were translated.
Ptolemy II commissioned the translation from biblical Hebrew to Greek for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. In addition to this valuable addition to the library, it provided the means for the large Jewish population in Egypt to again have access to the Scriptures, since they no longer spoke or read Hebrew.
The term Septuagint comes from the Latin word meaning seventy. (Is it just me, or does it seem odd that the Greek translation is known by a Latin term and signified by Roman numerals?) According to Jewish legend, 70 (many say 72) Jewish scholars were placed in separate rooms to do their work and all produced identical translations. This story has been written about by a number of ancient writers including Aristeas, Josephus, and Philo, as well as Augustine of Hippo. It is believed that their were six scribes from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Babylonian Talmud includes the following narrative:
“King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 9a
Because of the legend of this miraculous event, some believed the Greek translation to be inspired. Evidence supports the assertion of many scholars that the Torah (or Pentateuch) was translated in the mid 3rd century BC, and the rest of the Scriptures were translated over the next two or three centuries.
Early manuscript fragments of the LXX and fragments of a Hebrew to Greek translation by Aquila from around 126 AD, show that Paleo Hebrew script was used when writing YHVH, rather than using the Greek surrogate Kurios, as was the practice in later versions of the LXX from the 2nd century AD and beyond. In fact, from the few Greek manuscripts dated earlier than 100 AD that exist today, there is not one instance where the word Kurios (translated LORD or Lord in English) replaces the Tetragrammaton.
When Christians began copying the Septuagint for their use, in the 2nd century AD, they began the practice of substituting Kurios (Lord) for YHVH. Some later manuscripts of the LXX use Nomina Sacra in place of YHVH and other titles for God. These practices continued as the New Testament scriptures were recorded and copied. While most of the time it was obvious that Kurios replaced YHVH and Theos replaced Elohim in the Septuagint, these distinctions were not readily apparent in the Greek New Testament.
It is interesting to note that nomina sacra (nomen sacrum, singular), which means sacred name(s), occur only in Christian manuscripts. These were abbreviations of the name and titles of God, usually consisting of two, and sometimes three or more capitalized letters with a horizontal line over the top that stood in place of “sacred names.” These abbreviations appear in all the earliest New Testatment manuscripts and Christian Old Testament manuscripts, whether or not they were produced by professional scribes, documentary scribes, or those barely able to write in Greek. This indicates that the practice was well known to all Christians, not just professional scribes. In all 2nd century NT manuscripts where one or more of these abbreviations are used, the nomina sacra for Lord, Jesus, Christ, God, and Spirit are found. Keep in mind that all the texts we currently have are copies of the originals, so we do not know whether these surrogate names and nomina sacra were used by the original writers of the New Testament. I have included examples of Nomina Sacra in the image below.
When the LXX was completed, it was regarded by Greek speaking Jews to be nearly as inspired as the original Hebrew. It was not held in nearly as high regard by the Hebrew speaking Jews in the land of Israel, and whether or not it was used in synagogues there is not clear. It is likely that the Hebrew Tanakh was used by Jews in Israel, but the Jews of the Diaspora would have welcomed and needed a Greek translation. As noted earlier, all existing Greek manuscripts dated prior to 100 AD do not used Kurios to replace YHVH. In fact, most use Paleo Hebrew script (the style of letters used prior to the Babylonian captivity) for the Name, while the rest of the text is Greek. From this fact, it seems that even though the Greek speaking Jews could not read Hebrew, they could at least recognize the very ancient script that denoted יהוה.
By the end of the 1st century AD, Judaism and Christianity were becoming more and more separated. Even during Paul’s lifetime, those of “the circumcision” were continually persecuting his ministry. After the death of the apostles, the separation continued. The Septuagint became the Old Testament for the Christian church and the Jews soon rejected it. Bruce Metzger, in The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions, makes this observation:
“By the end of the first century… more and more Jews ceased using the Septuagint because the early Christians had adopted it as their own translation. At an early stage, the belief developed that this translation had been divinely inspired, and hence the way was open for several church fathers to claim that the Septuagint presented the words of God more accurately than the Hebrew Bible. The fact that after the first century very, very few Christians had any knowledge of the Hebrew language meant that the Septuagint was not only the church’s main source of the Old Testament but was, in fact, its only source.”
Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions, page 18
Over the next century, the copying of the LXX by Christians led to many differences between copies. By the late 2nd century, three popular versions were being circulated. Since the 4th century, the Greek Septuagint version in use is the version by Origen, from his 3rd century Hexapla. By this time, all Christian copies of the Septuagint did not contain the Tetragrammaton, but used a surrogate, either Kurios, or a nomen sacrum. The oldest complete Christian versions of the Septuagint that exist today (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus) date from the 4th and 5th centuries AD and contain the New Testament Scriptures in Greek. Therefore, by this time at the latest, writing Kurios for Yehovah and Theos for Elohim had become standard practice in Christian Greek Scriptures, both Old and New Testament.
As already mentioned, a conclusion cannot be drawn from this that the original documents from which these newer versions were derived did not contain the Tetragrammaton. The apparently standardized practice of using surrogates may have heavily influenced translators of the Scriptures into other languages (e.g., Latin and English, etc.). This standardization coupled with the widespread belief that had been perpetuated by rabbinical Judaism that the name of God was too sacred to speak or even write, certainly stands as a plausible explanation for God’s name being almost completely hidden in our modern Bibles.
As we wrap up this study of God’s hidden name, let’s turn our focus back to the Hebrew language.
The Gospels in Hebrew
Wait! What? Did you just read that there are Gospels in HEBREW? Let’s look at some evidence, shall we?
The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew
I grew up hearing that the New Testament was written in Greek and not Hebrew. I also was taught that Jesus spoke Aramaic and/or Greek, not Hebrew. I have always wondered if this was indeed true. It just didn’t seem plausible to me that the Jews of 1st century Judea would not know or speak Hebrew.
I am happy to be able to say that there is manuscript evidence that indicates that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew! It was later translated into Greek and Latin. It was known since the earliest days of the Church that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, but this had largely been forgotten or gone unnoticed until fairly recently. A number of early Church fathers wrote about the existence of Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel and quotations from it are contained among the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Origen, Didymus, and Clement of Alexandria.
Around 100 AD, Papias, an early Christian author and bishop wrote the following about Matthew’s Gospel.
“Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated it as he was able.”
Papias of Hieropolis
Irenaeus, another noted Church father, wrote:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.”
Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1
Nehemia Gordon states in his book The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew:
“The original Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew was widely disseminated and read among Jesus’ Jewish followers known as the Nazarenes. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Nazarenes were forced underground and the Hebrew version of Matthew slipped into obscurity.”
Nehemia Gordon, The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew, page 4.
Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel resurfaced over a thousand years later when Spanish Rabbi Shem Tov Ibn Shaprut copied it and included it as an appendix to his book Even Bochan (The Touchstone). There are currently 28 known manuscripts or fragments of this Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew. (Even Bochan was an anti-Christian treatise completed in 1380 and revised in 1385 and 1400. The Hebrew Matthew contained in it was used as a polemic against the Catholics during that time period. The quotations by Church fathers from the 1st century from the original source version mentioned above differ from the Shem Tov version. This may indicate that Shem Tov manipulated the original in order to use it to refute Christianity during debates with the Roman Catholic Church that were common during the middle ages.
The Western world has known about Shem Tov’s version for over a hundred years but it was assumed to be a translation from Greek or Latin. There is still debate on this point. The surviving version of this Gospel is not an exact copy of the original, but has come through a complicated process of transmission and possible corruption. Despite this, it does serve as a witness to the original and preserves much of the nuance and character of the message preached by Jesus Himself. George Howard, an American Hebraist and professor, published Shem Tov’s version, along with an English translation, and critical analysis in 1987 (revised, 1995).1
An interesting and important detail in the Shem Tov manuscript is that it contains the original form of the Messiah’s Hebrew name, Yeshua. According to Hebrew Matthew, the angel appeared to Joseph and said, “And she shall give birth to a son and you shall call his name Yeshua (ישוע) for he will save (yoshia יושיע) my people from their iniquities.” This statement uses a Hebrew word pun with Yeshua and yoshia. You will call him Yeshua because yoshia my people. Yeshua (a shortened form of Yehoshua) means “Yehovah is salvation.” Yoshia means “he will save.” In English and Greek, this obvious word pun is lost.
There are other interesting features in the Hebrew Matthew that was copied in the Middle Ages by Jewish scribes. Although the scribes meticulously copied the Gospel word for word, rabbinical tradition required them to introduce certain changes. We have already discussed in the previous sessions the suppression of the Shem HaMeforash. This practice had been around for centuries by the time these scribes were making their copies of Hebrew Matthew. Whenever a scribe encountered YHVH in the text, he reduced it to a single letter – heh (ה) – which was marked with a double-apostrophe symbol called the gershayim to identify it as an abbreviation (“ה). They did this because the Rabbis considered the name of God too holy to write out in full in any book other than the Tanakh. Jewish readers knew whenever they saw this shorthand “ה that it represented the divine name יהוה, Yehovah. We can conclude from this practice that the original version, written by Matthew, would have contained the full name יהוה YHVH. This is important because the Greek New Testament does not contain the Tetragrammaton even one single time. As would be expected, whenever Hebrew Matthew quotes from the Tanakh where YHVH is used, it represents this with the “ה. It also includes this shortened version for the Tetragrammaton in many places that are not from the Old Testament (see Matthew 1:22, 24).
The Hebrew letters used in the Hebrew Matthew from the Middle Ages are very different in appearance from the Aramaic block letters that came into use during the Babylonian exile.
The image below is a reproduction of Hebrew Matthew Chapter 1:18-25 (British Library Manuscript Add. 26964).
18) “It came to pass when his mother was engaged to Joseph, before he knew her, she was found pregnant from the holy spirit. 19) Now Joseph was a righteous man and he did not want to live with her, nor did he want to expose her which would bring her to shame, nor did he want to make her forbidden until death. But he did not want to cover her over. 20) When he was thinking about this matter in his heart, behold, an angel appeared to him in a dream saying, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to marry your wife Miriam, because she is pregnant by the holy spirit. 21) She will give birth to a son and call his name Yeshua for he will save my people from their iniquities.” 22) All of this to fulfill what was written from the prophet by the mouth of [Y]H’’[VH], 23) “Behold the maiden is pregnant and will give birth to a son and she will call his name Emanuel”, which wants to say, “Elo[h]im is with us.” 24) And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did according to all that the angel of [Y]H’’[VH] commanded him. He married his wife, 24) but he did not know her until she gave birth to her firstborn son and he called his name Yeshua.”
The above passage from the Gospel of Matthew was translated into English by Nehemia Gordon.2
More Hebrew Evidence
The passages below are from the Gospels of Luke and John. These were discovered several years ago in the Vatican Library. They were in a folio with a number of other miscellaneous pages from Hebrew documents. In essence, they were found in a “junk box” where pages had been place that had possibly become separated from other manuscripts as they were photographed or studied. It is my personal belief that if there are three pages of Luke and one page of John in a junk box at the Vatican Library, there are more pages of these Gospels somewhere else in that library!
The Vatican Library is a huge repository of ancient texts. Much of it is actually available to look at online, but unless you know where to look, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack to find a particular book. The passages below may be all that survived of these gospels and we don’t know when the manuscripts they came from were written.
Unlike the Hebrew Matthew passage above that was written in a very different Hebrew script, the passages from Luke and John were written in the Aramaic block style script that came into use after the Babylonian captivity and is the style we see in other ancient texts of the Hebrew Scriptures. I can not say for certain that this means that these manuscripts were transcribed earlier than the passage above, but it would seem so.
The Holy Gospel of Yeshua the Mashi’ach According to Luka
1) In that many were placed to write the account of the matters that are trustworthy among us, 2) without doubt, as they told them to us themselves, those who saw them from the beginning, and were my servants [of] the Word, 3) It seemed also right to me, because from the beginning I sought all the things in order, to write to you with speed, dear Theophilo, 4) in order that you would know the truth of the matter that you have learned. 5) And it came to pass in the days of Herod, King of Judah, a certain Kohen, his name was Zechariah from the sons of Aviyah, and his wife from the children of Aaron and her name was Elisheva. 6) And both of them were righteous before Yehovah and walking in all the statues and judgements of Yehovah, without guile, 7) and they did not have children; Elisheva was barren and both of them were advanced in years. 8) And the Kohen Zechariah had the priesthood before
Adona[i] Yehovah in the order of his family, 9) according to the custom of the service of the priesthood, the lot fell upon him to present the incense. And he came into the sanctuary of Yehovah 10) and the multitudes of people were standing outside to pray at the time of the incense 11) and the angel of Yehovah appeared to him, standing at right of the altar of incense 12) and Zechariah, when he saw him, was terrified and fear seized hold of him. 13) And the angel said to him “Do not fear, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and Elisheva your wife will give birth to a son and you shall call his name Yochanan 14) and there shall be to you joy and happiness and many will be happy at the time of his birth, 15) for he will be great before Yehovah and will not drink wine or strong drink and he will be filled from the Ru’ach HaKodesh from the womb of his mother 16) and he will return many of the sons of Israel to Yehovah their Elohim 17) and he will walk before him in the spirit and power of Eliyahu, to return the heart of the fathers to the sons and [he will return] the heretics to the righteousness of the righteous ones and to prepare to Yehovah the people, prepared.” 18) And Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know this matter, for I am old and my wife is advanced in years?” 19) And the angel answered and said, I am Gabriel who stands before Yehovah and I was sent to speak to you and tell you these matters and behold, 20) you will be mute and will not be able to speak until the day that these things are done, because you did not believe my words, that they would be fulfilled in their time.” 21) And the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering because of his delay in the sanctuary. 22) And when he came out outside, he was not able to speak with them. And they knew he saw a vision in the sanctuary. And he was gesturing to them, be remained a mute. 23) And it came to pass when the days of his service were fulfilled and he went to his house 24) and after these days, Elisheva his wife became pregnant. And she hid five months saying, 25) “Why did Yehovah do this to me in the days that I see, to raise up my proverb among the people?” 26) And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from Yehovah in a city of the Galilee, and its name was Natzaret, 27) to a certain virgin who was betrothed to a man and his name was Yoseph from the House of David and the name of the virgin was Miryam. 28) And when the angel came to her he said, “Shalom to you, full of grace, Yehovah is with you, you are blessed among women.” 29) And she looked and was frightened because of his words. And she was thinking, “What sort of ‘Shalom’ was this?” 30) And the angel said to her, “Do not fear, Miryam. For you have found favor before Yehovah. 31) Behold you are pregnant and will give birth to a son and will call his name Yeshua. 32) This one will be great and will be called Son of the Most High and Yehovah Elohim will give him the Throne of David his father 33) and he will reign over the House of Ya’akov forever. And there will be no end to his kingdom.” 34) And Miryam said to the angel, “How will this be, for I have not known a man?” 35) And the angel answered and said to her, “The Ru’ach HaKadosh will enter you and an exalted might will be in your shadow. Because he that will be born will be holy, he shall be called ‘Son of Yehovah.’”
The above passage from the Gospel of Luke was translated into English by Nehemia Gordon.3
To see photographic evidence of this passage at the Vatican online library, click the links below, in order, one at a time. The verses constitute three separate manuscript pages. Each link will take you directly to a single page.
The Holy Gospel of Yeshua the Mashi’ach According to Yochanan
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was next to Elohim and Elohim, he was the Word. 2) This was in the beginning next to Elohim. 3) All things were made through him and without him nothing was made from all that was. 4) In him was life. And life was the light of men. 5) And the light was shining forth in the darkness and the darkness could not contain it. 6) And there was a certain man sent from God and his name was Yochanan. 7) This one came in testimony, to testify concerning the light in order that they would believe everything because of him. 8) He was not the light, but only testifying concerning the light. 9) It was true light, to shed light on all to every man who enters into This World. 10) He was in the world and the world was made through him. And the world did not recognize him. 11) He came to his true homeland and the children of his house did not accept him. 12) And to all those who accepted him and believe in his name, he gave dominion that they would be Sons of Elohim. 13) For they were not born out of blood and not out of the desire of the flesh and not out of the desire of men, but from Elohim.”
The above passage from the Gospel of John was translated into English by Nehemia Gordon.4
To see photographic evidence of this passage from at the Vatican online library, click the link below which will take you directly to the manuscript. https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.ebr.530.pt.1/0074
1George Howard (1935-2018) wrote a book proving that Hebrew Matthew was not a translation, but an original Hebrew work. Professor Howard was an American Hebraist and Professor Emeritus and Head of the Department of Religion and Hebrew at the University of Georgia. He is noted for publishing Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew in 1987 (revised, 1995). His book, The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (1987, 1995 2nd ed.) is still available.
2Nehemia Gordon, The Naming of Jesus in Hebrew Matthew (Makor Hebrew Foundation, 2008), 16.
3Nehemia Gordon, “Hebrew Voices #72 — Hebrew Gospels from a Vatican Junk Box,” Nehemia’s Wall, June 20, 2018, accessed August 24, 2020, https://www.nehemiaswall.com/hebrew-gospels-luke-john-vatican, paragraph 3 (download).
4Nehemia Gordon, “Hebrew Voices #72,” paragraph 3 (download).
I encourage you to continue on with this subject as the Holy Spirit leads you. And remember, be a Berean! It is important to search the Scriptures. Determine for yourself if you can find a scriptural mandate for not knowing, honoring, remembering, and mentioning the unique, holy, and mighty name of God, the Father, Yehovah, and of His Son, Yeshua, the Messiah!
You can choose not to say His name or to pronounce it differently than I have presented it here, of course. Each person must be convinced in her/his own mind.
Not much homework today!
When you are on the Vatican library site, take a look at some of the other pages that are across the bottom of the screen. Many of these pages contain יהוה. See if you can find this on some of those pages. On some pages, you can find it multiple times!
Also, look around in the British Museum digitized copy of Evan Bochan to see this well preserved document from the middle ages. It is fascinating!
As you come to the conclusion of this study into the Hidden Name of God, you may find it helpful to reflect back on all that has been covered. It has been a lot, I know! I hope you have enjoyed the journey as much as I have.
Thank you so much for making it to the end of this journey with me! My prayer is that this is not an ending, but just a beginning!
Please let me know what your thoughts are on this subject in the comments. I would love to hear from you! (And to continue the conversation!)
“Yehovah bless you, and keep you:
Yehovah make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
Yehovah lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
“The name Yehovah is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.”
Shalom, my friends! Amen!