Lost in Translation?
As we have taken this journey of discovery in Parts 1-3, 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.
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.
Sacred Names in Greek Translations
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 Testament 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.
Regard for the Septuagint by Jews and Christians
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.
Since the Scriptures themselves, whether Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, English, or other languages, never forbid the speaking of the name Yehovah, or require it to only be spoken by priests in the Temple, it is my belief that the long-standing tradition of men should be reversed, and we should praise His name—Yehovah. The prohibition is against using God’s name falsely or in vain. So, be courageous and speak His name. Especially when you worship Him. His name is important and He is honored when you remember it. Hallelu-yah!
- Have you been practicing using the name Yehovah in your everyday life since you began this study?
- In what situations do you use it? When reading the Word? When singing praises to Him? When blessing others?
- What do you think about the legend of the 72 Jewish Elders producing identical copies of the Septuagint?
- Why do you think the Jews began to distance themselves from the Septuagint, even though they at first saw it as divinely inspired, when the Christians began to use it?
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Feature image background by titoOns via CanvaPro; Hebrew calligraphy by Melody Cash.