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The Unutterable Name of God: YHWH

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
February 25th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

There is a subtle but significant meaning in the word "Lord" in the New Testament which arises from the Jewish tradition not to pronounce the name YHWH.  Moreover, a link between the Old Testament Septuagint and the New Testament would be lost if YHWH in the Old Testament were to be translated as something other than "Lord," such as Yahweh or the like.  There are therefore huge theological, philological, catechetical, liturgical, and pastoral reasons for following the traditional practice of the Jews and the early Christians.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In our prior article in our Series Tres Linguae Sacrae entitled The Incomprehensible Name of God: YHWH, we discussed the unutterable name of God, YHWH or יהוה.  In this article, we shall explore its use in Catholic liturgy and Catholic translations of Scripture that are to be read in liturgical settings.  For Catholics--at least in public settings--the name remains unutterable.

In this subject matter, we are guided by a little-known "Letter to the Bishops' Conference on the 'The Name of God'" by the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued on June 29, 2008, by that Congregation's Prefect, Cardinal Arinze.  That letter addresses the Church's position on the most sacred name of God as it was revealed to Moses. 

Essentially, the letter continues the Jewish and early Christian practice of not pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, and forbids its use in the translation of Scriptures that are to be used in liturgical worship, in liturgical worship proper, and in public hymnody.

First of all, the letter affirms the objective nature of revelation in Sacred Scripture, so that it ought not to be seen as historically-conditioned, and therefore somehow not binding upon us today: "The words of Sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place. They are the Word of God expressed in human words."

For this reason, translations should be faithful to the original texts. 

With respect to translation of the Tetragrammaton, the letter invokes its earlier (March 23, 2001) Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (No. 41), which states that "[i]n accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the . . . Septuagint version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning."

Despite that instruction, the letter observes that "the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel's proper name, known as the holy or divine tetragrammaton, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in form יהוה, YHWH."  This practice has occurred in both the reading of biblical texts in the lectionary, in prayers, and in hymns.

It was already part of the biblical tradition, the letter observes, to hold that the Tetragrammaton YHWH "unpronounceable," and therefore to be replaced by the use of an alternate name--what Ratzinger in his book Introduction to Christianity called "some sort of periphrasis"--usually, the Hebrew Adonai, which means "Lord."

This biblical tradition was already well-established by the 2nd century B.C.  For example, the Septuagint--which is the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew that was performed by the traditional group of 72 Rabbis in the 2nd century B.C.--"had regularly rendered the Hebrew tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, which means 'Lord.'"

This is of great significance to the Christian revelation, observes Cardinal Arinze in his letter, because the Septuagint--the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures--"constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek-speaking Christians."

The Septuagint therefore influenced the New Testament, including its use of Greek and scriptural concepts and references.  Importantly, the New Testament continues the practice of never pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, but instead uses the word Kyrios or "Lord."  

That this was something important is further confirmed, Cardinal Arinze says, by the fact that "[s]omething similar happened likewise for Latin-speaking Christians, whose literature began to emerge from the second century, as first the [Bible translations in Latin known as the] Vetus Latina and, later, the Vulgate of St. Jerome attest.  In these translations, too, the tetragrammaton was regularly replaced with the Latin word Dominus, corresponding both to the Hebrew Adonai and to the Greek Kyrios."

We may expect, then, that there are some places in the New Testament where the word Kyrios is used as a periphrasis for the Tetragrammaton, YHWH.  And, in fact, there are.  This, as the letter, observes has "important implications for New Testament Christology itself."

It benefits us to show some examples of this.

An interesting example of where the word "Lord" clearly was used to refer to the Tetragrammaton is the curious occasional duplication of the title "Lord" in the Gospels:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . ."  (Matt. 7:21 see also Luke 6:46; see also Matt. 25:11)

This curious duplicative type of address is found in the Septuagint where it translates the Hebrew Adonai YHWH, or YHWH Adonai, as Kyrie, Kyrie (Lord, Lord).  For example:

"O Lord GOD [Adonai YHWH], you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and might. For what god in heaven or on earth can perform deeds as mighty as yours?" (Deut. 3:24)

In the Septuagint translation of this verse, the Hebrew Adonai YHWH is translated as Kyrie, Kyrie--Lord, Lord. 

This practice of duplication is found in multiple other instances (e.g., Deut. 9:26; 1 Kings 8:53; Ps. 69:6; Ezek. 20:49; Amos 7:2, 5; Ps. 109:21; Ps. 140:7; Ps. 141:8).  In each instance, the referent is God himself.  In the entirety of the corpus of the Old Testament Septuagint, no one is ever referred to as Kyrie, Kyrie--Lord, Lord--except the God of Israel.

So when Jesus suggests that he will be called "Lord, Lord," the necessary implication is that he considers himself the God of Israel.

As another example, we might turn to St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, where St. Paul speaks about Jesus, who though in the form of God, emptied himself, and took the form of a servant being made in the likeness of men, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  (Phil. 2:6-9)  "Because of this," St. Paul continues:

"God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those 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." (Phil. 2:9-11)

When St. Paul uses the term "Lord" here, he is, in fact, invoking the Tetragrammaton by periphrasis.  How do we know?  First, it seems obvious that the only possible reference of the words "the name that is above every other name" must be the Tetragrammaton (YHWH).  In the Hebrew tradition, what other name could there be?

More than that, the statement that at the name of Jesus "every knee should bend," and "every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," is a clear reference to Isaiah 45:23-24a: "To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear [confess], saying, 'Only in the LORD (YHWH, יהוה) are just deeds and power.'"

As the letter of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments summarizes this:  In St. Paul's preaching, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) "in fact becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith . . . ."  The Messiah (Jesus) and the God of Israel  (whose name is unutterable) are one and the same.

As another example, we might turn to St. Peter's sermon following the descent of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost.  St. Peter says, "Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord (Kyrios) shall be saved. . . . Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." (Acts 2:21, 36). 

This is a direct reference to Joel 3:5, as St. Peter himself says (Acts 2:16): "Then everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the LORD (YHWH, יהוה).  In no uncertain terms, St. Peter was using the term "Lord" to refer to the unutterable name, YHWH, and equating it with Jesus, the Christ  or Messiah.

All this subtle--but significant--meaning in the word "Lord," and the link between the Old Testament Septuagint and the New Testament would be lost if YHWH were to be translated as something other than "Lord," such as Yahweh or the like.  There are therefore huge theological, philological, catechetical, liturgical, and pastoral reasons for insisting on the traditional practice.

For this reason, the letter gives the following directives:

First: "In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the Tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced."

Second: "For the translation of the biblical text in modern languages, intended for the liturgical usage of the Church . . . the divine Tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios; 'Lord,' Signore, Seigneur, Herr, Seņor, etc."

Third: "In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present, one after the other, either the Hebrew term Adonai or the Tetragrammaton YHWH, Adonai is to be translated 'Lord' and the [word] 'God' is to be used for the Tetragrammaton YHWH, similar to what happens in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin translation of the Vulgate."

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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