I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a full day seminar at Cambridge before Christmas dealing with ancient manuscripts and writing systems (papyrology and paleography), hosted by the Tyndale House. During the conference we spent several hours working on reading old Greek manuscripts, including both biblical texts (Septuagint and NT) and non-biblical texts. It’s quite a demanding task for the newbie who is used to reading nicely printed, uniform Greek text in print (yes, I know, that’s a very first-world problem to have).
One of the most fascinating parts of the seminar involved reading an old fragment of the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 31, during which one of the professors in attendance made what we thought was a joke about early Christians misreading the name for the LORD in the synagogue and saying “Pipi.” Turns out…he wasn’t joking. The reason behind this embarrassing mistake provides a nice little (short) tour into the world of scribal habits and ancient manuscripts.
The great transition towards Greek out of Hebrew
As most Christians are aware, the Old Testament was originally written primarily in Hebrew with a few parts (a few chapters of Daniel and Ezra) in Aramaic. While the LORD ascribes numerous names to himself, his “covenant” name was YHWH (יהוה, also known as the “tetragrammaton”), which is usually written in English as Yahweh, though some folks (namely, Jehovah’s Witnesses) write it Jehovah, using different vowels with the consonants.
According to Jewish tradition as later codified in the Mishnah (specifically the Halakha), when the Hebrew Bible was read in the synagogue by Jews – and possibly even earlier in the first temple period, though that is debated – the covenant name of God was usually not pronounced (according to some Jewish writings, YHWH could be spoken, or, rather, sung, in some circumstances, such as priestly prayer or when reciting the Numbers 6 benediction). Rather, they substituted “Adonai” any time YHWH appeared in the text, and if they needed to refer to YHWH as the written name, they usually called it “HaShem” (The Name). Honoring this tradition, the Masoretes inserted the vowels for “Adonai” everywhere YHWH appeared, functioning as a sort of global “replace-all” to indicate what should be read aloud (qere) from the written text (kethiv). Their rationale was that the covenant name of God was too sacred, too holy, too wonderful to pronounce. This practice is still alive today in Jewish synagogues and often even in Christian seminaries, including my own, where, out of respect for the Jewish tradition, YHWH is replaced verbally with Adonai whenever we read the Hebrew Bible out loud.
As I’ve written previously, a significant transition took place beginning roughly in 250 BC, whereby the Jews began the process of translating the Hebrew scriptures into the increasingly dominant Greek language. This Old Greek translation, which took place over a number of years, is commonly called the Septuagint today.
How did the Greek translators and speakers treat YHWH?
In light of the common practice of treating YHWH in a special way at the time, a natural question arises concerning the divine covenant name was treated in the Septuagint.
As it turns out, the answer to this question is both complicated and illuminating. The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), as one might deduce, was used by two groups of people: Jews who were transitioning away from Hebrew/Aramaic and towards Greek as their common language, and early Christians who would typically prefer the Greek OT to go alongside the Greek NT. The treatment of YHWH within the Greek translations of the OT worked basically as follows.
Christian copies of the Greek OT
We have far more copies of the Septuagint that stem from Christian communities, such as the vastly important codices from the 4th century such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, which include largely intact NT and OT copies in Greek. In nearly 100% of the instances where YHWH appeared in the original Hebrew of the OT, the covenant name is rendered as kyrios (κύριος). This is, of course, the same title ascribed to Jesus himself hundreds of times in the NT. In many cases, such as the first few verses of Mark, the NT writers were quoting a passage from the OT which originally referred to YHWH, translated it as kyrios, and then applied it not to God the Father, but to Jesus. It’s a profound statement of the way the NT authors viewed the divine essence of Jesus even at a very early period. It’s also a great counterargument to the view held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other groups out there that the NT does not ascribe divinity to Jesus.
Here is an example from Haggai 1:2 (“Thus says the LORD [YHWH] of hosts” in the Hebrew) from the 4th century Christian Codex Sinaiticus. The two letters circled are kyrios written in abbreviated form (“nomina sacra,” indicated by the horizontal bar – above the letters) as KS. This same abbreviated form shows up nearly ubiquitously in the NT portion of Sinaiticus when referring to Jesus as “Lord” (kyrios).
Jewish copies of the Greek OT
As one might expect, Jewish copies of the Greek OT, including the few examples we have that pre-date the Christian era (e.g., from the Dead Sea Scrolls), exhibit some different behaviors.
- Option 1: translating YHWH as kyrios. Perhaps surprisingly, some Jewish manuscripts found at Qumran dating from before the birth of Jesus translated YHWH using the Greek term kyrios. Decades later, when the Jewish community moved away from the Septuagint, which they believed had become too “Christianized” and polluted, they embraced several alternate Greek translations, including one by Aquila, who also occasionally used kyrios for YHWH. This apparently reflected the tradition that was already present, showing that even the Jews were comfortable applying the Greek term for “Lord” to YHWH even though it had been taken up by the Christians as the title for the Lord Jesus Christ, whom they rejected. Moreover, the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) also used kyrios for YHWH, even though he died likely before the bulk of the NT was written.
- Option 2: translating YHWH into Greek as ιαω. This appears to be less common, but it does happen in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Option 3: leaving a blank space in the Greek text where YHWH appears in the underlying Hebrew, or filling it in with four dots.
- Option 4: inserting Hebrew letters for YHWH in the Greek text. Many manuscripts reveal that Jewish scribes would often leave a gap in the text when they got to YHWH in their Hebrew exemplar, and a different scribe (likely one trained to do this task, who was well-versed in Hebrew writing) would come along and insert the Hebrew YHWH into the Greek text. This was done in two ways, as shown in examples below. Many manuscripts, including some from the Dead Sea Scrolls, include a form of YHWH using the ancient form of Hebrew writing called “Paleo-Hebrew,” while others used the more familiar script that is still in use today.
I find this fourth option to be particularly interesting, as it showed the reverence with which the Jewish community treated the divine name of the holy, transcendent, creator God.
An unfortunate side effect
There was, however, an unfortunate side effect of this practice. Though it is hard to make out in the copy I showed above for the “regular” Hebrew writing, a more clear rendering of YHWH in Hebrew is י ה ו ה, which is read right-to-left.
Let’s say you were a young Jewish man ascribing to be a priest, and it was your turn to read from the sacred scriptures. Your synagogue used the Greek translation for the readings. You are going along, reading left-to-right, and you reach this somewhat strange set of four characters. Undaunted, and hoping to impress your supervising priests, you press on reading left-to-right, assuming that this strange word is actually Π Ι Π Ι, written in Greek capitals. Sadly, you just said that the holy, unpronounceable name of the transcendent God of the Universe is … “Pipi.” While the similarities aren’t clear in modern computer fonts, in handwritten upper-case Greek they would have been hard to distinguish for the untrained eye: י ה ו ה … Π Ι Π Ι.
This sounds far-fetched, but it actually happened. I neglected to take down the name of the manuscript, unfortunately, but this professor showed me an old Jewish Greek manuscript that had a marginal note that included both the YHWH in Hebrew and “Pipi” in Greek letters; apparently it was not uncommon to see the tetragrammaton actually show up in this peculiar Greek form in the text itself (ΠΙΠΙ), too, rather than the Hebrew (יהוה). Moreover, Jerome, the great translator of the Vulgate, commented in a letter in 384 AD that “certain ignorant ones, because of the similarity of the characters, when they would find it in Greek books, were accustomed to read PIPI” (source). A little comical, actually, but pity those poor fellows.
Connecting to the pew
I’ll just mention two more or less unrelated ways in which this short study on the use of YHWH in Greek manuscripts is important for today’s Christian:
- Rediscovering the transcendence of God. I already knew that the Jewish community treated the divine name with reverence. However, when I saw the manuscripts with YHWH in Hebrew letters rather than the Greek kyrios, this diligence about revering the name of the Lord, at least to me, was ratcheted up another level. Scribal patterns can tell you a lot about worshipping communities, and this particular habit reveals just how seriously the Jewish community took the holiness, “other”-ness, transcendence, might, and awe-inspiring sacredness of Yahweh. When they came upon YHWH in the Hebrew text, they intentionally stopped what they were doing, left a space, and then had someone else trained in Hebrew writing to come insert the unpronounceable name. That is astounding reverence. In an era in which many Christian groups have, at least in my opinion, gone to the far extreme of casualness – treating the creator of the universe as little more than (a) a friend on Facebook and / or (b) a wealthy uncle who wants to do stuff for you – this kind of reverence indicated in millennia-old manuscripts is very convicting. Yes, we live in light of the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. But can we not also have awe? Can we not hold God’s name, which represents his person, in profound, deep reverence once again?
- YHWH as kyrios suggests very high Christology. Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who deny the deity of Jesus Christ often comment that it was the Christian community that came up with the idea of calling Jesus kyrios, and that it had nothing to do with YHWH. The evidence, however, points entirely in the opposite direction: based on pre-Christian Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (which often, though obviously not always, used kyrios for YHWH), the use of kyrios by Philo, and the occasional use of kyrios in the Jewish-friendly, non-Septuagintal edition of the Greek Bible produced by Aquila, the practice of (at least occasionally) calling YHWH by the Greek term kyrios was already a known pattern among Jews before (and retained after) Jesus came on the scene. Thus, when the NT writers, who encountered kyrios for YHWH in their copies Septuagint, adopted that same term for Jesus, they were making a profound statement: Jesus of Nazareth is of the same divine essence as YHWH, God the Father. Importantly, this was not a Christian innovation, for they were merely adopting for Jesus a name that had already gotten associated with YHWH by many Jews, from whom, of course, the early Christians derived.
 This practice among is a major contributor to the fact that we have long since lost the ability to assign the original vowels to YHWH, leading to today’s Yahweh vs. Jehovah debate.