Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, English? ...

In the Name of God

Confusion sometimes arises among Christians as to how we ought to address God. Indeed some feel it is imperative that we use one of the Hebrew forms of His name. It is a matter of our salvation being at stake. Should we always use the Hebrew names? Has God revealed how we ought to address Him?

It must first be understood as of paramount importance that our salvation does not hang on our shaping our lips in a specific manner to pronounce a word. No act of any human whether by word or deed can earn salvation. It is a gift freely given by a loving God through the awesome sacrifice of our Savior, the Anointed One, known to us as Jesus Christ.

But could there be other reasons for addressing God only in a form of Hebrew?

The Language of Canaan

The Hebrew language (in the Old Testament called "the language of Canaan"), of course, is like any other - over time it evolved in its letter form, in its spelling, syntax, punctuation, etc. And it had its dialects (Judges 11:5-6). There is nothing "sacred" about Hebrew. The reason that writings which span three thousand years appear "all of a piece" to us is that they are all translated into the same type of English. The great diversity within "Hebrew" was rediscovered only about a century ago.

This process has also happened with our King James Version of 1611. Its English was updated by publishers as the language changed. [The KJV, as now printed, is the Cambridge University edition of 1858.] So care is needed in our interpretation of the Biblical text. How Hebrew is now pronounced is a product of the Middle Ages - a thousand years after the Biblical (OT) period. Hebrew scholars can identify clear differences between the pronunciation and grammar of modern Hebrew and that of Bible times.

God at first revealed Himself to His people, most of whom spoke what we term the Hebrew language, or a variant such as "proto- Hebrew" (related to Ugaritic). (There is no evidence that, say, Noah or his contemporaries spoke what we call "Hebrew".) That revelation included a number of names descriptive of His nature. His power is revealed in the first-used words for God - El and Elohim. These words were translated by the Jews in the LXX [Septuagint - Greek translation of the Old Testament, mostly translated before the time of Jesus] and by the writers of the New Testament as the Greek word theos. Other Hebrew names for God include YHVH-Jireh, YHVH-Sabaoth, YHVH-Rapha etc. But God is also known by a large number of other names.

A name, in biblical usage, "correctly describes the person, place or object and indicates the essential character of that to which the name is given". These names have no significance to those who do not understand the language in which they were spoken (c.f., Genesis 17:5). They are mere sounds, not magical, and have to be translated. And when understood - by translation - they add to our comprehension of God's majesty and power and love.

Four Letters

The most significant name of God is YHVH - the so-called "tetragrammaton" (a Greek word, meaning "4 letters"). It is also written as "JHVH" and "YHWH" because Hebrew and English letters do not match exactly. The exact pronunciation of YHVH is not now known, the vowels of the word Adonai, lord or master, being inserted by Jews as a reminder to substitute "Adonai" for "YHVH" whenever reading aloud. However, in the Passover Papyrus (a letter from Jews in Jerusalem to those in Egypt in the 5th century BC), the vowels were supplied as YAHO - likely, similar in sound to the LXX IO (Exodus 3:14).

The meaning of "YHVH" was revealed in these verses by God Himself "I am that I am". That is, YHVH is the one who "is, was, and is to come" (see Revelation 1:8, John 8:58). He is the self-existing one. Thus when we read the name (it appears 6823 times in the Scriptures) we could call God "the Eternal" - as does the French language Bible or the Moffatt version. This is an apt English translation, and comprehensible to the English language speaker. In this form it imparts the essential understanding God wanted us to have about His nature.

It was in the early Hellenistic period [shortly before the time of Jesus], following the translation of the Scriptures into Greek, that the Jews began to follow the Gentile mystical practice of attributing to God an "unutterable name of the divine essence". The Jews, to avoid any possibility of going contrary to Leviticus 24:16, had a superstitious regard for the name of God, both in speaking and writing. Indeed there is evidence that the "sacred name" had occult significance in Judaism.

Greek Language

A couple of centuries before Jesus was born the Jews translated YHVH into the Greek word Kurios = Lord, or having power (see the Septuagint - LXX - version). There were no scruples at that time about using a translation of the name of God into Greek. The New Testament writers continued this, calling God, and Jesus, Lord, Kurios. Note also that most quotations in the New Testament from the Old are from the LXX version. It was the text commonly used by Christians for the first three centuries. [So much so that the LXX fell into disrepute among the Jews for being too "pro- Christian", so the Jews made other anti-Christian translations of the OT].

For all its imperfections, God chose the Greek language to preserve His new covenant witness. In the first century Greek held a comparable position in the world as does English today. Jews, from the fourth century BC on through the time of the NT writings, were immersed in the vernacular Greek language (koine) and its culture.

There are Greek manuscripts in which the name "YHVH" is written in the Aramaic script used to write Hebrew from before the time of Jesus till today. Aramaic was the language that replaced Hebrew in common speech about 400 B.C. This caused some confusion among the Greeks because "YHVH" looks like "PIPI" in Greek letters. So many Greeks thought that the God of the Jews was called "Pipi". In another twist, in some texts written in Aramaic script, YHVH is written using the old Hebrew script, which fell into disuse about 400 B.C.

It has been suggested that there was some great conspiracy by heretical Greek Christian leaders to supplant the Hebrew names of God in the New Testament by one related to a pagan God. It is supposition and without evidence. If this indeed were the case, there's no part of the Greek text of the New Testament which we could trust! For the books of the New Testament were written in different places, sent to different people and, almost before the ink was dry, copied hundreds of times. There was no chance to recall all the copies to expunge the Hebrew names of God and substitute pagan titles! They were read out loud and dictated to copyists in Greek. There are early Christian documents in Aramaic, e.g., the Odes of Solomon. These are not in the New Testament. If there were Aramaic or Hebrew originals to any of the New Testament books, they were translated into Greek very early and the original versions were lost. God chose to preserve the New Testament in Greek.

The many appendages to YHVH (e.g., YHVH-jireh) add to our understanding of God's nature, but only when translated into the language of the hearer. They help us focus on the many revealed aspects of the character of God.

Simply using the Hebrew form has no significance for those who do not understand the Hebrew language. To comprehend the meaning of God's names needs translation. There is no virtue in using the Hebrew form - unless Hebrew is your native language! Otherwise there is just blind incomprehension. There is nothing magical or virtuous about using either the correct pronunciation (which is not anyway known for certain) or a foreign language (see I Corinthians 14:27-28)!

"Jesus"

Much the same applies to the name Jesus, the name given by God to the Messiah before his birth (Matthew 1:21). There is no logical reason to view this as a "sacred name". It was common to many of the Jewish race - but in the Hebrew form usually transliterated Joshua, or the Aramaic Yashua, meaning "God Saves" or "God the Savior". This meaning is so much associated with "Jesus" that anyone with a smattering of Bible interest knows its significance. And until his resurrection, remember, our Savior was human - "the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:5).

The use of Jesus for Joshua was common long before the birth of our Savior - e.g., in the Greek LXX translation. The form was identical (the precise transliteration is Iesous) to that of the New Testament text, both for Jesus Christ and for others named there with the same name, e.g., the Book of Joshua.

Another name applied to Jesus Christ is Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23: "his name shall be called Emmanuel"). The meaning is lost on the non-Hebrew speaker, but when translated is a vital clue to the nature of Jesus: "God with us". Perfectly understandable in Hebrew but not in any other language. The New Testament writers did not elsewhere use the term. Matthew. notice, was not averse to translating this "sacred name" into Greek!

In sum, then, there is no compulsion to use the Hebrew form of God's names. It merely serves to hide their meaning to the non-Hebrew speaker. Like other "works" it will neither enhance nor hinder our salvation. But we can - and should - learn much about the character of God through a study of the many given names with which He is identified.

A Family Relationship

In his own prayers, Jesus gave us the example of addressing God as "Father", "Our Father" or "Holy Father". And the New Testament writers usually called Jesus "Lord". He is also referred to as "Savior," or "Jesus Christ". Christ is Greek for Messiah which means "the Anointed One". It is helpful at times to consciously remind ourselves of the meaning of these names. But it is in no way essential.

When the Messiah returns He will "turn to the people a pure language" - not necessarily Hebrew. Even Hebrew has its imperfections! All the defiling accretions that have clung to His name will be authentically removed by divine fiat. Men - including those who claim to be Christian - have attached to God a variety of practices that provoke Him to anger (Ezekiel 43:6-10). In Christianity, a host of heathen customs have been included - such as Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day, etc. The superstitious use of "sacred names", too. None reflect the worship God defines in Scripture - and requires of us.

As believers in the true faith of the Bible, we are to rejoice in a close family relationship with the One who has begotten us as His children, and forgiven our sin through His Son. As such we need only - in company with Jesus himself and the apostles (over fifty times in the Acts and Epistles) - address Him as Father (e.g., Matthew 6:5-14).

The occasions on which we need to use the Hebrew forms of God's names are limited to scholarship, private study and Bible exposition of those names.


To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.

For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Issue 9, May/June 1998. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.


Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is abcog.org/nh/name.htm