Christians and the Name
NO ONE can say for sure exactly when orthodox Jews ceased to pronounce God’s name out loud and instead substituted the Hebrew words for God and Sovereign Lord. Some believe that God’s name passed out of everyday use well before Jesus’ time. But there is strong evidence that the high priest continued to pronounce it at religious services at the temple—particularly on the day of Atonement—right up until the temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. Hence, when Jesus was on earth, the pronunciation of the name was known, although perhaps it was not widely used.
Why did the Jews cease to pronounce God’s name? Probably, at least in part, because of misapplying the words of the third commandment: “You must not take up the name of Jehovah your God in a worthless way.” (Exodus 20:7) Of course, this commandment did not prohibit the use of God’s name. Otherwise, why did God’s ancient servants such as David use it so freely and still enjoy Jehovah’s blessing? And why did God pronounce it to Moses and tell Moses to explain to the Israelites who it was that had sent him?—Psalm 18:1-3, 6, 13; Exodus 6:2-8.
Nevertheless, by Jesus’ time there was a strong tendency to take the reasonable commands of God and interpret them in a highly unreasonable way. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments obligated the Jews to observe the seventh day of each week as a day of rest, a Sabbath. (Exodus 20:8-11) Orthodox Jews took that command to ridiculous lengths, making innumerable rules to govern even the smallest act that could or could not be done on the Sabbath. It was doubtless in the same spirit that they took a reasonable command, that God’s name must not be dishonored, to a most unreasonable extreme, saying that the name should not even be pronounced.*
Jesus and the Name
Would Jesus have followed such an unscriptural tradition? Hardly! He certainly did not hold back from doing works of healing on the Sabbath, even though this meant breaking the man-made rules of the Jews and even risking his life. (Matthew 12:9-14) In fact, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as hypocrites because their traditions went beyond God’s inspired Word. (Matthew 15:1-9) Hence, it is unlikely that he would have held back from pronouncing God’s name, especially in view of the fact that his own name, Jesus, meant “Jehovah is Salvation.”
On one occasion, Jesus stood up in a synagogue and read a portion of the scroll of Isaiah. The section he read was what we today call Isaiah 61:1, 2, where God’s name appears more than once. (Luke 4:16-21) Would he have refused to pronounce the divine name there, substituting “Lord” or “God”? Of course not. That would have meant following the unscriptural tradition of the Jewish religious leaders. Rather, we read: “He was teaching them as a person having authority, and not as their scribes.”—Matthew 7:29.
In fact, as we learned earlier, he taught his followers to pray to God: “Let your name be sanctified.” (Matthew 6:9) And in prayer on the night before his execution, he said to his Father: “I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world . . . Holy Father, watch over them on account of your own name which you have given me.”—John 17:6, 11.
Regarding these references by Jesus to God’s name, the book Der Name Gottes (The Name of God) explains, on page 76: “We must appreciate the astonishing fact that the traditional Old Testament understanding of God’s revelation is that it is a revelation of his name and that this is carried on through to the final parts of the Old Testament, yes, continues even into the last parts of the New Testament, where, for example at John 17:6, we read: ‘I have made your name manifest.’”
Yes, it would be most unreasonable to think that Jesus held back from using God’s name, especially when he quoted from those portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that contained it.
The Early Christians
Did Jesus’ followers in the first century use God’s name? They had been commanded by Jesus to make disciples of people of all nations. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Many of the people to be preached to had no conception of the God who had revealed himself to the Jews by the name Jehovah. How would the Christians be able to identify the true God to them? Would it be enough to call him God or Lord? No. The nations had their own gods and lords. (1 Corinthians 8:5) How could the Christians have made a clear difference between the true God and the false ones? Only by using the true God’s name.
Thus, the disciple James remarked during a conference of the elders at Jerusalem: “Symeon has related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree.” (Acts 15:14, 15) The apostle Peter, in his well-known speech at Pentecost, pointed out a vital part of the Christian message when he quoted the words of the prophet Joel: “Everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will get away safe.”—Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21.
The apostle Paul leaves no doubt about the importance to him of God’s name. In his letter to the Romans, he quotes the same words by the prophet Joel and goes on to encourage fellow Christians to show their faith in that statement by going out to preach about God’s name to others in order that these, too, might be saved. (Romans 10:13-15) Later he wrote in his letter to Timothy: “Let everyone naming the name of Jehovah renounce unrighteousness.” (2 Timothy 2:19) At the end of the first century, the apostle John used the divine name in his writings. The expression “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise Jah,” appears repeatedly in the book of Revelation.—Revelation 19:1, 3, 4, 6.
However, Jesus and his followers had prophesied that an apostasy would occur in the Christian congregation. The apostle Peter had written: “There will also be false teachers among you.” (2 Peter 2:1; see also Matthew 13:36-43; Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 John 2:18, 19.) These warnings were fulfilled. One result was that God’s name was pushed into the background. It even got removed from copies and translations of the Bible! Let us see how that happened.
Some suggest another reason: The Jews may have been influenced by Greek philosophy. For example, Philo, a Jewish philosopher of Alexandria who was approximately contemporary with Jesus, was greatly influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato, who he thought was divinely inspired. The Lexikon des Judentums (Lexicon of Judaism), under “Philo,” states that Philo “united the language and ideas of Greek philosophy (Plato) with the revealed faith of the Jews” and that to begin with he “had a visible effect upon the Christian church fathers.” Philo taught that God was indefinable and, hence, unnameable.
[Picture on page 14]
This picture of a Jewish high priest, with the sign on his turban in Hebrew meaning “Holiness Belongs to Jehovah,” is found in the Vatican
[Picture on page 15]
As this 1805 German translation of the Bible indicates, when Jesus read in the synagogue from the scroll of Isaiah, he pronounced God’s name out loud.—Luke 4:18, 19
[Pictures on page 16]