Did the Early Christians Use God’s Name?
THE name of God appears thousands of times in the Hebrew Scriptures, where it is represented by the four consonants יהוה (YHWH, the Tetragrammaton). Archaeological finds suggest that in preexilic Israel, before 607 B.C.E., the name was in common use, and in the postexilic Bible books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Malachi, it appears frequently. Gradually, though, as the time for the appearance of the Messiah drew closer, Jews became superstitiously reluctant to use the name.
Did Jesus’ disciples use God’s name (normally rendered “Jehovah,” or “Yahweh” in English)? The evidence says yes. Jesus taught his followers to pray to God: “Let your name be sanctified.” (Matthew 6:9) And at the end of his earthly ministry, he himself prayed to his heavenly Father: “I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world.” (John 17:6) Besides, early copies of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by Jesus’ disciples, contained God’s name in the form of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton.
What about the Gospels and the rest of the Christian Greek Scriptures (the “New Testament”)? It has been reasoned that since God’s name appeared in the Septuagint, it would also have appeared in the earliest copies of these Scriptures—at least where the Septuagint was quoted. Thus, the name Jehovah appears more than 200 times in the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Some have criticized this as unwarranted. However, there seems to be support for the New World Translation in an unlikely source: the Babylonian Talmud.
The first part of this Jewish religious work is entitled Shabbath (Sabbath) and contains an immense body of rules governing conduct on the Sabbath. In one section, there is a discussion as to whether it is proper to save Bible manuscripts from a fire on the Sabbath, and then the following passage appears: “It was stated in the text: The blank spaces [gil·yoh·nimʹ] and the Books of the Minim, we may not save them from a fire. R. Jose said: On weekdays one must cut out the Divine Names which they contain, hide them, and burn the rest. R. Tarfon said: May I bury my son if I would not burn them together with their Divine Names if they came to my hand.”—Translation by Dr. H. Freedman.
Who were the mi·nimʹ? The word means “sectarians” and could refer to the Sadducees or the Samaritans. But according to Dr. Freedman, in this passage it most likely refers to Jewish Christians. So, what were the gil·yoh·nimʹ, translated “blank spaces” according to Dr. Freedman? There are two possible meanings. They could be the blank margins of a scroll or even blank scrolls. Or—in an ironic application of the word—they could be the writings of the mi·nimʹ, as if to say that these writings are as worthless as blank scrolls. In dictionaries this second meaning is given as “Gospels.” In harmony with this, the sentence that appears in the Talmud before the above-quoted portion reads: “The Books of Minim are like blank spaces [gil·yoh·nimʹ].”
Accordingly, in the book Who Was a Jew? by Lawrence H. Schiffman, the above-quoted portion of the Talmud is translated as follows: “We do not save from a fire (on the Sabbath) the Gospels and the books of the minim (‘heretics’). Rather, they are burned in their place, they and their Tetragrammata. Rabbi Yose Ha-Gelili says: During the week, one should cut out their Tetragrammata and hide them away and burn the remainder. Said Rabbi Tarfon: May I bury my sons! If (these books) would come into my hand, I would burn them along with their Tetragrammata.” Dr. Schiffman goes on to argue that the mi·nimʹ here are Jewish Christians.
Is this portion of the Talmud really speaking about the early Jewish Christians? If so, then it is strong evidence that the Christians did include God’s name, the Tetragrammaton, in their Gospels and writings. And it is extremely likely that the Talmud is discussing Jewish Christians here. There is scholastic support for such a view, and in the Talmud the context appears to add further support. The section following the above quote from Shabbath relates a story involving Gamaliel and a Christian judge in which parts of the Sermon on the Mount are alluded to.
It was only later, when apostate Christianity deviated from the simple teachings of Jesus, that God’s name ceased to be used by professing Christians and was even removed from copies of the Septuagint and from the Gospels and other Bible books.
[Picture on page 31]
In Jesus’ day, God’s name appeared in the “Septuagint”
Israel Antiquities Authority