Archive for July, 2011

Virtually everyone is familiar with the word “Jehovah,” but there is much confusion as to its origin and even its legitimate use. The post today will do little to settle that dispute, because honestly, there remain perhaps as many questions as there are answers.

“Jehovah” is meant to be a translation of perhaps the most holy word in the Hebrew Bible, the Tetragrammaton, so named because it consists of four Hebrew letters whose English equivalents are usually rendered as YHWH. Remember that Hebrew does not have any written vowels, and therein lies the problem.

First, a few statistics just to demonstrate that our English translations aren’t sure how to render the name. The King James Version uses the name Jehovah four times (Ex. 6.3; Ps. 83.18; Is. 12.2; Is. 26.4). The ASV of 1901 uses the word 5,758 times; however, the NAS update has completely eliminated the word Jehovah. Most contemporary translations avoid the name Jehovah completely, including both the NIV and the NRSV. In fact the earliest documented use of the name Jehovah appears to be in a thirteenth century text of the Latin Vulgate. Many scholars date the name to @ AD 1100, although it has been placed as far back as AD 500; but now we get into speculation. William Tyndale used the term in his English translation, spelling it Iehouah. Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? “In Latin, Jehovah begins with an ‘I’.” It also began with an “I” in early English translations, including the 1611 King James Version.

The Divine Name which we have referred to as the Tetragrammaton, occurs 6,518 times in the traditional Masoretic text of the Hebrew Old Testament. But if this is so, why can’t we find it in our English Bibles? The answer is simple. The name is there; you just have to know how to look. Just to give one example, turn to Psalm 121. In verse 1 the Psalmist looks to the hills for his help, but verse 2 shows that it is really God, the One who made the hills, that is the source of his help. The KJV reads, “My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.” Virtually every translation will say something similar, but notice that they usually do one more thing. The word “LORD” is in all capitals. You will find the same thing in verses 5, 7, and 8. Whenever you find either the terms LORD or (less frequently GOD) written in all capitals, you know that the original Hebrew is the Divine Name, the four Hebrew letters that have traditionally been translated Jehovah.

But is Jehovah the proper pronunciation? Ultimately we cannot be sure how the word was originally pronounced. The consensus of modern scholarship is that during the time when it was not permissible to pronounce the Divine Name, the scribes wanted to keep someone from accidentally doing so. Therefore, they inserted the vowel points for the Hebrew word “Adonai” which means “Lord.” With a little adjustment, we can see how this could lead to something like the word Jehovah. And most scholars do indeed believe that Jehovah is just this hybrid form, an English rendering of the four Hebrew consonants, but using the vowels from “adonai.” Today, most scholars believe that the original pronunciation may have been “Yahweh,” and some modern translations (Jerusalem Bible, HCSB, NLT) have begun rendering at least some of the passages containing the Divine Name as Yahweh. It has also been suggested that a possible pronunciation may have been Yahoweh. I make no pretense of understanding Hebrew, so I will make no further comments regarding this issue. Do an internet search, and you will find a wide range of views, from the scholarly to the popular, to the extremely quirky.

The Divine Name was considered so sacred that its original form was often preserved even after Hebrew began to be written in the Aramaic characters we recognize today. Here is an example of a Hebrew manuscript written in Aramaic letters. However, in the last line you can see the Divine Name written in the older Phoenician characters. A blue arrow points to the name.

It is worth noting that later manuscripts of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, translated the Divine Name as “kurios,” which is the normal word in the Greek New Testament for “Lord” and the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “adonai.” This usage is not clear-cut, however. The earlier manuscripts of the Septuagint which we have keep the Divine Name in the archaic Hebrew letters, just as in the Hebrew picture above. There exists the real possibility that Christians changed the Septuagint from using the Hebrew letters to the word kurios. This is a disputed issue. Because the question is complex, I intend to go into it more fully when we talk about the Septuagint.

The main point to keep in mind is that, as with so many issues such as this, we simply do not possess enough evidence to be dogmatic. Unfortunately, dogmatism (whether conservative or liberal) seems to be all too prevalent in religious circles. Let us be honest about differentiating between what we “know” to be true and what we “believe” to be true.

At the same time, I believe we lose some of the appeal of the Hebrew if we do not recognize that behind the original, in whatever form you wish to pronounce it, stands the Divine Name of God Himself. I would suggest that you take a minute to go back to Psalm 121 (or any of the thousands of instances in which the Divine Name is found) and read the passage, substituting perhaps the name “Yahweh” for the word “LORD.” What a difference it makes, especially if you read it aloud. The Hebrew original stands out, and perhaps God seems a little more personal. If any of you ever read from the Bible aloud during your services or even in a Bible class, you might change “LORD” to “Yahweh” when you read it (when the words are in all capitals), if you have the courage to do so. It might shake people up, but it also could cause them to think. That might be a good thing.

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My wife is in the hospital, so there will not be a post tomorrow. I will try to get one out later in the week.

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We saw last week that there are some problems with the text of the Old Testament. A group of scribes called the Masoretes (or Massoretes) was formed @ AD 500 with the lofty goal of preserving the text of the Old Testament. They made two major contributions.

One of their contributions was the attempt to preserve the sounds of Hebrew words. Remember that the Hebrew language does not employ written vowels. In later centuries, when the Hebrew language was no longer spoken, there was a danger that the proper pronunciation of Hebrew words might disappear. The Masoretes had such a reverence for the text that they did not believe it was proper to change the text itself. Instead they developed a series of symbols representing the vowels which were inserted above and below the Hebrew letters in the text to aid in the pronunciation. Below is a sample of a modern passage from the book of Ruth. You can clearly see the vowel points in the text.

Modern Hebrew text from book of Ruth

Do you remember the picture of the Aleppo Codex of the Old Testament that was in the last post? Here it is again.

Aleppo Codex of the Old Testament @ AD 925

Once again, you can see the vowel points in the manuscript. Thanks to the Masoretes, we can still read Hebrew today.

Perhaps the most significant tools the Masoretes developed for preserving the text were the various rules and procedures they set down for copying and verifying it. Here are a few of them.

They numbered the verses, words, and letters of each book.
They counted the number of times each letter was used in each book.
They noted verses that contained all the letters of the alphabet or certain combinations of letters.
They calculated the middle verse, the middle word, and the middle letter of each book.
So when a scribe finished making a copy of a book, he would check it for accuracy.

All of these procedures helped to standardize the text, and so we have now a text of the Old Testament virtually unchanged from the time of the Masoretes.

The downside of this, is that in the process, variant readings were discarded. So in some instances, readings which might have been original were not considered. We can see some of these readings in translations which were made before the time of the Masoretes, for instance the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. Perhaps the most significant archaeological discovery having to do with the Old Testament was the discovery of what have come to be referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. More about them at another time.

There is one Hebrew word that presents special difficulty in knowing how to pronounce it – and it is perhaps the most important word in the Old Testament. It is the divine name, referred to as the Tetragrammaton. It has been variously rendered as Lord, God, Jehovah, or Yahweh. In our next post, we shall look at this name in more detail.

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As we begin to look at the reliability of the text of the Old Testament, I want first to acknowledge the problems with which we must deal. This will provide a worst case understanding of the text, and may leave you this morning with a somewhat negative view. In the coming weeks, we shall consider how scholars can take the evidence and minimize some of these problems. In the end, we shall find that as far as the Old Testament is concerned, we still have a way to go in restoring the original text; however, we shall also find that the situation is not nearly as bad as some would make it out to be.

When we look at the reliability of the Biblical text, we find that we must approach the Old Testament text in a very different manner than the New Testament text. There are two primary problems with the Old Testament which make analyzing the text difficult. The first is that we possess relatively few manuscripts of the Old Testament, especially in Hebrew, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, all of them were relatively late manuscripts.

Below is a list of the primary manuscripts we possess of the Old Testament. All of these are codices, rather than scrolls.
The Cairo Codex – AD 895. Includes the Former and Latter Prophets.
The Leningrad Codex of the Prophets – AD 916.
British Museum Codex – 10th or 11th Century. The Pentateuch.
Leningrad Codex (different from the codex listed above) – Completed in AD 1008. This is the oldest manuscript containing the complete Old Testament.
Aleppo Codex – First half of the 10th century. This manuscript originally contained the entire Old Testament. It was thought to have been destroyed in anti-Jewish riots in Syria, following the establishment of the nation of Israel. Fortunately most of it survived and is now in Jerusalem.

Aleppo Codex of the Old Testament @ AD 925

Why are there so few manuscripts of the Old Testament, and why are they so recent in date? There is a simple explanation for this. For Jews any writing that contained the sacred name of God (called the Tetragrammaton) was holy and had to be treated with the utmost respect. When a copy became too worn to be used, it could not simply be laid aside. Normally worn copies of the text would be ceremonially buried in what is called a genizah. Over time the location of these storage places was often forgotten, or the genizah itself might be destroyed. Near the end of the nineteenth century a number of fragments of the Old Testament text were found in a genizah in the remains of a Jewish synagogue in Cairo. It had actually been converted to St. Michael’s church and had been used as a church until AD 882. Approximately two thousand texts were discovered dating from the fifth century AD. Not all of these were Biblical texts, but many were, and they provide insight into the Hebrew text before it became standardized.

Another issue which affects the reliability of the Old Testament text arises because of an early attempt to preserve it. The Hebrew text that predominates today was standardized @ AD 500. While using a standard text helps preserve the text at a point in time, it also eliminates alternate texts that might preserve readings that are older and perhaps more accurate. We shall examine that in more detail next week.

This is a summary of the problems we must recognize as we consider the reliability of the text of the Old Testament. In subsequent posts, we shall consider how we can overcome some of these difficulties in trying to determine what the original text of the Old Testament might have been. There is one group whose work has been both invaluable in preserving the text of the Old Testament, but at the same time, has also hindered it in some ways. These are the Masoretes, and we shall consider their work in the next post.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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