Dispelling the Sacred Name Philosophy Study No. 266
It is the season for controversies and another one has been gaining popularity. This one has to do with the name of God. Believers in the Sacred Name movement make claims to have restored the lost name of our God. The doctrine espouses Yahweh as the personal Hebrew name of The Creator. Yahweh later became flesh and was known as Yeshua. Thus Yahweh and Yeshua are declared to be the Proper names of the Beings in the God family. Yahweh is derived from four (4) consonants or semi vowels in the Hebrew language, YHWH, and is otherwise known as the Tetragrammaton. The Israelites considered this name of God to be sacred based on a misconception of the word blaspheme in Leviticus 24:11. Utterance of the name was thus forbidden to the ordinary Israelite and was only to be spoken by the High Priest and only once during the Day of Atonement. Eventually, the correct pronunciation of the name was lost, but today, we have people telling us that they have not just restored the name, but also the correct pronunciation, even though different sacred name groups vary in their pronunciation of the name.
Pronunciation aside, there is a far more pressing issue at hand. It needs to be established whether or not The Creator wishes for us to abide by the dictates of the Sacred Name doctrine. The Sacred Name doctrine supports the view that the Hebrew names for The Creator should be retained in that language and should not be translated. If the names are to be communicated in another language, then a transliteration of the names rather than a translation should be adopted. Furthermore, the large numbers of English- speaking Christians are doomed because they have failed to use these Hebrew names. They call the creator God and Lord, which Sacred Name people say are mere titles and are also the names of pagan deities which were substituted for the Sacred Names. These views are more than just fanciful; the Bible is used to justify the arguments. Exodus 23:13 is the verse that warns the Israelites against mentioning the names of pagan deities from their mouths. This is not a minor issue. The third commandment is also submitted as support. Exodus 20:7, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” or as a Sacred Name believer paraphrased it, “Thou shalt not regard Yahweh’s name as useless.” Added to these two verses are a myriad of other Scriptures that make special mention of knowing, glorifying, exalting, and calling upon the name of Yahweh. Several of these Scriptures are Exodus 3:15, “… Yahweh God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob hath sent Me unto you: this is My name forever and My memorial to all generations”; Jeremiah 16:21, “. . . I will cause them to know Mine hand and My might; and they shall know that My name is Yahweh”; Psalm 83:18, “That men may know that Thou, whose name alone is Yahweh, art the most high over all the earth.” A couple other verses are Proverbs 30:4 and Psalm 68:4.
On the surface, the Sacred Name believers’ arguments sound impressive, but upon closer scrutiny, the inaccuracies are palpable. So how do we argue against these points? The general overview of countering Sacred Name claims will first show that several assertions made by Sacred Name believers are invalidated in the Old Testament, followed by prima facie evidence from the New Testament for the translation of the sacred names. Lastly, we will observe how the word “name” is treated and used throughout the Bible.
The basis and strength of this doctrine is in the Old Testament so that is where we will begin interacting with the arguments of the Sacred Name believers. The first reference we have to the Creator in Scripture is in Genesis 1:1, by the word Elohim (singular Eloah). Elohim, according to Strong’s Concordance means gods in the ordinary sense, but is also a reference to the Supreme God. Elohim is used many times in the Old Testament in reference to The Creator. It is translated in English as God, with a capital G, when referring to The Creator. The literal translation of Yahweh in English is “The Eternal,” while Adonai is translated “My Lord.” Yahweh is mentioned almost 7,000 times and Adonai is used about 136 times in reference to God. Both Yahweh and Adonai are translated as Lord (with a capital L) in English when referring to The Creator. The argument Sacred Name adherents try to endorse is that we cannot use the words God and Lord, even Adonai, when referring to The Creator because these are the names or titles of pagan deities. For example, they make the connection between the word God and the pagan deity gad. But as Dr. Daniel Botkin in his article entitled, “Linguistic Superstition and the Sacred Name,” explains, “the fact that two words in different languages sound alike is not proof that the two words are related. Further if the word gad was such a terrible word per se, no tribe of Israel or prophet of King David would possess that name.” However, let’s see what the biblical facts on this matter are. Take the word Elohim, one of the few names/titles that Sacred Name adherents consider as acceptable. This word is not only used to refer to The Creator, but is also used repeatedly to refer to pagan deities. Elohim is used 240 times to refer to pagan deities, El, fifteen times and Eloah, five times. And if you think that is the only example, one might want to consider the name Baal. This name probably reeks of paganism more than any other in Scripture. Yahweh got angry at Israel frequently for worshipping this pagan Canaanite deity. Yet we have Yahweh referring to himself as Israel’s Baal, which here means husband or master, Jeremiah 31:32. Would the proponents of the Sacred Name doctrine follow their own principle and abandon the name Yahweh if a group of pagans suddenly developed a liking for the name and began referring to their deity by that name? I don’t think so. Based on their meanings, these names are perfectly applicable to The Creator and the Bible shows us that we don’t have to refrain from using them because they have been duplicated by pagans. Plus, if Elohim is perfectly acceptable to The Creator despite its many references to pagan deities, then what problem do you think He would have with the use of the words God or Lord? Oh yes, they are translations of the Hebrew names and that is a big no-no for Sacred Name adherents. O.K., that concern is coming up, but at least one of the claims of Sacred Name adherents has been discredited from the Old Testament.
There is an example from the Old Testament where the equivalent of the Hebrew word Elohim is rendered in another language. Sections of the books Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, a language developed by the Israelites during their period under Babylonian captivity. In these sections the Hebrew name Elohim is given as Elah, the Aramaic equivalent. Daniel and Ezra, as appointed prophets of God, would not have avoided the use of the word Elohim in favor of the Aramaic equivalent if God were opposed to the use of the Hebrew names in another language. Some may argue that the disparities between Hebrew and Aramaic are insignificant. While the two have some similarities, as they both belong to the same Semitic language family, there is major divergence. The Targum, the Aramaic translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, stands as testimony to the dissimilarities.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the Sacred Name philosophy, however, is the existence of Greek New Testament manuscripts, which scholars and historians accept as representing the original New Testament documents. Within these Greek manuscripts and in direct contrast to Sacred Name believer’s theology, is the translation of the Hebrew names Elohim and Yahweh into the Greek Theos and Kyrios, which are translated God and Lord, respectively in English. Noteworthy too is the reality that on each occasion when the New Testament directly quotes from the Old Testament, the names Yahweh and Elohim are also translated. These facts attack the core of the Sacred Name theology. The only fix-it for these facts is their so called “Conspiracy Theory.” This theory states that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, complete with the Hebrew Sacred Names. The Greek New Testament manuscripts that we purport to be the originals are actually translations from the alleged Hebrew/Aramaic originals. Wicked scribes, intent on erasing the Sacred Name are blamed for translating Yahweh and Elohim into Kyrios and Theos and Yehsua into Jesus. The implication of this claim is great. It undermines God’s ability to preserve His words and casts doubt on the trustworthiness of the Scripture. If we take it that “wicked scribes” did tamper with the New Testament, then we have to grapple with the very real possibility that there are truths that these scribes could have obliterated or reinterpreted, thereby rendering the acquired New Testament document questionable as the measure of truth. But, amid all this ranting and raving about original Hebrew/Aramaic New Testament manuscripts, Sacred Name adherents have yet to furnish us with the evidence of said manuscripts.
An explanation against an original Hebrew/Aramaic New Testament can be proven when we take into consideration Jesus’ last words before His death, which in the New Testament are quoted directly in Aramaic. Ironically, Sacred Name adherents use this to prove their claim. But if we analyze the verse closely we see that it actually proves the opposite. Mark 15:34, “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which is, being interpreted, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Notice after Jesus’ words were quoted in Aramaic, the interpretation of what He uttered was given. If the New Testament were originally written in Aramaic, an interpretation of Jesus’ words would have been redundant. In fact it is noted that in the existing Aramaic copies of the New Testament, the same format found in the Greek is retained, that is, Jesus’ words are followed by an interpretation. This only proves that the Aramaic manuscripts are translations of the Greek manuscripts. The same can be said of certain Hebrew/Aramaic words that Sacred Name adherents cite from the Greek New Testament. Two examples are Abba (Father), Mark 14:36 and Rabbi (Teacher, or Master), John 1:38. When one checks these verses, there is a similarity to what was mentioned earlier. These words are followed by their interpretations, again indicating that the Hebrew/Aramaic documents are translations from the Greek.
Of course, when arguing Biblical concepts, no view is bona fide unless it is affiliated with Jesus. Sacred name adherents propose that Jesus habitually used the Sacred Name throughout His ministry. He is, after all, our perfect example and the Bible does say that He came to reveal the Father’s name, John 17:26. But it gets more interesting actually, because Sacred Name believers say that the underlying reason behind Jesus’ death was His use of the Sacred Name, which was an act of blasphemy punishable by death, Mark 14:64. Sacred Name adherents cite the Mishnah, the full tradition of the oral Torah, as confirmation that Jesus’ death was a consequence of His committing blasphemy. Under The Mishnah Tractate 7.5, the act of blasphemy (uttering the Sacred Name) attracted the death penalty. The Mishnah was compiled around 200 C.E., and there is reason to be doubtful that some of its principles were in force during the time of Jesus. To begin, the Mishnah outlines very clear specifications for the holding of trials. The conditions under which Jesus’ trial was held departed considerably from the code in the Mishnah. In addition, the Mishnah plainly states that death by stoning was permissible for the act of blasphemy, yet the Jewish leaders declared that they did not have the power to put anyone to death. Thus, Jesus was handed over to Roman authorities for them to carry out the execution. It is therefore questionable that Jesus’ blasphemy constituted the use of the Sacred Name.
The Scriptures enlighten us on the reason for Jesus’ execution. I am sorry to disappoint Sacred Name adherents, but all the Gospel accounts concur that Jesus’ death resulted from His claim to be the Messiah or the Son of God. Jesus sought to do His Father’s will at all times and if that included a strict use of the Sacred Name then He would not have hesitated to use it on a regular basis. The record of the New Testament gives no hint of Jesus using the Sacred Name. I, for one, doubt that His ministry would have lasted as long as 3½ years if He had constantly used the name, bearing in mind that Scriptures paint a picture of the Jewish leaders as seemingly intent on hanging around to hassle individuals for violations of the Torah. The Jewish leaders had frequent run-ins with Jesus about “violating” the Sabbath. Surely the uttering of the sacred name by Jesus would have elicited a similar response from the rabbinical fraternity. The absence of commentary on the Jewish leaders targeting Jesus with similar zeal for allegedly using the Sacred Name is very instructive. Undoubtedly no sooner had Jesus committed the faux pas of uttering the Sacred Name and especially in the presence of Jewish leaders, His crucifixion would have been a done deal. Plus, if Jesus had been a regular user of the Sacred Name, the Jewish leaders would hardly be in a position where they were hard pressed to find witnesses to testify against Him.
The illustration in Luke chapter 4 is a clear example of the fact that Jesus did not use the Sacred Name. In this section of Scripture, Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and read from the book of Isaiah. The English version of this segment of the Scripture quotes Jesus as using the word Lord twice in reference to His Father. Based on the arguments of Sacred Name adherents, Jesus would have used the name Yahweh in both these instances. Obviously that was not the case, else the peoples’ response would have been one of shock and indignation. Instead, the people are reported as being appreciative of His words. To be more exact, the Bible uses the word gracious to describe His speech. The book of Mark and the twelfth chapter similarly illustrates the point made above.
I cannot neglect to remark on Matthew 6:9-13. How remiss of Jesus to present us with a model prayer and fail to use the name Yahweh. Of course when all else falls short, the option of branding the name of Jesus as pagan may be judged as viable. Mark you, I have already dealt with this issue of God’s names and pagan names, but there can be no harm if I try to cross all my Ts and dot my Is. It is argued that the name of Jesus in Greek, Iesous, is derived from the name of the Greek god Zeus and means son of Zeus. The name of this pagan deity shows up in the Scriptures in Acts 14:13 (the Roman name Jupiter is equivalent to the Greek Zeus). Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament makes no such link between the two words. It gives Iesous as originating from the Hebrew Yeshua. The only correlation between these two names is a coincidental intonation.
Next in line is the contention that Jesus, the Apostles, or Jews in general, were not fully acquainted with the Greek language so the New Testament writers could not have made the records in that language. It is so difficult to digest this one considering that Galilee and its environs were under Greek influence and domination for more than three centuries before Jesus’ birth. Nonetheless, extra biblical sources do support the idea of the Jews having more than just a passing acquaintance with the Greek language. Dr. Daniel Botkin writing in his article, “Linguistic Superstition and the Sacred Name,” states that the Oxyrinchus Papyri reveals that Jewish children were capable of reading and writing the Greek language. Pieter W. Van Der Horst, writing in a 1992 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, notes that “in Palestine, approximately two-thirds of funerary inscriptions are in Greek and in Jerusalem, about forty percent (40%) of Jewish funerary inscriptions from the first century period (before 70 C.E.) are in Greek. This he says leads to the assumption that most Jewish Jerusalemites who saw the inscriptions in situ were able to read them.” But if there is a problem with extra biblical sources, then let us rely on the Good Book to clarify the matter for us. The Apostle Paul, who is credited as being the author of a number of the New Testament books, is revealed in Acts 21:37 to be acquainted with Greek to the extent where he competently conversed in it. But with no intention of belaboring the point, simple logic would dictate to an individual that since many of the Epistles or books of the New Testament were written to Gentile peoples, many of whom spoke Greek, and none or very little Hebrew, it would be imprudent for these writers to pen the text in any other language but Greek.
The emphasis on singling out a Sacred Name for God in Scripture seems a bit overrated, because God has many names. The fact that in Exodus 3:15, He declares His name to be Yahweh, does not mean that He does not have other names. Did anyone take notice of the two verses preceding verse 15 of this same chapter of Exodus? In these verses, Moses asks of God what to say to the Israelites when they inquire about the name of the God Who sent him. What was God’s response to that? He told Moses to tell the Israelites that I AM (Hayah) had sent him. Yes, the Bible does disclose other names. Amos 5:27 tells us that God’s name is The God of Hosts (Elohim Tsaba Tsebaah). Exodus 34:14 says that His name is Jealous (Quanna). These names are not just mere appellations, they give us insight into the character and nature of God. Yahweh we know means Self-existent or The Eternal. Through this name we are made aware of God’s timelessness or perpetuity. Another name, El Shaddai, means the Almighty God, and imprints on our consciousness His power and strength. Yeshouah means The Eternal saves, which highlights the salvific role of God. Matthew 1:23 gives a report about the birth of the Messiah and tells us that His name shall be called, not Yeshouah on this occasion, but another name, Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us, which reinforces in our mind the Tabernacling of our Saviour with us in the flesh. Isaiah 9:6 relates the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth and we read there that His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, and The Prince of Peace. There are other names, however they are too numerous to mention here. All these names summarize the character and functional roles of the Beings in the God family. They facilitate our understanding of His nature, in so doing helping to foster deep bonds between the God family and mankind. No one name can fully epitomize the spirit or personality of God.
One of the overriding principles against the Sacred Name doctrine is the use of the word name in Scriptures. Sacred Name adherents are not short on quoting Scriptures that highlight the knowledge, exaltation, confession and glorification of the name of Yahweh, and they do give the impression that our Creator would want us to make full use of His name, Yahweh. But if the advocates of this doctrine had paid more than a cursory glance at the meaning of the word name, then the ideology about the Sacred Name might not have surfaced or gained momentum in the first place. The word “name” is more expansive in meaning than just a mere appellation. The Strongs Exhaustive Concordance of Greek and Hebrew Definitions supports this. It gives the Hebrew word for name as shem, which means an appellation as a mark of individuality, but which also signifies honour, authority, and character. The Greek equivalent is onoma. This idea where the meaning of the word name is broader than an appellation can be exemplified even within common family experiences. When someone says, for example, that an individual has ruined the family name, we know that reference is not being made to a literal name but to the reputation of the family.
In Scriptures there are also many examples where name is not used in a literal sense. In Amos 2:7, God spoke against the act of a man and his son going in to have sexual relations with the same woman, to profane His holy name. I do not believe the writer wanted to convey the impression that this man, his son and the woman, in the act of coupling, profaned God’s name by calling out a translated version to the Hebrew, while in the throes of ecstasy.
A more coherent view is that willful disobedience to God’s laws governing sexual conduct is akin to disrespect for God’s holy name (authority). If one is familiar with the various meanings of the word name in Scripture and apply them to many of the Scriptures one would have a different spin on things and would not be inclined to be tenacious about the use of the literal name. Several other examples, Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is better than great riches.” In other words, a good reputation is better than wealth. In Isaiah 56:5, God says He will give us an eternal name that is better than sons and daughters. Obviously a literal name is not the intended meaning here, for the comparison with sons and daughters would be a poor one. There is a status attached to having children the world over. Even the average Jamaican man loves to brag about the number of children he sires. God will bestow on us an honour that surpasses any associated with the pride and joy of producing offspring. So, what does the third commandment really warns us against? We should not regard the reputation/ honour/authority of Yahweh as useless. Of course something can be said about the use of His literal name here, be it Yahweh or a translated form. The Bible is not in favour of idle talk; therefore we can infer that the use of any reference to God in idle conversations would be offensive to Him.
The incessant moralizing of a Sacred Name doctrine and arguments of transliteration as opposed to translation only relegates the name of God to mere phonetics. Speaking of transliteration, a principle so staunchly advocated for by the Sacred Name believers, what is so wrong with the name Jesus? It serves as a model name that has evolved from progressive transliteration. It was transliterated from the Greek Iesous, which in turn was transliterated from the Hebrew Yeshua. And axe that reasoning about a person’s name being the same no matter which country they visit. Just because we puny mortals insist on our given names when we travel to foreign lands, or get upset if someone mispronounces our name, does not mean that God feels the same way. Isaiah 55:8 informs us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither His ways the same as ours. God just might not be as thin-skinned as we are about these issues. Anyway, an example from Scripture, outside of the Sacred Names, that exemplifies the translation of names is cited in Acts 9:36. It mentions a woman, whose name in Aramaic is Tabitha, but also renders her name in Greek as Dorcas. Case closed.
The meaning of the Scriptures become plainer in the many instances where the “name of Yahweh” is mentioned, when we apply more than a superficial meaning to the word name. There is no Biblical injunction for us to hold the Hebrew name of God as sacred in the manner that the Sacred Name adherents prescribe. The ideology is borne out of the misuse of the word name in Scriptures, and this erroneous understanding has only served to steer our thinking in one direction. Each time we come across Scriptures that emphasize the name of God, we are compelled to think of the literal name (Yahweh). It therefore becomes easy for Sacred Name believers to develop a convincing theology around this concept. One of their arguments, for example, is that the name issue is fundamental and is the key to salvation because the saved in the coming Kingdom will be given a new identity and will be named after God (Ephesians 3:15; Revelation 3:12, 14:1).
I have previously shown that we will receive a new type of honour and reputation. We must also remember that Revelation is a book that is largely based on symbolism. The approach we take when we understand Hebrews 8:10 to mean that God’s laws are not literally written in our hearts, is the same way in which we can appreciate that Revelation 14:1 (using character and honour as the meaning for name) is telling us that we will reflect the very character of God. But even if we are to be literally named after our God as a sign of our relationship or connection to Him in the coming Kingdom, there are no grounds to justify that it will be the Hebrew name of God. Yahweh says that there will be a pure language in the coming Kingdom.
The Hebrew language, or any other language for that matter, is not pure. God is responsible for the existence of all languages. He inspired the preaching of the gospel in various languages on that eventful Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came. He was the inspiration behind a Greek New Testament, where His names are translated from the Hebrew language. The danger of promoting this doctrine as a soteriological precept, is that it adds to the word of God, which is forbidden in Scripture. Sacred Name adherents need to let the text of the Bible determine doctrine rather than the reverse.
Now that all has been said and done, I am confident because the Bible lets me know that if I choose to use Yahweh, The Eternal, Elohim, God, Theos, Adonais, Lord, Kyrios, Yeshoua, Jesus, The Messiah, The Christ, Immanuel, Saviour, The Almighty, The Omniscient One, My Healer, My Protector, My Deliverer, My Friend or any other Scriptural name or title in any language in addressing my heavenly Father, in His view, it’s all good.
— by Sandra-Mae Robinson Ω
“The Sacred Names Question,” by B.L. Cocherell, 34-page reprint, $3.00.
“Origin and History of the Sacred Name Movement,” by Richard C. Nickels, 7 pages, $1.00.