Category Archives: Yahweh

יהוה in Isaiah 53:1


Introduction: Mystery and Clarity

The seeming mystery revolving around the use of the name Yahweh throughout Israelite history has brought into existence or better created a host of ideas within the scholarly community and in popular circles.[1] However, while information can be gleaned about this use through an analysis of the biblical texts themselves, even more fruit is borne when such an analysis also incorporates the archaeological data. Happily, advancement in archaeological tools and increased amount of archaeological excavations of several ancient Judean/Israelite communities throughout the centuries have led to quite a bit of data that can be utilized in any analysis of the use of the name Yahweh throughout the biblical periods. The bit of information we present is a result of these data and the several consequent studies that discuss them. We incorporated the study of the name Yahweh within a larger onomastic investigation into so-called “Yahwistic” names (given in the broader category theophoric names), which we call personal names compounded with the sacred name (PNNCSN). The fruits of the study were monumental. However, in this short discussion, we highlight the stages discerned in the development of “ineffability” of the name Yahweh from monarchical times through to the Hellenistic.

The periods captured were from the ninth century B.C.E. to 597 B.C.E. (pre-exilic period), 597 B.C.E. to 539 B.C.E. (exilic period), 539 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. (post-exilic, Second Temple, tannaitic periods). The sources used were the biblical texts alongside the abundant archaeological records. The communities were diverse: the Kingdom of Moab in monarchical times; the southern Kingdom of Judah in monarchical times (pre-exilic); the captives (exilic period) in sixth century B.C.E. Babylonia; Jews from Elephantine, Egypt, in fifth century B.C.E. (post-exilic period); Jews from Idumea at the end of the fourth century (post-exilic period); Samaritans from Mt. Gerizim in the end of the third century B.C.E. (Second Temple period); Jews from Qumran in second century B.C.E. to first century C.E. (Second Temple/tannaitic period); Nazarenes in Judea in first century C.E. (tannaitic period); and Jews from first to second century C.E. (tannaitic period).

Pre-exilic Period: Ubiquitous Use of the Name Yahweh

Using the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.) as a starting point, it is clear that the name Yahweh received regular and ubiquitous use through to later monarchical times, being known even among the nations. Besides the consistently attested uses by Israelites in the sacred biblical texts themselves, we see the queen of Sheba using the name when she says:

“יְהִי יהוה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּרוְּךְ אֲשֶׁר חָפֵץ בְּךָ לְתִתְּךָ עַל־כִּסֵּא יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאַהֲבַת יהוה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לְעֹלָם וַיְשִׂימְךָ לְמֶלֶךְ לַעֲשֹׂות מִשְׁפָּט וְּצְדָקָה” (May Yahweh your Elohim be blessed who has delighted in you to place you upon the throne of Israel, because Yahweh loved Israel always he has placed you for a king to perform justice and righteousness) (1 Kings 10:9).

In the ninth century, the King of Moab speaks disparagingly when he boasts saying, “w’q mšm ‘[t k]ly yhwh w’sb hm lpny kmš.” (I took from there the vessels of Yahweh and dragged them before Chemosh). In the eighth century there is also the Khirbet el-Qom funerary inscription from an area southwest of Lachish which has a reading, “brk ’wryhw lyhwh.” (Blessed be Uryahw of Yahweh). The sixth century letters on ostraca from Arad testifies to use of the name in quite common greetings, such as in, “brktk lyhwh” (I bless you of Yahweh) and also “yhwh yšʿl lšlmk” (May Yahweh lookout for your welfare). At Lachish we also find the common oath formula, “ḥy yhwh” (by the life of Yahweh).

These examples all seek to emphasize that the pre-exilic period is one that presents no mysterious picture as far as the use of the name Yahweh is concerned, and all environments of use, religious and secular, are found. It would appear from this picture that “ineffability,” as we now understand it, was not yet born.

Exilic Period: Yahweh in Hebrew but Elah and Elah of Heaven in Aramaic

To decipher what could possibly be the religious context of the name Yahweh in the exile, our only available source that could be utilized is the book of Daniel, a work roughly considered Hellenistic, but with varying opinions.[2] Of course, a distinct feature of the book is its divided use of Hebrew and Aramaic in presenting the accounts. Yet, even more noteworthy is the use (or nonuse) of the name Yahweh. The name currently occurs only in the second Hebrew section in chapter 9 and there seven times. However, C. D. Ginsburg noted Dan 1:2 also among the 134 instances listed in the Massorah where ’adonay appears by itself (and distinct therein from ’dny yhwh) and where the variants attest YHWH. He favors the Tetragrammaton as original, commenting they would not “insert the incommunicable name instead of אדני.”[3] Otherwise, in the Aramaic portions of the book of Daniel, we find only ʾElah or ʾElah of heaven being used (exactly as in Ezra), such as Dan 2:18, “וְרַחֲמִין לְמִבְעֵא מִנ־קֳדָם אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּאֲ.” (to request mercies from before the Elah of heaven). YHWH does not occur in any Aramaic account. This is significant.

It seems clear that the distinction was intentional and a parallel study of personal names compounded with the sacred name (of which there are now an abundance of material from sources Hebrew, Aramaic, Neo-Assyrian, and Late Babylonian) confirms that the name Yahweh was intentionally avoided in Aramaic beginning in the exile. However, one may argue that the information in Daniel only confirms that this book actually reflects the Hellenistic practice regarding the name. However, we will prove that the Hellenistic practice is still yet different from that which we have just observed.

Post Exilic Period: Does Yahweh = Yahu?

The post-exilic period shows a clear continuation of the pattern observed in the book of Daniel regarding the use of the name—found in Hebrew, but absent in Aramaic. The Hebrew-Aramaic book of Ezra clearly indicates the phenomenon. Ezra is thus divided: Hebrew in sections 1:1–4:7, 6:19–7:11, and 7:27–10:44; Aramaic in sections 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26. In the first Hebrew section we find, “וַיַּעֲנוְּ בְּהַלֵּל וְּבְהֹודֹת לַיהוה כִּי טֹוב כִּי־לְעֹולָם חַסְדֹּו עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל־הָעָם הֵרִיעוּ תְרוּעָה גְדֹולָה בְהַלֵּל לַיהוה עַל הוְּסַד בֵּית־ יהוה” (And they responded in praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh for he is good, for his lovingkindness is forever upon Israel and all the people shouted a great shout in praise to Yahweh because the House of Yahweh was founded) (Ezra 3:11). However, in the first Aramaic section we do not find Yahweh, but Elah. Thus, Ezra 5:1 reads: “וְהִתְנַבִּי חַגַּי נְבִיאָה וְּזְכַרְיָה בַר־ עִדֹּוא נְבִיאַיָּא עַל־ יְהוְּדָיֵא דִּי בִיהוְּד וְּבִירוְּשְׁלֶם בְּשֻׁם אֱלָהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲלֵיהֹון” (Now, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah son of Iddo the prophet prophesied to the Jews that were in Judah (Yahud) and in Jerusalem in the name of the Elah of Israel unto them). Also, Ezra 5:11, “אֲנַחְנָא הִמֹּו עַבְדֹוהִי דִי־אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא וְאַרְעָא” (. . . We are servants of the Elah of heaven and earth).

Archaeology does not seem to give much of a different image. However, the linguistic distribution is different, as Aramaic now overshadows Hebrew. Yet, both languages are distinguished by script—Paleo Hebrew script for the Hebrew language and a standard Aramaic script for the Aramaic language, which latter influenced the earlier Proto-Jewish scripts for third century B.C.E. and later Early Jewish script for writing later Hebrew (also called Aramaic “square” script). But Greenfield and Naveh observed that in the Persian period there is a pronounced absence of Hebrew epigraphic material, which has along with other data encouraged studies concerning the extent of the use of Hebrew during this period.[4] Of course, Aramaic was the lingua franca throughout the Persian Empire. However, something of an understanding of the use of the name Yahweh from the Persian period can be observed both from independent uses and through the numerous personal names compounded with the sacred name Yahweh from Aramaic and some Hebrew seals, bulla, and coins; business documents from the Murashu archive in Late Babylonian cuneiform with Aramaic endorsements; and Aramaic Egyptian religious and secular papyri from Elephantine.

Now the independent name Yahweh is unattested in archaeology during the period. But at Elephantine, Egypt, we do find use of the well-known name יהו, Yahu, whom the Aramaic-speaking Jews there worshiped, which is of course quite different from the Hebrew יהוה. In a letter of petition to the governor of Judah (Yahud) to rebuild their temple, they speak of, “אלה שמיא יהו” (Yahu the Elah of Heaven).[5] However, through the study of personal names compounded with the abbreviated sacred name it can be identified that the source of this name used by the Jews in Egypt for the Elah of heaven of Daniel and Ezra is not in fact Yahweh, but Yahud, the shortened place name of Yahudah used from the Exilic period and after (as just seen above), where it was actually used for a Jewish town in Babylonia (āl-Yāḫūdu in cuneiform).[6] Yahu arose first in personal names (ia-ḫu-ú- in cuneiform), then was borrowed by the Aramaic-speaking Elephantine Jews for independent use. It is not found in Hebrew or Aramaic biblical material.

Hellenistic/Roman Period: Adonai/Elohim in Hebrew, Elah in Aramaic—Yahweh only in the Temple?

In the Hellenisitic period, we have a completely new phenomenon, which has received considerable attention from contributors: the Hebrew language is no longer the only sanctum for the sacred name Yahweh. In its stead we find the single Hebrew term Adonai now substituted. In all likelihood, this began at the end of the fourth century, or a bit later. Our sources for this period are the Septuagint (LXX) translation containing ideological information, the traditions repeated by the tannaim (early rabbinic scholars) in tannaitic literature (Mishna, etc.), and the scribal practices at Qumran, as well as Samaritan practices on Mt. Gerizim. That the name was already avoided at about 250 B.C.E. (when original LXX was translated) seems clear from the translation of Leviticus 24:16, where the Hebrew text reads, “וְנֹקֵב שֵׁמ־יהוה מֹות יוְּמָת” (The one who blasphemes the name of Yahweh will surely be put to death). The LXX reads, “ὀνομάζων δε τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου θανάτῳ θανατούσθω” (the one who names the name . . .). From the Mishna there is information that the sacred name was only used in the Temple, but outside substituted.[7] Was the Temple now the additional requirement in addition to Hebrew for use of the sacred name in the Hellenistic period? It would seem so. Another early rabbinic account of the name again associates priests and reads, “ומת נמנעו חביריו מלברך בשם.” (When he [Simon the Just] died his companions ceased blessing in the name). Simon the Just was the High Priest and appears to be Simon II who was active before 200 B.C.E..[8] His companions are the regular priests.[9] From these two accounts we can say that according to the tannaitic literature the name was first used before 200 B.C.E. in the Temple by all the priests, but after c. 200 B.C.E. not by regular priests. Did any priest use the name at all up to the destruction of the temple? The last instance of the use of the name was the High Priest on one day of the year, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).[10]

Archaeological data actually corroborates these observations. From Qumran Donald Parry noted from documents CD, 1QS, and 4QMMT that the Essenes who are dated about second century B.C.E. to first century C.E. were “programmatic in avoiding usage of the Tetragrammaton.”[11] André Lemaire has made similar observations.[12] The Essenes clearly adhered to the tradition of non-use of the “ineffable” name. Archaeological excavations on Mt. Gerizim have recently brought some interesting information to light. The Samaritans followed the Jewish custom of using Yahweh, Adonai, and Elah in the two languages accordingly, Hebrew for the first two and Aramaic for the last. But yet, regarding the particulars of how the first two are used we can consider their use in the two different scripts used in the Mt. Gerizim inscriptions—called by Magen, et al, Neo-Hebrew (paleo-Hebrew script) and Proto-Jewish (descendant of the Aramaic script). Magen, et al, observed from two Hebrew inscriptions (no. 150 and 151) written in the Proto-Jewish script, “These two inscriptions reflect a sort of linguistic compromise: on the one hand their language is Hebrew, as is the language of the inscriptions in the Neo-Hebrew script; but unlike the latter, these do not contain the Tetragrammaton but another Hebrew name of the Deity, אדני, because they are not written in the ‘sacred’ Neo-Hebrew script.”[13] The only occurrence of the name Yahweh on Mt. Gerizim is in the paleo-Hebrew (Neo-Hebrew) inscriptions that appear to originate “in the internal part of the precinct the Rampart (el), and were not the usual kind of dedicatory inscription.”[14] In other words it seems only associated with the priests.[15] This remarkably corroborates what was observed among the Judean community of the time.

One more difficult area of use of sacred names is the New Testament. The earliest New Testament disciples have been much puzzled and speculated upon for good reason—they appear so different and more Jewish from the phenomenon called Christianity that is seen even before Constantine’s fourth century C.E.. Even the term Christian (χριστιανός) does not appear in the earliest Bible, Codex Sinaiticus (siglum א), dating to the fourth century. Instead χρηστιανὸς (from χρηστὸς— excellent, good) appears. This fact is not an accident. Justin Martyr (c. 150 C.E.), Tertullian (198 or 204 C.E.), Lactantius (c. 309 C.E.), and even secular sources as Tacitus (c. 116 C.E.) clearly know of χρηστιανὸς (although these former defends χριστιανός) which is understood also to be connected with the common χρηστὸς, which then affects the exalted status of χριστός seen for example in Eusebius’ writings (about 325 C.E.). The point is the earliest possible biblical or external (epigraphic, literary, etc.) sources are necessary to pinpoint important characteristics of the earliest New Testament disciples. Yet, apart from what the group was actually called, χριστός presents anomalies in other areas. It is one of the four curious abbreviations of Χ͞Σ, Ι͞Σ (and Ι͞Η), Κ͞Σ, and Θ͞Σ for the four terms χριστός, ἰησοῦς, κύριος, and θεός, first called nomina sacra (sacred names) in 1907 by Ludwig Traube, and which have been so called by scholars ever since.[16] The full terms are never found in the earliest New Testament manuscripts dating to the late second century C.E. If the full terms were not first used, we must say that either the first copies used these unique abbreviations or that these replaced the original terms. The first seems incredible, but the second also is not far from it. The simply question to ask is, “Did the Nazarenes use these full Greek terms?” Happily, this topic does not exist in a first century vacuum, so we can limit speculation. The early rabbinic scholars also speak of certain sacred names in the books of the Nazarenes, which comments are found in tannaitic material.[17] The tosefta passage T. Shabbath 13:5 reads:

הגיליונים וסיפרי מינין אין מצילין אותן אלא נשרפין הן במקומן הן ואזכרותיהם ר’ יוסי הגלילי אומ’ בחול קורא את האזכרות וגונז ושורף את השאר אמר ר’ טרפון אקפח את בניי שאם יבואו לידי שאני שורפן הן ואזכרותיהן

(The gîlyônîm [evangels] and the Books of the Minim, one does not save them, but they are burned in their place, they and their ʾazkārôth [sacred names]. R. Josê the Galilean said: In the week one cuts out [B. Shabb.116a reads קודר not קורא] the ʾazkārôth, hides them, and burns the rest. R. Tarfon said: May I bury my sons if, as they come into my hand, I would not burn them and their ʾazkārôth.)

The minim here are clearly Nazarenes because of gilyonim, although even this has been (unsuccessfully) challenged, in favor of reading margins for gilyonim.[18] Yet, are the rabbinic scholars referring to nomina sacra? This must be answered in the negative. The only ʾazkārôth identified from the rabbinic writings are יהוה and אלהים.[19] R. Tarfon lived at least first century to early second century C.E.. This places the rabbinic observations at the earliest to the second half of the first century C.E., from which period New Testament manuscript evidence are lacking. The sacred names then must be the Hebrew name Yahweh (and Elohim?) that bore the usual sacred quality among Judaism of the time, necessitating the above suggested handling if encountered. Again, all that our late second century C. E. manuscripts attest to are Θ͞Σ and Κ͞Σ for Yahweh (and Elohim), clearly an anomaly.[20] Yet, other related information can be used in conjunction to speak even more positively regarding the topic.



[1] See relevant literature in David Noel Freedman and Michael P. O’Connor, “יהוה YHWH,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (ed. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 5:500.

[2] See John J. Collins and Peter W. Flint, eds., The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception, 2 Vols. (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2002). Also, see James A. Montgomery, A Criticial and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1927).

[3] C. D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible (London: Trinity Bible Society, 1897), 28–29.

[4] J. Greenfield and J. Naveh, “Hebrew and Aramaic in the Persian Period,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism (eds. W. D. Davies and L. Finklestein; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 115-129. See recently Frank Polak, “Sociolinguistics and the Judean Speech Community in the Achaemenid Empire,” in Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (eds. O. Lipschits and M. Oeming; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 589-628; and I. Kottsieper, “‘And They Did Not Care to Speak Yehudit’: On Linguistic Change in Judah during the Late Persian Era,” in Judah and the Judeans in the Fourth Century B.C.E. (eds. O. Lipschits, G. N. Knoppers and R. Albertz; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 95-124.

[5] A. E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 113.

[6] See the important work by Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch (Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer, CUSAS vol. 28 [Bethesda, 2014]).

[7] M. Sotah 38b. Also, M. Tamid 7.2.

[8] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. The Tetragrammaton in Connection with the Names of Ehyeh ašer Ehyeh, Hu’Ha’ and Šem Hammephoraš (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1957), 75.

[9] See also B. Yoma 49b.

[10] M. Reisel, Mysterious Name, 71. See M. Yoma 3.8 and 4.2.

[11] Donald Parry, “Notes on Divine Name Avoidance in Scriptural Units of the Legal Texts of Qumran,” in Legal Texts and Legal Issues. Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies, Cambridge 1995. Published in Honour of Joseph M. Baumgarten (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 437-449.

[12] André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), 128–130.

[13] Y. Magen, H. Misgav, and L. Tsfania, Mount Gerizim Inscriptions: Volume I The Aramaic, Hebrew and Samaritan Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2004), 23.

[14] Magen, Misgav, and Tsfania, Mount Gerizim, 254.

[15] Magen, Misgav, and Tsfania, Mount Gerizim, 22.

[16] Ludwig Traube, Nomina Sacra: Versuch einer Geschichte der christlichen Kürzung (München: C. H. Beck, 1907). Cf. Larry Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117/4 (1998): 655–673.

[17] The Mishna and related material (tosefta) are called tannaitic material because they are the teachings from the earlier scholars (tannaim) from the 1st to 2nd centuries C.E. The teachings from the 3rd to 5th centuries (Gemara) are from the Amoraim and comprise the Talmud as we know it.

[18] See discussion in Steven T. Katz, “The Rabbinic Response to Christianity,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume Four: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period (ed. S. T. Katz; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 278.

[19] Arthur Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), 32–35.

[20] See further important remarks in Peter Nagel, “The Explicit ΚΥΡΙΟΣ and ΘΕΟΣ Citations by Paul: An Attempt at Understanding Paul’s Deity Concepts” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pretoria, 2012), 6–9.