Early Manuscripts Answer Modern Question about Sacred Names

Should we use the Greek name Jesus to refer to the Son of God?

A feature of the 20th century has been the rise of a movement known as the Sacred Name Movement (SNM). Adherents believe that the Hebrew divine names are the essential names of God, and that those names should be used and not translated into other languages. For instance, the English name Jesus is considered a pagan name that should only be used in its Hebrew form of Joshua or more correctly Yehoshua.

The past century has seen a bonanza of early texts become available through archaeology. Today we have the benefit of being able to read and analyze texts that were written before and shortly after the time of Jesus Christ. This provides us with a new window into this idea. What do these texts tell us about the question of sacred names?

P52 is a fragment of papyrus that records part of John 18 and 19, while P66 contains most of the Gospel of John. P52 is considered the oldest New Testament text known presently, but both manuscripts have been reliably dated to the early part of the 2nd century. The Gospel of John was not written until late in the first century, so P52 and P66 are very early copies--within 50 years of the original. They show that the Greek name ‘Jesus' was being used and treated with reverence.  

P66 John 1 
 John 1 in P66


Beginning in the period of the second temple, Jews did not utter the name of Yahweh, substituting the term Adonai in Hebrew or Kyrios in Greek. The name was apparently only used by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Greek texts of the Old Testament discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls show how this sensitivity to the name was handled. The translators of the Scripture into the Greek language made a practice of writing the name YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton, either by using Paleo-Hebrew characters or by abbreviating the title in Greek as IA- (Ja- or Ya-). The intention was to highlight to the reader that the name should not be pronounced. A third letter was added to provide the grammatical case--whether the Name was used as a subject or object in the sentence--thus maintaining the grammatical rules of construction.
That the likes of P52 and P66 are valid texts to consider is made clear by the way in which they continue to abbreviate the names of the Father, God and Jesus Christ. They are normally reduced to two or three letters in which the last letter changes according to the grammatical use--see above--and the name is highlighted with a line over the abbreviation. Jesus is abbreviated as Ιη-, (transliterated into English as Je- or Ye-).  Christ is abbreviated as Χρ- (literally Chr-). The word God is recorded as Θ- while Father is shown as Πρ- and Lord as Κ-. These abbreviations clearly derive from the Greek terms and not the Hebrew. All early manuscripts of the New Testament were written solely in upper case letters (uncials), so the abbreviations used above would have been capitalized. I have used upper and lower case for clarity as some Greek letters are easier to recognize in the lower case. Hence we can depend on the fact that the names of the divine Beings were recorded in Greek and not Hebrew. A reader of the text would read the Greek title and not the Hebrew. Conversely, the Aquila translation of the Scriptures in Greek, created and used by the Jews in the second century after Christ, continued to use the Tetragrammaton in Paleo-Hebrew characters.

The question should rightly be asked as to why the scribes abbreviated these names. Clearly the Jewish practice began to avoid the usage of the Tetragrammaton.  But we should note that they did not appear to handle the term Elohim in the same consistent manner. With the New Testament being recorded in the Greek language a problem arose that did not exist in Hebrew. Scribes writing in Hebrew differentiated between words as we do today by the use of spaces. Greek was not written with spaces between words. Spaces appeared only at the end of a sentence.  By abbreviating, there was less chance of misspelling the name and with over marking the names respect was shown as it would not be read as part of another word by mistake. As a result the reader would not take the name of God in vain.

This is clear documentary indication that the early followers of Jesus Christ did not place any importance on the Hebrew names as the Sacred Name Movement would claim, but translated the names into the language that was being used for the proclamation of the Gospel and the instruction of the Church. 

We can therefore conclude that the earliest available texts of New Testament writings deny the validity of the sacred name concept.

Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek, Hebrew, Tetragrammaton, Sacred Names, Early Papyrii, P66, P52

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