Bible+Theology

God’s Personal Name

God has a personal name.  His name is Yahweh.  In the sermon this past Sunday, we learned about where the name comes from and what it means.  The name Yahweh shows up around 6800 times in the Old Testament.  It is one of the top two words the Old Testament authors use to refer to God.  Yahweh is one; the other word is Elohim, the generic Hebrew word for “God” (> 2000x).  

But what about the name Yahweh in the New Testament?

In the sermon, I said one of the places where Yahweh shows up in the New Testament is in the “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John.  That’s what the sermon series is about.  But what about the rest of the New Testament? What about the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts)? What about the Pauline epistles?  As it turns out, the answer to these questions takes us on a fascinating journey through history, culture, and language. 

Centuries before Jesus came along, the Jews began to stop saying the name Yahweh.  Whether out of a literal obedience to the 3rd Commandment or a general sense of reverence for God’s name, the Jewish people developed a tradition where they stopped saying the word Yahweh out loud.  Instead, whenever they read Yahweh in the biblical text, they pronounced adonay, which means “My lord” or “My master”. 

Fun Fact: Ignorance of this reading tradition in the Middle Ages eventually caused European translators to mistakenly create the name Jehovah.  To see how that happened, go to this Bible Project video.  Today, many English translations follow this tradition by rendering Yahweh as “LORD”.

In the 4th Century BC, the ancient Near Eastern world became Greek-speaking almost overnight.  Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire (Aramaic-speaking), and the Jewish people began to live under a dominant Hellenistic (Greek) culture.  As their children began to speak Greek and only speak Greek, the Jewish leaders decided to translate their Bible (our Old Testament) into Greek (ca. 200 BC).  This Greek translation is called the Septuagint or LXX (the names recalls the legend that 70 translators worked on this book independently and came up with the same Greek translation).  In the LXX, the translators consistently transliterated personal names into Greek; that is, they created Greek names that sounded like Hebrew names.  For example, מֹשֶׁה (mōšê) became Μωϋσῆς (Mōusēs from which we get the English Moses), and דָּוִד (ḏāwiḏ) became Δαυιδ (Dauid from which we get the English David).  But when it came to Yahweh, the LXX translators chose not to create a new Greek name; rather, following the tradition of reading adonay in place of Yahweh, the translators decided to translate Yahweh as κύριος (kyrios) which means “Lord”.  Thus, in the Greek language, Yahweh is turned from a personal name for God into a title, “Lord”.

The problem with translating Yahweh into kyrios is that there is now ambiguity when we read kyrios in the New Testament.  Is any particular instance of kyrios a reference to Yahweh or simply “Lord”?  New Testament writers in particular like to use kyrios as a title for Jesus: We see the phrase “Lord Jesus (ho kyrios Iēsous) all over the New Testament.  Is this a claim that Jesus is Yahweh?  Or is it simply a claim that Jesus has authority and power?  While it’s difficult to be completely certain, we have good evidence to believe the New Testament authors intend to claim that Jesus is Yahweh. 

One of the best places to see this is in the Pauline Epistles.  Paul is known for starting his epistles with some version of the phrase, “Grace and peace to you from God (theos) our Father and from the Lord (kyrios) Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2, etc.).”  In these phrases, Paul consistently connects theos (which LXX translators used to render the Hebrew word Elohim) with “our Father” and kyrios with “Jesus Christ”.  In fact, this correlation is so consistent, we find that Paul never identifies “the Father” as kyrios, but only as theos; whereas Paul always identifies Jesus as kyrios and never theos (with the single exception of Romans 9:5). 

In other words, of the two main words for God in the Old Testament, Elohim (theos) and Yahweh (kyrios), Paul assigns theos to the Father and kyrios to Jesus.  We see this pattern also in 1 Corinthians 8:6:  “…yet for us there is but one God (theos), the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord (kyrios), Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”  In a verse like this where Paul parallels theos and kyrios, it is clear that kyrios refers to Yahweh; thus, Paul identifies Jesus as Yahweh.

This is a bit of a deep dive, but there is so much to gain when we reconsider the meaning of the phrase “Lord Jesus” in the New Testament.  When we connect this phrase to Yahweh, when we connect Jesus to the covenant-making God of the Old Testament, we gain greater depth and insight into who is Jesus. 

Charles Yu
About the Author: Charles Yu
Charles is the Pastor of Multicultural Ministry & Theology at Blackhawk Church. Before coming on staff, Charles enjoyed a teaching ministry with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries as a Campus Theologian. In 2011, he received his PhD in Hebrew and Semitics from UW-Madison. Charles and his wife, Serena, have two daughters, Kirstin and Nikki. In his spare time, Charles enjoys reading books on military history and barbecuing in his backyard.