Some may even cite as proof of this notion the third commandment in Scriptures.
You shall not take the name of Yahweh your eloahi to worthlessness; for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name to worthlessness. (Exodus 20:7)
On the other hand, there would seem to be contradictions in Scriptures if one were to suppress usage of the sacred name Yahweh.
So how and when did the concept of the “Ineffable Name” doctrine come about?
If you’re interested in finding out, then you’re invited to explore the details by reading on.
In the time of the messiah it was prohibited by Jewish law (based upon rabbinical interpretation and not scriptural precedent) for all the עם הארץ (am ha-erets; people of the land), except for the high priest and a chosen few, to pronounce or use the sacred name; and even these men were permitted its utterance only under special circumstances.
Transgression of this Jewish law was punishable by death!
This historical fact and its ramifications upon statements made in the New Testament have gone almost totally unnoticed by Christian theologians.
The failure to consider the consequences of Jewish traditions and laws as they relate to and often oppose the teachings of the messiah and his disciples has left an important missing dimension in Christian understanding of the New Testament.
To fully comprehend the evolution of the “Ineffable Name” doctrine we will first cover some early Israelite history.
Archaeological evidence, as well as historical records, testify that from the time that the Israelites were first banded together as a nation at the Exodus in 1439 B.C.E. until a small group of their Judahite branch was permitted to return to Judaea from their Babylonian captivity in the late 6th and mid-5th century B.C.E., the Israelites commonly spoke and wrote the sacred name Yahweh.
Referring to this evidence, the noted historian William Foxworth Albright comments:
In essentials, however, orthodox Yahwism remained the same from Moses to Ezra. (Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. John Hopkins Press, 1942, p. 175)
The Encyclopaedia Judaica similarly concludes:
At least until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. this name [Yahweh] was regularly pronounced with its proper vowels, as is clear from the Lachish Letters, written shortly before that date. (EJ, 7, p. 675)
The sacred name was commonplace in Judaea and Galilee up until the 2nd century B.C.E. The pivotal point came in the reign of the Seleucid king named Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.), who was a member of the Greek ruling house that governed the Syrian empire, an empire that included Galilee and Judaea.
In his time there arose in Judaea a small but vocal group of influential citizens who held strong leanings toward the Greek culture. The Hellenistic party at Jerusalem found consideration for their view in the likes of the high priests named Onias III, Jason, and Menelaus.
Their limited attempts to Hellenize Judaea and Galilee were followed by a massive attempt to do so by King Epiphanes himself, an event which took place in 167 B.C.E. (1Macc. 1:1-64; 2Macc. 4:7-8:36; etc.)
The Jews were compelled, under the penalty of death, “to depart from the laws of their fathers, and to cease living by the laws of eloahim. Further, the sanctuary in Jerusalem was to be polluted and called after Zeus Olympius (the chief Greek god).” (2Macc. 6:1-2)
The attempt at forced Hellenization by Epiphanes and the liberal Jews was met with a strong backlash. The subsequent revolt by the people of Judaea and Galilee brought to power the Maccabean (Hasmonaean) priest-kings, a line that survived from 167 to 37 B.C.E.
The tumult that accompanied this revolt also brought into existence the three leading religious parties: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. With the demise of the old Zadok line of priests, the rise in power of the scribes and religious political parties, and the absence of prophets, new religious thought began to gain dominance in the land.
The heart of this new approach was a reliance upon the “traditions of the fathers” as a guiding force for scriptural interpretation.
The rabbis and scribes, dominated by the Pharisee sect, were appalled by the religious persecution of law-loving Jews, both by foreigners and liberal Jews alike.
Sabbath-keeping and the practice of circumcision had been forbidden under the pain of death, law-keeping Jews were subjected to every degradation and brutality imaginable, and pagan sacrifices and prostitution were established in the holy temple at Jerusalem.
The reign of terror under Antiochus also brought with it the vile abuse and the prohibition against the sacred name as part of his program of forced Hellenization.
In the eyes of the rabbis, everything possible had to be done to avoid such horrible blasphemy from ever occurring again. It was time to build “a fence around the Torah (Law).” (Pirke Avoth 1:1)
Speaking of this transition period, a passage in the Yerusalemi Yoma states:
In former times the name (Yahweh) was taught to all; but when immorality increased it was reserved for the pious. (Jerusalem Talmud. Yoma, 3:7)
The Midrash on Psalms adds:
R. Abba bar Kahana taught that two generations made use of the Ineffable Name: the men of the Great Synagogue, and the generation under [Hadrian’s] persecution. (Midrash Telillim. Ps. 36:8)
The Great Synagogue period ended shortly before the conquest of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. The reference to Hadrian’s persecution directs us toward the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 C.E.), which saw a resurgence of previous Jewish customs.
Use of the sacred name temporarily found public use again, at least among some of the priests. Except for the intervening period of the Bar Kochba revolt, the sacred name has been suppressed by the Jewish religious leaders until this day.
The Jewish religious leaders pressed forward with an ultra-pious interpretation of Leviticus 24:16—which commanded that anyone, whether Israelite or alien, who had blasphemed (did violence to) the name Yahweh, should be stoned to death—and a misunderstanding of Exodus 20:7, and Deuteronomy, 5:11, which commanded that no one was to carry the name of Yahweh to worthlessness. (JE, 9, p. 161; EJ, 7, p. 675)
These passages were now understood to mean that it was profane even to utter the sacred name. Only the very pious were permitted limited use of the name, and the practice quickly degenerated into a superstition.
Its assumption was that all men were evil, and as the Midrash Tehillim concludes:
The world was not worthy enough to pronounce the “whole name.” (Midrash Tehillim. Ps., 113:3)
The 1st Century C.E.
By the 1st century C.E. the prohibition against any common person pronouncing the sacred name was well-established as a law of the Jews. The notion is first reflected in the work of Ben Sira (writing in the latter part of the 2nd century B.C.E.). He states:
He who continually swears and names (Yahweh) is not cleansed from his sins. (Ecclesiasticus 23:10)
The 1st century Jewish writer, Philo who composed his works between about 35-45 C.E., for example, expresses this legal requirement when he tells us:
But if anyone, I will not say blasphemes the lord of deities and men, but even ventures to utter his name unseasonably, let him suffer the penalty of death.” (Philo, Moses 2:38 )
In another place, while discussing the sacred name as it was written upon the crown of the high priest, Philo remarks that it is:
. . . a name which only those whose ears and tongues are purified may hear or speak in the holy place (Temple), and no other person, nor in any other place at all.” (Philo, Moses 2:23 [114-115])
In an anachronistic story, Pseudo-Callisthenes (1st century C.E.) speaks of the ploughing under of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, which actually took place about 110 B.C.E.
In this story, which is pushed back to the time of Alexander the Great, the Jewish high priest is reported to have told Alexander:
We serve one eloahim who created heaven and earth and all things in them. But no man is able to tell his name. (Ps.-Cal., 2:24)
Josephus, a contemporary of Philo and Pseudo-Callisthenes, in a discussion of the sacred name, likewise tells us that it was “unlawful” in his day for him to speak it. (Jos. Antiq. 2:12:4)
In his discussion of the Ten Commandments, Josephus would not even write the commandments down but instead resorted to paraphrasing. He justified his action by telling his readers:
These words it is not permitted us to state explicitly, to the letter, but we will indicate their purport. (Josephus Antiquities 3:5:4)
Josephus could not record them “to the letter” because he was forbidden even to write the sacred name, his being an historical work and not specifically a manuscript for Biblical study by the few “pious” ones.
From the period before the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E., we also possess evidence from the Qumran scrolls. The Manual of Discipline, for example, ordered that:
Any man who mentions anything by the Name which is honored above all shall be set apart.” (Man. of Disc., 6:27; DSS, p. 380)
Proof of the legal prohibition is likewise found in the Mishnah, which is a compilation of the Jewish oral laws built upon the traditions of their fathers. These oral laws were in full force during the 1st century prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
In this book we find that a blasphemer was not culpable of a death sentence unless “he exactly pronounces the name (Yahweh).” (Sanhedrin 7:5)
It also reports that “in the Temple they pronounced the name as it is written, but in the provinces with a substituted word.” (Sotah 7:6; Tamid 7:2 [33b])
The Yoma in the Mishnah and commentaries on it state that:
One does not pronounce the ineffable name outside (the limits of the Temple),” and that on the Day of Atonement, “Ten times did the high priest pronounce the name” within the Temple. (Yoma 3:8, 4:1–2, 6:1–2, 8:9)
In the last days of the Temple, the High Priest limited his utterance of the divine name to a mere whisper.
The ineffable name doctrine continued among the Jews during the following centuries. Rabbi Abba Saul, who lived in the 2nd century C.E., tells us that among those who have no share in the world to come, is “he that pronounces the name with its proper letters.” (Sanhedrin 11:1)
The Kiddushin reports that among those who are especially prepared by the Sages to receive this high knowledge, the pronunciation of the divine “name of four letters” was confided “to their disciples once a septennate—others state, twice a septennate (seven year period).”
It adds that this revelation was to be kept a secret.
The Babylonian Talmud, in the Berakoth states:
He who pronounces a benediction when it is not required transgresses the commandment: “Do not invoke the name of יהוה.” (Berakoth 33a)
In the Pesahim we read that, “[In] this world [the sacred name] is written with יה and read as אד; but in the future world it shall be one: it shall be written with יה and read יה.” It also adds that the name is “to be hidden (B. Talmud, Pesahim 50a).”
So far we should have ample evidence to show that, during the 1st century C.E., the Jews of Judaea and Galilee were under a legal prohibition—outside of the High Priest and certain ones declared pious who could know but only use it secretly in the Temple—against anyone pronouncing the sacred name.
Outside the Temple only a substitute word, such as adonai (my sovereign), el and eloahim, were considered permissible. If anyone outside of the few chosen used the sacred name they were branded “blasphemers” and were subject to the death penalty.
Even more amazing is the recognition that it was into this Hebrew-Aramaic speaking land of Judaea-Galilee—the country of the original Scriptures, where the sacred name had become outlawed for all except those few chosen by the religious hierarchy—walked Yahushua the messiah, his apostles, and his other early disciples.
Stay tuned for the next episode where we will explore the treatment of the sacred name Yahweh by Yahushua the messiah as he was constantly being scrutinized by the religious authorities.
Would Yahushua dare breach the fence built around the Law regarding the sacred name Yahweh?
Also, be sure to check out the The Sacred Name Yahweh by Qadesh La Yahweh Press.