the origins of the use of κυριος for יהוה

All extant manuscripts of the NT consistently use the Greek word κυριος (kyrios, ‘lord’) when translating the name of God in the OT, יהוה (Yhwh). The background to this is not entirely clear nor uncontested, but it is worth noting a few points about what is and isn’t known, and what is and isn’t likely.

First, it is unquestionably significant that the writers of the NT refer to Jesus by the term κυριος (kyrios, ‘lord’) when that same term is used in quotations from the OT that refer to יהוה (Yhwh). The ambiguity is deliberate. The NT writers are identifying Jesus with Yhwh.

However, this claim only really works if the use of κυριος (kyrios, ‘lord’) for יהוה (Yhwh) was widely accepted at the time. While it is true that most of the manuscripts we have for the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX or Septuagint) include this substitution, the situation is complicated somewhat by the existence of a small number (about 3) of very early fragments of Greek translations which either include the name Yhwh in paleo-Hebrew script or in Greek transliteration. The discovery of these has prompted some scholars to claim that the LXX originally preserved the name of God throughout and that this was only changed at the behest of 2nd Century Christians who sought to bolster their claim that Jesus should be identified as God.

In spite of these fragments, however, there are good reasons to believe that the use of κυριος (kyrios, ‘lord’) for יהוה (Yhwh) was widespread by the time the NT was written. The main considerations are:

  • The NT includes a number of circumlocutions which serve to avoid having to use the divine name. For example, Phil 2:9 refers to “… τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα” — ”the name which is above all names.” Most scholars agree that this is a reference to the name Yhwh, but the fact that Paul has avoided simply writing the name reflects the practice of avoiding pronouncing the name at the time.
  • There are no manuscripts of the NT which include either a transliteration or other graphical representation of the name Yhwh, even when there are direct quotations of the OT. If the Greek translation of the OT in use at the time (which is the version frequently quoted in the NT) had preserved the divine name, why would the NT writers not have copied it?
  • There are grounds for believing that the very few early fragments of the Greek which do preserve some form of the name Yhwh (there are only about three of them) are not copies of the original translation but have been changed to re-insert the divine name. This has been argued most extensively by Albert Pietersma.¹
  • There are numerous manuscripts from the caves at Qumran which indicate that the word for “Lord” was in use as a substitute for the divine name in the century or so prior to the writing of the NT. These texts are mostly written in Hebrew, and so use אדוני (ʾădônay, ‘[my] Lord’) when we’d expect to see יהוה (Yhwh). Furthermore, in contrast to the claims some make that other words were used as a substitute for Yhwh (usually words like אל (ʾēl, ‘God, El’)), quite a few of these manuscripts never use such terms, only use אדוני (ʾădônay, ‘[my] Lord’), and never use יהוה (Yhwh) (e.g. 4Q521, 4Q507, 4Q435, 4Q508, 1Q34bis, 4Q434, 4Q577, 4Q527, 4Q526, 4Q384). In some instances they use אדוני (ʾădônay, ‘[my] Lord’) in phrases which are strongly reminiscent of biblical passages where יהוה is used.
  • There is little doubt that the name Yhwh was not pronounced at all in the centuries leading up to the production of the NT and through the period when the LXX was translated. Some indication of the import attached to this can be found among the DSS. 1QS 6:27–7:2, for example, reads:

    Anyone who speaks aloud the M[ost] Holy Name of God, [whether in …] or in cursing or as an exclamation when under duress or for any other reason, or while he is reading a book or praying, is to be expelled, never again to return to the gathering of the Community.

These considerations seem to warrant the conclusion that “Lord” was widely recognised to be a valid substitute for the divine name prior to NT times. This set the stage for the authors of the NT to be able to apply OT texts about Yhwh to Jesus and so establish his divinity.


Notes:

  1. Pietersma, Albert, “Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original LXX” in De Septuaginta: Studies in Honour of John William Wevers on his sixty-fifth birthday (ed. Albert Pietersma and Claude Cox.) Benben Publications: Mississauga, 1984. pp. 85-101.

8 thoughts on “the origins of the use of κυριος for יהוה

  1. I’ve been reading through the LXX lately, and I find it significant that KURIOS is never given an article, even in compound with other divine names–quite contrary to the use in the NT. It was as if K-S was inserted as a global search-and-replace for YHWH, without any article so readers would recognize that this was not just ‘a lord’ or even ‘the lord’ but code for The Ineffable Name.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    It’s not quite true that κυριος never has the article in the LXX when it stands in for יהוה. Take a look at Gen 4:3, 13—both have the article. I’ve not checked much beyond that, but I’d be surprised if there aren’t more examples.

  3. Thanks for pointing that out, Martin. I notice that in 4:13, the article is pretty essential in carrying the meaning, “to YHWH.” Not so much in v. 13 where PROS is present, but it still may carry a different meaning without the accusative–I don’t know Gk grammar well enough to say.

    It appears, though, that wherever the meaning is clear without an article, there is none.

  4. Hi Daniel. Actually, in Gen 4:3 in the Greek, the dative form of κύριος (i.e. κυρίῳ) would be sufficient to convey “to the Lord,” so it is not entirely necessary (compare Gen 12:7; 13:8 where the dative appears without the article).

  5. (42) “We have three separate pre-Christian copies of the Greek Septuagint Bible and in not a single instance is the Tetragrammaton translated kyrios or for that matter translated at all. We can now say with near certainty that it was a Jewish practice, before, during and after the New Testament period to write the divine name in paleo-Hebrew or square Aramaic script or in transliteration right into the Greek text of Scripture. . . .

    but in NT they change words and content at will, infact P46 (175CE) is Greek manuscript with the largest percentage of difference on record. This just proved that Church have been changing words since early 2nd century.

    Here is the words of the early church father, Origen (3rd century CE):
    “The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.” Origen, early church father in “Commentary on Matthew.”

  6. I’m afraid that your points do not alter the point of the blog post for the following reasons:

    1. We do not have “three separate pre-Christian copies of the Greek Septuagint Bible” but three fragments of different manuscripts. “Fragments” is important here—we’re not talking entire copies of the Bible, just fragments of Greek translations of the OT. Furthermore, there are fragments where there is a space instead of the name of God, so it is not so simple as to say that the evidence uniformly points in one direction.

    2. It is also incorrect to claim that “[w]e can now say with near certainty that it was a Jewish practice, before, during and after the New Testament period to write the divine name in paleo-Hebrew or square Aramaic script or in transliteration right into the Greek text of Scripture.” As I note, the evidence is not so clear, and we certainly cannot claim that the NT autographs included the name of God in some form of Hebrew script. As I’ve pointed out, there is good evidence from Qumran that the name was substituted in newly composed texts.

    3. It is incorrect to assert that “in NT they change words and content at will.” Variations are of many different kinds—some are simple errors, some appear to be attempts to correct texts, others are difficult to explain. Whatever the case, this point has no bearing on the argument. There are many variations, both small and not so small, in NT manuscripts. But among all these variations there is not a single example of the name of God being preserved in either transliteration or in Hebrew. So any claim for that position is pure speculation.

    Thus the point stands. It is clear that the divine name was accorded special treatment in Judaism well before Jesus’ time, and we know that some Jewish writers avoided using the name and wrote “Lord” (אדוני) instead. The very, very few examples of Greek versions from this time do not unequivocally prove the preservation of the divine name in the text (see Pietersma’s article for more details).

  7. As “errors” in giving κυριος the article go, it would be far more interesting to see non-YHWH instances (i.e. “adon” referring to a human) without the article. The article-less construction is slightly odd, and slips from it could be regarded as fatigue.

    And there are some bits of the NT that seem to carry this stylistic feature. Paul in particular likes article-less κυριος to the extent that he may well be nuancing meaning with it (I’ve not seen this argued convincingly, but it probably has been somewhere at some point). And even elsewhere there are instances where one wishes to “accidentally” hit the caps lock key (Luke 1.69 is the most obvious example).

    And there’s a bit of me that would love to see a very very early manuscript of part of the NT with πιπι there in the style so hated by certain Church Fathers… ;-)

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