Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

When did the divine name, YHWH (perhaps pronounced as Yahweh) cease to be pronounced?

Thanks for your question. We don’t know exactly when the name of YHWH was no longer pronounced. It may have ceased to be commonly pronounced already c. 200 BC (suggested in Tosefta Sotah ch. 13, itself written c. AD 190-230). The Hebrew biblical manuscripts did not vocalize the divine name, or any part of the text, during the time of Jesus. The earliest such Hebrew texts that we have date to the 8th and 9th centuries. There is some transliteration of the divine name in early Christian and Jewish Greek writers (Philo at the turn of the era and Origen in his Hexapla from the early third century), most often in Greek as  IAŌ. It is said that there was a reluctance to pronounce the divine name in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and the end of the Second Temple period (AD 70). This was partly due to respect for the name. Circumlocutions developed even when the biblical text was read. Thus, Adonai “Lord,” was pronounced in place of YHWH throughout the biblical text. The high priest may have pronounced the divine name once a year on the Day of Atonement, a practice that remained until the final years of the Second Temple (Tosefta, Yoma, ii. 2; Yoma 39b; Yer. Yoma 40a, 67). However, even this may have been whispered or said quietly. A reason for this was so that the name could not be used in curses and magical incantations which abounded in this period. Various ceramic bowls and amulets exist with the divine name inscribed on them in Hebrew and Greek letters.

Go to top