The Unutterable Name of God: YHWH
There is a subtle but significant meaning in the word "Lord" in the New Testament which arises from the Jewish tradition not to pronounce the name YHWH. Moreover, a link between the Old Testament Septuagint and the New Testament would be lost if YHWH in the Old Testament were to be translated as something other than "Lord," such as Yahweh or the like. There are therefore huge theological, philological, catechetical, liturgical, and pastoral reasons for following the traditional practice of the Jews and the early Christians.
In this subject matter, we are guided by a little-known "Letter to the Bishops' Conference on the 'The Name of God'" by the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued on June 29, 2008, by that Congregation's Prefect, Cardinal Arinze. That letter addresses the Church's position on the most sacred name of God as it was revealed to Moses.
Essentially, the letter continues the Jewish and early Christian practice of not pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, and forbids its use in the translation of Scriptures that are to be used in liturgical worship, in liturgical worship proper, and in public hymnody.
First of all, the letter affirms the objective nature of revelation in Sacred Scripture, so that it ought not to be seen as historically-conditioned, and therefore somehow not binding upon us today: "The words of Sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place. They are the Word of God expressed in human words."
For this reason, translations should be faithful to the original texts.
With respect to translation of the Tetragrammaton, the letter invokes its earlier (March 23, 2001) Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (No. 41), which states that "[i]n accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the . . . Septuagint version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning."
Despite that instruction, the letter observes that "the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel's proper name, known as the holy or divine tetragrammaton, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in form יהוה, YHWH." This practice has occurred in both the reading of biblical texts in the lectionary, in prayers, and in hymns.
It was already part of the biblical tradition, the letter observes, to hold that the Tetragrammaton YHWH "unpronounceable," and therefore to be replaced by the use of an alternate name--what Ratzinger in his book Introduction to Christianity called "some sort of periphrasis"--usually, the Hebrew Adonai, which means "Lord."
This biblical tradition was already well-established by the 2nd century B.C. For example, the Septuagint--which is the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew that was performed by the traditional group of 72 Rabbis in the 2nd century B.C.--"had regularly rendered the Hebrew tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, which means 'Lord.'"
This is of great significance to the Christian revelation, observes Cardinal Arinze in his letter, because the Septuagint--the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures--"constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek-speaking Christians."
The Septuagint therefore influenced the New Testament, including its use of Greek and scriptural concepts and references. Importantly, the New Testament continues the practice of never pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, but instead uses the word Kyrios or "Lord."
That this was something important is further confirmed, Cardinal Arinze says, by the fact that "[s]omething similar happened likewise for Latin-speaking Christians, whose literature began to emerge from the second century, as first the [Bible translations in Latin known as the] Vetus Latina and, later, the Vulgate of St. Jerome attest. In these translations, too, the tetragrammaton was regularly replaced with the Latin word Dominus, corresponding both to the Hebrew Adonai and to the Greek Kyrios."
We may expect, then, that there are some places in the New Testament where the word Kyrios is used as a periphrasis for the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. And, in fact, there are. This, as the letter, observes has "important ...
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