God: The Controversy About Using "Sacred Names" for God
Now and then, people will encounter a “sacred names” group that insists that it is essential to call God and Jesus only by their Hebrew names. Must God only be addressed by a specific Hebrew name? Should we avoid the name “Jesus” for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior?
The “sacred-name” question has been raised by many individuals and groups over the years. What’s interesting about this idea is that those who claim we should use only the “right” name for God, do not agree on what that name should be! For example, should we use “Yahweh,” “Jehovah,” “Yeshua,” “Yahshua,” “Yaohu” or some other transliterated versions of Hebrew names to address God? Various “sacred names” groups will claim that one or another of these names is the correct one, and the others are considered incorrect.
We should also realize that the “sacred names” groups are creating an issue over God’s name where none exists in Scripture. This is the crux of the matter. Nowhere does Scripture command all people to use a name for God that is supposedly a transliteration of Hebrew letters into English. What “sacred names” people do is simply make this assertion, based on their misinterpretation of one or more Scriptures that say something about God’s name.
Here is an example of how this can be done. We could turn to Judges 13:18, which contained God’s answer to Manoah, the father of Samson, when he inquired about the Lord’s name. Here we read the following: “And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret” (Judges 13:18, King James Version). Misusing this Scripture, a person could put forth the theory that we should not have anyname for God – and never utter it – because it is secret.
But this idea is immediately seen for what it is – not scriptural or logical. How could we speak of God or to God if we could not give him a name? Besides, nothing in Scripture tells us we are to avoid using a name for God. The verse in question itself doesn’t mean what this hypothetical theory would claim. What the angel of the Lord was saying was that God’s name is “beyond understanding,” or “wonderful.” That is, Manoah was being told that he was in the presence of deity or God. Isaiah 9:6 speaks of the Lord as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Let’s briefly look at the fundamental idea of the “sacred names” groups, to see whether their claim is biblical. To pose the question again: Must we use only a certain Hebrew name for God or for Jesus?
First, Hebrew names or titles for God – which “sacred names” groups say we must use – are not found in the New Testament. More than this, the apostles and early church used the Greek form of the Holy Scriptures (our Old Testament) because they lived in a Greek-speaking world. Thus, even their Scriptures did not have whatever “sacred name” a particular group claims is the only one to be used in reference to God, or Jesus. The New Testament writers wrote in Greek, and used Greek names for God, not Hebrew ones.
Second, it’s clear the “sacred names” claim has no merit if we simply stop to ask what the Bible says about the idea – or, actually doesn’t say. Careful thought will help us realize that nowhere in the New Testament (or the Old Testament, for that matter) are we told that all people must use an ancient Hebrew pronunciation of God’s name. Yet, if it were as important as “sacred names” people claim it is, we would have been told about it quite clearly, abundantly and explicitly in the New Testament. But we aren’t. To repeat, the New Testament writers simply used the names of God – and Jesus – based on pronunciations and spellings found in the Greek-speaking world.
Third, quite obviously, the many ancient copies of the text of our New Testament have come to us without the use of a Hebrew “sacred name” for God or Jesus. To try to get around this obvious fact, “sacred names” proponents claim that there must have been different original, non-Greek versions of the New Testament from which the sacred names were erased by unknown hands at an early date. Think of what this means.
We begin with the real-world situation that not a single Greek New Testament manuscript that we have shows any evidence of the “original” Hebrew name for God or Jesus. This means some person or group would have had to find and obtain every single Greek manuscript of any part of the New Testament – around the entire Mediterranean Sea area. Then, this person or group would have had to erase from these manuscripts all references to whichever Hebrew “sacred names” are in question, and replace them with the Greek names for God and Jesus.
When seen in this light, the “sacred names” idea is evidently preposterous. To get around this logical impasse, it is claimed that the original text was tampered with in some unknown way, and the original documents have been entirely lost. Quite conveniently, we might say! One can claim the existence of anything when that something doesn’t exist. But the fact is that there is no ancient New Testament manuscript in which Hebrew names for God are used instead of the Greek words. “Sacred names” people must rely on a theory that cannot be proved because no evidence for it exists. Any such idea that is put forth, which cannot be disproved because no evidence for it exists, is not a valid proof. In short, the “sacred names” claim is an idea simply made up out of nothing.
One simple test, then, for any claim about a “right” Hebrew name for God (and a number of different variants are put forward) is to ask: Is it found to be the name used for God (or Jesus) in the New Testament? If the name is not found in existing New Testament manuscripts, then the claim is false.
Fourth, the unproveable premise of “sacred names” doctrine, if accepted, negates the possibility that Scripture can be authoritative for faith. These groups ask us to believe that God did not preserve or was unable to preserve his Word on what they claim is a most important “truth” – the correct Hebrew name for God and Jesus – and that he, therefore, allowed essential parts of the New Testament to become lost and corrupted.
To believe the “sacred name” teachers, one must believe that God is unable to preserve his Word, and that his word is incomplete and corrupt. Thanks be to God that he has preserved the essential teaching of salvation in the New Testament, and by doing so has proven the “sacred names” theory to be a misguided idea. To repeat, the New Testament’s use of Greek names and titles for God and Jesus, rather than the Hebrew names, is devastating to the “sacred names” theory.
Fifth, the Bible itself shows it is not wrong to translate God’s names from one language to another. In the New Testament, the apostles used the Greek Kyrios 665 times and Theos 1345 times to translate the Hebrew name Yahweh! These names are found in quotations of Jesus’ own words – and he said his words would not pass away. In over 900 places in the New Testament, we find the Greek word Iesous used as the personal name of Jesus. Since we have a “J” in English, it is perfectly proper for us to call our Savior Jesus. (Another variant of “sacred names” theory claims we should call Jesus “Yehoshua,” since there was no letter “J” during biblical times. Yet, another group claims we should use a special name for God that does have a “J” – Jehovah.) Since “God,” “Lord” and “Jesus” are the English equivalents of names and titles from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, we can use them with full confidence that God accepts these names. We do not need to learn or use some “secret” Hebrew name for God or Jesus, because Scripture does not command us to do this.
Sixth, even the Old Testament uses various names for God. Besides Elohim and Yahweh, other names that belong to God are Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God (Hebrew, El), Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). In Zechariah 6:12, the Savior is named “The Branch.” Thus, we find many names for God used in the Bible, in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and these are translated from one language to another.
At least one “sacred names” group that claims we should use a special Hebrew name for Jesus bases its assertion, in part, on Acts 4:12. This gives us an opportunity to see how “sacred names” groups misuse the Scriptures in support of their theory, so let’s briefly look at this passage. The verse in question says the following in reference to Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” The obvious purpose and meaning of this passage is to show that Jesus is the author and finisher of our salvation, and that no one else is. This verse does not tell us to use a special Hebrew name for Jesus.
The next interesting point to notice is the context of Acts 4:12. The Greek word for Jesus, transliterated Iesous, is used throughout this chapter (verses 2, 10, 13, 18, 27, 30, 33). In fact, as stated earlier, this is the name used for Jesus throughout the New Testament. No Hebrew name for Jesus appears here. Again, the “sacred names” theory is shown to be wrong.
What does Acts 4:12 mean when it refers to the matter of “name”? When the passage says “there is no other name under heaven” by which we must be saved, it is referring to the Person of Jesus Christ, not to some special phonetic pronunciation or spelling of his name, whether Hebrew or otherwise. We are saved by Jesus’ redemptive work – by what he did on our behalf, not by the letters of his name. When we accept Jesus as Savior, we accept him as the One who is Savior. Whether we spell or pronounce his name differently, depending on our language, is incidental. In any case, most Western languages will spell Jesus’ name in a similar way, though the pronunciation may differ somewhat from language to language.
What does it mean to call upon someone’s “name” or to do something in a person’s “name”? Does that mean we do the calling or doing in the act of precisely spelling or pronouncing his or her “correct” name? Not at all. When we act in someone’s name, we do so in that person’s office or authority. An officer of the law may arrest a criminal “in the name of the crown” or “in the name of the law.” To do so in someone’s name means to act by his authority, and the power or government he represents. Similarly, if we seek protection or help in the “name of God,” we seek his Person, not some particular set of letters or sounds.
In conclusion, we can use God’s names as they are spelled and pronounced in any language. We can use the name for God that exists in our own language. As English-speaking people we use the word “God.” Germans can use “Gott,” Spanish people can use “Dios” and Greeks can use “Theos” when referring to God. And so on. It is neither scriptural nor logical to require the use of God’s names in Hebrew rather than Greek or English or some other language. God understands and honors all languages. He looks on our hearts, not on our lips.
The idea that we must address God by some specific set of English letters that supposedly transliterates a Hebrew word creates an issue over God’s name where none exists in Scripture.
God does not require knowledge of a password or set of vocal sounds, as though becoming a Christian means we are entering a kind of secret society. Salvation comes as a free gift of God through faith in the atoning and saving work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We are not saved because we utter a particular name for God or for Jesus. Thanks be to God that we can have an abiding personal relationship with the Persons of the Triune God – the Father and the Son (Jesus), as they dwell in us through the Holy Spirit.