How severe were 1st-century restrictions against the Divine Name?
info This commentary was written by a volunteer for our Bible translation project. It’s not an official view of our project; we are not a religious denomination and we do not establish doctrine. These commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other.
Scholars widely acknowledge that the Jews used the name Jehovah/Yahweh freely until the 3rd or 4th century BCE. After that time, Jewish customs and laws began to discourage and prohibit its use. Why?
They considered the divine name too holy to utter in a relaxed way. They took the commandment forbidding any misuse of God’s name in Exodus 20:7 to an extreme. One source claims that “in the Dead Sea Scrolls community, a person was expelled from the group for pronouncing the name of God, even accidentally.”
However, was this widespread? Were the rules always enforced? When did it develop? How seriously did people take it?
The 1st-century historian Josephus gives an important clue. In his history of Moses, he describes how Moses learned the Divine Name, but remarks that the Name “is not lawful for me to say any more”. By saying “any more” he may imply that the complete prohibition was a recent development in his lifetime. He wrote those words around 93-94 CE, about 60 years after Jesus’ death. So perhaps the restrictions gradually tightened over the centuries and reached a peak after 70 CE.
It’s not clear how strictly people obeyed the rules against using the Divine Name. We only have a few clues. The 1st century CE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said that only priests should say the Name, and only while they’re in the temple.
There are conflicting Rabbinic traditions from the Middle Ages which describe how it could or could not be used back in the 1st century. Some state that the name could only be spoken once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, while others say that priests said it once per day in the daily sacrifices.
So the picture is not clear. Jews may have used it in private, but not in public. Or perhaps they only used it rarely or were discreet in its use. We don’t really have any evidence that the authorities executed people just for using it, as is popularly believed today (such as in this comedy sketch).
Misusing it to the point of blasphemy did carry the death penalty, but this was not new; it had been so since Moses’ time. The question is what they considered ‘misuse’ and ‘blasphemy’ by Jesus’ day.
The only thing we know for sure is that by the 1st century CE, saying the name was at least controversial and discouraged, and at worse, was against the law.