Why did the Divine Name fall out of general use by the early Church?
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.
The Divine Name Jehovah (or Yahweh) fell out of common use in the early part of Christianity. Why is this?
The early Christians were mostly Jews who preached to Jews. Even among the Gentile nations, they preached to Jewish communities. So they may have been very discreet about using the name for two reasons. Firstly, to avoid troubles with the local Jews, but perhaps also to avoid stumbling others. After all, Jesus did also say:
‘For it would be better if a millstone was hung on his neck and he was thrown into the sea, than to stumble one of these least ones.’ —Luke 17:2
Away from the Jewish community, however, the Christians who preached may have found a very practical reason to use the name – at least sometimes. The Gentiles already believed in numerous gods, and these were all commonly called ‘Lords’, as were human rulers. Calling the God of the Jews ‘the Lord’ would be confusing, especially if you are also calling Jesus ‘the Lord’ too! Explaining when one means Jehovah/Yahweh would make things clear.
Although some argue that they have deliberately avoided preaching with the Name. Why? To avoid the impression that Jehovah/Yahweh was just another God, like Zeus or any of the others in the Ancient World. They say that by not using the name, they were putting Him higher up than all the false gods.
However, as we live 2,000 years later, we can’t really know what was and was not most important to them at the time.
Whatever the situation was initially, by the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it seems that the Name was almost entirely out of common use.
We have many writings of the so-called ‘Church Fathers’ from the centuries after the Apostles’ death. Unless they suffered later censorship (which is possible), their letters and books do not use Jehovah/Yahweh. A few writers mention the name as part of broader discussions, so they certainly knew it and understood it (it was not forgotten), but they didn’t appear to use it regularly.
Why did the name not become more widely used among Christians, especially among those hundreds of miles away from Israel and away from censorship laws? It may be for a mixture of reasons.
Firstly, many of the earliest converts to Christianity were Jews, and they likely brought in their aversion to using the name.
Secondly, non-Jews were probably unfamiliar with the custom of using ‘Lord’ as a code/euphemism.
Third, most copies of the Greek Septuagint already used kyrios as a euphemism for YHWH, and this was the most commonly used Christian Bible! Many Christians may not have known that kyrios was meant to represent YHWH. This would have seriously limited people’s exposure to the Divine Name and led to widespread ignorance on the matter.
Fourth, the Christian hope is for adoption as one of God’s children. So there would be a natural tendency to refer to God as ‘Father,’ just like when Jesus called Him “Abba” (the Aramaic word for ‘Daddy’). But also, in some cultures, referring to your father by his first name is considered disrespectful. If this was so, using the name in everyday conversation may have also been considered offensive to some Gentiles.
And finally, in later times, Church officials adopted the Trinity doctrine and taught that God’s name was Jesus. Many came to believe that Jehovah/Yahweh was just the old Jewish name for God.
By the 3rd century, everyday use of the Divine Name among Christians was rare.