Linguistic Superstition And The Sacred Name Only Movement
By Dr. Daniel Botkin
Let me begin by saying that I am in favor of the reverent and proper use of the Sacred Names. In our congregation, we utter the Name every Sabbath when we face Jerusalem and say the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is One." Every day throughout the week, I utter the Name in private prayer more times than I can count. However, I avoid using the Name in casual conversation, because I truly do regard it as a Sacred Name which should be used only in a sacred context.
The issue I wish to address is misrepresentation of that "Name." To distinguish between those who (like me) are not opposed to using the Sacred Name in a sacred context and those whom I call "hardcore" advocates, I will refer to the latter as "Sacred Name Only" groups.
In these Sacred Name Only groups (hereafter SNO), I have witnessed some adherents using the Name in a lighthearted manner in casual conversation, even while joking around. However, my main complaint against the SNO movement is not the use or non-use of the Name per se, but the fact that their linguistic superstition about "God" and "Lord" unnecessarily separates brethren from one another. Their linguistic superstition discredits SNO advocates and gives Christians and Jews an excuse to reject everything else that is being restored through the Messianic movement--the Sabbath, the Feasts, the dietary laws, etc. Paul warned Timothy about teachers who are continually "doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings [suspicions]" (I Timothy 6:4). I cannot think of a more accurate description of the SNO movement which has been driven by linguistic superstition since its inception.
Linguistic superstition is the belief that saying certain "negative" words will produce negative results, and saying certain "positive" words in just the right way will produce positive results. This sort of belief system is most apparent in occult magic. Practitioners of occult magic believe that certain words have an inherent power or force within them which can be harnessed and utilized when the words are pronounced in a precise, prescribed manner. The seven sons of Sceva believed this. When they saw Paul doing miracles in the name of Yeshua, they tried to cast out a demon by saying, "We adjure you by Yeshua whom Paul preacheth." The demon in the man replied, "Yeshua I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?" Then, the man leaped on them and gave them a good beating (Acts 19:13-16).
You would think that Bible Believers would know better than to get entangled in linguistic superstition. Sadly, that is not the case. We have seen linguistic superstition manifested by some Christians in the "Word of faith" / "positive confession" movement. Now, we are seeing linguistic superstition of another sort being manifested in the Sacred Name Only movement.
The Sacred Name movement itself began in the late 1930s as an offshoot of the Church of God, Seventh Day denomination, its main focus being (as the phrase "Sacred Name" suggests) the use of God's Hebrew name. In most SN literature, God's Hebrew name is transliterated as "Yahweh" (though at least 38 other variant spellings exist among various proponents). Jesus' Hebrew name is usually mistransliterated as "Yahshua" (though at least 55 other variant spelling exist among SN believers).
Hard-core SNO proponents are afraid to utter the words "God" or "Lord" when referring to the Creator. They insist that He must be addressed by His Hebrew Name. Most SNO literature gives a reader the impression that knowing the correct pronunciation of God's Hebrew name is more important than knowing God Himself.
Much of what I have read in SNO literature is dangerously close to the occult thinking that existed in first-century Gnosticism. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (pg. 27) says this: "Heretical Gnostic systems combined magic and astrology with the Bible. The Hebrew name of God, IAO [the Greek transliteration of YHWH- DB], fascinated sorcerers by its vowels, always crucial in ancient magic."
Like first-century Gnostic sorcerers, many SNO believers seem equally fascinated by the Hebrew name of God, and have made a fetish out of the Sacred Name. This in itself is not sorcery, of course, but it is a step in that direction. Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, a translation which has greatly influenced the SNO movement, says in its introduction that "the name Yahweh has some inherent meaning of great force" and speaks of "some self-evident force" contained in the Sacred Name (pg. 26, 28). This sort of thinking can lead to linguistic superstition and worse. Noted Hebrew scholar David Bivin, in an article called "The Fallacy of Sacred Name Bibles," writes: "The use of correct formulas and correct pronunciations is very important in magic rites, but not in one's relationship with the God of Israel" (Jerusalem Perspective, Nov.-Dec. 1991, pg. 12;).
The SNO movement has produced a mixture of good and bad fruit: on the positive side, it has done a lot to help people see that the Sabbath, the Feasts, and the dietary laws are still valid for New Covenant Believers--on the negative side, it has spawned a lot of rotten fruit. Does the good fruit outweigh the rotten fruit or vice versa? We will let God be the Judge of that. We do not wish to judge, but to warn against the poison of rotten fruit.
The purpose of this article is not to attack or embarrass or publicly humiliate anyone. The sole purpose of the article is to expose error. For this reason, SNO writers and sources will not be cited. (If readers wish to know the sources, that information will be shared privately.)
Some minor errors in a person's thinking can be relatively harmless. Unfortunately, some of the errors in the SNO movement are not harmless. The proof of this statement is in the rotten fruit the movement has borne. This unhealthy fruit is primarily a glaring lack of love for the brethren. We all know the importance of loving one's neighbor as one's self; we know that the fruit of the Spirit is love; we know about I Corinthians 13. Yet if it were not for a few loving SNO friends whom I know personally, I would have to conclude from SNO literature that SNO believers hate the brethren. And I have been reading SNO literature regularly since the mid-1980s.
Indeed, many SNO proponents do not even consider the brethren their brethren. Christians who do not use the Hebrew names are often regarded as lost at best and as devil worshipers at worst. One large SNO organization printed these words in a newsletter last August: "Christianity calls 'God's' Son by the name 'Jesus'. Thus, those worshiping 'this son' are committing spiritual adultery!!" This is from one of the more tolerant SNO organizations. Other SNO writers have flatly stated that Christians who use the words " God," "Lord," and "Jesus Christ" are actually worshiping Satan.
SNO believers do not fare much better when it comes to loving their own. One well known SNO leader who has been around for decades admits this. He writes: "The Sacred Name movement has been characterized by knowledgeable observers as 'a bunch of splintered, divided sects'; and this is EXACTLY what I found." (Emphasis his.)
A Christian reader hearing about this for the first time might well be asking the questions: "These people think that I'm actually giving homage to the devil when I pray to 'God' or 'the Lord'? All the worship I've given to God all these years has really gone to Satan, simply because I didn't address God by His Hebrew name? Where in hell did that idea come from?"
The answer to the last question is in the last question. However, for the benefit of those who want an explanation of how this convoluted idea developed, let me explain.
SNO believers reject the English words God and Lord because these are words which, when not capitalized, can refer to pagan gods and to human lords. SNO believers think it is disrespectful at best or Satan worship at worst to refer to the Creator by these generic titles. However, the Hebrew equivalents of these two words, elohim and adonai, are also generic words that often refer to false pagan gods and to human lords. Yet the Creator refers to Himself as elohim and adonai hundreds of times in the Hebrew Scriptures. If He is not offended by the generic titles in Hebrew, why should He be offended by the equivalent generic titles in English? English even has the added advantage of capitalizing the G- or the L- to distinguish the true Creator from the false pagan gods and the human lords. If the Creator is offended by generic titles, wouldn't He be more offended by the uncapitalizeable elohim and adonai than He would be by a capitalized God and Lord?
SNO supporters imagine a linguistic connection between the English God and Hebrew Gad ("luck, fortune"). Because the pronunciations of these two words are very similar, they claim that "God" is the god of good luck. However, the fact that two words in two different languages sound the same is not proof that the two words are cognates. On the contrary, such is usually not the case. For example, Spanish con ("with") has no connection to English cone; German nein ("no") has no connection to English nine; Hebrew ki ("because") has no connection to English key; Yiddish teler ("plate") has no connection to English teller; Russian tut ("here") has no connection to English toot, etc., etc.
Concerning the SNO believers' ban on God because of its similarity to Gad, noted linguist and Hebraist Isaac Mozeson, author of THE WORD: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English, wrote this in a personal letter to me: "If the word Gad were so terrible per se, there would be no tribe of Israel or prophet of King David by that glorious name. It seems I agree with you on these issues."
SNO believers avoid using even the Hebrew Adonai because of its similarity to the Greek god Adonis. Some refuse to transliterate Adonai, even though Scripture uses this word over 200 times to refer to the Creator. I have even seen one SNO Bible that translated Adonai as "Yahweh." This is not honest translation; it is deliberately misrepresenting what the Hebrew Scripture really says. Isaac Mozeson wrote (in the letter previously mentioned): "I don't shun the Hebrew ADoNe (master, lord) + suffix AI simply because Adonis is a pagan god or because the Brits have a House of Lords."
The Hebrew Bible refers to the Creator as Adonai over 200 times. It is linguistic superstition to avoid a word that the Hebrew Bible freely uses. Yes, it is possible that the Greeks borrowed the Hebrew Adonai and used it to refer to their god Adonis. So what? We know that Yahweh is the true Adonai/Elohim/Lord/God. The fact that pagans use some of the same nouns for their idols is no reason for us to stop using the words. If the pagans were to say that their gods are "good" and "strong," would SNO believers feel a need to avoid these two adjectives and use different synonymous adjectives such as "beneficent" and "powerful"?
Most SNO literature substitutes Mighty One and Master for God and Lord. However, the terms mighty one and master are every bit as generic as god and lord. This is evident even in SNO literature, which refers to false gods as "mighty ones," the only difference being capital letters. This is not spiritual progress; it is simply re-inventing the wheel.
The New Testament (Brit HaDoshah), by its glaring silence on the "Name" issue, also refutes SNO teaching. If avoiding generic titles and using the Hebrew names is so vital to one's salvation and spirituality, why do the New Testament writers consistently refer to God by the generic Greek titles Theos and Kurios (words which can also refer to pagan gods and to human lords)? And why do they consistently refer to the Messiah by the Greek form of His name, Iesous Xristos? The New Testament writers could have written the Hebrew characters into the Greek script, but there is no solid evidence that they did any such thing. They used Theos and Kurios, just as the Hebrew Scriptures use Elohim and Adonai.
It is very important to note this: Even when they were directly quoting Old Testament Scripture, the New Testament writers used the generic Greek titles as substitutes for the Sacred Name. Many Old Testament verses which contain the Sacred Name are quoted in the New Testament, yet the Sacred Name itself never once appears in the New Testament. A generic title is substituted every single time. If the New Testament is to have any bearing whatsoever on our theology, we cannot ignore the fact that the New Testament writers used generic titles as substitutes for the Sacred Name.
The only argument SNO proponents can use to try to refute these facts is to accuse "wicked scribes" of changing the New Testament manuscripts. Some go so far as to claim that the entire New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, complete with the Sacred Name, of course. History tells us that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew, but there is no reason to suppose that the rest of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew. On the contrary, when one considers the fact that the epistles were addressed to congregations composed primarily of Greek speaking believers who knew little if any Hebrew, the idea seems ludicrous. To accuse wicked scribes of tampering with the text is circular reasoning, and has no basis in historical or linguistic fact.
Theories have been put forth to try to debunk the Greek New Testament. Some SNO proponents have claimed that Paul could not have known Greek well enough to write his epistles in that language. Jews did not learn Greek, we are told by SNO writers. We know from Acts 21:37 that Paul knew Greek well enough to converse in it. I also found this information in a pamphlet: "The Oxyrinchus Papyri shows that even Jewish children could read and write Greek. The Greek language was common in Palestine, even though the vernacular was Aramaic and the Sacred tongue was Hebrew." It is very ironic that this information appears in a pamphlet written by the late A.B. Traina, the man who is regarded by some as the "granddaddy" of the SNO movement.
Some SNO believers argue against a Greek New Testament by stating that the Greek text is awkward and clumsy, "poor Greek"; therefore the New Testament must be a translation of a Hebrew original--which, it is assumed, contained the Hebrew names, of course. Do these SNO believers know Greek well enough to tell that the New Testament is a poor translation of a Hebrew original? Is the Greek of the New Testament so poor that a Hebrew original must be assumed? We will let two scholars who know Greek answer the question. Dr. Brad Young, a present-day scholar of great repute, states that Paul, in his epistles, "gives evidence of his bi-lingual abilities by writing in Greek like a native" (Paul the Pharisee, Yavo Digest 19:4, Sept. 1997, pg. 15).
Robin Griffith-Jones, master of London's Temple Church and a former New Testament Oxford University teacher, says that Luke used "very sophisticated Greek. He would have been asked to write New York Times op-ed pieces" ("Gospels according to new book," Peoria Journal Star, 5/28/00).
In 1978, George Howard wrote an article in Biblical Archaeology Review. Howard did not argue for an original Hebrew New Testament in this article, but he did theorize that the writers of the Greek New Testament might have written God's name in the Hebrew characters when they wrote their original manuscripts. A SNO proponent sent me a copy of this article, complete with his complimentary underlining, arrows, brackets, and exclamation marks in the margins. I marked a few more things in the article myself. In Howard's short essay, I circled the following words: "...suggested that… suggested... argued that... It seems to me... is hardly likely that... In all likelihood...very probably… suggests that... no doubt... Perhaps… may have... Assuming this to be generally correct... In all probability… probably... no doubt... must have... impossible to know with certainty... must have been… must have taken… must have meant… must have meant… was probably... probably... suggest that... it may be that... probably... may be..."
The appearance of all these words and phrases of ambiguity on just one and one-half pages of text tells me that Howard himself is not very certain of his theory. Yet SNO people will swallow an unproven theory simply because it agrees with their doctrine.
One major reason SNO advocates misunderstand the "Name" issue is because they do not realize the broader meaning of the Hebrew word shem (usually translated "name"). When they read a verse that says something about "the name of Yahweh," they think mainly in terms of nomenclature, the word that is used to address someone. However, shem means much more than just "name" in this narrow sense of nomenclature. Shem also means the reputation, honor, or character of the person. Any good lexicon will confirm this. Isaac Mozeson also confirms this in his letter to me: "Also SHeM means 'repute' more than merely 'name.' The problems of the 'sacred name believers' will lessen when they consider this."
Even in English we use the word name in its broader sense: "You've ruined the family name!" Such a statement does not mean that the person has altered the pronunciation of his surname or changed it to a generic name like "Jones." It simply means that he has brought shame and reproach on the family by his behavior.
The Scriptures say many things about the name of Yahweh. There are verses that speak about misusing, blaspheming, or shaming His name. There are verses about knowing, glorifying, praising, trusting in, and speaking of the name of Yahweh. These verses are not referring to the correct pronunciation of the four-lettered Tetragrammaton; there are speaking about the character and reputation of Yahweh. Thus, trusting in "the name" of Yahweh means that we trust in His character and His reputation, not in the correct pronunciation of His nomenclature. A person who trusts only in the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton is reducing the name of Yahweh to nothing more than a magical incantation.
Again, touting linguistic superstition gives people an excuse to reject truth. SNO writers discredit themselves in the eyes of intelligent, thinking people by their sloppy scholarship. Some of it is so pathetic that calling it "sloppy scholarship" is actually a compliment. SNO writers often try to prove a point by making long, detailed linguistic arguments based on the details of a Hebrew word. They end up proving nothing to people who know Hebrew. All they end up doing is advertising in the most embarrassing manner possible their ignorance of linguistics and the Hebrew language.
One brother who leads a large Messianic organization based in Jerusalem once said of the SNO movement, "We have scholars in Jerusalem who have done nothing but study the Hebrew texts for their entire lives, and even they are not 100% certain how God's name is pronounced. And yet, we get letters from people in places like Arkansas telling us that they know exactly how the Name is pronounced, even though they have never studied Hebrew." (No offense to people in Arkansas. He could have named any other state.)
One thing that has been cropping up in SNO literature in recent years is the alteration of certain Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for Judah is no longer transliterated as Yehudah; now it is YAHudah. Jacob is now written YAHakob instead of Ya'akov. Jerusalem is no longer Yerushalayim; now it is YAHrushalayim (or according to one writer, YAHUWSHALEM). Even Messiah is changed from Mashiach to Messi-YAH. It seems that whenever SNO people see the letter "Y" in a Hebrew word, they think that there should be an "H" after it, so they remedy the problem by restoring the missing "H" that the wicked scribes allegedly removed in their attempt to suppress the Name. Anyone who knows Hebrew can see the foolishness of this. One SNO writer (who since has declared that Yeshua of Nazareth was a false messiah), when trying to explain why Joseph's name was really YAH-sef instead of Yosef, stated that "it doesn't take much imagination" to see that wicked scribes, intent on hiding the Sacred Name, removed the "H" from the original name of YAH-sef and turned it into Yosef. Maybe it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see this, but it certainly takes some imagination to see it. It also takes complete ignorance of the fact that the yo- prefix is the common, standard prefix that is used to conjugate third- person, masculine singular, future tense verbs in this category.
One of the most bizarre allegations in SNO literature is the claim that the word Hallelujah is "a hybrid with one word of Hebrew and one word of Greek." The SNO writer who made this amazing discovery has "unleavened the hybrid" and restored the "correct" pronunciation for us. According to this SNO writer, we should be saying "Halle-atah-YaHVaH" instead of "Hallelujah." This erroneous conclusion would never have occurred if the writer had known that the plural imperative is formed by adding a vav suffix to the verb. This is something that a beginning Hebrew student learns in ulpan within the first couple weeks of study.
In another recent article a SNO brother writes about the different names people use to refer to the Messiah. This writer tells his readers that the Yeshu form used by unbelieving Jews is made up of three Hebrew letters which can form an acronym for "may his name and memory be blotted out." This information is true. The three Hebrew words are "yimach sh'mo v'zikhro." (See Stern's Jewish NT Commentary, pg. 5.) However, this SNO writer tells us that the three Hebrew words are "yiddish sh'mo w'zither." This gross mis-information does not appear in some self-published rag that is obscure and unknown to SNO people. It appears in a glossy SNO periodical that has been around since 1937.
If we want to be taken seriously as a people, if we truly want to have the Glory of Yahweh's Holy Name restored, we have to do better than we have done in the past. Our scholarship must be able to pass the test. More importantly, we must be a people whose actions truly represent the "Name," reputation, honor, and character of the One whom we claim to represent. May it be so for all who truly love His Holy Name.
This article is copyrighted by Daniel Botkin and may not be altered.
Dr. Botkin is founder, editor and primary writer for "Gates of Eden" magazine, a bimonthly publication that addresses theological issues. Daniel has written for a variety of publications and is an award winning artist whose paintings have been exhibited in art shows across the nation.
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