The Jewish Tetragrammaton: Secrecy, Community, and Prestige among Greek-Writing Jews of the Early Roman Empire

in Journal for the Study of Judaism
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In his retelling of Exod 3:14-16, Josephus (A.J. 2.275-276) frames the Tetragrammaton as a name that only Jews knew, and he indicates that Jews were not to intone it or disclose it to foreigners. His account illuminates a practice that certain Jews cultivated regarding their non-disclosure of the divine name. The disposition of Jews not to utter their divinity’s name preserved its sanctity and expressed acknowledgement of its ineffable character. But certain Jews, such as Josephus and Philo, also promoted among themselves and outsiders the premise that knowledge of the divine name was a characteristic feature of Jews, a feature of which non-Jews were unaware. Moreover, they framed knowledge of it as being restricted to a subgroup of privileged Jews, who safeguarded its sanctity. In this way, such Jews circulated and bolstered the Tetragrammaton’s reputation for secrecy. Intriguingly, Greek and Latin authors of the Roman Empire appear to corroborate this premise. Even as the divine name underwent increased circulation among non-Jews, such authors still conceived of the Jewish divinity as having a name that Jews did not disclose. Such was the Tetragrammaton’s reputation for secrecy, one which certain Jews actively cultivated and amplified.

The Jewish Tetragrammaton: Secrecy, Community, and Prestige among Greek-Writing Jews of the Early Roman Empire

in Journal for the Study of Judaism




J.L. LightfootLucian on the Syrian Goddess (Oxford: Oxford University Press2003) 184-208 treats its authorship.


JosephusA.J. 2.275-276. Giovanni Frulla “Reconstructing Exodus Tradition: Moses in the Second Book of Josephus’ Antiquities” in Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History (ed. Jack Pastor Pnina Stern and Menahem Mor; JSJSup 146; Leiden: Brill 2011) 111-24 treats Josephus and Exodus.




William M. Schniedewind“Calling God Names: an Inner-Biblical Approach to the Tetragrammaton,” in Scriptural Exegesis: the Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane (ed. Deborah A. Green and Laura S. Lieber; Oxford: Oxford University Press2009) 74-84 provides further discussion.


Thomas B. DozemanCommentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans2009) 31-41 48-50 and 120-35 and “Exodus” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible (ed. Michael Coogan; 2 vols.; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011) 1:265-69.


Carol L. MeyersExodus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2005) 56-59. For additional theories see Schniedewind “Calling God Names” 79-84.


Yvonne Sherwood“Jonah,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible1:477 discusses the date of Jonah’s composition.


Brennan W. Breed and C. Davis Hankins“Job,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible1:434-35 discuss the date of Job.


See Bickerman“Anonymous Gods” 2.958-60 and Lawrence Schiffman Sectarian Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Chico Calif.: Scholars Press 1983) 134.


OrigenHom. Ps. 2.1 (pg 12 col. 1104).


See John J. CollinsA Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress1993) 2-3 61-66; Carol A. Newsom “Daniel and Additions to Daniel” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible 1:159-61. According to Collins Commentary 347-48 Dan 9 apparently integrates a prayer predating the book’s composition which explains the Tetragrammaton’s occurrence seven times.


Dan Barag“Samaritan Writing and Writings,” in From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East (ed. Hannah Cotton et al.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2009) 305-14 treats Samaritan examples. Various types of inscriptions at Gerizim are in Yitzhak Magen Haggai Misgav and Levana Tsfania The Aramaic Hebrew and Samaritan Inscriptions (vol. 1 of Mount Gerizim Excavations; Judea and Samaria Publications 2; Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority 2004).


Ted Kaizer“Religious Mentality in Palmyrene Documents,” Klio 86 (2004): 165-84 at 175-80.


JosephusA.J. 12.257-259; 2 Macc 6:2.


Nicole Belayche“De la polysémie des épiclèses: Hypsistos dans le monde gréco-romain,” in Nommer les dieux: théonymes épithètes épiclèses dans l’Antiquité (ed. Nicole Belayche et al.; Recherches sur les rhétoriques religieuses 5; Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes2005) 427-42 at 428-30; Belayche “Hypsistos: une voie de l’exaltation des dieux dans le polythéisme gréco-romain” in Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 7 (2005): 34-55 at 45-46; and Belayche “Hypsistos: A Way of Exalting the Gods in Graeco-Roman Polytheism” in The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans Jews and Christians (ed. J.A. North and S.R.F. Price; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011) 139-74 at 153. 2 Macc 6:2 condemns the attribution of Jerusalem’s temple to Zeus under Antiochus iv. Robert van den Berg “Does it Matter to Call God Zeus? Origen Contra Celsumi 24-25 against the Greek Intellectuals on Divine Names” in The Revelation of the Name yhwh to Moses: Perspectives from Judaism the Pagan Graeco-Roman World and Early Christianity (ed. George van Kooten; Themes in Biblical Narrative 9; Leiden: Brill 2006) 169-86 discusses the preference not to use names from the Greek and Roman divine pantheon.


David NoyJewish Inscriptions of Western Europe (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1993) 1: no. 183.


Samuel KraussDas Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen (Berlin: Calvary and Co.1902) 40-41 and 68-69 for example.


Louis H. FeldmanPhilo’s Portrayal of Moses in the Context of Ancient Judaism (Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 15; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press2007) 11-15 discusses the audience for De Vita Mosis which is treated in more detail below.


James R. Royse“Philo, ‘Kyrios,’ and the Tetragrammaton,” SPhilo 3 (1991): 167-83 makes this argument in part based on Philo’s treatment of Moses discussed here. Philo clearly knew the Tetragrammaton but did not believe that it should be intoned or heard and he therefore refrained from writing it anew.


PhiloMos. 1.75-76; see Albert Geljon “Philo of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa on Moses at the Burning Bush” in van Kooten The Revelation of the Name yhwh to Moses 225-31. For recent analyses of this text see Feldman Philo’s Portrayal of Moses and René Bloch “Alexandria in Pharaonic Egypt: Projections in De Vita MosisSPhilo 24 (2012): 69-84. Similarly see Philo Mut. 1.9-14.


PhiloMos. 2.114-115 and 132 with 206 (death penalty).


OrigenHom. Ps. 2.1 (pg 12 col. 1104).


See G.E. BeanJourneys in Northern Lycia 1965-1967 (Vienna: Hermann Bohlaus1971) 20-22 no. 37; Louis Robert “Un oracle gravé à Oinoanda” crai 115 (1971): 597-619; repr. in Opera Minora Selecta (7 vols.; Amsterdam: Hakkert 1969-1990) 5:617-39; cf. also Stephen Mitchell “The Cult of Theos Hypsistos between Pagans Jews and Christians” in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (ed. Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede; Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999) 81-148 esp. 85-92. Further discussion of elevating divinities in the Greco-Roman world through various forms of naming and epiclesis is provided by the following: Belayche “Polysémie”; Belayche “Hypsistos: une voie”; Belayche “Deus deorum . . . summorum maximus (Apuleius): Ritual Expression of Distinction in the Divine World in the Imperial Period” in One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (ed. Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) 141-66; Belayche “Hypsistos: a Way”; and Angelos Chaniotis “Megatheism: the Search for the Almighty God and the Competition of Cults” in One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire 112-40.


EusebiusPraep. ev. 9.27.21-27 and Clement Strom. 1.154.2 fgh/bnj 726 fr. 3a-b (Artapanus); cf. Menahem Stern Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 1974-1984) no. 51a (on Alexander Polyhistor which does not include the whole citation of Eusebius). Van Kooten “Moses” 112-13 and 129-31 discusses this fragment and explores other sources that reflect ignorance of the Tetragrammaton.


TacitusHist. 5.5.4; Cassius Dio 37.17.3; Stern Greek and Latin Authors nos. 281 and 406.


Paul C. JohnsonSecrets Gossip and Gods (Oxford: Oxford University Press2002) 3.


MetzgerManuscripts33-35; Jerome Epist. 25.3 (ad Marc.). Lietaert Peerbolte “The Name above All Names” and Roukema “Jesus and the Divine Name” treat the Tetragrammaton early (Judaeo)Christians and the New Testament.

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