Let us return to the language of the early Christians of Antioch. As mentioned earlier, they spoke mainly Greek and Aramaic. Some may have known Latin, and the Jews, Hebrew. We have already discussed the problem early Christians of Greek origin had with the word GOD. Let us now consider the word LORD.
Hebrew speaking Jews used the word adōn (אדון) for LORD. It is frequently used on humans who were regarded as superior in one way or another and also often to express politeness. In Genesis 18:12 Sarah is using this term on Abraham although she is not addressing him: “Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am vaxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord [adōn] being old also?”[i]
In Genesis 23:6 it is used by “the sons of Heth” addressing Abraham: “Hear us, my lord [adōn]: thou art a mighty prince among us.”[ii] In the Book of Ruth 2:13,[iii] Ruth uses the term on the landowner Boaz, and it is very frequently used in the phrase “my lord the king” [adonī hammelek].[iv] The word a adōn is also used about God, such as in Deuteronomy 10:17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords.”[v]
The quotation from Deuteronomy is interesting, and to a certain extent it illustrates the problem interpreters had to cope with. In Hebrew, the first “Lord” is not adōn but YHWH. This is the proper name of God as used in the Bible. Some claim that it is the causative form of the Hebrew verb ‘to become’ and was pronounced Yahweh. Others suggest it was pronounced Yahūh. The common form today is Jehovah. For reasons irrelevant for this discussion, the Jews eventually stopped pronouncing it. Instead, the divine name, when read, was replaced with a plural form of the Hebrew word for LORD. Consequently the original pronunciation was forgotten. (However, Bible writers do not seem to have been too occupied with the correct pronunciation of names. Thus, the New Testament writers consistently used the name Jesus, although it was pronounced Yeshūa.)
In the other two occurrences of the word LORD in Deuteronomy 10:17, the words are in plural ın Hebrew. Thus the text would read: For YHWH your gods, he is gods of the gods and lords of the lords.[vi] This is typical usage in connection with the in Hebrew word for LORD. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Hebrew word for GOD, when used on the Creator, was in plural. The accompanying verb, however, was in singular. It is therefore held that the plural form was a plural of respect.[vii] This is also the case with the plural of the word LORD [adōn] in this context.
In the Hebrew Old Testament the word adōn [lord] usually has the suffix –ay when used about the Creator. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language has this explanation: “אֲדֹניָ m. n. pl. the Lord, God. [Lit. ‘my Lord’, the pl. of majesty of אׇדוֹן (= Lord), with the suff. of the first person. The spelling with Qamatz[viii] serves to distinguish it from אֲדֹניַ (= my lords. See אׇדוֹן.]”[ix]
According to this, the word LORD in the Old Testament can refer to the following concepts: to God the Almighty, to gods in general, to angels, and to man. When applied to God, the plural of respect is used together with the possessive suffix of 1. person singular in pausal.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the bırth of Jesus, the translators chose to translate the singular form of the Hebrew word adōn [lord] with kürios [κυριος, lord] whenever a single person was in question and with the same word in plural when more than one person was in question. However, in the beginning the translators chose to keep God’s personal name written with Hebrew characters in the Greek text. Later, when this practice was discontinued, curious problems arose.
An example is Psalm 110:1 as rendered in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament: “Ειπεν ο Κυριος τω Κυριω μου, καθου εκ δεξιων μου.”[x] [The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand.] Had it not been for the explanation Jesus gave in the Gospel of Matthew (22:41-45), Christians today would not have known how to interpret this text.
According to the church historian Eusebius (d. ca. 339), Matthew did not write his gospel in Greek: “For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.”[xi] Furthermore, to our knowledge, the native language of Jesus was Aramaic,[xii] but he knew Hebrew. He was able to read and interpret a text form the Hebrew prophet Isaiah while visiting his hometown.[xiii] (We are aware of the fact that some scholars believe that the mother tongue of Jesus was Hebrew. He no doubt knew Hebrew; but whenever he is quoted in another language than Greek, the language is Aramaic. Thus, when he renamed his disciple Simeon, he used the Aramaic word for rock, Keepa [Cephas]).[xiv] Consequently, in his discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus did not quote Psalm 110 from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. We have good reason to believe that he quoted the Hebrew text where it says “YHWH said to my lord [adōnī] …” No ambiguity at all!
As mentioned above, even early copies the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament kept God’s personal name with archaic Hebrew characters in the Greek text.
God’s name in the Greek text is marked with an arrow.[xv]
We have good reason to assume that the Christians of the first century knew the difference between the words LORD and YHWH. Many of them, those in Antioch included, were Arameans, who spoke a language close to Hebrew. Those of them who had a Jewish background could at least read Hebrew. Although we have no proof that they made a distinction between the two words kürios and YHWH in the original Greek copies of New Testament books, we have all reasons to believe that they did.
In his paper “The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians,” Gérard Gertoux writes: “Did early Christians pronounce the Name? The answer depends on what kind of Christians we are talking about: “Yes” for the Judeo-Christians (Christians of Jewish origin, before 70 CE) because many of them knew Hebrew and “No” for the Pagano-Christians (Christians of heathen origin, mainly after 100 CE) most of whom only knew Greek.”[xvi] Gertoux also observes: “In the papyrus P90 dated around 150 CE which contains 45 the verses of John 18:36-19:7, the name of Jesus is this time shortened into JS according to the process of nomina sacra, like the word kyrios (Lord) which is written KS. So, when the sacred name was absent the word ‘Lord’ had to be written without abbreviation. For example, in this codex the verse of John 12:38 have appeared:
ΗΜΩΝ.ΚΑΙ .Ο.ΒΡΑΧΙΩΝ.ΚΥΡΙΟΥ.ΤΙΝΙ .ΑΠΕΚΑΛΥ
ΦΘΗ (John 12:38)
However this part of the gospel of John quoted a verse from the book of Isaiah and in all the Septuagints of this period (before 150 CE) there are none with the name kyrios (Lord) instead of the tetragram.”[xvii]
If this is correct, it is safe to assume that first century Christians knew the difference of meaning between the Greek word for LORD when used on YHWH and when it was used on other persons. In Matthew 11:25, for instance, Jesus uses this word on his Father, in Matthew 10:25 on slave owners, and in 8:21 on himself.
Leaving out the places where the New Testament has direct or indirect quotations from verses in the Old Testament where YHWH occurs, let us now take a look at how the term LORD (kürios) is used in the New Testament and how the early Christians understood it.
We have already mentioned that it was used on slave owners. It is also seen from Acts 16:16 where the King James Version has “masters” instead of “lords” (κυρίοις > plural, dative of κυριος. A Hebrew translation of the New Testament has אדניה “her lords”[xviii]). In the First letter of Peter 3:6, Sarah uses the word on Abraham.
In most of the cases in the New Testament where the word LORD [κυριος] is used, it is referring to Jesus. Nevertheless, the word is used on God the Father as well. Thus, in Revelation 11:15 we read: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” (KJV) [ἐγένετο ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ κόσμου τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν καὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ αὐτοῦ.] In spite of this, the Apostle Paul could say that “to us there is but … one Lord Jesus Christ.”[xix] How is this to be understood? Did the early Christians use the word LORD inconsistently?
It depends on what we mean by inconsistency.
Let us first take a look at the semiotic aspect of the matter. The Russian linguist Roman Jakobson has left us with this communication model:
The addresser (or sender) speaks to a group of people or sends them a letter. He wants them to understand his message. He therefore gives his message a form he knows that they should be able to understand. This he does by using codes the addressees are familiar with. Subsequently, when reading the message or listening to the words of the addresser, the addressees subconsciously take the context of the message into consideration, and they decode the message according to the codes applied by the addresser.
This is easy if both addresser and addressee belong to the same interpretive community. “A term introduced by Fish to refer to both writers and readers of particular genres of texts (but which can be used more widely to refer to those who share any code)… The conventions within the codes employed by such communities become naturalized amongst its members. Individuals belong simultaneously to several interpretive communities.”[xx]
If, for instance, a Turk calls a man ‘a bear’ [ayı], he is not speaking about the strength or joviality of the person, but about his unpleasant rudeness. If you are familiar with the codes, you know what the Turk is speaking about. In Danish, on the other hand, ‘to carry a bear’ [at have en bjørn på] has the meaning of being gloriously drunk. To be able to decode a text, spoken or written, you have to know, not just the denotations of the words used, but also their connotations. Within an interpretive community the individuals are familiar with the codes used by an addresser who belongs to the same community or who is familiar with its codes.
The book Key Terms in Semiotics has this explanation: “In order to function properly, that is, in order for it to be effectively transmitted a message must contain a code that is understood by both sender (addresser) and receiver (addressee).”[xxi] One is born into an interpretive community. However, things get more difficult when you read a text that originally was addressed to a different interpretive community, perhaps even a community that existed 2,000 years ago. This takes us to the New Testament.
The New Testament was mainly, or perhaps exclusively, written by Jews. The addressee was Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians who had acquainted themselves with the Old Testament and with the principles of early Christianity. It is evident that the “Bible” of first century Christians was the Old Testament. Throughout the New Testament, the writers refer to the authority of the Old Testament. Eventually New Testament books were used in the same way. Whether Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, they shared the same codes, thanks to a concept called intertextuality: “The notion of intertextuality refers to close relationships of content and/or form between texts. No text stands on its own. It is always linked to other texts. Texts create contexts within which other texts are created and interpreted.”[xxii] Interestingly, Wikipedia has this comment: “While the theoretical concept of intertextuality is associated with post-modernism, the device itself is not new. New Testament passages quote from the Old Testament and Old Testament books such as Deuteronomy or the prophets refer to the events described in Exodus.”[xxiii]
Consequently, when we have to find out how and why certain words in the New Testament are used the way they are, we have to turn to their usage in the Old Testament. Those of the early Christians who were familiar with the way the word LORD (κυριος) was used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, would use this word with the same denotation, and they would automatically actualize the connotations they knew from there. About actualization, the following explanation has been given: “With regard to language, actualization denotes the operation by which any given language unit is rendered ‘present’ within a particular linguistic context.’[xxiv]
In other words, a reader of New Testament books – say, in Antioch towards the end of the first century – who came across word LORD (κυριος), would do the following: As a member of an interpretive community with its background in the Old Testament, where the word LORD according to the context of the word was used on God, angels, and men alike, he would automatically actualize the relevant meaning.
Let us now take a look at chapter 10 in Paul’s letter to the Romans. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, it is likely that this letter was written in the 50’s AD, [xxv] and it was no doubt known in Antioch about 50 years later.[xxvi] In this letter the Apostle Paul writes (Chapter 10, verses 9 – 16):
9. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
10. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
12. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
13. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
15. And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
16. But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
In verse 9 we have the expression “Lord Jesus” [Κύριον ᾿Ιησοῦν]. In verses 12 and 13 we have “Lord” twice [Κύριος and Κύριου], and in verse 16 we have the same word in vocative [Κύριε]. This would seem to identify Jesus with the God of the Old Testament.
Nonetheless, we have to remember that many of the early Christians, Paul included, knew the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Consequently, they knew that in some of Paul’s quotations from the prophet Isaiah the four Hebrew letters for God’s name occurred.
Interestingly, the Protestant translation of the New Testament from Greek to Hebrew, Tōrah, Nabī’īm, Katūbīm, Berīt Ḥadaşah, has translated kürios with adōn [אדון] when Paul is speaking of Jesus. In this context it does not use adōnay, which is the Hebrew word for LORD exclusively used when referring to God the Almighty. In the places in Paul’s letter where κυριος [kürios] is a replacement of the Divine Name, such as in verses 13 and 16, this same Hebrew translation is using the four Hebrew letters of the Divine Name (יהוה). Thus, any confusion about identity is avoided.
Nevertheless, it is true that the New Testament uses the word LORD [κυριος] on both Jesus and his Father. But so it does on Mammon in Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters [κυρίοις].” In Acts 16:16, 19 the word is used on slave owners, and so it is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 6 verses 5 and 9. It is therefore no wonder that the same word can be used on Jesus without thereby identifying him with God. All the more so as the Apostle Peter is quoted saying in Acts chapter 2 verse 36: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord [κυριος] and Christ.”
Later, when the four Hebrew letters representing God’s name was removed from the Greek Bible and when the majority of the Christians were of gentile background and therefore unacquainted with the use of the word LORD in the original Hebrew and Greek, they started to identify Jesus with God. The reason behind this was that they were not familiar with the codes of the original addressee, or interpretive community, and instead they decoded the text according to their own codes.
This, however, was aberrant decoding and led the development of Christian doctrine in a totally new direction, a direction not intended by New Testament writers.
[i] John Stirling, ed. The Bible: Authorized Version (KJV) (London: The British & Foreign Bible Society, 1960), 13.
[ii] Ibid. 17.
[iii] Ibid. 207.
[iv] The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited (no year)), 16.
[v] The Bible: Authorized Version, 142.
[vi] The Holy Scriptures [in Hebrew] (Middlesex, England: The Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures, (no year)), 342-43.
[vii] Something similar is observed when a Turk refers to his mother as annelerim [my mothers].
[viii] The “T” like symbol under the letter י .
[ix] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), 8. See also Johs. Pedersen, Hebræisk Grammatik (Copenhagen: V. Pios Boghandel – Povl Branner, 1926), 93, where the qamatz is explained as a pausa.
[x] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, (no year)), 767.
[xi] Eusebius Pamphilius, Philip Schaff, ed. Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co. 1890, 265.
[xii] As understood from the his words ”Talitha qumi” (Mark 5:41) and “Eli, Eli, lama sabakhthani” (Mark 15:34). (Qumi is normally written cumi from the Greek κουμι.
[xiii] Luke 6:16-12.
[xiv] “Saint Peter,” Wikipedia, accessed January 20, 2014,
[xv] ”Septuagint Manuscripts,” Wikipedia, accessed January 6, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint_manuscripts#Greek_Septuagint_manuscripts_with_Hebrew_YHWH.
[xvi] G. Gertoux, The Use of the Name (YHWH) by Early Christians, (International Meeting – Society of Biblical Literature) 2.
[xvii] Ibid., 10.
[xviii] Tōrah, Nabī’īm, Katūbīm, Berīt Ḥadaşah (Jerusalem: Qeren Aḥawah Maşīḥīt, 2010),144.
[xix] First letter to the Corinthians 8:6 (KJV).
[xx] ”Interpretive community,” Oxford Reference, accessed January 13, 2014, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100008353.
[xxi] Martin Browen and Felizitas Ringham, Key Terms in Semiotics (London: Continuum, 2006), 42.
[xxii] Ibid., 108.
[xxiv] Browen and Ringham, Key Terms in Semiotics, 21.
[xxvi] The Antiochene bishop Ignatius (d. at a point between 98 and 117 AD) was acquainted with the letter. Ignatius, “Epistle to the Romans,” Philip Scharff ed. The Apostolic Farthers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Edinburg: 1867; copyright: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 172, 174.