The Medieval Review 16.02.50

Wilkinson, Robert J. Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century . Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, 179. Boston: Brill, 2015. pp. xi, 587. $277.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9789004284623 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Irven M. Resnick
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Wilkinson's Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God. From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century, is a lengthy and erudite study of the Western Christian reception of the Tetragrammaton. In a long introduction, Wilkinson examines the principal texts in the Hebrew Bible in which the Tetragrammaton appears. The author discusses both ancient and contemporary efforts to translate the perplexing syntax of Ex 3:14--'ehyeh asher 'ehyeh--as a gloss on the Tetragrammaton and concludes that it can be fairly translated neither by the Old Latin and Vulgate versions as Ego sum qui sum and Qui est misit me ad vos, nor by the Greek Septuagint's ego eimi ho ôn (7). These translations transmit a positive ontology to the Western tradition, he remarks, while at the same time actually suppressing the Tetragrammaton as the proper name of God, conveying the paradox of a God both revealed and hidden, a Deus revelatus tamquam absconditus that is simultaneously the Existent One and ineffable (having no name) while embracing every name.

Wilkinson promises in subsequent chapters a historical investigation "to chart Western Christian knowledge of and reaction to the Hebrew divine name yhwh" (37) until the middle of the seventeenth century. That investigation is divided into three sections: The Eclipse of the Name; Times of Ignorance; and The Rediscovery of the Name.

The first section examines the Tetragrammaton among pre-Christian Jewish groups as well as among early Christian communities (and Gnostics among both). Wilkinson notes that it is a striking feature of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible in the pre-Christian era that the words for Lord (kurios) or God (theos) were generally substituted for the Tetragrammaton, reflecting Jewish inhibitions against vocalizing the name that was uttered only by the High Priest in the Temple.

Consequently, later Christian Greek codices of the Hebrew Bible likewise bear no trace of the Tetragrammaton. In these texts Ex 3:14 was not a gloss upon the name yhwh, but rather transmitted an independent treatment of God as "the Existent One." Similarly, in the West the Latin biblical texts (both the vetus Latina and the Vulgate), like the Greek codices, substituted for the Tetragrammaton words for Lord (dominus or deus). As a result, "the personal name of God effectively disappeared from Christian Bibles" (47). Although the Hebrew text of Ex. 3:14 would appear to offer an explanation of the Tetragrammaton, the LXX does not do this since there is no Tetragrammaton to explain; instead, God seems there to make a statement about divine existence: "I am who am." Wilkinson notes a backlash from Palestinian Jews against this suppression of the Tetragrammaton, not only in some early Jewish Greek biblical manuscripts that retained the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew (sometimes in a paleo-Hebrew script) or in Greek transliteration (as PIPI--ΠΙΠΙ--perhaps because the Greek letters look like the Hebrew), but also in the later Hebrew Masoretic manuscripts that preserve the four Hebrew consonants of the Tetragrammaton, even though Jewish vocalization in liturgical practice continued to substitute 'adonai or 'elohim. By contrast, no early Christian Greek biblical manuscript has been found with the Tetragrammaton. Rather, these introduce a set of abbreviations for about fifteen sacred terms, the nomina sacra, which introduced abbreviations with a supralinear bar as a warning that these words are not to be pronounced as written. But there is no evidence to suggest that these words (including the Tetragrammaton) were treated as ineffable.

In the New Testament, the Tetragrammaton may be present only "indirectly" in Philippians 2:9, where God is said to have bestowed upon Christ "the name which is above every name" or Ephes 1:21, which speaks of the exaltation of Christ "above every name that is named." Also, Jesus' name in the form of the Hebrew Joshua, or in its longer form, Yehoshu'a which means something like "Yhwh is Salvation," evokes implicitly the Tetragrammaton. Sometimes a shorter form, Yeshu'a, is found, and both are transliterated in Greek as Iesous. There is a third form of the name in Hebrew, Yeshu (without the final 'ayin), which is used for Jesus solely in Jewish texts--in two Talmud passages (San. 43a and 107b), in the Toledoth Jesu, as well as in Jacob ben Reuben's Milhamoth ha-Shem, and the Sefer Nizzahon Yashan. This name is often taken as a shortening of yimach shemo ve-zichrono: "May his name and memory be erased." This truncated form, Wilkinson remarks, relieved Jews of having to refer to Jesus with a name that meant "Salvation" (111).

Because the Tetragrammaton itself was not visible in Christian Bibles, there is little patristic commentary on it. Wilkinson notes a few remarks from Origen and Jerome. Clement of Alexandria remarks on a mystic name of four letters (and the fact that the Greek name of God--theos--contains four letters), and that this name was affixed to a plaque on the High Priest's forehead. Moreover, Clement claims that Christ is the Tetragrammaton. The late fourth-century Evagrius wrote about the Greek transliteration of the name, ΠΙΠΙ, based on Jerome's ten divine names, which was written like a seal on the High Priest's forehead. He also attempts to reproduce the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton, but inserts a Hebrew shin to produce yhshwh, which Evagrius believes spells Jesus--a manipulation frequently encountered later during the Renaissance (129). Thus, whereas Jewish treatments clearly see Ex 3:14 as a revelation of God's unique name, early Christians considered this name as (also) belonging to the Son--a shift that was promoted by Nicene theology--and that it was the Son who appeared in Ex 3:14 (140).

Although infrequently appearing in patristic texts, by contrast the Tetragrammaton appears extensively in Gnostic texts and Greek magical papyri. Irenaeus, Origen, and others comment on the Gnostic use of a divine name, Iao, Ia, Iaoth. Wilkinson notes that "Jewish inhibitions over the use of the Tetragrammaton, as well as its absence from the New Testament, contrast starkly with the widespread use of the Tetragrammaton in magic texts" (169). Magical use of the Tetragrammaton is found in Greek pagan papyri, and it is reflected in the Toledoth Jesu traditions that accuse Jesus of sorcery using the Tetragrammaton. By contrast, the Babylonian Talmud (Av. Zera 17b) reports that R. Hananiah ben Teradion was burned at the stake merely for pronouncing the Tetragrammaton in public hearing. Other talmudic texts suggest that the Tetragrammaton will be uttered again only in the world to come, in a sort of eschatological restoration of language (180). Although these Jewish inhibitions stem from a sense of the Tetragrammaton's holiness, it remained a central focus of Jewish speculation, devotion, and magic. In part for this reason, Wilkinson surmises, in Christian circles Jews acquired a reputation as powerful magicians, both because their knowledge of the Tetragrammaton and for its manipulation in magical texts. Kabbalah in particular has an interest in the divine names. In the Sepher Yetzirah, which influenced later Christian kabbalists, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the building blocks of the universe. Despite inhibitions surrounding vocalization of the Name, it was endowed with incomparable power, and the combination of its letters, according to commentaries to Sepher Yetzirah, was said to have fashioned the world of creation.

Ecclesiastical sources occasionally condemned and proscribed Christian use of the Tetragrammaton in magic (as when Priscillian was condemned for allegedly making an amulet bearing the Tetragrammaton), but nonetheless both Jews and Christians sometimes resorted to practices condemned by their authorities, which included vocalizations of the Tetragrammaton. Medieval Christian thinkers gradually became more and more familiar with Jewish esoteric traditions on the divine name; these include Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), as well as Arnaldo of Villanova, who composed his Allocutio supra Tetragrammaton at the end of the thirteenth century. By the later Middle Ages, reflection upon the Tetragrammaton became more prominent in Christian polemics against Judaism: in the third letter of his Teshuvot ha-Meshabot, the convert Abner of Burgos (Alfonso de Valladolid; c. 1270-c. 1348), perhaps the first Jewish convert to refer specifically to kabbalah, characterized the Jews' special sin as ignorance of the Holy Name, ha-shem ha-meforash (204).

The second section deals with the (Latin) Middle Ages and the gradual emergence of Christian Hebraism as the product of more frequent Jewish-Christian encounters. Wilkinson divides this period into three: 1) until 1096; 2) until 1306; 3) the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. During the first period Christian knowledge of Hebrew is almost entirely dependent on earlier Christian sources, like Jerome, and there is very meager evidence of Hebrew learning. This begins to change, remarks the author, with the First Crusade. Not only do Christian scholars begin to seek out contemporary sources of Hebrew learning (both Jews and converts from Judaism), but Christian discussion of the Tetragrammaton produced interesting theological reflections. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, identifies the four letters with four stages on the path to salvation and the four modes in which God is within us. Pope Innocent III wrote on the Tetragrammaton in his letter from Anagni, and identifies in it the letters IEVE. Like the early twelfth-century Jewish convert Petrus Alfonsi, Innocent maintains that the Tetragrammaton conceals three words (IE, EV, VE) that proceed from each other and thereby illustrate the Trinity, while the IE in particular points to the name of Jesus. Innocent also claims that the High Priest's head gear displayed the letters ioth, he, vau, heth (sic), and relates these to Christ's Passion. Innocent adds that the Jews substitute 'adonai in error; they err because it is not the Tetragrammaton that is ineffable, but rather the mystery of the Trinity, which the Tetragrammaton represents (227). During the thirteenth century, Raymund Martin, in his Pugio Fidei, similarly uses Alfonsi's play on the letters of the Tetragrammaton as a demonstration for the Trinity. Wilkinson also mentions an English Carmelite, John Baconthorpe (d. 1347), who discussed the Tetragrammaton and claimed that in Jer 23:5 it identifies the divine nature of Jesus. To Jews who insist that the Tetragrammaton is used only of God in the Hebrew Bible (and who turn to Ezek 48:35, Gen 22:35, Judg 6:24, and Ex 17:15) Baconthorpe insists that the Jews have falsified the text of the Hebrew Bible to deny Christ's divinity (251). Wilkinson treats other figures from the period as well: Arnaldo of Villanova, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhard, Paul of Burgos, and many more.

In the third section Wilkinson explores Reformation Christian Hebraists' rediscovery of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton as the personal name of God, and remarks upon its dissemination in Bibles and even into vernacular texts, with the growth of printing. The book ends with an investigation of philological discussions from the seventeenth century that resulted in a "demystification of language" and that focused attention on the authenticity and antiquity of the vowel points in the Masoretic text, with clear implications and relevance for the Tetragrammaton in theology and liturgy. As in the earlier parts, the author dedicates a few pages each to a large number of individuals: Pico dell Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Paul Ricius, Pietro Galatino, Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Michael Servetus, Andreas Osiander, Cornelius Agrippa, John Dee, Jean Bodin, Robert Fludd, Athanasius Kircher, Mercury van Helmont, Jacob Boehme, Moses ben Aaron of Krakow, Chrysostomos a Capranica, and more.

Wilkinson's text, then, examines many individual figures and their views on the Tetragrammaton. In one way, this makes the work a valuable resource. In another way, it points to a shortcoming: rather than a coherent and sustained historical narrative, Wilkinson's volume often reads like a series of encyclopedia entries. There is a good bit of repetition, as a result, sometimes obscuring those views that are genuinely innovative.

In addition, the work contains a number of errors. Some of these are relatively benign and a very familiar outcome for those who rely upon a word processor's autocorrect feature. Sometimes, they simply suggest a less than careful proofreading. Examples include "Eusebius of Caesarea, as we seen above..." (140) or "The is also much rabbinic 'evidence'…" (244). More serious are errors, however, that appear when dating events or individuals. For example, Wilkinson claims, incorrectly, that Petrus Alfonsi "converted in 1160 in Huesca at the age of forty-four" (228). A few pages later he notes correctly that Petrus Alfonsi converted in 1106 (231), although he then adds the unsubstantiated claim that Alfonsi was approximately forty years old at the time. In another example, Wilkinson remarks in error that "Jews in England…had been expelled in 1299 and were not officially allowed to return until 1656" (308). But Jews were expelled by Edward I in 1290, not 1299.

More serious yet is an incorrect attribution of one of the illustrations in the book. Wilkinson's figure 13 (249) depicts a diagram of the Tetragrammaton from St John's MS E. 4. fol. 153v (which can be seen at This illustration accompanies a twelfth-century copy of Petrus Alfonsi's Dialogue against the Jews. But Wilkinson incorrectly identifies it as coming from Peter of Poitiers's Scutum fidei in MS Cotton Faustina BVII, fol. 42v. That MS does indeed contain a diagram showing a shield with the words Pater, Spiritus Sanctus, Filius each in circles, surrounding in the center the word Deus. But it is quite different from the St John's illustration, and has between Deus and Filius an image of the crucifix. See:

Finally, the author (and Brill) inexplicably includes in the body of the work long quotations in Latin and other languages that remain untranslated (e.g., on 253-54). For the reader who has paid nearly $300 for this volume, these issues may be more than a minor annoyance.

Copyright (c) 2016 Irven M. Resnick

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