Jehovah and PIPI

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According to Jerome, those who were unfamiliar with Jewish customs tried to pronounce the Hebrew letters as if they were Greek letters. The result was quite a howler: they pronounced YHVH as PIPI!

For most of its existence Christianity has struggled with its Hebraic and Jewish heritage. To complicate matters, Hebraicists have always stood out as a rare breed in the Christian fold. The shortage of people learned in Hebrew and Jewish literary sources has left its marks on the life and history of the Church.

For a long time Jews have been discouraging people from pronouncing God’s Hebrew name, which is represented by the four consonants yod-hey-vav-hey (YHVH).[1]  Their efforts were probably motivated in large measure by a sense of awe (cf. Exod. 3:14-15) and a desire to guard against overfamiliarity with God (cf. Exod. 20:7).

Sometime about the 8th century A.D., Jewish scribes began adding pointing (or vowels) to the consonants of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the one hand, the vowels helped preserve the text’s traditional vocalization, and they facilitated pronunciation. On the other hand, Jewish scribes did not want readers to pronounce God’s name. To solve the dilemma, they borrowed the vowels from adonai (Hebrew for “Lord”) and inserted them among the consonants of YHVH. The result was a funny-looking Hebrew word. The foreign vowels served as a deterrent against pronouncing God’s personal name. The strategy worked brilliantly as long as Jews were the ones reading the pointed consonants.

Perhaps as early as 1100 A.D. Christians began pronouncing the funny word. In doing so, they unwittingly gave God a new name: Jehovah. Passing over the irony of the blunder, the editors of one popular Bible dictionary assessed the situation in this terse sentence: “[Jehovah’s] appearance in the KJV was the result of the translators’ ignorance of the Hebrew language and customs.” In addition to the KJV translators, the ASV translators also adopted the new name. Because of the influence of such English translations, Christian hymn writers celebrated the name Jehovah.[2]  Moreover, even writers of contemporary praise music continue to include Jehovah in their lyrics. Consider, for example, “Jehovah Jireh” and “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah.”

This was not the first name coined by Christians unaware of Jewish scribal habits. Already in the first century B.C., when copying biblical manuscripts, some scribes wrote YHVH in an archaic form of Hebrew script known as Paleo-Hebrew. They, too, were probably motivated by reverence for the special name that God had revealed to Moses and a desire not to transgress the third commandment.

Fragment of Nahal Hever papyrus containing a Greek translation of Habakkuk 2:19-20. The name YHVH is written in Paleo-Hebrew script in this Greek document. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A few of the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls preserve examples of this practice. Interestingly, Jewish scribes employed this same strategy even when copying Greek manuscripts. In a cave at Nahal Hever archaeologists found a Greek version of the Minor Prophets that Jews had hidden during the second revolt against Rome (132-135 A.D.). The scribe (or translator) who produced this scroll wrote YHVH in Paleo-Hebrew script. The old Hebrew letters stand out from the Greek script. Incidentally, the church father Origen (c. 185-254) mentioned seeing such scrolls.

Of particular interest is a papyrus known as Fouad 266. This pre-Christian, Greek fragment of Deuteronomy contains examples of YHVH written in Hebrew script. The script, however, is not the Paleo-Hebrew script, but the common square script that is still in use today. The church father Jerome (c. 342-420) indicated in his writings that he had seen examples of both script types in Greek scrolls.

When reading scrolls that contained the Paleo-Hebrew script, a Greek reader had little opportunity to blunder, because the script looked like indecipherable scribble; however, when a Greek reader encountered YHVH written in the more modern square script, the chance for error increased substantially. According to Jerome, those who were unfamiliar with Jewish customs tried to pronounce the Hebrew letters as if they were Greek letters. The result was quite a howler: they pronounced YHVH as PIPI![3]  All of us can be grateful that no songs celebrating “PIPI of Hosts” found their way into the pages of our hymnals. I might add that after being called PIPI for several centuries, God probably welcomed the name Jehovah.

As humorous as the origins of PIPI and Jehovah may be, the short supply of Hebraicists in the modern Church is no laughing matter. Alleviating the shortage would certainly produce widespread benefits. A few of them would be:

  1. Better integration of the Hebrew Scriptures into our Christian preaching and teaching;
  2. English translations of the New Testament reflecting a greater sensitivity to the Greek text’s Jewish component;
  3. a deeper reservoir of Hebraic and Judaic expertise from which organizations like the United Bible Societies and Wycliffe Bible Translators could draw, which in turn would make possible more accurate Bible translations for millions of people living in the Third World; and
  4. a more mature handling of the vexing issues surrounding Christianity’s historical and theological relationship with Judaism—which could only improve the relationship between the Church and Synagogue. In the end, if we were to support—both verbally and financially—university students pursuing degrees in Judaic studies, our efforts at preaching, teaching and translating the Bible would be strengthened within a few decades.

To write this article, I have relied upon the following sources:

  • The Anchor Bible Dictionary (chief ed. D. N. Freedman; 6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:1011.
  • Harper’s Bible Dictionary (general ed. P. J. Achtemeier; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 1036.
  • Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (trans. E. Rhodes; 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 4, 21, 158, 190, 192.
  • N. R. M. De Lange, Origen and the Jews (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1976), 59, 181.

  • [1] For a discussion of the pronunciation, meaning and avoidance of God’s personal name, see David Bivin, “‘Jehovah’—A Christian Misunderstanding,” Jerusalem Perspective 35 (Nov./Dec. 1991): 5-6; ibid., “Meaning of the Unutterable Name”: 6; and idem, “Jesus and the Oral Torah: The Unutterable Name of God,” Jerusalem Perspective 5 (Feb. 1988): 1-2. See also Ray Pritz, “The Divine Name in the Hebrew New Testament,” Jerusalem Perspective 31 (Mar./Apr. 1991): 10-12; and David Bivin, “The Fallacy of Sacred Name Bibles,” Jerusalem Perspective 35 (Nov./Dec. 1991): 7, 12.
  • [2] Among the hymns whose writers used the name Jehovah are: “Before Jehovah’s Awe-Full Throne” and “The Lord Jehovah Reigns” (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748); “Sing to the Great Jehovah’s Praise” (Charles Wesley, 1707-1788); and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (William Williams, 1717-1791).
  • [3] Like English, Greek is read from left to right. Hebrew, on the other hand, is read from right to left. When encountering the four Hebrew consonants representing God’s name, a Greek reader would read them in reverse order: heh-vav-heh-yod (HVHY). He then read the heh as pi, the vav as iota, the heh as pi, and the yod as iotaPi-Iota-Pi-Iota spells PIPI (pronounced in English as Pee-Pee).

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  • Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic

    Joseph Frankovic graduated with a Master of Arts degree in American Studies from Northeastern State University. He holds additional degrees in other disciplines, including Biblical Literature, Classical Studies, and Midrash. He earned these degrees at state and private universities and accredited Jewish and Christian seminaries.…
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