It’s plausible that the New Testament authors upheld the tradition of kurios as a centuries-old tradition that people were accustomed to using to refer to God in a personal way. Since they were trying to communicate clearly to a wide range of listeners, some of whom didn’t speak Hebrew and were already familiar with calling the God of Israel kurios, they kept it as a convention for avoiding confusion in their message.
We know that the inhibition for pronouncing God’s name came before Christianity, although we don’t know how widespread it was. It’s possible that rendering the divine name as “Lord” (kurios) had already been a strong tradition for centuries by the time we get to Jesus and the apostles. What’s clear is that the New Testament manuscripts we have all follow the tradition that the Septuagint set, which was to substitute the title “Lord” (kurios) for God’s name (YHWH). So, the fact that the New Testament never uses God’s personal name as revealed in the Old Testament, or even an approximation of it, is crucial.
Why did the New Testament authors choose to do this? Was it because they thought God’s name was too sacred to write out in Greek transliteration and feared that God might strike them down if they did so? Or, had its pronunciation already been forgotten to history? Were they afraid that the Jews might be angry about it? Or, was it some other reason(s)? The writers never tell us why, so everything that follows here is speculation. Nevertheless, it’s an honest attempt to grapple with the issue.
The New Testament Authors Knew the Old Testament
Because the New Testament authors knew their Hebrew Bible better than we do, it’s highly unlikely that they were ignorant of God’s desire expressed in Exodus 3:15, the way David and the prophets freely spoke to God, calling him by name, and other passages we looked at in part 1 of this series. So, it’s safe to say that they didn’t consider God’s name too sacred to use in transliteration. Finally, we can eliminate the idea that they did so out of fear of the Jews, since they consciously did many other things that infuriated the Jews and brought persecution on them. So, let’s explore some other possibilities.
The Influence of the Septuagint
First, it should be understood that the Septuagint became the standard for Jewish communities that were forgetting Hebrew in the midst of a world increasingly dominated by other languages like Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. The New Testament writers quoted from the Septuagint extensively, and it was a beloved text to the early Church. When a text is used as a standard for centuries like the Septuagint was, many things become ingrained in tradition.
So it’s highly probable that the Septuagint’s use of the title kurios in the place of God’s name came to be a strong tradition in many circles. And because of this, it’s also probable that kurios came to be treated as a proper name, even though it’s not technically or lexically accurate to call it a name. (A modern example of a proper name would be “Joe,” and his title is “Mr. President”) If a community treats a title like a proper name for long enough, it will inevitably begin to feel like a proper name. Subsequent generations will continue to use it, not because they believe it’s wrong to pronounce the actual name, but simply because it feels like God’s name. This has happened in English and many other languages with the title “the Lord.”
So it’s plausible that the New Testament authors upheld the tradition of kurios as a centuries-old tradition that people were accustomed to using to refer to God in a personal way. Since they were trying to communicate clearly to a wide range of listeners, some of whom didn’t speak Hebrew and were already familiar with calling the God of Israel kurios, they kept it as a convention for avoiding confusion in their message.