Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

My Photo
Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


We do not know the name of God. When Moses asked God his name, God answered, “I am that I am.” When the Hebrew scribes wrote this down, they just recorded the consonants. When markings were added to Hebrew writing to indicate the vowels, they used the vowels from a different word so that no one would say the real name of God by mistake. So we have God, AKA Jehovah, DBA (Doing Business As) Yaweh. Moslems use the alias Allah. There are hundreds of other names in use around the world and none of them are the real name of God. God isn't the real name either.

Likewise, we do not even know our own names. In Revelation we are told that we will receive a stone with a name on it that no one knows. (Revelation 2:17) This is our true name but we don't know it until we receive it from God..

Barclay says that one of the privileges of a Christian is to know the voice of God (by whatever name.) He is drawing on images from the Gospel of John where Jesus says that he is the shepherd and his sheep know his voice and will follow no other. (John 10:1-6)

If we listen to the voice of God we will sometimes be told things we do not want to hear, be shown things we don't want to see and be asked to do things we don't want to do. If we do these things, there is no guarantee that we will be safe, or that everything will work out. What we are promised is that if we follow the promptings and leadings of the voice within, the voice of the Shepherd, that God will be with us, what ever might happen.

And that is the blessing of good old what's his name, God.

Will T


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Will, I'm curious. If you genuinely believe we do not know God's name, how do you deal with John 14:13-14 and 16:23-24? How do you deal with Matthew 18:19-20? And how do you explain Matthew 6:9?

For whatever it may be worth, it seems to me that God's true name is quite knowable, and that many of us do know it. I note that our old Friend Isaac Penington thought the same.

February 02, 2008 10:37 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Good question. The passages you cite (except Matthew 6:9) are all cases where Jesus is saying whatever you ask of God in my name will be granted to you. Of course we know the name of Jesus, and we even give him a title, Christ. So we can ask in the name of Jesus Christ but that doesn't provide us with the name of God the Father. Matthew 6:9 is the opening of the Lord's prayer, "Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." This prayer mentions a relationship, father, and it says that God's name is holy, but it doesn't say what it is.

The Hebrews believed that a name contained, in some way, the essence of the thing named. That is why they were so scrupulous about not saying the name or writing it. While we may not subscribe to that idea today, when we name something we, in some way, stop thinking about it. It becomes just another mental construct that we can manipulate. But our minds can never encompass all of God so it is presumptuous to think we can. Better to be constantly aware that the words or phrases we use to signify the Divine are, of necessity, always partial and inadequate.

Even Jesus as the incarnation of God did not encompass all of God. When God came to Moses, he appeared as three people.

I hope this clarifies things for you.


February 03, 2008 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Hmm. So your understanding is that when Jesus said, "Whatever you ask for in my name, you will get it," he meant the outward name "Jesus" and not any inward, spiritual thing identical to the name of God of the Father? That would seem to make "Jesus" a magic word like "Abracadabra" or "Hocus-pocus": say it and miracles happen!

That may be so, and certainly a lot of modern evangelicals seem to think that it is so, but it doesn't feel right to me.

I also don't share your understanding of "why the Hebrews were so scrupulous about not saying the name or writing it". They certainly wrote it at many, many places in their scriptures: every place in the Old Testament where your English-language Bible says "LORD" or "GOD" in capital letters, the original Hebrew text has "YHWH". And as for "not saying it" (meaning, substituting the title "Adonai" for "YHWH"), that is a later practice, certainly present in later Jewish (post-exilic) times, but it is not provably present in Hebrew (pre-exilic) times.

February 05, 2008 7:54 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

My understanding is that I don't know what Jesus meant when he said "Ask in my name." Does it mean, ask on my authority like when a police officer says "Stop in the name of the law?" Does it mean, "Charge this to Jesus' account?" Maybe there is a spiritual name for Jesus that is the same as that of the Father but I don't know it. Do you? If not we are back at my original proposition. We don't know the name of God.

As for YHWH, what I have heard is that when the Hebrew scribes added the points to indicate the vowels, they pointed it with vowels from Adonai. I am not enough of an Old Testament scholar to know when this happened. Now I don't know what the magic was that allowed ancient Hebrews to know a word without the vowels - except if it was a word that they had heard spoken. So do modern scholars think they know what the original vowels are? Even if we do, is that the real name of God or just another alias?

Most of the time God identifies himself it is not by name but as "the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob." God seems to mostly identify himself by relationship.


February 05, 2008 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Hello again, Will --

The matters you raise in your latest comment are big enough that I'm not sure I can comment properly on them in the limited space of a comment to your blog.

Let me start by sharing what little I know regarding the three easiest.

First, you write, "Most of the time God identifies himself it is not by name but as "the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob." God seems to mostly identify himself by relationship."

I don't know if that's true; I haven't done a count. But I do know that John L. McKenzie, one of the great Biblical scholars of the twentieth century, and a man who actually did count the number of times different terms and titles appeared in the Bible, wrote in his Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1965), "The God of Israel is called by His personal name [YHWH] more frequently than by all other titles combined...." (p. 316)

Second, you write, "As for YHWH, what I have heard is that when the Hebrew scribes added the points to indicate the vowels, they pointed it with vowels from Adonai. I am not enough of an Old Testament scholar to know when this happened."

Again I can quote McKenzie, from the same text: "The name is now pronounced Yahweh by scholars; the true pronunciation of the name was lost during Judaism [he means, in post-exilic times] when a superstitious fear of the name prevented its enunciation. In its place was read Adonai, 'Lord'; the combination in writing of the consonants YHWH and the vowels of Adonai, a-o-a, created the hybrid Jehovah of the English Bibles."

Third, you write, "...I don't know what the magic was that allowed ancient Hebrews to know a word without the vowels - except if it was a word that they had heard spoken."

Here my understanding matches yours. The fact that written Hebrew omitted vowels made it a kind of shorthand: it didn't always settle which word was signified by a given combination of letters, but it enabled someone who already knew the text to recall it from memory.

And here we might recall that the older texts in the Hebrew Bible — including the texts that introduced YHWH as God's Holy Name — began their lives as oral tradition, and persevered as oral tradition for many generations, indeed for many centuries, before being written down. So the human memory of the Hebrews was very much engaged in the preservation of these texts before they were written down, and it should not surprise us that it continued to be engaged to some extent even after the Hebrews committed the texts to writing.

The problem then becomes what happens when memory is interrupted. There is solid historical evidence that it was interrupted during the Babylonian exile, to the extent that the Law had to be rediscovered in manuscript form after the Jews' return to Jerusalem. Further interruptions came in the course of the Diaspora.

Everything we might say about the true original pronunciation of YHWH, or about its true original meaning and significance, is reconstruction, of the sort we need to mentally encase in question marks to remind ourselves that historical reconstructions, even when done by great scholars, are frequently in error.

I'll try to address the remaining points you raise some time in the next few days.

February 06, 2008 7:44 AM  
Blogger Will T said...


I will defer to John L. McKenzie as he has actually counted and I haven't. I was speaking from my impression. So on the minor issues we seem to be in fair agreement now. I am still curious about your statement in your first comment that "God's true name is quite knowable." could you elaborate more on that? At first I thought that you were referring to the name Jesus Christ and that was what I responded to. Now I suspect that you mean something somewhat different. You can take your time to reply. I will be leaving on Friday for the FUM General Board meeting so I don't expect to have a chance to respond before early next week.

If you have more to say than will fit in a comment, you can email it to me and I will post it as a guest post if you wish. My address is wt33 'at'

Will T

February 06, 2008 8:23 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Before I answer your question as to why I say God's name is quite knowable, I'm really feeling drawn to address the more literalist theories about what Jesus meant by "his name". Can you bear with me while I do so?

You wrote, "...I don't know what Jesus meant when he said 'Ask in my name.' Does it mean, ask on my authority like when a police officer says 'Stop in the name of the law?'"

From what I've learned in my research over the years, many very respectable modern scholars do believe it means something like that.

If this really is what Christ meant, then his meaning was probably tied to the prevailing social structure in the Mediterranean world, where most everything was (and in many areas, still is) owned, and controlled, by tribes and clans — so that whatever power and security you had in the area where you lived was dependent on your connection to the head of the locally powerful tribe or clan. The best thing in such a situation was to be an actual son and heir of a major clan's leader, which happened if you were either born as his natural son, or else if you were (like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius) adopted by him as a foster son. Either way — natural or adopted — you wound up having, or taking, the name of the clan as your own. This is what Paul was using as a metaphor when he wrote of Christians as being God's children by adoption.

In such a situation, speaking the literal name of the chief whose son you were, had power to cow all sorts of opposition.

For example: in order to annex a region to his king's domains, a European explorer had to actually say the formula out loud: "I claim this land in the name of King So-and-so of Spain (or England, or whatever)." If he didn't make the identity of the king involved explicit, the claim was unlikely to carry any weight. But if he could say, "I do whatever I do in the name of the King of Spain" — well, that carried an awesome freight of worldly power.

Here we might recall that the water and waves of the Sea of Galilee, and the storm overhead, were stilled at Jesus Christ's command because he, as the natural (not adopted) Son of God, had God's power to back him up. The forces of nature obeyed him because they knew whose Son he was. That beats a career of doing things in the name of the King of Spain, hands down.

The book of Acts records several instances of apostles working miracles "in the name of Jesus", including the miracle of taking away life (5:1-11) and the miracles of granting life and healing it (3:6; 9:34,40). The force of life, the very breath of life, obeyed the disciples because it knew Whose adopted sons they were.

But there does seem to be modern evidence to the effect that an ordinary person can ask for something, saying Jesus's name out loud, and still not get it. (How many of us tried for the proverbial pony or something similar in our prayers when we were kids, even invoking Jesus's name, and still didn't get it?) And so, when modern scholars (and evangelicals) express support for this understanding of John 14:13-14, Matthew 18:19-20, and similar passages, they seem driven to invoke some further condition, or conditions, to explain why some people have indeed gotten what they've asked for in Jesus's name, while others, despite the Gospel promise, have not.

Is the problem here a lack of sufficient "faith", sufficient belief? That's one possibility. As Christ put it: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Move over!' and it would do so." (Matthew 17:20) But this teaching doesn't add that one has to tell the mountain, "I ask it in Jesus's name." So if one has sufficient belief, does one have to say "Jesus" too? Maybe if "Jesus" is the magic word, like "abracadra" for a magician or "please" for our parents. But did Jesus really come in the flesh to teach us magic words?

When Peter walked on water (Matthew 14:28-32), he did address Jesus as "Lord". But I see no indication in the text that what made a walk on water possible was his asking "in Jesus's name". When he began sinking, Jesus criticized him only for lack of faith, not for failing to say a magic word.

Then there are those who handle the problem a little differently, arguing that the link to the Lord has to go beyond invoking his name alone, even beyond belief alone, in order to make miracles possible; one has to be linked to the Lord in other, deeper and more meaningful ways to make any invocation of his power work.

Here is how the eminent Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown puts it in his Anchor Bible commentary on John 14:13-14:

...Johannine theology has introduced into prayer in Jesus' name an emphasis that goes beyond the use of a formula. ....The theme of asking 'in my name' in xiv 13-14 continues and develops the indwelling motif of [verses] 10-11: because the Christian is in union with Jesus and Jesus is in union with the Father, there can be no doubt that the Christian's requests will be granted. This context of union with Jesus also suggests that the requests of the Christian are now no longer thought of as requests concerning the petty things of life — they are requests of such a nature that when they are granted the Father is glorified in the Son ([verse] 13). They are requests pertinent to the Christian life and to the continuation of the work by which Jesus glorified the Father during his ministry (xvii 4)."

So in Brown's view, the asking "in Jesus's name" works if and when the disciple not only invokes Jesus's name but also unites with his spirit and seeks that his will be done.

But as with belief, the problem I see here is that fulfilling the postulated second condition seems to make the saying of the name Jesus superfluous. What need to say the name at all, if unity with Christ's spirit and will is what actually makes the difference?

A further survey of the Bible only strengthens this question. Matthew 6:7-10 and Luke 11:9-13 make no mention of any need to invoke Jesus's name in one's asking. Neither does the Lord's Prayer. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 explicitly criticizes those "fools" who use unnecessary words in prayer; and Jesus echoes and reaffirms this criticism in Matthew 6:7 (and perhaps Matthew 12:36 as well).

This sort of explanation of Christ's meaning in John 14:13-14 and similar verses, then, seems problematic to me. Even leaving aside the traditional Quaker counter-argument that Christ did not come to teach mere hocus-pocus, there seems to be no way to use this logic to understand why, and how, using Jesus's name in petition would make a difference in and of itself. And if it makes no difference in and of itself, then why did Jesus recommend the practice?

My hope, in my next comment, is to discuss some alternative explanations.

February 07, 2008 8:18 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Yes I can bear with you, especially if you continue to be as well reasoned and thought out as you are so far. I look forward to hearing your alternative explanations.

Will T

February 07, 2008 8:44 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Will, I apologize for neglecting this conversation so long. (I notice it's been a full month.) My time at the moment is totally consumed with preparing for a workshop I'll be leading next weekend at New York Yearly Meeting's Powell House. I'll try to conclude this conversation on my return.

March 07, 2008 12:16 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home