by Luke Wayne
The Jehovah's Witnesses frequently insert the name "Jehovah" into the New Testament in places that the Greek manuscripts contain the word "kurios" (which actually means "master" or "Lord"). They justify this practice by claiming that the original New Testament contained the Hebrew name YHWH (which they translate as Jehovah) but that the early scribes changed this name to "kurios" when they were copying it. Due to the many early Greek manuscripts and translations of the New Testament that all use "Lord" instead of Jehovah, as well as many quotes from the New Testament in other early writings that agree with the manuscripts, the Jehovah's Witness theory is all but impossible to support historically. They have, however, found one historical source that they believe supports them in their claim:
"The Tosefta, a written collection of oral laws that was completed by about 300 C.E., says with regard to Christian writings that were burned on the Sabbath: 'The books of the Evangelists and the books of the minim [thought to be Jewish Christians] they do not save from a fire. But they are allowed to burn where they are, they and the references to the Divine Name which are in them.'"1
The Tosefta is similar to the Mishna, though the Tosefta was written about a century later. It is a collection of Rabbinic interpretations and applications of Old Testament laws and ritual practices. As is often the case, the Jehovah's Witness publication does not give a specific citation where one could easily look up their source and examine it in context. Their translation is also somewhat interpretive, slanted to make the reference sound clearer than it is. The passage they are referencing is found in the Tosefta in Shabbat 13:5. It is also preserved in the Babylonian Talmud at Shabbat 116A and in the Jerusalem Talmud at Shabbat 15C. "Shabbat" means "Sabbath," and as one might expect, it is part of a collection of regulations on what could and what could not be done on the Sabbath.
The specific context of this passage is the proper handling and disposing of manuscripts on the Sabbath. Some interesting questions come up. Can one rescue a scroll from a fire on the Sabbath, or is that "work" and thus forbidden? What if it's a scroll of the Torah (the Law of Moses)? What if it's an old and unreadable Torah scroll that no one uses anymore? What if it's a foreign translation? Many possibilities are discussed and weighed out. In this context, the writings of the "minim" are also addressed. Should they be rescued from the fire out of regard for the divine name, or should they burn because they are sectarian? Generally speaking, the word "minim" refers to sectarians of any kind. Sadducees could be called "minim," as could Samaritans who were not Jews but who worshiped YHWH and used a modified version of the Torah. Christians who maintained a Jewish identity would be labeled "minim," as would Jewish pseudo-Christian heretical groups like the Ebionites. This passages, thus, has been interpreted a variety of ways. Are the books of the minim sectarian versions of the Torah? Are they writings that quote from the Torah? Are they apocryphal scriptures that use the divine name? Scholars do not agree. Who are the Minim themselves? Sectarians in general? Samaritans? Jewish Christians? Ebionites? Some otherwise unknown sect of the day? Again, scholars do not agree. This passage is clear that there were "minim" that possessed books that used the Divine Name, but the passage does not define the details of these sects or their books. It is popular, however, to interpret them to be some kind of Jewish Christian group, so let's assume that for a moment. What does it prove? Properly translated and read in context, absolutely nothing in this passage would suggest that copies of the Greek New Testament are in view. Old Testament manuscripts, sectarian writings, interpretive Hebrew translations of Greek Christian texts, or even the many Hebrew and Aramaic apocryphal gospels that early Church writers frequently mention are all far more likely in this context than Greek New Testament manuscripts. This passage does nothing to overthrow the vast early testimony that the New Testament writers used the word "Lord" rather than the name "YHWH" in their writings, which would not be uncommon for Jewish writers of their day.
Even more, our earliest manuscripts of the Shabbat tractate in the Tosefta or the Talmud are not until the middle ages, a thousand years after it was written. The Mishna, which contains the earliest form of the Shabbat tractate (and also has the earliest manuscripts) does not include this passage. Now, don't get me wrong here. I think the passage is almost certainly ancient and part of the original Tosefta, but think about what that means. If one is going to accept that this passage has been properly preserved on that kind of manuscript evidence, it would be absurd to assume that the New Testament documents have been so radically altered when they possess far earlier, more numerous, and diverse witnesses!
The Shabbat tractate certainly is a valuable testimony to the Jews' sacred view of the Divine Name and their attitude toward those they perceived as sectarians. It may well even point to the fact that some early Jewish Christian groups still used the Divine Name in their writings. This would not be at all surprising. In fact, many Christian hymns through the ages have used name Jehovah, and many Christian Bibles have translated YWHW in the Old Testament as "Jehovah" or as "Yahweh." Christians do not flee from using and revering God's name, but we do seek to honor God's word by translating it as He chose to reveal it rather than altering it to suit the imbalance of our own traditions. God inspired the New Testament writings without using the name YHWH. Any agenda that requires us to add into the Bible what God Himself left out so as to "restore the truth" is unbiblical and is not Christian.
- 1. New World Translation: 2013 revision, Appendix A5