Home » Deity of Christ » John 20:28 » The Shema (Deut 6:4) and John 20:28 – Part 2

The Shema (Deut 6:4) and John 20:28 – Part 2



This post is the second of two that examines the John 20:28 in the light of the Shema. The focus of this post will be on whether the Jews pronounced the divine name Yahweh, what substitutes they may have used for it and also what was the importance placed on the Shema in the Jewish culture.

The Shema and the Pronunciation of the Divine Name

The pronunciation of the divine name will comprise the following part of this examination. If the Jews avoided using the name Jahweh/Jehovah and substituted a word such as Lord, then Thomas’ words “Lord and God” would have been closer to the Shema than a simple reading of the Hebrew Masoretic text would suggest. Rather than stating “Yahweh, our God, Yahweh is one” the Jews would have stated “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”.


The Divine Name – Unlawfulness of pronouncing it

Josephus is one writer who has been cited with regards to the Jewish attitude towards pronouncing the divine name. Josephus writes:

(275) Moses having now seen and heard these wonders that assured him of the truth of these promises of God, had no room left him to disbelieve them; he entreated him to grant him that power when he should be in Egypt; and besought him to vouchsafe him the knowledge of his own name; and, since he had heard and seen him, that he would also tell him his name, that when he offered sacrifice he might invoke him by such his name in his oblations. (276) Whereupon God declared to him his holy name, which had never been discovered to men before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more.[1]

For Josephus therefore the divine name was something that was subject to some taboo. It is not entirely clear here whether or not Josephus is referring to the pronunciation of the divine name being unlawful to discuss, however further testimony from other sources seem to indicate that this is what was in mind.


Philo is another source that must be taken into account when looking at ancient Jewish attitudes to pronouncing the name of God. In his work On the Life of Moses Philo states:

(203) But after the punishment of this impious murderer, a new commandment was enacted, which had never before been thought worthy of being reduced to writing; but unexpected innovations cause new laws to be devised for the repression of their evils. At all events, the following law was immediately introduced: “Whoever curses God shall be guilty of sin, and whoever names the name of the Lord shall die.” (204) Well done, O all-wise man! You alone have drunk of the cup of unalloyed wisdom. You have seen that it was worse to name God than even to curse him; for you would never have treated lightly a man who had committed the heaviest of all impieties, and inflicted the heaviest punishment possible on those who committed the slightest faults; but you fixed death, which is the very greatest punishment imaginable, as the penalty for the man who appeared to have committed the heaviest crime.

XXXVIII. (205) But, as it seems, he is not now speaking of that God who was the first being who had any existence, and the Father of the universe, but of those who are accounted gods in the different cities; and they are falsely called gods, being only made by the arts of painters and sculptors, for the whole inhabited world is full of statues and images, and erections of that kind, of whom it is necessary however to abstain from speaking ill, in order that no one of the disciples of Moses may ever become accustomed at all to treat the appellation of God with disrespect; for that name is always most deserving to obtain the victory, and is especially worthy of love.

(206) But if any one were, I will not say to blaspheme against the Lord of gods and men, but were even to dare to utter his name unseasonably, he must endure the punishment of death; (207) for those persons who have a proper respect for their parents do not lightly bring forward the names of their parents, though they are but mortal, but they avoid using their proper names by reason of the reverence which they bear them, and call them rather by the titles indicating their natural relationship, that is, father and mother, by which names they at once intimate the unsurpassable benefits which they have received at their hands, and their own grateful disposition. (208) Therefore these men must not be thought worthy of pardon who out of volubility of tongue have spoken unseasonably, and being too free of their words have repeated carelessly the most holy and divine name of God. [2]


For Philo it is absolutely clear that the naming of God represents an unlawful act; the prohibition of which was designed to prevent a lack of respect for God himself. The severity of this crime is indicated by the severity of the punishment – death for even naming the name of God; the fact that Philo sees this act as unlawful matches the sentiments of Josephus regarding talking of the divine name.


Whilst coming from almost a century after Philo and Josephus, the Mishna also contains evidence that it was considered unlawful to pronounce the divine name of Jahweh

         10:1      A      All Israelites have a share in the world to come,

               B      as it is said, Your people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified (Is. 60:21).

               C      And these are the ones who have no portion in the world to come:

               D      (1) He who says, the resurrection of the dead is a teaching which does not derive from the Torah, (2) and the Torah does not come from Heaven; and (3) an Epicurean.

               E      R. Aqiba says, “Also: He who reads in heretical books,

               F      “and he who whispers over a wound and says, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I have put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you (Ex. 15:26).”

               G      Abba Saul says, “Also: he who pronounces the divine Name as it is spelled out.”[3]

The Mishna here does not reference any human punishment for the sin of pronouncing the divine name, it does however indicate a divine punishment – that of being cut off from the world to come.


In the Mishna, Sanhedrin 7.5 references a human punishment of death that is in line with Philo

7:5       A          He who blasphemes [M. 7:4D1] [Lev. 24:10] is liable only when he will have fully pronounced the divine Name.

            B          Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “On every day of a trial they examine the witnesses with a substituted name, [such as], ‘May Yose smite Yose.”

            C         “[Once] the trial is over, they would not put him to death [on the basis of evidence given] with the euphemism, but they put out everyone and ask the most important of the witnesses, saying to him, ‘Say, what exactly did you hear [in detail]?’

            D         “And he says what he heard.

            E          “And the judges stand on their feet and tear their clothing, and never sew them back up.

            F          “And the second witness says, ‘Also I [heard] what he heard.’

            G         “And the third witness says, ‘Also I [heard] what he heard.’[4]

The Mishna therefore prescribes a two-fold punishment for the one who utters the divine name – death and being cut off from the world to come. The death sentence in Sanhedrin 7:5 is however not totally clear cut as to whether the blasphemy is the act of speaking the divine name or whether it is the act of cursing / misusing the divine name. Arguably Philo here sheds light on the meaning of the Mishna, but this is not necessarily so. Regardless, the misuse of the name of Yahweh is here shown to be something serious, with the Jews being questioned using a proxy for it where possible thus showing a deep reverence for this name.


There is a third implication in the Mishna for using the divine name, and whilst not punitive humanly speaking it is still to be regarded as worthy of a divine punishment. Abot 5.9 states

A plague of wild animals comes into the world because of vain oaths and desecration of the Divine Name.[5]

As with Sanhedrin 7.5 it is not immediately clear whether the “desecration of the divine name” was the pronouncing of Yahweh, or whether it was cursing using it or misusing it in oaths. That this is possible can be seen through the context of vain oaths being linked with the desecration of the divine name; however the word “and” seems to differentiate the two sins being described.




Despite the ambiguity in the words of Josephus mentioned earlier with little context, in the light of Philo and other writers Josephus can be seen to support the contention that even though Jahweh was written in the sacred text, it would not have been pronounced by the common Jew.

The term common Jew was used deliberately in the last paragraph as there do seem to be occasions where the high priest would use the divine name lawfully. Such instances can be found in the Mishna

         6:2      A      He comes to the goat which is to be sent forth and lays his two hands on it and makes the confession.

               B      And thus did he say, “O Lord, your people, the house of Israel, has committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before you.  Forgive, O Lord, I pray, the iniquities, transgressions, and sins, which your people, the house of Israel, have committed, transgressed, and sinned before you,

               C      “as it is written in the Torah of Moses, your servant, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to clean you.  From all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord (Lev. 16:30).”

               D      And the priests and people standing in the courtyard, when they would hear the Expressed Name [of the Lord] come out of the mouth of the high priest, would kneel and bow down and fall on their faces and say, “Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever.[6]

Tamid 3:8 likewise indicates that the divine name would be used by the high priest on the day of atonement:

H         (8) From Jericho did they hear the sound of the shofar

I           There are those who say, “Also the voice of the high priest when he made mention of the divine name on the Day of Atonement.”[7]




Abrahams, referencing Geiger notes that the use of the divine name in the context of the temple worship was not necessarily something that was consistent throughout history.[8]




In summary, the evidence seems to indicate that there was a move away from pronouncing Yahweh/Jehovah by the Jews. This leaves the question – what would have replaced it


The Divine Name – a proxy

That the divine name at the time of the first and second century AD was not lost is highlighted by Singer who notes that the reference provided above in Sanhedrin 7.5 presupposes the knowledge of how to pronounce this name.[9] The question that needs to be answered however is what would have replaced this name in common speech.


Many scholars assert that the word Adonai (Lord) would have been used by the Jews in the place of Yahweh when reading text. The texts of Qumran provide some good evidence as to this practice

Bock cites numerous instances in the Qumranic text of Isaiah (1QISa) that use the word Adonai (Lord) functions as a proxy for Yahweh. Bock notes that:

“In the Isaiah Scroll, יהוה is occasionally altered to אדני, or the dual phrase (יהוה אדני) is reduced to only אדני (1QIsa glosses the Name in 28:16, 30:15, 65:13, by writing above it אדוני; and reduces it in 49:22, 52:4, 61:1). In 1QIsa 50:5, it is replaced with אלוהים. The Name is omitted from 1QIsa 45:8, while in 1QIsa 52:5 and 59:21, it is omitted once when it appears twice in the MT. In 1QIsa 3:17, ואדוני appears for the Name, while 3:15 writes אדוני over the Name. In 1QIsa 40:7 and 42:6, a row of dots appears where the Name would be expected, while in 42:5 the term האלוהים appears instead of the Name. The same occurs in other texts from Qumran as well.”[10]

In the text above אדני/ אדוניis the Hebrew for Adonai (Lord)

This use of Adonai for Yahweh can also be seen in the later Masoretic vowel pointing of the letters YHWH. The vowel pointing contains the vowels for the word adonai.[11] The vowels were however not added to the Hebrew text until long after the Christian era. It is also these vowels that have led some to pronounce the divine name as Jehovah as opposed to Yahweh as early as 1100 but certainly by 1518[12]


The Septuagint can also be found to utilise the term lord in the place of Yahweh in many places e.g.“Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ· Κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν Κύριος εἷς ἐστιν·”[13]  Hear O Israel – The Lord our God is one Lord. This is hardly an isolated instance but is found throughout the Septuagint.

The Κύριος (Lord) designation can also be found in Philo according to Capes. Citing James Royse, Capes notes that Philo cited scripture in the way in which he would have pronounced it.[14] In other words, where he would have read Yahweh in the Hebrew, Philo wrote Lord instead of the tetragrammaton.

Another possibility for the replacement of Yahweh was the Hebrew השם haShem meaning “the name”. This term can be found mirrored with the Aramaic Shema (not to be confused with the shema).[15]

This wording does not seem to have been used when reading the text, but was used to reference the name of Yahweh in other contexts.


The Shema’s Importance in Cultural Context

The Shema in non-biblical sources

According to Davids, the Shema can be seen in a number of non biblical sources such as the Letter of Aristeas 132; Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews 3.91; Philo: On the creation 171, On the Decalogue 65.[16] These non-Biblical sources help to evaluate the importance with which the Shema was held in the first Century.

When looking to these sources it is important to remember the situation that the Jews were in. The Roman Empire, a polytheistic culture, was in control of Israel at that time. The Jews therefore found themselves confronted with claims of many gods and the Israelite cultural identity was challenged. Given this challenge it would have been important for the Jewish people to reinforce their core beliefs that differentiated them from the pagan nations around them. A monotheistic creed was one such way that this could be done and thus would have gained extra importance.

Letter of Aristeas

…For he proved first of all that there is only one God and that his power is manifested throughout the universe, since every place is filled with his sovereignty and none of the things which are wrought in secret by men upon the earth escapes His knowledge[17]

This reference is hardly the clearest reference to the Shema in the ancient literature. Despite this Simpson references it as a possible text that should be considered. There are multiple references in the Old Testament to there only being one God such as Deuteronomy 4:25, Malachi 2:10, 15.



Let us, therefore, fix deeply in ourselves this first commandment as the most sacred of all commandments, to think that there is but one God, the most highest, and to honour him alone; and let not the polytheistical doctrine ever even touch the ears of any man who is accustomed to seek for the truth, with purity and sincerity of heart;[18]

In the second place he teaches us that God is one; having reference here to the assertors of the polytheistic doctrine; men who do not blush to transfer that worst of evil constitutions, ochlocracy, from earth to heaven[19]

The two passages here place the Shema as first and second importance amongst the commandments taught by God. It is interesting to note that contrary to those who see the Shema as monolatrous rather than monotheistic, Philo expressly interprets it in monotheistic tones in his works on the Decalogue and the creation. As indicated above, this monotheistic interpretation is clearly seen as being against the polytheism of the pagan nations and thus reinforcing the Jewish cultural identity.


Referring to the Ten Commandments, Josephus seems to wrap the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 up as the foundation of the first commandment to have no other gods before him.

The first commandment teaches us. That there is but one God, and that we ought to worship him only[20]

Simpson in his work on the Shema lists a number of other authors who cite God as being one.  These do not reference the importance attributed to these sayings and therefore the quotations have been omitted from this study.

Looking at the citations above it is clear that the Shema was seen by these authors as one of the most important statements in Jewish theology. The use of the word “first” when describing the commandments indicates that this is seen as the most important. That this seems to be wrapped up along with the first of the ten commandments in many instances is hardly surprising given the early evidence of the ten commandments being found in conjunction with the Shema in some phylacteries. What is important for this study is the primary place of importance that was allocated to the words of Deuteronomy 6:4, given this it is inconceivable that a Jew such as Thomas would not have been fully aware of this verse and its implications.

The Shema and the New Testament

There are a number of echoes and citations of the Shema in the New Testament that help to show that at the time of Jesus the Shema was well known by the Jewish people.

Matthew 22:37/Mark 12:29/Luke 10:27


Mark 12:29 provides the most direct indication that the Jewish people would have been very familiar with the Shema from the New Testament. The pericope that Mark 12:29 is found in states:

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[21]

Not only does this verse indicate a cultural awareness of the importance of the Shema, the key point for this study is that Jesus ranked it as the first commandment. Jesus was not just a Jew speaking for himself, as a religious teacher with followers who included Thomas, his words would have been carefully noted by his followers especially when he lists them as the most important commandment. For Thomas to completely forget this when seeing Jesus and therefore proclaim him to be his Lord and his God is untenable without thinking of this commandment.

It is also of note that Jesus agrees with Josephus and Philo here. It appears that Josephus and Philo were not just speaking on behalf of the upper class but that this may have filtered down to the common people.


The parallel verses in Matthew and Luke to Mark 12:28ff do not contain the words “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” instead they pick up from Deuteronomy 6:5. These words however would have been known as the start of the Shema and so it was not always necessary to repeat them – the audience could be relied upon to mentally supply this information. It is also interesting that the reference to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 are placed into the mouth of the Jewish interlocutor in Luke 10:27. Whilst posing an interesting question for the harmonization of scripture the fact that both the teacher of the law and Jesus affirm the Shema as the greatest commandment is significant for this study.


James 2:19


James 2:19 is often seen as a text that is reflecting the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4. James 2:19 states:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder![22]

According to James 2:19 then, God is one. Rather than rendering the text as Lord as does the Septuagint James has substituted the word God for Lord here and placed the word “one” at the front of the clause to make it more prominent.

McKnight notes that there are further parallels in the verses surrounding James 2:19. There are promises for those who love God which McKnight sees as paralleling Deuteronomy 6:5. Furthermore there is an injunction to love one’s neighbour as yourself.  Placing these elements together there is a representation of Jesus’ first and second most important commandments. [23] This bolsters the case that the disciples had taken note of Jesus’ words recorded in Mark 12:19.

The Shema and John 20:28


Following the examination in these two posts a summary can be made as follows:

  1. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus probably recited the Shema twice a day. Later Jewish reasoning in the Mishna saw this as the first text that should be cited thus highlighting its importance.
  2. Jewish phylacteries at the time of Jesus contained the Shema. The Shema would later be deemed only one of four sections of scripture that could be included in the phylacteries; at the time of Jesus it was one of a slightly wider range of texts.
  3. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus saw the Shema as being an important creed for their cultural identity amongst pagan nations. This is evidenced by Josephus, Philo and the Letter of Aristeas.
  4. The Shema at the time of Jesus was interpreted as a monotheistic text as is evidenced by Philo and Mark 12:28ff
  5. The Jews at the time of Jesus avoided pronouncing Yahweh and often substituted other words for this; Lord was one such word.
  6. Jesus affirmed the Shema as the most important command. His followers would have taken careful note of this
  7. Thomas used the language contained in the Shema and applied this language to Jesus

Given the reasoning above, the notion that Thomas simply forgot the exclusivity of the Shema and used its language for Jesus is inconceivable. Thomas, as explained in other blog posts here had ample time to prepare his mind for his encounter with Jesus. This is not some mere vocal ejaculation but instead is a sombre confession of faith in his Lord and God Jesus Christ.

[1] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). Antiquities 2.12.275-276 The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.


[2] Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). On the Life of Moses 2:203-208 The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 509). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

[3] Neusner, J. (1988). Sanhedrin 10.1 The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 604). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Neusner, J. (1988). Sanhedrin 7.5 The Mishnah : A new translation (pp. 597–598). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[5] Neusner, J. (1988). Abot 5.9 –  The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 687). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[6] Neusner, J. (1988). Yoma 6:2 – The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 275). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[7] Neusner, J. (1988). Tamid 3:8 – The Mishnah : A new translation (p. 867). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[8] Abrahams, I. (1977). Jews, Judaism, and the classical world: studies in Jewish history in the times of the Second Temple and Talmud (p. 242). Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

[9] Singer, I. (Ed.). (1901–1906). In The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (Vol. 11, p. 263). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.

[10] Bock, D. (2007). Blasphemy and the Jewish Examination of Jesus, 73.

[11] Rose, M. (1992). Names of God in the OT. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 4, p. 1010). New York: Doubleday.

[12] Thompson, H. O. (1992). Yahweh (Deity). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6, p. 1011). New York: Doubleday.

[13] Swete, H. B. (1909). The Old Testament in Greek: According to the Septuagint (Dt 6:4). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[14] Capes, D. B. (2004). YHWH Texts and Monotheism in Paul’s Christology. In Early Jewish and Christian monotheism (p. 122). London; New York: T&T Clark.

[15] Singer, I. (Ed.). (1901–1906). In The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (Vol. 11, p. 263). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.

[16] Davids, P. H. (1982). The Epistle of James: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 125). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[17] Charles, R. H. (Ed.). (2004). Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Vol. 2, p. 107). Letter of Aristeas – 132. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[18] Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). The Decalogue – 65.  The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 524). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

[19] Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). On the Creation – 171. The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 24). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

[20] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). Antiquities 3.5.91 The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

[21] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mk 12:28–33). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[22] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 2:19). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[23] McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James (p. 241). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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