Modern Catholic Views on the Use of the Tetragrammaton

1. Letter to the Bishops Conferences on The Name of God

On June 29, 2008, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote to the presidents of all conferences of bishops, prohibiting use of the term Yahweh in the liturgy, particularly in hymns and Psalm translations.

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Prot. no. 213/08/L

Your Eminence / Your Excellency,

By directive of the Holy Father, in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments deems it convenient to communicate to the bishops' conferences the following as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine Name signified in the sacred tetragrammaton, along with a number of directives.

I. Exposition

1. The words of Sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place. They are the Word of God expressed in human words. By means of these words of life, the Holy Spirit introduces the faithful to knowledge of the truth, whole and entire; and thus the Word Christ comes to dwell in the faithful in all its richness (cf. Jn 14:26; 16:12-15.) In order that the Word of God, written in the sacred texts, may be conserved and transmitted in an integral and faithful manner, every modern translation of the books of the Bible aims at being a faithful and accurate transposition of the original texts. Such a literary effort requires that the original text be translated with maximum integrity and accuracy, without omissions or additions with regard to the contents and without introducing explanatory glosses or paraphrases which do not belong to the sacred text itself.

As regards the sacred name of God himself, translators must use the greatest faithfulness and respect. In particular, as the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (n. 41) states:

In accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above- mentioned Septuagint version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning.

[Iuxta traditionem ab immemorabili receptam, immo in (...) versione “LXX virorum” iam perspicuam, nomen Dei omnipotentis, sacro tetragrammate hebaraice expressum, latine vocabulo “Dominus” in quavis lingua populari vocabulo quodam eiusdem significationis reddatur.]

Notwithstanding such a clear norm, in recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel's proper name, known as the holy or divine tetragrammaton, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in form יהוה, YHWH. The practice of vocalizing it is met with both in the reading of biblical texts taken from the lectionary, as well as in prayers and hymns. It occurs in diverse written and spoken forms, for example, Yahweh, Yahwè, Jahweh, Jahwe, Jave, Yehovah, etc. It is therefore our intention, with the present letter, to set out some essential facts which lie behind the above-mentioned norm and to establish some directives to be observed in this matter.

2. The venerable biblical tradition of Sacred Scripture, known as the Old Testament, displays a series of divine appellations, among which is the sacred name of God revealed in the tetragrammaton YHWH יהוה. As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of Sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: Adonai, which means “Lord.”

The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint, dating back to the last centuries prior to the Christian era, had regularly rendered the Hebrew tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, which means “Lord.” Since the text of the Septuagint constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek-speaking Christians, in which language all the books of the New Testament were also written, these Christians, too, from the beginning never pronounced the divine tetragrammaton. Something similar happened likewise for Latin-speaking Christians, whose literature began to emerge from the second century, as first the Vetus Latina and, later, the Vulgate of St. Jerome attest. In these translations, too, the tetragrammaton was regularly replaced with the Latin word Dominus, corresponding both to the Hebrew Adonai and to the Greek Kyrios. The same holds for the recent Neo-Vulgate which the Church employs in the liturgy.

This fact has had important implications for New Testament Christology itself. When in fact St. Paul, with regard to the crucifixion, writes that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:9), he does not mean any name other than “Lord,” for he continues by saying, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11; cf. Is 42:8: “I am the Lord; that is my name.”) The attribution of this title to the risen Christ corresponds exactly to the proclamation of his divinity. The title in fact becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith, even though it is not in fact one of the titles used for the Messiah of Israel. In the strictly theological sense, this title is found, for example, already in the first canonical Gospel (cf. Mt 1:20: “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.”) One sees it as a rule in Old Testament citations in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:20): “The sun shall be turned into darkness. . . before the day of the Lord comes” (Joel 3:4); 1 Peter 1:25: “The word of the Lord abides for ever” (Is 40:8). However, in the properly Christological sense, apart from the text cited of Philippians 2:9-11, one can remember Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”), 1 Corinthians 2:8 (“they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”), 1 Corinthians 12:3 (“No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit”) and the frequent formula concerning the Christian who lives “in the Lord” (Rom 16:2; 1 Cor 7:22, 1 Thes 3:8; etc).

3. Avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own rationale. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.

II. Directives

In light of what has just been expounded, the following directives are to be observed:

1. In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced.

2. For the translation of the biblical text in modern languages, intended for the liturgical usage of the Church, what is already prescribed by n. 41 of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam is to be followed; that is, the divine tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios; “Lord,” Signore, Seigneur, Herr, Señor, etc.

3. In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present, one after the other, either the Hebrew term Adonai or the tetragrammaton YHWH, Adonai is to be translated “Lord” and the word “God” is to be used for the tetragrammaton YHWH, similar to what happens in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin translation of the Vulgate.

From the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 June 2008.

Francis Cardinal Arinze

Albert Malcolm Ranjith
Archbishop Secretary

2. Pope Benedict XVI on the Divine Name

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (translation of Einführung in das Christentum, 1968; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) pp. 126-28.

Since Yahweh, as we have seen, is explained as the “God of our fathers,” the Yahweh-faith automatically absorbs the whole context of the faith of Israel’s fathers, though this context at the same time acquires a new coherence and a new look. But what is the specifically new element expressed by [p. 127] the name “Yahweh?” The answers to this question are numerous; the precise meaning of the formulas in Exodus 3 can no longer be ascertained with certainty. Nevertheless, two aspects emerge clearly. We have already established that to our way of thinking the mere fact that God bears a name, and thereby appears as a kind of individual, is a scandal. But if we look more closely at the text we are considering the question arises: Is it, properly speaking, really a name? This question may at first seem nonsensical, for it is indisputable that Israel knew the word Yahweh as a name for God. Yet a careful reading shows that the thornbush scene expounds this name in such a way that as a name it seems to be absolutely cancelled out; in any case it moves out of the series of appellations of divinities to which it at first seems to belong. Let us listen once again carefully. Moses says: “The children of Israel, to whom you send me, will ask, ‘Who is the God who sends you? What is he called?’ What shall I then say to them?” We are next told that God replied: “I AM WHO I AM.” The words could also be translated, “I am what I am.” This really looks like a rebuff; it seems much more like a refusal to give a name than the announcement of a name. In the whole scene there is a sense of displeasure at such importunity: I am just who I am. The idea that here no name is really given and that the question is rejected acquires additional probability when a comparison is made with the two passages that could be adduced as the best parallels to our text: Judges 13:18 and Genesis 32:30. In Judges 13:18 a certain Manoah asks the God who meets him for his name. The answer he is given is: “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is a secret?” (Another possible translation is, “seeing it is wonderful.”) A name is not given. In Genesis 32:30, it is Jacob who, after his nocturnal struggle with the stranger, asks his name and receives only the discouraging answer, “Why is it that you ask my name?” [p. 128] Both passages are linguistically and in general construction very closely related to our text, so that it is hardly disputable that there is also an affinity in the thought. Here again we have the gesture of repulse. The God with whom Moses deals in the burning bush cannot give his name in the same way as the gods round about, who are individual gods alongside other similar gods and therefore need a name. The God of the burning bush will not put himself on a level with them.

In the gesture of rebuf we have come upon here there is a hint of a God who is entirely different from “the gods.” The explanation of the name Yahweh by the little word “am” thus serves as a kind of negative theology. It cancels out the significance of the name as a name; it effects a sort of withdrawal from the only too well known, which the name seems to be, into the unknown, the hidden. It dissolves the name into mystery, so that the familiarity and unfamiliarity of God, concealment and revelation, are indicated simultaneously. The name, a sign of acquaintance, becomes the cipher for the perpetually unknown and unnamed quality of God. Contrary to the view that God can here be grasped, so to speak, the persistence of an infinite distance is in this way made quite clear. To this extent it was in the last analysis a legitimate development that led people in Israel more and more to avoid pronouncing this name, to use some sort of periphrasis, so that in the Greek Bible it no longer occurs at all but is simply replaced by the word “Lord.” This development shows in many ways a more accurate understanding of the mystery of the burning bush than multifarious learned philological explanations do.