|Bible Research > Interpretation > Tetragrammaton|
Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. Exodus 3:14, LXX.
Πρὸ τοῦ ὄρη γενηθῆναι,
καὶ πλασθῆναι τὴν γῆν καὶ τὴν οἰκουμένην,
καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος,
Σὺ Εἶ. Psalm 90:2, LXX.
The word יהוה is used as a name for the God of Israel nearly seven thousand times in the Hebrew Bible. Theologians call it the tetragrammaton. 1 In this article I will discuss its etymology, various opinions about its significance, and its translation in several ancient and modern versions.
Our starting point is the Bible’s own explanation of the meaning of the tetragrammaton in the third chapter of the Book of Exodus. We will begin with an English version of verses 13 to 15. The New King James Version reads as follows:
13 Then Moses said to God, Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they say to me, What is His name? what shall I say to them? 14 And God said to Moses, i am who i am (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה). And He said, Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, i am (אֶהְיֶה) has sent me to you. 15 Moreover God said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: The Lord (יהוה) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.
Here, as in most English versions, we find יהוה represented by the English word “Lord.” But this is not a translation of יהוה, it is a kind of substitution, which obscures the fact that the passage is making an etymological connection between the word אֶהְיֶה “I am” and יהוה “he is” or “he who is.” Although the ordinary third person singular would be יהיה, the word יהוה is understood to be an archaic form of the same. Clearly the meaning of the name is here being explained in those terms. Why then do the English versions give us “the Lord,” which seems to convey nothing like the meaning assigned to the Name here?
In this the English versions are following an ancient tradition, which was also observed by the writers of the New Testament. Long before the birth of Christ it had become customary among Jews to avoid pronouncing the sacred Name by substituting אֲדֹנָי (Adonai, meaning “Lord”) for יהוה when the Hebrew text was read aloud, and the Greek equivalent to this is κύριος. And so we find in the Greek New Testament κύριος used in quotations from the Old Testament, where the Hebrew has יהוה.
Why did the Jews avoid saying the Name? Many have described this as a kind of superstitious taboo, but the custom probably sprung from a proper and salutary instinct of reverence. In all times and places, people have used titles rather than names when speaking of persons in authority. Every child knows better than to call his father by his name. Another consideration is that, during the Exile, the Jews had to live among Gentiles who might speak disrespectfully about the Holy One of Israel, and it would have been especially hard for the Jews to tolerate such blasphemy if the very Name of God were used. So it would be best if the Gentiles did not even know it. Another problem was the opposite tendency of some to invoke the Name presumptuously in magical spells, as if they could control God by uttering his name. We know that this was very commonly done with the names of deities in ancient times. There was also an entirely legitimate concern to keep people from violating the commandment against “taking the name of the Lord in vain” in oaths and curses. The prohibition of speaking the Name would have served all these good purposes.
The custom of the Second Temple period (535 b.c. to 70 a.d.) may be seen in some remarks made by Philo of Alexandria. In a description of the head-dress of the high priest, which bore the words קדש ליהוה (“holy to יהוה,” cf. Exodus 28:36; 39:30), he mentions that only the pure in the holy place (i.e. the Temple of Jerusalem) were permitted to pronounce or hear the Name: “And a golden leaf was wrought like a crown, having engraved on it the four [letters] of the name which only those whose ears and tongues are purified unto wisdom may hear or speak in the holy place, and by no one else at all in any place whatever.” 2 This agrees with several statements recorded in the Talmud, in which it is said that the Name was spoken only by priests in the Temple. 3
The first Greek translations of the Hebrew books, collectively known as the Septuagint, reflect this custom in various ways. In some ancient manuscripts of the Greek version the tetragrammaton is neither translated nor transliterated, but given in Hebrew characters (without vowels). This effectively hides the pronunciation from those who are not already familiar with it. Jerome mentions that he had seen such manuscripts in his day. 4 In some manuscripts a blank space is left where the Name would appear. In one manuscript of the Greek version of Leviticus found at Qumran, the name is represented by a series of three Greek letters, ιαω. This ιαω is also found in Gentile sources which purport to give the pronunciation of the Name. Because there is no αω diphthong in Greek, one would have to insert the rough breathing between these letters, and pronounce the name as Ya-hoe. But no one who knew Hebrew would have thought that this was a possible vocalization of יהוה. Probably it is based upon the form יהו which occurs as a component of many Hebrew names (e.g. Jehoseph, Jehoram, Jehoshua), and which was understood to be an abbreviated form of יהוה. This abbreviated form might have been used as a deliberately obfuscating pronunciation of the Name invented by Jews who wished to avoid the true pronunciation. 5 Some manuscripts have the Greek letters πιπι, which resemble the later Hebrew characters in appearance, but not at all in pronunciation. These manuscripts must have been produced by copyists who didn’t know that the letters of the Name were Hebrew.
It is not that the correct pronunciation was unknown to anyone at the time. As we have mentioned above, ancient sources state that it was spoken by the priests in the Temple service. And in the writings of the Church Fathers there is evidence that Christians had received accurate information about the pronunciation, because in these writings we find the phonetically accurate transcriptions ιαουε, ιαουαι, and ιαβε. But these are not found in manuscripts of the Greek version itself. In any case, it was not necessary or even desirable to have an accurate transcription of the name in the Greek version, because the version was to be used in the synagogues of the diaspora, where the pronunciation of the name was forbidden. In nearly all extant manuscripts of the Septuagint we find the sacred Name represented by the Greek word κύριος, meaning “Lord.” The rule is applied consistently, even in such a verse as Isaiah 42:8, ἐγὼ κύριος ὁ θεός τοῦτό μού ἐστιν τὸ ὄνομα, “I am the Lord God, that is my name.” This was nothing other than a Greek application of the Jewish custom of substituting אֲדֹנָי for יהוה when the Hebrew text was read aloud in the Synagogue.
The interpretation of the Name in Hellenistic Judaism is evident from the Septuagint rendering of Exodus 3:13-15. I give here the text according to the edition of Rahlfs.
13 καὶ εἶπεν Μωυσῆς πρὸς τὸν θεόν, ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐλεύσομαι πρὸς τοὺς υἱοὺς Ισραηλ καὶ ἐρῶ πρὸς αὐτούς, ὁ θεὸς τῶν πατέρων ὑμῶν ἀπέσταλκέν με πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐρωτήσουσίν με τί ὄνομα αὐτῷ, τί ἐρῶ πρὸς αὐτούς; 14 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν, ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. καὶ εἶπεν οὕτως ἐρεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ, ὁ ὢν ἀπέσταλκέν με πρὸς ὑμᾶς. 15 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς πάλιν πρὸς Μωυσῆν οὕτως ἐρεῖς τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ, κύριος ὁ θεὸς τῶν πατέρων ὑμῶν θεὸς Αβρααμ καὶ θεὸς Ισαακ καὶ θεὸς Ιακωβ ἀπέσταλκέν με πρὸς ὑμᾶς. τοῦτό μού ἐστιν ὄνομα αἰώνιον καὶ μνημόσυνον γενεῶν γενεαῖς.
Here we see κύριος for יהוה in verse 15, in keeping with the ancient custom. But the translator manages to put across the meaning of the Name in verse 14 anyway by his use of the phrase ὁ ὢν “he who is” instead of ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) for the second and third occurrences of אֶהְיֶה. So it says, “And God said to Moses, I am the one who is, 6 and he said, Thus will you say to the sons of Israel, He who is has sent me to you” instead of “I am has sent me to you.” In the Hebrew, God calls himself “I am” at this point. But the Greek rendering is intended to give the interpretation of the form יהוה, the Name itself, used in the next verse.
Philo interprets verse 14 in this way: “And he said, first tell them that I am He Who Is (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὄν), that they may learn the difference between what is (ὄντoς) and what is not, and also the further lesson that no name at all can properly be used of Me, to whom alone Being (τὸ εἶναι) belongs.” 7 Thus the etymology or meaning of the Name was so emphasized that it was seen not really as a name but as an appellation meaning He Who Is.
In line with this Hellenistic interpretation of יהוה we find the phrase ὁ ὢν “he who is” used as an appellation of God several times in the Revelation of John (1:4, 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, and 16:5). In the Gospel according to John we also find a highly significant use of the phrase ἐγώ εἰμι “I am,” which, when spoken by Christ, is intended to be an expression of his divinity. (See especially the ἐγώ εἰμι of John 13:19 and 18:5-6, 8.) For Christians this interpretation of the Name must therefore be accepted as canonical. It also has the support of modern critical scholars. The BDB Lexicon (1906) lists יהוה under the verbal root הָוָה, which is said to be “a rare synonym of הָיָה,” presumably archaic (p. 217), and הָיָה is defined “fall out, come to pass, become, be” (p. 224). Köhler-Baumgartner (English edition, 2001) says that the etymology is “controversial,” but few if any would say that the derivation from הָוָה is improbable. In 1953 Köhler wrote:
What does Jahweh mean? The attempts that have been made to answer this question without reference to Ex. 3:13-14 are legion. One has only to work through the semitic roots that have the three consonants h w h with their possible usages and one may arrive at any of the following equally probable solutions:— “the Falling One” (the holy meteorite), or “the Felling One” (by lightning, therefore a storm god), or “the Blowing One” (the wind-and-weather god), or many another. But however much these suggestions may deserve notice linguistically, they are of little consequence theologically, for none of them can be decisively accepted instead of the others and none of them leads to the Jahweh of the Old Testament. It is possible, however, with strict adherence to rules of philology and by comparison with other clear and well known Hebraic formulations to derive the name from the root hwh. Its meaning is then Existence [Sein], Being [Wesen], Life, or—since such abstracts were distasteful to the Hebrews—the Existing One [der Seiende], the Living One. In that case the explanation found in Ex. 3:13 is on the right track. 8
Köhler mentions here “the Living One” as another possible meaning for יהוה, because the verb הָיָה is used in the sense “live” as well as “be” when the subject is a living being. But it cannot be the intention of Exodus 3:13-15 to give such a meaning, because we cannot render אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה as “I live what I live.”
From the 1860’s on, many theological writers have asserted that the tetragrammaton is in some sense a “covenant name,” and have given explanations of its meaning in line with that idea. They accept the derivation from הָוָה, but tend to minimize the “be” or “live” meaning by emphasizing the larger context of the Exodus narrative, which has much to do with the covenant relationship established at Sinai. Some have argued that there is a basis for this idea in the immediate context of Exodus 3, by pointing to אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ “I will be with thee” in Exodus 3:12, which they take to be an indication of a meaning “the One who is present” in a redemptive or covenantal way. 9 And this idea of the meaning of the tetragrammaton is very often found in works of the twentieth century. It is the idea behind the note on Exodus 3:14 in the NIV Study Bible, which asserts that the tetragrammaton is “the name that expressed his character as the dependable and faithful God who desires the full trust of his people (see v. 12, where ‘I will be’ is completed by ‘with you’; see also 34:5-7).” But it is a modern idea, originating in the mid-nineteenth century, and it is not really based on the connection with הָיָה made in Exodus 3:14-15. It is based on the notion that the tetragrammaton should be understood to have some more special meaning in connection with the Exodus narrative than Exodus 3:14 itself indicates. Modern biblical theologians tend to minimize the etymological significance indicated in Exodus 3:14 by largely ignoring it, and saying that whatever the etymology of the Name may be, the Israelite experience of God was so dominated by the covenant concept that the Name must have carried a covenantal meaning for them. 10 Some have dismissed the explanation in Exodus 3 as a mere play on words. 11 But the fact remains that in ancient times both Jews and Christians accepted “He Who Is” as the meaning of the name יהוה, and the use of the title אֲדֹנָי and κύριος to represent it seems to show that the idea of dominion came most readily to mind when ancient Jews referred to God.
The substitution of κύριος for יהוה in the Septuagint set the pattern for all the ancient versions done by Christians. The Latin versions used Dominus, which also means “lord.” The same thing may be seen in versions done in modern languages at the time of the Reformation. Luther used “der Herr” in his translation. But by the middle of the sixteenth century Protestant scholars in Geneva were using the name Jehovah instead of the traditional Dominus for יהוה in learned works written in Latin. 12 John Calvin ordinarily uses Jehovah in the Latin version he prepared for his commentary on the Psalms (1557). A French version done by Calvin’s cousin Pierre-Robert Olivétan (Neuchâtel, 1535) used the expression L'Éternel (“the Eternal One”) to represent יהוה in some places, and the rendering was made consistent in a revision done by followers of Calvin in Geneva (the French Geneva Bible of 1588). This was the first attempt to represent the Name according to the supposed meaning, “the One who exists eternally.” To indicate the thinking behind this I will quote Calvin on Exodus 3:14 and 6:2.
I am who I am. The verb in the Hebrew is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be;” but it is of the same force as the present, except that it designates the perpetual duration of time. This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent [sit a se ipso] and therefore eternal; and thus gives being [esse] and existence [subsistere] to every creature. Nor does he predicate of himself anything common, or shared by others; but he claims for himself eternity as peculiar to God alone, in order that he may be honored according to his dignity. Therefore, immediately afterwards, contrary to grammatical usage, he used the same verb in the first person as a substantive, annexing it to a verb in the third person; that our minds may be filled with admiration as often as his incomprehensible essence [essentiae] is mentioned. But although philosophers discourse in grand terms of this eternity, and Plato constantly affirms that God is peculiarly τὸ ὄν (the Being); yet they do not wisely and properly apply this title, viz., that this one and only Being of God absorbs all imaginable essences; and that, thence, at the same time, the chief power and government of all things belong to him. For from whence come the multitude of false gods, but from impiously tearing the divided Deity into pieces by foolish imaginations? Wherefore, in order rightly to apprehend the one God, we must first know, that all things in heaven and earth derive at His will their essence, or subsistence from One, who only truly is. From this Being all power is derived; because, if God sustains all things by his excellency, he governs them also at his will. …
It would be tedious to recount the various opinions as to the name “Jehovah.” It is certainly a foul superstition of the Jews that they dare not speak, or write it, but substitute the name “Adonai;” nor do I any more approve of their teaching, who say that it is ineffable, because it is not written according to grammatical rule. Without controversy, it is derived from the word היה or הוה and therefore it is rightly said by learned commentators to be the essential name of God [nomen essentiale Dei], whereas others are, as it were, epithets. Since, then, nothing is more peculiar to God than eternity, He is called Jehovah, because He has existence from Himself, and sustains all things by His secret inspiration. Nor do I agree with the grammarians, who will not have it pronounced, because its inflection is irregular; because its etymology, of which all confess that God is the author, is more to me than an hundred rules. 13
The rendering L'Eternel seems to be based upon the idea that the imperfect tense of אֶהְיֶה should be understood as a future, and upon philosophical inferences that an absolute and unconditional “being” must be “self-existent, and therefore eternal.” It may well be doubted whether such a conception was associated with the Name by ancient Hebrews when they used it, but “the Eternal” does, at least, indicate the etymological connection with “being,” and it is arguably a better representation of the Name than the traditional “Lord.” 14
Despite the growing use of Jehovah in learned works, the English versions followed the example of the Septuagint, the New Testament writers, and the Vulgate, by rendering the Name as “the Lord.” This rendering had already established itself by its use in the first English translation of the Bible, known as the Wycliffe version (which was based on the Latin version), and so it was retained in the translations done in the sixteenth century. 15 The King James Version introduced a refinement of the custom by employing capital letters where this rendering represents the Name, so that the reader may see where יהוה occurs in the Hebrew text, but in four places (Exodus 6:3, Psalm 83:18, Isaiah 12:2, and Isaiah 26:4) the translators felt the need to render the Tetragrammaton as a proper name, and in these places the name “Jehovah” appears.
In the nineteenth century, some German scholars determined that “Jehovah” was an incorrect pronunciation of the Name, and that “Jahveh” represented the correct pronunciation (in German the letter “J” is pronounced like our “Y”). German translations intended for university students began to appear with Jahveh instead of “der Herr.” By 1870 this was being imitated by British scholars, who at first used “Jahveh” (after the German example), and later “Yahweh” (more frequent after 1880) in works designed for students. But these scholars did not see any need to correct the English version in common use. The attitude about this that prevailed in England during the 1870’s may be seen in the remarks of Matthew Arnold:
The English version has created certain sentiments in the reader’s mind, and these sentiments must not be disturbed, if the new version is to have the power of the old. Surely this consideration should rule the corrector in determining whether or not he should put Jehovah where the old version puts Lord. Mr. Cheyne, the recent translator of Isaiah,—one of that new band of Oxford scholars who so well deserve to attract our interest, because they have the idea, which the older Oxford has had so far too little, of separated and systematised studies,—Mr. Cheyne’s object is simply scientific, to render the original with exactness. 16 But how the Four Friends, who evidently, by their style of comment, mean their very interesting and useful book, The Psalms Chronologically Arranged, 17 for religious use, for habitual readers of the Psalms, and who even take, because of this design, the Prayer-Book version as their basis,—how they can have permitted themselves to substitute Jehovah for Lord passes one’s comprehension. Probably because they were following Ewald; but his object is scientific. To obtain general acceptance by English Christians, who, that considers what the name in question represents to these, what the Psalms are to them, what a place the expression The Lord fills in the Psalms and in the English Bible generally, what feelings and memories are entwined with it, and what the force of sentiment is,—who, that considers all this, would allow himself, in a version of the Psalms meant for popular use, to abandon the established expression The Lord in order to substitute for it Jehovah? Jehovah is in any case a bad substitute for it, because to the English reader it does not carry its own meaning with it, and has even, which is fatal, a mythological sound. The Eternal, which one of the French versions uses, is far preferable. The Eternal is in itself, no doubt, a better rendering of Jehovah than The Lord. In disquisition and criticism, where it is important to keep as near as we can to the exact sense of words, The Eternal may be introduced with advantage; and whoever has heard Jewish schoolchildren use it, as they do, in repeating the Commandments in English, cannot but have been struck and satisfied with the effect of the rendering. In his own private use of the Bible, any one may, if he will, change The Lord into The Eternal. But at present, for the general reader of the Bible or of extracts from it, The Lord is surely an expression consecrated. The meaning which it in itself carries is a meaning not at variance with the original name, even though it may be possible to render this original name more adequately. But, besides the contents which a term carries in itself, we must consider the contents with which men, in long and reverential use, have filled it; and therefore we say that The Lord any literary corrector of the English Bible does well at present to retain, because of the sentiments this expression has created in the English reader’s mind, and has left firmly fixed there. 18
During the preparation of the English Revised Version of 1881-85, which was a revision of the KJV, there was some disagreement about this among the scholars who were preparing the revision. The American scholars who were invited to contribute to the work favored a consistent use of “Jehovah” to represent the Tetragrammaton. Although these scholars knew that “Jehovah” was not a correct pronunciation, they felt that the use of “Yahweh” would be unwise, because it would be entirely new and strange to the public. They did not seem to realize that “Jehovah” itself was practically unknown to most people, and that replacing the familiar “Lord” with this name in seven thousand places was not likely to be received gladly. The British scholars wisely preferred to keep the traditional rendering, “the Lord,” and their opinion prevailed. It is not clear why the American scholars thought the use of “Jehovah” was important enough to justify the break with tradition. A prominent liberal scholar in America had some rather liberal thoughts about its theological significance:
There can be little doubt that the substitution of “Lord” for Jahveh in the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the Jewish Rabbinical Theology, has been associated with an undue stress upon the sovereignty of God. The Old Testament revelation in its use of YHWH emphasized rather the activity of the ever-living personal God of revelation. The doctrine of God needs to be enriched at the present time by the enthronement of the idea of the living God to its supreme place in Biblical theology, and the dethronement of the idea of divine sovereignty from its usurped position in dogmatic theology. The American Revisers differ from the English Revisers here. The former wished to substitute Jehovah for Lord and God wherever it occurs in the Hebrew text. There can be no doubt that there would be an immense gain by such a substitution. The ordinary reader would then get the idea that Jehovah is a proper name, even if he did not grasp its more essential meaning. We do not know why the English Revisers preferred to adhere to the ancient substitute. They might well hesitate to commit the English Bible to such a grave error as would be involved in so extensive a use of the impossible word Jehovah. The Revisers ought to have risen to the occasion and performed their duty by using the correct form, Jahveh. It is true the word would be strange to the English reader, and would require explanation at first. But it would receive the well-nigh unanimous support of Hebrew scholars; and Christian people would prefer to know the real proper name of God, as given by himself to his people. In a few years it would become familiar as a household word, pregnant with the richest associations, and all that wealth of meaning which it conveys to the enrichment of theology and Christian life. 19
When the American scholars prepared their own revision of the Revised version for publication in America (1901), they did employ “Jehovah” consistently, and in their Preface they explained:
The change first recommended in the Appendix [of the English Revised Version] — that which substitutes “Jehovah” for “LORD” and “GOD” — is one which will be unwelcome to many, because of the frequency and familiarity of the terms displaced. But the American Revisers, after a careful consideration were brought to the unanimous conviction that a Jewish superstition, which regarded the Divine Name as too sacred to be uttered, ought no longer to dominate in the English or any other version of the Old Testament, as it fortunately does not in the numerous versions made by modern missionaries. This Memorial Name, explained in Ex. iii. 14, 15, and emphasized as such over and over in the original text of the Old Testament, designates God as the personal God, as the covenant God, the God of revelation, the Deliverer, the Friend of his people; — not merely the abstractly “Eternal One” of many French translations, but the ever living Helper of those who are in trouble. This personal name, with its wealth of sacred associations, is now restored to the place in the sacred text to which it has an unquestionable claim.
Benjamin Warfield expressed strong approval of this:
It is manifestly impossible to enter into a discussion here even of the main classes of differences. They are enumerated, as we have said, in the Appendices attached to each Testament. The first one mentioned for the Old Testament concerns the use of the divine name “Jehovah.” As is well known, the British revisers continued to employ statedly for this “covenant name” the words “the Lord,” “Lord,” “god,” printed in small capitals. The American revisers restore the Divine name. We cannot understand how there can be any difference of opinion as to the rightness of this step. This is the Lord’s personal name, by which He has elected to be known by His people: the loss suffered by transmuting it into His descriptive title seems to us immense. To be sure there are disputes as to the true form of the name, and nobody supposes that “Jehovah” is that true form. But it has the value of the true form to the English reader; and it would be mere pedantry to substitute for it Yahweh or any of the other forms now used with more or less inaccuracy by scholastic writers. We account it no small gain for the English reader of the Old Testament that he will for the first time in his popular version meet statedly with “Jehovah” and learn all that “Jehovah” has been to and done for His people. 20
Although the American Revision (which came to be known as the American Standard Version) was appreciated and used by many Bible students in America, it never acquired real popularity, and its use of “Jehovah” was probably its most unpopular feature. 21 During the twentieth century two different revisions of the American Standard Version were done (the Revised Standard Version in 1952 and the New American Standard Bible in 1971) and both returned to the traditional rendering. The Preface of the Revised Standard Version explains:
A major departure from the practice of the American Standard Version is the rendering of the Divine Name, the “Tetragrammaton.” The American Standard Version used the term “Jehovah”; the King James Version had employed this in four places, but everywhere else, except in three cases where it was employed as part of a proper name, used the English word Lord (or in certain cases God) printed in capitals. The present revision returns to the procedure of the King James Version, which follows the precedent of the ancient Greek and Latin translators and the long established practice in the reading of the Hebrew scriptures in the synagogue. While it is almost if not quite certain that the Name was originally pronounced “Yahweh,” this pronunciation was not indicated when the Masoretes added vowel signs to the consonantal Hebrew text. To the four consonants YHWH of the Name, which had come to be regarded as too sacred to be pronounced, they attached vowel signs indicating that in its place should be read the Hebrew word Adonai meaning “Lord” (or Elohim meaning “God”). The ancient Greek translators substituted the work Kyrios (Lord) for the Name. The Vulgate likewise used the Latin word Dominus. The form “Jehovah” is of late medieval origin; it is a combination of the consonants of the Divine Name and the vowels attached to it by the Masoretes but belonging to an entirely different word. The sound of Y is represented by J and the sound of W by V, as in Latin. For two reasons the Committee has returned to the more familiar usage of the King James Version: (1) the word “Jehovah” does not accurately represent any form of the Name ever used in Hebrew; and (2) the use of any proper name for the one and only God, as though there were other gods from whom He had to be distinguished, was discontinued in Judaism before the Christian era and is entirely inappropriate for the universal faith of the Christian Church.
It is probably safe to say that among English-speaking Christians, few if any are really comfortable with “Yahweh” in their Bible versions. There is no popular support for using this rendering of the tetragrammaton in prayer and liturgy, despite all the interest that scholars have taken in it. The continued use of “the Lord” cannot really be objected to on theological grounds, because the precedent was established in the Church by the apostles themselves, and we cannot say that the apostles did this because of a “superstition.” We ought to assume that there is a good reason for it.
The use of “Jehovah” and “Yahweh” are forbidden in the Roman Catholic liturgy. In 2001 the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (the agency in charge of liturgical matters) put forth an “Instruction” known as Liturgiam Authenticam which included the following directive:
In accordance with immemorial tradition … the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning. 22
In 2008 this rule was then reinforced by a “Letter to the Bishops Conferences on The Name of God,” 23 prohibiting use of the term Yahweh in the liturgy, particularly in hymns and Psalm translations. The letter calls attention to the fact that in the New Testament the use of “the Lord” to represent the tetragrammaton “has had important implications for New Testament Christology”:
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).
Summarizing this, we may say that there is a theological interest in holding to the New Testament’s manner of identifying Christ with God by using the title “Lord” for both, and that this interest is best served by following the apostolic tradition of rendering the tetragrammaton as “Lord.” Religious devotion to Christ may even suffer diminution if this is not done. A rendering of the twenty-third Psalm that says “The Lord is my shepherd” allows the reader to think of Christ, the “Good Shepherd”; but Christ will not so readily come to mind if the Psalm is rendered “Jehovah is my shepherd,” as in the ASV.
Of course it was not the intention of the ASV revisers to obscure these verbal connections and associations, or prevent Christians from identifying the Lord with Christ. But this has been the stated purpose of some translations done by Arians and Unitarians, who have a theological interest in sharply distinguishing Christ from God. In 1789 Joseph Priestley (a leading figure among English Unitarians) proposed a new English version of the Bible that would observe the following rule of translation: “In the Old Testament, let the word Jehovah be rendered by Jehovah, and also the word κυριος in the New, in passages in which there is an allusion to the Old, or where it may be proper to distinguish God from Christ.” 24 Priestley’s Unitarian version was never printed, but in 1950 a version done by Arians did adopt this rule. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses uses the name “Jehovah” to translate κύριος in many places, so as to prevent anyone from identifying Christ with God.
Other “Sacred Name” cults put great emphasis on the use of the tetragrammaton, and also upon the supposed Hebrew form of the name of Jesus, for reasons that are not always clear. Some seem to believe that particular Hebrew pronunciations of the names for God and Christ are a mark of the true Church, and that there is even something wrong with using the Graecized and Anglicized form “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua,” or “Jehoshua,” “Yahshua,” or whatever pronunciation is being put forth as most authentic. 25 The New Testament writers obviously cared nothing for all that. It stems from the dilettantish interest in Hebrew that one often finds among modern Pentecostals, Adventists, and other unorthodox people, who fancy that they are “restoring” something essential to true Christianity by using Hebrew names and words which the writers of the New Testament did not feel any need to use. These Hebrew words are then invested with sectarian significance. We sense that their desire to use a different name for God is connected with a tendency to reject the concept of God associated with historic Christian orthodoxy. Their Yahweh is not our Lord, their Yeshua is not our Jesus, their Messiah is not our Christ. 26 Probably an inordinate interest in using the tetragrammaton also involves the same superstitious thinking that led some people in ancient times to use it as a magical word, with the idea that the power of the Deity can be summoned by the correct intonation of his name. This does not honor God, it spurns the custom of the apostles, and it would probably not have been tolerated by them.
The use of “the Lord” to represent the tetragrammaton will no doubt continue to be normal in English Bible versions. The example of the apostles, confirmed by two millennia of tradition, is not to be set aside lightly. The interests of scholars who wish to call attention to the use of the Name are adequately served by the use of the capital letters which indicate where the tetragrammaton occurs in the Hebrew text.
1. Borrowed directly from the Greek τετραγράμματον, meaning “a word of four letters.”
2. Χρυσοῦν δὲ πέταλον ὡσανεὶ στέφανος ἐδημιουργεῖτο τέτταρας ἔχον γλυφὰς ὀνόματος, ὃ μόνοις τοῖς ὦτα καὶ γλῶτταν σοφίᾳ κεκαθαρμένοις θέμις ἀκούειν καὶ λέγειν ἐν ἁγίοις, ἄλλῳ δ΄ οὐδενὶ τὸ παράπαν οὐδαμοῦ. De Vita Mosis, book II § 114, after the edition of Cohn and Wendland.
3. J. F. McLaughlin and J. D. Eisenstein, “Names of God,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia vol. 9 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1905), p. 162. “The pronunciation of the written Name was used only by the priests in the Temple when blessing the people (Num. vi. 22-27); outside the Temple they used the title ‘Adonai’ (Sotah vii. 6; p. 38a). The high priest mentioned the Name on Yom Kippur ten times (Tosef., Yoma, ii.; 39b). R. Johanan said the sages delivered to their disciples the key to the Name once in every Sabbatical year.”
4. In his Preface to the Books of the Kings, Jerome writes: Et nomen Domini tetragrammaton in quibusdam graecis voluminibus usque hodie antiquis expressum litteris invenimus. “And we find the four-lettered name of the Lord in certain Greek books written to this day in the ancient characters.”
5. See the discussion in Sean M. McDonough, YHWH at Patmos: Rev. 1:4 in its Hellenistic and early Jewish setting (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), p. 120.
6. E. Schild, “On Exodus III 14: ‘I Am That I Am,’” Vetus Testamentum Vol. 4, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 1954), pp. 296-302, argues that the Septuagint’s ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν is really more accurate than the usual English translations.
7. ὁ δὲ τὸ μὲν πρῶτoν λέγε φησίν αὐτoῖς, ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὄν, ἵνα μαθόντες διαφoρὰν ὄντoς τε καὶ μὴ ὄντoς πρoσαναδιδαχθῶσιν, ὡς oὐδὲν ὄνoμα τὸ παράπαν ἐπ' ἐμoῦ κυριoλoγεῖται, ᾧ μόνῳ πρόσεστι τὸ εἶναι. De Vita Mosis, book I § 75 in the edition of Cohn and Wendland. See also Philo’s discussion of the revealed titles of God in his treatise De Abrahamo, § 119-125. I should mention that in Philo the term “Being” is used in a metaphysical Platonic sense, as denoting the absolute and unchanging Reality that stands over the transitory and conditional Existence of earthly objects.
8. «Was bedeutet Jahwe? An Versuchen, ohne Rücksicht auf Ex 3.13-14 zu antworten, gebricht es nicht. Man hat dazu nichts zu tun, als die semitischen Wurzeln mit den drei Konsonanten h w h und ihren möglichen Spielformen durchzumustern, und kommt bei diesen Verfahren sowohl auf “den Fallenden” (den heiligen Meteorstein) als auf “den Fällenden” (durch Blitze; also einen Gewittergott) als auf “den Hauchenden” (den Wind- und Wettergott) als auf noch anderes, alles mit gleichem Recht. Aber so beachtenswert diese Deuteversuche auch sprachlich sind, so wenig tragen sie theologisch ab. Denn zweierlei steht fest: 1. keine dieser Deutungen kann etwas Entscheidendes geltend machen, was ihr vor den andern den Vorzug gäbe; 2. keine dieser Deutungen führt zu dem Jahwe des AT hinüber. Aber es ist möglich, unter strenger Beobachtung der philologischen Regeln und in genauer Analogie zu bekannten und durchsichtigen hebräischen Nominalbildungen, den Namen von der Wurzel hwh herzuleiten; dann bedeutet er: Sein, Wesen, Leben, oder, denn solche Abstrakta sind dem Hebräischen wohl fern: der Seiende, der Lebendige (s. L. Köhler, Die Welt des Orients, 1950, 404 f.); dann is die Deutung von Ex 3.13 auf der richtigen Spur.» Theologie des Alten Testaments, von Ludwig Köhler (4th ed., Tübingen: Mohr, 1966), pp. 24-5. English translation from Old Testament Theology by Ludwig Köhler, translated by A.S. Todd, from the third German edition of 1953 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), pp. 42-43.
9. An example of this interpretation of the Name is found in C.J.H. Wright, “God, Names of,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, vol. 2 (Eerdmans, 1982) p. 507. “In Ex. 3:14f. God declares that his name is 'ehyeh 'aser 'ehyeh. The verb 'ehyeh is imperfect qal and is obviously linked to the tetragrammaton, as vv. 14f. make plain. Of the two possible senses for it, ‘I am who/what I am’ and ‘I will be who/what I will be,’ the latter is preferable but not because the idea of God as a self-existent, unique, transcendent being is ‘foreign to Hebrew thought,’ as has often been said (cf. Isa. 40-55, which describe Yahweh in exalted language that implies all those things). Rather, it is preferable because the verb haya has a more dynamic sense of being — not pure existence, but becoming, happening, being present — and because the historical and theological context of these early chapters of Exodus shows that God is revealing to Moses, and subsequently to the whole people, not the inner nature of his being, but his active, redemptive intentions on their behalf. He ‘will be’ to them ‘what’ his deeds show him ‘to be.’ It is especially made clear that he will be ‘with’ them. In the context of the call of Moses and the revelation of the significance of the divine name, the promise ‘I will be with you/your mouth’ occurs three times (Ex. 3:12; 4:12, 15). The presence of God is then realized in the covenant, of which the vital preface is God’s proclaiming Himself as a redeeming (20:2) and forgiving (34:6) God. ‘It is this assurance of the presence of the Saviour God with his covenant people which is embodied in the name Yahweh’ (Abba, p. 325).” Likewise Elmer A. Martens, “God, Names of,” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology edited by Walter A. Elwell, 1996. “The meaning of the name YHWH may best be summarized as ‘present to act (usually, but not only) in salvation.’ … The name YHWH specifies an immediacy, a presence. Central to the word is the verb form of ‘to be,’ which points in the Mosaic context to a ‘being present.’” Again I would point out that this idea of the meaning of the Name is not based upon the etymology indicated in Exodus 3:14 but upon the larger context.
10. H.H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel: Aspects of Old Testament Thought (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 55. “For this reason we have no need to discuss the problem of the meaning of the name Yahweh. This has been much discussed, and a variety of views advanced. But etymology is not finally important here for Old Testament theology, since not etymology but experience filled the term with meaning.”
11. See Barry J. Beitzel, “Exodus 3:14 and the Divine Name: A Case of Biblical Paronomasia,” Trinity Journal 1/1 (1980), pp. 5-20. Likewise R.L. Harris, in an editorial note inserted in the article הָוָה in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Moody Press, 1980) dismisses the explanation given Exodus 3:13-15 as “a play on words,” and concludes: “As to the meaning of the name, we are safer if we find the character of God from his works and from the descriptions of him in the Scripture rather than to depend on a questionable etymology of his name.” (p. 211.) This however ignores the fact that the use of ὁ ὢν in the Revelation of John assumes that Exodus 3:13-15 does explain the meaning of the name.
12. See George F. Moore, “Notes on the Name הוהי,” The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1908), pp. 34-52.
13. English translation from Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony by John Calvin, translated … by the Rev. Charles William Bingham (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843), pp. 73, 127. The latin text from Ioannis Calvini Opera Que Supersunt Omnia edited by Baum, Cunitz and Reuss, vol. 24, coll. 43-44, 78, reads:
Sum qui sum. Futurum verbi tempus legitur Hebraice: Ero qui ero: sed quod praesenti aequipollet, nisi quod designat perpetuum durationis tenorem. Hoc quidem satis liquet, Deum sibi uni asserere divinitatis gloriam, quia sit a se ipso ideoque aeternus: et ita omnibus creaturis det esse, vel subsistere. Neque enim vulgare quidquam vel commune aliis de se praedicat, sed aeternitatem vendicat propriam solius Dei, idque ut pro sua dignitate celebretur. Proinde continuo post neglecta ratione grammaticae, idem verbum primae personae loco substantivi usurpat, et verbo tertiae personae annectit: ut admiratio subeat animos, quoties incomprehensibilis essentiae fit mentio. Etsi autem de hac aeternitate magnifice disserunt philosophi, et Plato constanter affirmet, Deum proprie esse τὸ ὄν, hoc tamen elogium non scite, neque ut decet, in suum usum accommodant, nempe ut unicum esse Dei absorbeat quascunque imaginamur essentias: deinde ut accedat simul summum imperium et potestas gubernandi omnia. Unde enim falsorum Deorum turba, nisi quod pravis figmentis divisum numen in partes impie laceratur? Ergo ut solide apprehendamus unum Deum, scire primum necesse est, quidquid in coelis est vel in terra, precario suam essentiam vel subsistentiam ab uno qui solus vere est, mutuari. Ex illo autem esse nascitur et posse: quia si Deus omnia virtute sustinet, arbitrio quoque suo regit. . . .
De nomine Iehova longum esset referre omnium sententias. Certe quod ludaei nec proferre nec scribere illud audent, sed substituunt nomeu Adonai, putida est superstitio. Nihilo enim magis probabile est quod multi docent, esse ineffabile quia secundum rationem grammaticae non scribitur. Hoc quidem extra controversiam est, deduci a verbo היה vel הוה ideoque recte nomen essentiale Dei a peritis interpretibus dicitur, quum alia sint quasi epitheta. Quum ergo nihil Deo magis sit proprium quam aeternitas, vocatur Iehova quod a se ipso habeat esse, et arcana inspiratione omnia sustineat. Nec Grammaticis assentior qui pronunciari nolunt quia non sit regularis inflexio: quando pluris mihi est etymologia, cuius omnes fatentur Deum esse autorem, quam centum regulae.
14. The “Eternal” rendering became a traditional one in French Bibles, and it also became popular with German Jews after Moses Mendelssohn used its German equivalent (“Der Ewige”) in his translation of the Pentateuch (1780). Mendelssohn’s rather loose rendering of Exodus 3:13 was: “Gott sprach zu Mosche: Ich bin das Wesen welches ewig ist. Er sprach nämlich: So sollst du zu den Kindern Jisraels sprechen: Das ewige Wesen, welches sich nennt: Ich bin ewig, hat mich zu euch gesendet.” Thereafter he translates the tetragrammaton as “Der Ewige.” James Moffat also used “the Eternal” in his English translation of the Old Testament, published in 1926. In his preface Moffatt explains: “One crucial instance of the difficulty offered by a Hebrew term lies in the prehistoric name given at the exodus by the Hebrews to their God. Strictly speaking, this ought to be rendered ‘Yahweh,’ which is familiar to modern readers in the erroneous form of ‘Jehovah.’ Were this version intended for students of the original, there would be no hesitation whatever in printing ‘Yahweh.’ But almost at the last moment I have decided with some reluctance to follow the practice of the French scholars and of Matthew Arnold (though not exactly for his reasons), who translate this name by ‘the Eternal,’ except in an enigmatic title like ‘the Lord of hosts.’ There is a distinct loss in this, I fully admit; to drop the racial, archaic term is to miss something of what it meant for the Hebrew nation. On the other hand, there is a certain gain, especially in a book of lyrics like the Psalter, and I trust that in a popular version like the present my choice will be understood even by those who may be slow to pardon it.”
15. The one exception to this is the remarkably bad version of the Psalms included in the first two editions of the Bishops’ Bible (1568), in which the tetragrammaton is rendered as “God.” In later editions of the Bishops’ Bible this version of the Psalms was replaced by that of the Great Bible (1539).
16. Here Arnold refers to T.K. Cheyne, The Book of Isaiah Chronologically Arranged: An Amended Version with Historical and Critical Introductions and Explanatory Notes (London: Macmillan and Co., 1870). A “Notice” at the end of Cheyne’s Introduction says, “The reader is requested to bear in mind that the form Jehovah is not adopted in this book on the supposition of its correctness, but simply in deference to custom. The proper form is Jahveh.”
17. Arnold is referring to an anonymous work entitled The Psalms Chronologically Arranged: An Amended Version with Historical Introductions and Explanatory Notes, by Four Friends (London: Macmillan and Co., 1867).
18. Matthew Arnold, Isaiah XL-LXVI with the Shorter Prophecies Allied to It, Arranged and Edited with Notes (London: MacMillan and Co., 1875), Introduction, pp. 12-14.
19. Charles Briggs, “The revised English Version of the Old Testament,” The Presbyterian Review, vol. 6 (July 1885) p. 527.
20. Benjamin Warfield, Review of the American Standard Version in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, vol. 13 (1902), p. 646.
21. “However correct this practice might be in scholarly theory—for the word in Hebrew is indeed a proper name, not a title—it was disastrous from the point of view of the liturgical, homiletical, and devotional use of the Bible, and was almost universally disliked.” Robert C. Dentan, “The Story of the New Revised Standard Version,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 11/3 (1990), p. 212.
22. iuxta traditionem ab immemorabili receptam, immo in supradicta versione «LXX virorum» iam perspicuam, nomen Dei omnipotentis, sacro tetragrammate hebraice expressum, latine vocabulo «Dominus», in quavis lingua populari vocabulo quodam eiusdem significationis reddatur.
23. The full text of the letter may be seen at <www.bible-researcher.com/dominus.html>.
24. See the “Rules of Translating” for “A Plan to Procure a Continually Improving Translation of the Scriptures” in The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, edited by J.T. Rutt, vol. 17 (London: G. Smallfield, 1820), p. 532.
25. Members of one group known as the Assemblies of Yahweh have produced a revision of the Rotherham version entitled The Restoration of the Original Sacred Name Bible (Buena Park, Calif.: Missionary Dispensary Bible Research, 1970). Their Statement of Doctrine says, “We affirm that it is necessary and most important to our salvation that we accept the revealed, personal Name of our Heavenly Father YAHWEH and the Name of His Son, our Savior YAHSHUA the MESSIAH. We affirm also that the most accurate transliteration of these Names from the Hebrew into the English is by the spellings employed above.” (Bob Larson, Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality [Tyndale House, 2004], p. 48).
26. The use of Hebrew forms is connected with a desire to emphasize the “Hebrew roots” and the “Jewishness” of Christ and his apostles, but it runs directly against the grain of the New Testament, which constantly emphasizes that Christianity is a universal faith that quite transcends the Judaism of its time. Entire books of the New Testament are specifically designed to make this point. Christ was obviously not the ethnic Messiah of Jewish expectation, but rather the Savior of the world.
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