The Translation of God’s Name Yahweh / Jehovah

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on November, 15, 2018

The Translation of God’s Name Yahweh / Jehovah

One of the glaring mistranslations, probably the most common (5321 times), is surprisingly regarding God’s holy Name. In simple terms, instead of transliterating God’s Name, Yahweh, or using it by writing its meaning, “I am,” the translators used the title “LORD.” Some versions use all capitals to distinguish LORD from Lord, but still, a name is a name, but ‘LORD’ is a title like president. With a name like Eve, the first time used in Genesis 3:20, the translators attempted to present a pronounceable alliteration from the Hebrew sounds. Fair enough, but this was not done with God’s personal name.

In response to my assertion that using “LORD” instead of God’s Name was a terrible move, a student recently asked me, “How did we, then, end up with it (i.e., such a terrible translation)?” Every English translation, including the freer translations and paraphrases like The Living Bible, uses the substitute word “LORD.” Since the question sought a reason for doing this, I started working backward in time to uncover the beginning of its usage. I was surprised by my discovery, even though I had some understanding of this from previous studies.

The question arose when I was speaking on Isaiah 43:1, “But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator (NASB)” where LORD was used instead of the expected Yahweh or Jehovah (YHWH=hwhy)—God’s personal Name, but I decided to go back to the first time YHWH was used in Genesis 2:4. In Genesis 1, God’s personal Name was not used, mainly because He was presented as the Creator of all things. Only after He created and started interacting with those He made (Genesis 2:4) is God’s personal Name regularly used. God’s Name is consistently substituted with “LORD” throughout the Old Testament.

I started my study by examining various English versions of Genesis 2:4. (Note YHWH-Jehovah is in purple here and later.)

NASB This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven

KJV These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,

NIV This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens

NLT This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth. When the LORD God made the heavens and the earth

ESV These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.

All the English versions I used, even the New Living Translation used “LORD.” Interestingly, the Chinese versions use “Jehovah,” so this usage is not done in all the translations but just some—though I was not sure to what extent this pattern appeared. Note how there is a space before “God” in this Chinese version, something like recent Judaism using G-d or L-rd instead of God and YHWH. This reflects a special reverence for “God.”

I started wondering if the problem was just the English Bibles, so I verified the Hebrew text to see if the Hebrew indeed used God’s personal Name there in Genesis 2:4 as I remembered.

Genesis 2:4 A discussion of the first use of Yahweh, Lord, in the Bible.

Reading from right to left, we can see that the Hebrew Word YHWH (Yahweh in purple) really is there in the Hebrew text. And so it is used many other times in Genesis 2 just as any English Bible will reveal with the translation Lord” or “LORD” depending on the Bible version (Genesis 2:4,5,7,8,9,15,16, etc.).

Each time the word “LORD” is substituted for the Hebrew word for God’s personal Name, YHWH. The consistency can be trusted (though I haven’t verified the 5,000+ uses)! The combination ‘LORD God’ in Genesis 2 has been regularly used, but this manner of capitalization doesn’t matter though it helps the reader to spot where His Name is used. As a result, the Hebrew word “YHWH,” God’s personal Name, is translated in English by ‘LORD.’

As stated above, all the English versions that I checked used LORD. So I thought, if we go back in time and see when this translation pattern actually was adopted to find an answer to our friend’s question. In English, the Bible translations only go back to the time before the Reformation when English began. Fortunately, the printing press was also developed at that general time, so we have plenty of copies of the earliest English Bibles. The earliest well-known English translations were Wycliffe and Tyndale Bibles.

So what did I find? The same thing. In other words, the earliest English Bibles translated God’s Name (YHWH) as LORD. So they set the precedence for following English translations by substituting a title for God’s revealed Name. We need to go back further in time to find the secret of the usage’s origin.

Let’s check the two earliest English Bibles to discover where the two Bibles got the original material that they had translated. Did Tyndale and Wycliffe start something new, or did they follow someone else’s suggested translation? This leads us down some interesting paths, for they do diverge here.

The Wycliffe Bible, the first English Bible, used Old English (heaven was then written “heuene”) dated back to 1382, also used the word “Lord” to translate God’s Name (YHWH). Though the first English Bible, the Wycliffe Bible did not use the original Biblical languages but was a mere translation from another translation—the Old Latin Vulgate. In a moment, we will search the Vulgate and see if this is where the substitution translation started.

The Vulgate was a very influential translation dating back to 382 AD because it served the Western Roman Empire for more than a thousand years. The common Western Europe vernacular languages had no written translations for centuries (old forms for French and Spanish began in 9th c.), and so the Old Latin for the Vulgate became the standard language for the church and the educated.

The Vulgate, however, still used Dominus, the Latin word for master or Lord. The Vulgate dates back to the 300s, so we know that this usage of “Lord” goes way back to that time. Jerome used another earlier used Latin text and revised it so we wonder did Paul know Latin and use “Lord” to translate God’s Name? Up to this point in our study, we can only conclude that everyone appears to have used the title “Lord” to translate God’s covenant Name other than the Chinese version which used Jehovah.

Tyndale’s translation leads us on quite a different path than Wycliffe, taking us right back to the original languages. The Tyndale Bible translation forms a very different story due to its translation being finished after the printing press was invented and the Greek manuscripts suddenly available, thanks to Erasmus. Tyndale skipped over the Old Latin version’s errors right back to the crystal clear original sources, that is, the Hebrew for the Old Testament and the Greek for the New Testament.

So Tyndale had the advantage using the original Hebrew manuscripts and other translations like the Septuagint. We mentioned earlier that Tyndale had still used “Lord” for His English translation. Is that what Tyndale found in the original Hebrew manuscript or were there other translations such as Wycliffe’s earlier English translation, the Vulgate, or other translations like the Septuagint?

The Greek Septuagint

Before looking at the Hebrew text more closely, let us remember a very influential Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (LXX), was commonly used even during Jesus’ time. The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek and when the Old Testament was quoted—about 300 times in the New Testament—about 2/3 of them quoted or alluded to the Septuagint translation. So what do we discover about the Septuagint’s translation of God’s personal Name?

When we looked back to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, written about 200 years before Jesus’ birth and completed by 132 BC, we discover they too surprisingly used Lord rather than God’s Name (Gr: kurios)!

No wonder the English Bible used LORD, but Tyndale possessed the Hebrew text, and it clearly used “Yahweh” (YHWH). So where did this erred tradition begin or was it wrong? Why was there such persistence to use the title Lord over His precious Name? One would think that the Jews would have delighted in boasting in their God, but as we look more closely, we observe that the tradition goes back to the Hebrews themselves, though in a slightly different form. Gesenius states,

…Jehovah, personal name of the supreme God amongst the Hebrews. The later Hebrews, for some centuries before the time of Christ, either misled by a false interpretation of certain laws (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 24:11), or else following some old superstition, regarded this name as so very holy, that it might not even be pronounced.

The Haftorah (A Torah and OT prophetical reading book) continues explaining in its notes:

‘Lord’ is the usual English translation of Adonay. Adonay is the prescribed traditional reading of the Divine Name expressed in the four Hebrew letters YHWH—which is never pronounced as written. This Divine Name is spoken of as the Tetragrammaton, which is a Greek word meaning ‘the Name of four letters’.

What is the answer to the question? Nobody really knows why the Jews became afraid to announce the Lord’s Name, Yahweh. Even though the text read YHWH, they have come to say “Adonai” (Hebrew for Lord). Let me conclude that I still think it is wrong to disrupt the translation process and substitute the title “LORD” where the Hebrew text has His personal Name written. The Law does not forbid people to state His Name.

As a result, the readers are unaware that the word “LORD” stands for God’s personal Name, revealing His interest in engaging His people in conversation. In other words, the power of the revelation of the Lord’s Name (YHWH) is kept hidden from her readers and leads to further misunderstandings. For example, when I was teaching Isaiah 43:1, The prophet used God’s personal Name to instill trust in God’s people. It was necessary to explain that “LORD” really stood for God’s Name because it was critical to grasp the degree God had reached out to His people at that point.

I like how one person commented on this custom not to mention God’s Name:

I’ve recently been reading through the Bible, and it seems that the Jewish people have been grossly neglecting their mission. Throughout the Bible, the L‑rd is instructing the people to “proclaim His name” (Isaiah 12:4, Psalms 105:1) and “chant praises to His Name” (Psalms 68:5), speaks highly of one who “knows My name” (Psalms 91:14), and there are countless other references to His name.

Yet, in all my encounters with Jews, they seem to make a point of not mentioning His name. Instead, they vaguely refer to Him as “the Almighty,” “the One Above,” or as “Hashem,” which I understand to be Hebrew for “the name.” Why don’t the Jewish people obey Him and “proclaim and praise His name” instead of beating around the bush?

His question is good, though I was displeased with the inadequate Jewish response (which I will not present). It is God who brings salvation, thus, making it an urgent matter to call upon His Name, “Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I beseech Thee, save my life!” (Ps 116:4) In response to Yahweh’s mighty redemptive plan, we are humbled and deeply appreciative, producing deep resounds of Hallelujah, the Hebrew word for Alleluia which tells us to praise “Yahweh” (the “ia” or “yah” are abbreviations for Yahweh). We ought to regularly give praise to His Name.

This following reading leads us to a more specific conclusion.

The Mishnah confirms that there was no prohibition against pronouncing The Name in ancient times. In fact, the Mishnah recommends using God’s Name as a routine greeting to a fellow Jew. Berakhot 9:5. However, by the time of the Talmud, it was the custom to use substitute Names for God. Some rabbis asserted that a person who pronounces YHVH according to its letters (instead of using a substitute) has no place in the World to Come, and should be put to death. Instead of pronouncing the four-letter Name, we usually substitute the Name “Adonai,” or simply say “Ha-Shem” (lit. The Name). Judaism 101

If stating His Name aloud had no prohibitions early on, then there are no reasons to hide the Lord’s Name with the title “LORD” or use ‘voiceovers’ saying Lord (Adonai) to keep people ignorant about the only Name that can save.

The New Testament Use of God’s Name

Let’s think this through in an alternative way. How did Jesus or the apostles speak about the Saving Name? They identified this Name with the Savior, who was Christ Jesus.

The Hebrew Bible text clearly commonly uses the famous four-lettered Name of Yahweh (YHWH). Modern Jews will not state it but instead use the pronunciation of Adonai, another Hebrew word translated as lord. The Hebrew culture’s influence during the Septuagint translation accompanied an agreed sense of prohibition when translating or stating God’s Name. We agree that His Name should not be spoken lightly of, but this ban on pronouncing His Name led to miswriting it when translated and led to distorted verbal pronunciations. Later, the verbal translations used the word for Lord (Adonay) rather than an alliteration of God’s glorious, saving Name Yahweh (Jehovah).

God revealed Himself with His Name Yahweh, but the Hebrews went from saying His Name as the Mishnah stated, to switching its vowels into the word Lord (Adonay), and over time people began just to say the word Lord (Adonai). When people translated the Old Testament, such as the Septuagint, they gave up accuracy for tradition, thus disclosing God’s mighty, saving Name.

We will look at three significant passages, first quoting the Old Testament and then the New Testament. Each Old Testament quote uses LORD (Yahweh) while the New Testament cloaks this mystery in quoting from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew Lord (Kurios).

Joel 2:32 and Acts 2:21 with Romans 10:13

Joel 2:32 from the Old Testament holds great emphasis on the Name Yahweh. Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13 quote this important Joel verse.

“And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD (Yahweh) will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, As the LORD (Yahweh) has said, Even among the survivors whom the LORD (Yahweh) calls” (Joel 2:32).

“AND IT SHALL BE, THAT EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED” (Ac 2:21).

“For “WHOEVER WILL CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED” (Rom 10:13).

The New Testament quotes are all capitals to remind us that it’s quoting the Old Testament (the Greek text does not do this). The Greek word imitates the Greek translation (Septuagint) in each case rather than writing out His Name.

Isaiah 40:3 and Matthew 3:3

They translated His Name (YHWH) in the New Testament as Lord, even when quoting the Old Testament “Yahweh” from the Hebrew text which the Septuagint translates Lord (kurios). Again, the New Testament timidly follows the subtle/hidden translations, using Lord instead of the Lord’s Name as in the Hebrew.

Isaiah 45 and Philippians 2:11

Philippians 2:11 quotes Isaiah 45:23 and calls Jesus Lord, that is, Yahweh (God). The Rabbi/Apostle Paul certainly knew the power behind the words that he penned here, quoting from Isaiah 45. (Isaiah uses Yahweh, translated LORD, 15 times in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 45 including verse 21 and 24 quoted below.)

“…21 Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. 22 Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. 23 I have sworn by Myself; The word has gone out from My mouth in righteousness, And will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. 24 They will say of Me, ‘Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.’” (Isaiah 45:21-24).

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Paul elaborates “every knee” by describing in heaven and on earth, but clearly highlights that they bow before God alone, the LORD Yahweh. So when Paul in Philippians 2:11 says, “every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” there is no doubt that this Savior is God and His Name is Jesus or Lord (Phil 2:11) Yahweh. While Isaiah says there is no other God, Paul alludes to the glory of Jesus Christ shrouded in the mystery of the trinity. People might disagree with the Apostle Paul’s interpretation but he was clearly claiming that Jesus Christ is Yahweh, the Savior; He “gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9).

Conclusion

The Septuagint improperly set a pattern carried to this day of mistranslating God’s Name, Yahweh as LORD, a title. Perhaps, the Lord has allowed this so that the Jews would not misuse His Name in their lostness. In any case, as God’s children, we should not be afraid to use His Name and, even more, remember that God shares His personal name with us to foster an intimate relationship with Him.

The Vulgate's influence upon the Wycliffe Bible

Study Questions on the Usage of Yahweh

  1. Summarize the translation problem that the author highlights.
  2. Discuss whether you have ever thought of the problem of hearing of God’s Name Yahweh (Jehovah) but never seeing it in the Scriptures.
  3. How many times is God’s Name, Yahweh, used in the Old Testament?
  4. How do the English translations translate God’s Name, Yahweh, in the Old Testament?
  5. What is the difference between Lord and LORD?
  6. What translation did the Latin Vulgate use when translating God’s Old Testament Name? What is its meaning?
  7. How did the Septuagint shape the translation of God’s Name?
  8. How does the Septuagint affect the New Testament’s translation of its Old Testament quotes?
  9. Pick one of the three examples of the New Testament method of quoting the Old Testament above and explain it.
  10. How does the author summarize this issue? Do you agree? Explain.

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