Written by Paul J. Bucknell on November, 15, 2018
The Translation of God’s Name Yahweh / Jehovah
LORD: A Glaring Mistranslation
One of the glaring mistranslations, and probably the most common (5321 times), is surprisingly regarding God’s holy name (YHWH). 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.” I appreciate the willingness for some versions to use all capitals to distinguish LORD from Lord, but still, a name is a name, but LORD is a title. 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, also use the substitute word “LORD.” Since the question sought a reason for doing this, I started working backwards 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, largely 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 start to be 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 in the Chinese 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.”
What about Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible
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.
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)! In Genesis 2 the combination LORD God had been regularly used, but this manner of capitalization doesn’t matter though it helps the reader to spot where His Name is used. So the Hebrew word “YHWH,” God’s personal Name, is used each time LORD is used.
As stated above, all the English versions that I checked, used LORD. So I thought, it was good 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 most early Bibles. The earliest well-known English translations were Wycliffe and Tyndale Bibles.
A Brief History of Yahweh’s Translation
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 the following English translations by substituting a title for God’s revealed Name, so we need to go back further in time to find the secret of the usage’s origin.
These two English Bibles were the earliest English Bibles, so we need to check where the two Bibles got the original material that they had translated. Did Tyndale and Wycliffe start something new or did they just 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 being 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 errors of the Old Latin version 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 to use the original Hebrew manuscripts as well as 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?
Before looking at the Hebrew text more closely, let us remember that there was a very influential Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (LXX), that 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?
Yahweh and the Translation of Lord in the New Testament
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 (Gr: kurios)!
No wonder the English Bible used LORD, but Tyndale did have the Hebrew text and it clearly stated “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). But, since His Name is not forbidden to say, let me conclude I still think it is wrong to disrupt the translation process and substitute the title “LORD.” 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 this one person, commented on this custom to not 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 it was fine to originally state His Name aloud, and there was, early on, no prohibitions on doing so, 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.
A Stunning Tentative Conclusion on Lord in the New Testament
Perhaps, we need to 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. Below we see first the Old Testament quote but then those in the New Testament who quoted part of Joel 2:32 holding a great emphasis on the Name Yahweh.
“And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, As the LORD has said, Even among the survivors whom the LORD 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 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. So the influence of the Hebrew culture by that time and 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.