You can find the orginal of this article on the Deseret News webpage HERE
Ancient readers and
translators of the Bible, in their attempts to be reverent toward the Supreme
Being, also created ambiguities and theological problems.
of the King James (or Authorized) version of the Bible will be familiar with
references to God appearing in the Old Testament as “LORD” (in small capital
letters), reflecting a strange and varied history.
InExodus 6:2-3, God reveals
his name to Moses: “I am the LORD; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and
unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty (“el shaday”), but by my name JEHOVAH
was I not known to them.”
verse, both LORD and JEHOVAH translate precisely the same Hebrew word: YHWH,
which is generally pronounced by modern scholars as “Yahweh” — sometimes called
by scholars the “tetragrammaton” or “four letters.” Every time the name LORD
appears in the Bible in small capital letters, it translates this Hebrew proper
name. The full spelling “Jehovah” was used four times by the King James
translators (seeExodus 6:3,Psalms 83:18,Isaiah 12:2and26:4), and three times in
transliterating Hebrew proper names (seeGenesis 22:14,Exodus 17:15andJudges 6:24); it thus
entered common English usage.
name “Yahweh” may be related to the Hebrew root HYH (“hayah,” “to be,” “to
exist” or “to become”). Thus, “Yahweh” might mean something like “he who is.”
Some scholars think Yhwh may also be related to God’s name as given to Moses inExodus 3:13-14: “When (the Israelites) ask ‘What is his
(God’s) name?’ … God said to Moses: ‘I am who I am.’ Say to the people of
Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
in Hebrew in these verses is “eHYeH” (or “ehyeh”), the first person singular
form of the verb HYH.
proper name “Yahweh” is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and in many Hebrew
theophoric names — names, that is, that contain the name of God. It seems to
have been generally pronounced “Yahu,” or shortened to “Yah,” and anglicized
(or put into English form) as “-iah.” Thus, “Jerem-iah” = “Yermi-yahu” =
“Yahweh lifts up”; “Isa-iah” = “Yeshi’-yahu” = “Yahweh saves”; and “Elijah” =
“Eli-yahu” = “Yahweh is my God.” Originally, the name seems to have been in
common usage among ordinary Jews.
some centuries after the return from Babylonian captivity (c. 538 B.C.), pious
Jews began to interpret the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh
(the LORD) thy God in vain” to mean that the name shouldn’t be spoken in
ordinary daily life. Thereafter, the name was only pronounced by priests in the
temple, and, after the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, its true
pronunciation was forgotten.
Jews confused the matter further when they occasionally tried to transliterate
Hebrew “Yahweh” into Greek. Greek has no letter for an internal “h” sound, as
can be seen in Anglicized versions of such biblical names as “Aaron,” which was
originally “Aharon.” Trying to write “Yahweh” became problematic in Greek due
to its double internal "h."
claims that the name of God was written on the high priest’s golden crown with
four vowels (“Jewish War” 5:235, alluding toExodus 28:36), which he refused to write for his gentile
audience. This is confirmed by occasional transliterations of the name “Yahweh”
by early Greeks, Jews and Christians as “Iao,” “Iaou,” “Iaue” or “Ieuo,” which
are all attempts to render “YaHweH”/”Yawe” without the "h."
third century B.C., Jewish unwillingness to pronounce the name “Yahweh” when
reading scripture in the synagogue or speaking had led them to replace “Yahweh”
in pronunciation with either with the word “adonay” (“the lord”) or “ha-shem”
(“the name,” referring to “Yahweh”).
practice was followed as well by the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, the
Hebrew Bible rendered into Greek in the second century B.C. There they
translated the Hebrew “Yahweh” as “kyrios,” the Greek word for “lord.”
however, they also rendered Hebrew “adonay” as “kyrios,” creating a confusing
ambiguity in their translation between the proper name “Yahweh” and the
ordinary title “adonay.” This confusion continued in the New Testament, where
“Yahweh” is always rendered “kyrios,” as well as in the Christian Latin Vulgate
translation of the Bible, which likewise translates both “Yahweh” and “adonay”
as “dominus” (= “lord”).
King James printers tried to resolve this ambiguity by representing “Yahweh” as
“LORD,” and “adonay” as “lord.” But doctrinal problems persist. When Jesus is
called “Lord” (Greek “kyrios,” e.g. at1 Corinthians 12:3andPhillippians 2:11), does it mean simply that Jesus is a
powerful ruler or master, or that he’s the biblical Yahweh?
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative,
chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the
author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.