God’s Name and Bible Translators
EARLY in the second century, after the last of the apostles had died, the falling away from the Christian faith foretold by Jesus and his followers began in earnest. Pagan philosophies and doctrines infiltrated the congregation; sects and divisions arose, and the original purity of faith was corrupted. And God’s name ceased to be used.
As this apostate Christianity spread, the need arose to translate the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into other languages. How did the translators render God’s name in their translations? Usually, they used the equivalent of “Lord.” A very influential version of that time was the Latin Vulgate, a translation of the Bible by Jerome into everyday Latin. Jerome rendered the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) by substituting Dominus, “Lord.”
Eventually, new languages, such as French, English and Spanish, began to emerge in Europe. However, the Catholic Church discouraged the translating of the Bible into these new languages. Thus, while Jews, using the Bible in the original Hebrew language, refused to pronounce God’s name when they saw it, most “Christians” heard the Bible read in Latin translations that did not use the name.
In time, God’s name came back into use. In 1278 it appeared in Latin in the work Pugio fidei (Dagger of Faith), by Raymundus Martini, a Spanish monk. Raymundus Martini used the spelling Yohoua.* Soon after, in 1303, Porchetus de Salvaticis completed a work entitled Victoria Porcheti adversus impios Hebraeos (Porchetus’ Victory Against the Ungodly Hebrews). In this he, too, mentioned God’s name, spelling it variously Iohouah, Iohoua and Ihouah. Then, in 1518, Petrus Galatinus published a work entitled De arcanis catholicae veritatis (Concerning Secrets of the Universal Truth) in which he spells God’s name Iehoua.
The name first appeared in an English Bible in 1530, when William Tyndale published a translation of the first five books of the Bible. In this he included the name of God, usually spelled Iehouah, in several verses,* and in a note in this edition he wrote: “Iehovah is God’s name . . . Moreover as oft as thou seist LORD in great letters (except there be any error in the printing) it is in Hebrew Iehovah.” From this the practice arose of using Jehovah’s name in just a few verses and writing “LORD” or “GOD” in most other places where the Tetragrammaton occurs in the Hebrew text.
In 1611 what became the most widely used English translation, the Authorized Version, was published. In this, the name appeared four times in the main text. (Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; 26:4) “Jah,” a poetic abbreviation of the name, appeared in Psalm 68:4. And the name appeared in full in place-names such as “Jehovah-jireh.” (Genesis 22:14; Exodus 17:15; Judges 6:24) However, following the example of Tyndale, the translators in most instances substituted “LORD” or “GOD” for God’s name. But if God’s name could appear in four verses, why could it not appear in all the other thousands of verses that contain it in the original Hebrew?
Something similar was happening in the German language. In 1534 Martin Luther published his complete translation of the Bible, which he based on the original languages. For some reason he did not include the name of God but used substitutes, such as HERR (“LORD”). However, he was aware of the divine name, since in a sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-8, which he delivered in 1526, he said: “This name Jehovah, Lord, belongs exclusively to the true God.”
In 1543 Luther wrote with characteristic frankness: “That they [the Jews] now allege the name Jehovah to be unpronounceable, they do not know what they are talking about . . . If it can be written with pen and ink, why should it not be spoken, which is much better than being written with pen and ink? Why do they not also call it unwriteable, unreadable or unthinkable? All things considered, there is something foul.” Nevertheless, Luther had not rectified matters in his translation of the Bible. In later years, however, other German Bibles did contain the name in the text of Exodus 6:3.
In succeeding centuries, Bible translators went in one of two directions. Some avoided any use of God’s name, while others used it extensively in the Hebrew Scriptures, either in the form Jehovah or in the form Yahweh. Let us consider two translations that avoided the name and see why, according to their translators, this was done.
Why They Left It Out
When J. M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed produced a modern translation of the Bible in 1935, readers found that LORD and GOD had been used in most places as a substitution for God’s name. The reason was explained in a preface: “In this translation we have followed the orthodox Jewish tradition and substituted ‘the Lord’ for the name ‘Yahweh’ and the phrase ‘the Lord God’ for the phrase ‘the Lord Yahweh.’ In all cases where ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ represents an original ‘Yahweh’ small capitals are employed.”
Then, in an unusual reversal of the tradition of the Jews who read YHWH but pronounced it “Lord,” the preface says: “Anyone, therefore, who desires to retain the flavor of the original text has but to read ‘Yahweh’ wherever he sees LORD or GOD”!
On reading this, the question immediately comes to mind: If reading “Yahweh” instead of “LORD” retains the “flavor of the original text,” why did the translators not use “Yahweh” in their translation? Why did they, in their own word, ‘substitute’ the word “LORD” for God’s name and thus mask the flavor of the original text?
The translators say that they were following orthodox Jewish tradition. Yet is that wise for a Christian? Remember, it was the Pharisees, the preservers of orthodox Jewish tradition, who rejected Jesus and were told by him: “You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:6) Such substitution truly weakens the Word of God.
In 1952 the Revised Standard Version of the Hebrew Scriptures was published in English, and this Bible, too, used substitutions for God’s name. This was noteworthy because the original American Standard Version, of which this was a revision, used the name Jehovah all through the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence, the omission of the name was an outstanding departure. Why was it done?
In the preface to the Revised Standard Version, we read: “For two reasons the Committee has returned to the more familiar usage of the King James Version [that is, omitting the name of God]: (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.”
Are these sound arguments? Well, as discussed earlier, the name Jesus does not accurately represent the original form of the name of God’s Son used by his followers. Yet this did not persuade the Committee to avoid using that name and to use instead a title such as “Mediator” or “Christ.” True, these titles are used, but in addition to the name Jesus, not instead of it.
As to the argument that there are no other gods from whom the true God had to be differentiated, that is simply not true. There are millions of gods worshiped by mankind. The apostle Paul noted: “There are many ‘gods.’” (1 Corinthians 8:5; Philippians 3:19) Of course, there is only one true God, as Paul goes on to say. Hence, one great advantage of using the name of the true God is that it keeps him separate from all the false gods. Besides, if using the name of God is “entirely inappropriate,” why does it appear almost 7,000 times in the original Hebrew Scriptures?
The truth is, many translators have not felt that the name, with its modern pronunciation, is out of place in the Bible. They have included it in their versions, and the result has always been a translation that gives more honor to the Bible’s Author and hews more faithfully to the original text. Some widely used versions that include the name are the Valera translation (Spanish, published in 1602), the Almeida version (Portuguese, published in 1681), the original Elberfelder version (German, published in 1871), as well as the American Standard Version (English, published in 1901). Some translations, notably The Jerusalem Bible, also consistently use God’s name but with the spelling Yahweh.
Read now the comments of some translators who included the name in their translations and compare their reasoning with that of those who omitted the name.
Why Others Include the Name
Here is the comment of the translators of the American Standard Version of 1901: “[The translators] 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 . . . 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 . . . 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.”
Similarly, in the preface to the original German Elberfelder Bibel we read: “Jehova. We have retained this name of the Covenant God of Israel because the reader has been accustomed to it for years.”
Steven T. Byington, translator of The Bible in Living English, explains why he uses God’s name: “The spelling and the pronunciation are not highly important. What is highly important is to keep it clear that this is a personal name. There are several texts that cannot be properly understood if we translate this name by a common noun like ‘Lord,’ or, much worse, by a substantivized adjective [for example, the Eternal].”
The case of another translation, by J. B. Rotherham, is interesting. He used God’s name in his translation but preferred the form Yahweh. However, in a later work, Studies in the Psalms, published in 1911, he returned to the form Jehovah. Why? He explains: “JEHOVAH.—The employment of this English form of the Memorial name (Exo. 3:18) in the present version of the Psalter does not arise from any misgiving as to the more correct pronunciation, as being Yahwéh; but solely from practical evidence personally selected of the desirability of keeping in touch with the public ear and eye in a matter of this kind, in which the principal thing is the easy recognition of the Divine name intended.”
In Psalm 34:3 worshipers of Jehovah are exhorted: “O magnify Jehovah with me, you people, and let us exalt his name together.” How can readers of Bible translations that omit God’s name respond fully to that exhortation? Christians are happy that at least some translators have had the courage to include God’s name in their renderings of the Hebrew Scriptures, and thus preserve what Smith and Goodspeed call the “flavor of the original text.”
However, most translations, even when they include God’s name in the Hebrew Scriptures, omit it from the Christian Greek Scriptures, the “New Testament.” What is the reason for this? Is there any justification for including God’s name in this last portion of the Bible?
Printings of this work dated some centuries later, however, have the divine name spelled Jehova.
Genesis 15:2; Exodus 6:3; 15:3; 17:16; 23:17; 33:19; 34:23; Deuteronomy 3:24. Tyndale also included God’s name in Ezekiel 18:23 and Eze 36:23, in his translations that were added at the end of The New Testament, Antwerp, 1534.
[Blurb on page 17]
The translators of the Authorized Version preserved God’s name, Jehovah, in only four verses, substituting GOD and LORD everywhere else
[Blurb on page 22]
If using the name of God is “entirely inappropriate,” why does it appear almost 7,000 times in the original Hebrew text?
[Box/Pictures on page 20, 21]
Hostility to God’s Name?
At present, there is no current translation of the Bible in the Afrikaans language (spoken by South Africans of Dutch descent) that contains God’s name. This is surprising, since many translations into the tribal languages spoken in that country use the name freely. Let us see how it came about.
On August 24, 1878, a strong plea was made at a meeting of the Society of True Afrikaners (G.R.A.) that a translation of the Bible be made in the Afrikaans language. Six years later, the matter was brought up again, and eventually it was decided to go ahead and translate the Bible from the original tongues. The work was entrusted to S. J. du Toit, Superintendent of Education in the Transvaal.
A letter of instruction to du Toit included the following guideline: “The proper name of the Lord, Jehovah or Jahvê, should be left untranslated [that is, not substituted for by Lord or God] throughout.” S. J. du Toit translated seven Bible books into Afrikaans, and the name Jehovah appeared throughout.
Other South African publications, too, at one time contained God’s name. For example, in De Korte Catechismus (The Short Catechism), by J. A. Malherbe, 1914, the following appeared: “What is God’s preeminent Name?” The answer? “Jehovah, which is written LORD with capital letters in our Bibles. This [name] was never given to any creature.”
In Die Katkisasieboek (a catechism published by the Federated Sunday School Commission of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa) the following question appeared: “May we then never use the name Jehovah or LORD? That is what the Jews do . . . That is not the meaning of the commandment. . . . We may use his Name, but never in vain.” Until recently, reprints of Die Halleluja (a hymnbook) also contained the name Jehovah in some hymns.
However, du Toit’s translation was not popular, and in 1916 a Commission for Bible Translation was appointed to see to the production of an Afrikaans Bible. This Commission had a policy of omitting from the Bible the name of Jehovah. In 1971 the Bible Society of South Africa published a “tentative translation” of a few Bible books in Afrikaans. While the name of God was mentioned in the introduction, it was not used in the text of the translation. Similarly, in 1979 a new translation of the “New Testament” and Psalms appeared and it likewise omitted the name of God.
Moreover, since 1970 mention of the name Jehovah has been removed from Die Halleluja. And the sixth printing of the revised edition of Die Katkisasieboek, published by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, now also omits the name.
In fact, the efforts to eliminate the form Jehovah are not limited to books. A Dutch Reformed church in Paarl used to have a cornerstone on which were inscribed the words JEHOVAH JIREH (“Jehovah Will Provide”). A picture of this church and its cornerstone appeared in the October 22, 1974, issue of the magazine Awake! in the Afrikaans language. Since then, the cornerstone has been replaced by another with the words DIE HERE SAL VOORSIEN (“The LORD Will Provide”). The scripture citation and the date on the cornerstone have been left the same, but the name Jehovah has been removed.
Hence, many Afrikaners today are unaware of God’s name. Church members who do know it shy away from using it. Some even argue against it, saying that God’s name is LORD and accusing Jehovah’s Witnesses of inventing the name Jehovah.
A Dutch Reformed church in Paarl, South Africa. Originally, the name Jehovah was engraved on the cornerstone (above right). Later, it was replaced (above left)
[Picture on page 18]
God’s name in the form Yohoua appeared in 1278 in the work Pugio fidei as seen in this manuscript (dated to the 13th or 14th century) from the Ste. Geneviève library, Paris, France (folio 162b)
[Picture on page 19]
In his translation of the first five books of the Bible, published in 1530, William Tyndale included the name of God at Exodus 6:3. He explained his use of the name in a note to the translation
(Photograph courtesy of the American Bible Society Library, New York)