In this “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible” video on the word Jehovah in the Bible (full transcription below), Mark Ward (author of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible) explores why God’s name is not Jehovah—and two excellent reasons why it should not appear in any English Bible.
One of the more surprising truths of the Christian religion is that we don’t know for sure how to pronounce the name of our own God. Good evidence suggests it should be Yahweh, but good evidence is all God has chosen to leave us—not certainty.
There is one thing we do know, though: God’s name is not Jehovah. That word is a colossal, unrepealable, European mistake.
People can get really uptight about the way the name of God gets translated in English Bibles. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a non-trinitarian religious group, have made it one of their leading distinctives to insist that the best way to translate the Hebrew word יהוה (YHWH) is with the English word Jehovah. Their custom-made Bible, the New World Translation, uses it over 7,000 times. Even the venerable King James Version uses it seven times.
But there are at least two excellent reasons why Jehovah should not appear in any English Bible.
1. Jehovah was created by a misunderstanding.
First, Jehovah is the weirdest kind of portmanteau: it’s 1) the vowels of one Hebrew word (Adonai) inserted into 2) the consonants of another (Yahweh), with the result then 3) transliterated into various European languages. This is the colossal error I mentioned. We’re not quite sure who did it—though a sixteenth-century friar named Galatinus is often blamed—but we’re pretty sure we know why. The Jewish custom of avoiding saying the divine name meant that the four consonants of Yahweh (Y-H-W-H) came to be spelled with the vowels of Adonai as a reminder to say the latter instead of the former. Apparently someone (Galatinus?) didn’t realize what was going on and thought the traditional pastiche was itself a word: Jehovah. This custom spread and the word still exists today. But it all stems from a misunderstanding.
2. The New Testament translated Yahweh rather than transliterating it.
The New Testament itself is the second reason we shouldn’t use Jehovah in Bible translations. The apostles could have transliterated Yahweh into Greek, matching it letter for letter. That’s what we usually do with proper names when we put them in a new language (which is why “John” has a silent H in it to this day). But instead they followed the example of the Septuagint—the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. They translated Yahweh using the Greek word for “Lord,” Kurios.
This became the overwhelming practice of later Bible translations. Instead of transliterating, the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century translated Yahweh—as Dominus, Lord. The Tyndale tradition and multiple other Reformation-era Protestant Bibles followed suit 1,200 years later. Luther used the German equivalent of “Lord” (Herr); other standard Bibles did the same, including Dutch (Heere), Spanish (Señor), Italian (Signore), and French (Seigneure).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official explanation for why they use “Jehovah” is actually very careful and linguistically sophisticated. But they still, ultimately, have to argue that there must be lost original manuscripts of the New Testament that used a form of Jehovah instead of Lord (see Appendix 5 in the New World Translation). That’s an argument from deafening silence: we have precisely zero New Testament manuscripts that do this. And I prefer to stick with the Bible I have rather than conjecturing a different one.
Now: I’ve just argued that Jehovah shouldn’t appear in Bible translations. But I still happily sing hymns that include it (“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”)—because one of the excellent points the Jehovah’s Witnesses make, actually, is that pronunciations of names often get mangled in their journey from one language to another. “Jesus” sounds very little like the Hebrew name Mary would have called out when it was time for dinner (probably Yeshua). Even if its origins lie in a blunder, Jehovah has become a word in many languages, a word that’s here to stay. I don’t mind if people say it.
But I generally recommend that Bible translations avoid colossal, unrepealable, European mistakes.
“Word Nerd: Language and the Bible” is the back-page column in Bible Study Magazine.
Watch more Word Nerd videos like this one on why the word Jehovah should not be in our English Bibles. Or get a free six-month subscription to Bible Study Magazine, the one magazine dedicated to helping you study the Bible with the best tools.
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