Is Use of the Name Jehovah a Mark of True Christians?
Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus and the apostles regularly used the name Jehovah and that its constant use by Jehovah’s Witnesses today mark them as the true Christians. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses learned about the name Jehovah from supposed apostates, and the New Testament does not support the claim that Jesus or the apostles made regular use of the name.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
Since 1931, the followers of the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society have been known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.1 They bear this name as a point of pride, claiming that it marks them as the true Christians:
In imitation of both Christ and the great “cloud of witnesses” who preceded him, true Christians proudly use God’s name. (Heb. 12:1) In fact, in the year 1931, God’s servants became even more closely identified with Jehovah by accepting the name Jehovah’s Witnesses.2
The Watchtower teaches that regular use of the name Jehovah in religious speech and publications is a mark of “true religion”:
The true religion honors God’s name, Jehovah. Jesus made God’s name known. He helped people to know God and taught them to pray that God’s name be sanctified. (Matthew 6:9) Where you live, which religion promotes the use of God’s name?3
The fact that most Christians do not use the name Jehovah regularly in their speech marks them, on the other hand, as part of the worldwide apostasy or falling away from the true religion:
After the apostles died, the apostates spread throughout the congregations and created the churches of Christendom. Instead of being a people for Jehovah’s name, these false Christians have removed God’s name from many of their Bible translations.4
Jehovah’s Witnesses cite various texts in the New Testament to show that Jesus and the apostles used and reverenced the name Jehovah. As seen in one of the quotations provided above, they appeal to Jesus’ teaching his disciples to pray for God’s name to be “sanctified” (as the NWT puts it), that is, “hallowed” or treated as holy (Matt. 6:9). Jesus said, “I have come in the name of my Father” (John 5:43) and that he had made the Father’s name known (John 17:6). The apostle James said that the early Christians were “a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). The Watchtower infers from these statements in the New Testament that neither Jesus nor the apostles would have condoned the practice of using substitute titles such as “Lord” or “God” in place of the divine name Jehovah. Instead, Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that Jesus taught his disciples to show their reverence for God by regularly using and proclaiming his name Jehovah.
The Divine Name and the New Testament
The logic of the Watchtower argument may be set forth in a formal fashion as follows:
Premise 1: Jesus and the apostles honored God’s name (Matt. 6:9; John 5:43; 17:6; Acts 15:14).
Premise 2: No one who honors God’s name could endorse replacing it with substitutes.
Conclusion: Jesus and the apostles could not have endorsed replacing God’s name with substitutes.
The astute reader will have noticed that I cited some biblical proof texts that Jehovah’s Witnesses use in support of the first premise but none for the second premise. One may wonder if, in stating the Watchtower argument in this way, I have suppressed or ignored its biblical proof texts in support of the second premise. The answer is No. There are no biblical statements teaching against the use of substitute names or titles in place of the divine name and the Watchtower does not even claim to have found such statements. In Watchtower teaching, the first premise is simply assumed to include the second as a necessary implication. Of course if someone honors God’s name he will not endorse replacing it with substitutes! This may seem “reasonable,” but the point needs to be shown, not assumed.
In contrast to the Watchtower’s argument, consider the following argument against their position regarding the use of the divine name:
Premise 1: If Jesus and the apostles thought it important to use the name YHWH in religious communication, the Gospels and the other apostolic writings in the New Testament would have used the name YHWH.
Premise 2: The Gospels and the other apostolic writings in the New Testament did not use the name YHWH (as evident from the thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts that are extant, not one of which ever uses the name YHWH).
Conclusion: Jesus and the apostles did not think it important to use the name YHWH in religious communication.
The first premise is true by definition once it is understood that the New Testament writings are religious communication. Moreover, Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with this premise, since they claim that Jesus and the apostles did think it important to use the name YHWH in religious communication. So the first premise stands unchallenged and is again true by definition.
Jehovah’s Witnesses dispute the second premise, arguing that the New Testament writings originally contained the name YHWH but that it was later systematically replaced with substitute names or titles in the manuscript copies that have survived. In the previous article in this series, we have explained why this claim is not credible.5 In any case, the manuscripts furnish abundant evidence in support of the second premise. Once this premise is granted, the conclusion follows necessarily from the two premises.
Suppose, though, that we accept the Watchtower’s claim that the New Testament originally used the name YHWH in some form. The NWT uses the name Jehovah 237 times in the New Testament, almost all of which are in place of the Greek word for “Lord,” κύριος (kurios). Let us assume hypothetically (for the sake of discussion) that all of these uses of Jehovah did reflect the original wording of the New Testament. This assumption would still not validate the Watchtower’s teaching about the necessity of regular use of the name in religious speech and writing. In order to see why, we will do some statistical analysis of the use of the most common names for God in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament as well as the use of Jehovah in the NWT.
Based on a recent study of the number of words in the original-language text of each book of the Bible, there are 473,204 words in the Hebrew Old Testament and 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament.6 We will use these figures as the basis for comparison. We need not concern ourselves with textual variants in the manuscripts because our interest here is in the proportions of the various names and not the exact numbers.
The name YHWH appears 6,828 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, which works out to once in every 69 words on average. Now suppose we stipulate that all 237 occurrences of Jehovah in the NWT version of the New Testament represented the name YHWH in some form in the original Greek text. That would be 237 occurrences of the name out of 138,020 words, or only once in every 582 words on average. What that means is that even if we take the NWT at face value, the name Jehovah occurs over eight times more frequently in the Old Testament than in the New (8.4 times more frequently, to be somewhat more precise). That would indicate a severe deemphasis on the name YHWH or Jehovah even if all of the occurrences of Jehovah in the NWT version of the New Testament are accepted.
Next, let’s consider the words commonly translated “God” in English versions. The most common Hebrew word translated “God,” ’elohîm, occurs 2,602 times, or once in every 182 words on average. Of these occurrences of ’elohîm, all but about 200 or so refer to the one God, while the others are used as literal numerical plurals to mean “gods.” Based on this information, the word ’elohîm as a name for God occurs roughly 2,400 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, about once in every 197 words on average. In the Greek New Testament, the word θεός (theos) occurs 1,317 times, all but about 15 of which refer to God.7 What is left are 1,302 occurrences as a name for God in the New Testament,8 about once in every 106 words on average.
Thus, whereas the name YHWH occurs over eight times more often in the Old Testament than the name Jehovah does in the NWT version of the New Testament, the name θεός occurs almost twice as often in the New Testament as the name ’elohîm occurs in the Old Testament. This statistical evidence shows that the name YHWH simply does not function in the New Testament in the same way as in the Old Testament. There is a significant difference between the two Testaments with regards to the divine name—or more accurately with regards to the divine names—that the Watchtower position ignores.
Still, what about those verses in the New Testament that the Watchtower quotes showing that Jesus and the apostles honored God’s name? Might these proof texts imply that they must have made regular use of the name YHWH in their speech and writings? We will address this question directly next.
A Biblical Response
The evidence shows that neither Jesus nor the apostles made regular use of the name YHWH in their religious speech. In many instances this evidence comes in the context of the very proof texts the Watchtower cites on the subject. In what follows, we will quote regularly from the NWT so as to establish this evidence from their own official version of the Bible.
1. The “name” that Jesus revealed was the name Father, not the name Yahweh.
Whenever Jesus talked about God’s “name,” that name is always Father, not Yahweh. As surprising as this may seem to Jehovah’s Witnesses, this observation applies in every relevant passage in the Gospels.
Take, for example, the model prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Notice how that prayer begins in both Matthew and Luke:
“Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified” (Matt. 6:9 NWT).
“Father, let your name be sanctified” (Luke 11:2 NWT).
Notice that Jesus did not teach his disciples to address the Father in prayer as “Jehovah God,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses routinely do, but simply as “Father” or “our Father.” The name Jehovah does not appear in either version of the prayer in the NWT, nor does any substitute name such as Lord or God appear in it. Indeed, in the NWT the name Jehovah appears nowhere in the same context as these two passages; the nearest occurrences are in Matthew 5:33 and Luke 10:27. By contrast, Jesus refers to the “Father” ten times in the immediate context of the Prayer in Matthew 6:1-18 and three times in Luke 11:1-13. The Father is not called “God” or “Lord” even once in either of these passages. If context means anything, the name that Jesus wants his disciples to use and for the honor of which they are to pray is the name Father.
In John 5:43, Jesus stated, “I have come in the name of my Father” (NWT). Here again, Jesus does not use the name Jehovah at all. The nearest occurrence of the name Jehovah in the NWT comes in John 6:45. Jesus refers to the “Father” five times in the immediate context (John 5:36-45), never to Jehovah, though he does refer to “God” twice in this passage (5:42, 44).
The Watchtower also seeks to prove its view of the divine name by quoting statements Jesus made in his prayer in the upper room the night before his death:
“I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world…. Holy Father, watch over them on account of your own name which you have given me…. When I was with them I used to watch over them on account of your own name which you have given me” (John 17:6, 11, 12 NWT).
Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that the “name” that the Father gave to Jesus and that Jesus made manifest to them was the name YHWH. However, there is nothing in this passage to support such a claim. Even in the NWT, the name Jehovah does not occur even once anywhere in this long prayer (John 17:1-26) or even anywhere in the upper room discourse that precedes the prayer. By contrast, Jesus addresses his prayer six times directly to “Father” (John 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25) and refers to the “Father” as astonishing 44 times in the upper room discourse (John 14-16).
The evidence is overwhelming that the “name” that Jesus revealed to his disciples was not Yahweh but the name Father. Jews occasionally referred to God as Father before Jesus came, but Jesus was unique in making this practice central to the faith life of his disciples.
In none of the Gospels does Jesus ever express any concern or expectation that his disciples will use the divine name.
2. Jesus used substitute nouns on occasion when referring to God.
A key claim made by the Watchtower is that using substitute terms such as Lord or God in place of the divine name Yahweh was a Jewish superstitious practice. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ would never have gone along with such a practice.
In reality, we find examples in the Gospels of Jesus occasionally using substitute terms in order to avoid even such names or titles as Lord and God. Perhaps the most striking example comes in Jesus’ trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. Here is Mark’s account as found in the NWT:
Again the high priest began to question him and said to him, “Are you the Christ the Son of the Blessed One?” Then Jesus said: “I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:61b-62 NWT).
In this account, the high priest uses the expression “the Blessed One” instead of simply saying “God,” a clear instance of the use of a substitute term to avoid saying even “God.” Perhaps the high priest could not bring himself to ask directly if Jesus claimed to be “the Son of God” since the thought was from his point of view blasphemous (see v. 64). In response, Jesus used a different substitute term for God, translated in the NWT as “power.” Literally, what the Greek text says here is “the power” (τῆς δυνάμεως). Since this expression refers obliquely to God, many modern versions capitalize the word, “Power” (e.g., the CSB, ESV, NAB, NET, NKJV, and the NRSV). Matthew also reports Jesus calling God “Power” in his account of the same event (Matt. 26:64). Luke, who was writing predominantly for Gentile readers, clarifies Jesus’ meaning for them by the paraphrase “at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69 CSB, ESV, NAB, NASB, NET, NIV, NRSV). The NWT, which in all three passages weakens the wording so that it is less clear that a substitute term for God is being used, translates the expression in Luke 22:69 as “at the powerful right hand of God.” Nevertheless, a simple comparison of the three texts makes it quite clear that Jesus was in fact using a substitute term for God. This example proves that Jesus had no principled position against the use of such substitutes. It was not an issue.
This is not the only occasion on which Jesus used a substitute term for God. One other rather clear example comes in his parable of the prodigal son. The son, after realizing his need to repent and go home, does so, saying to his father, “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:18, 21). By “sinned against heaven,” of course, is meant that the son sinned against God.
The evidence from these two sayings of Jesus reported in the Gospels is sufficient to conclude that Jesus did not condemn the practice of using substitute terms for the divine name. Indeed, he appears to have made use of such substitute terms himself.
3. Taking the NWT as our basis, it appears Jesus rarely used the name YHWH in his speech.
The name Jehovah occurs in the NWT 68 times in the Gospels, but rarely in Jesus’ own speech as reported there. It reports Jesus using the name 12 times in eight different statements, many of which appear in more than one Gospel, when quoting the Old Testament (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10 = Luke 4:8, 12; Luke 4:18-19; Matt. 5:33;Matt. 21:42 = Mark 12:11; Matt. 22:37 = Mark 12:29-30 = Luke 10:27; Luke 20:37; Matt. 22:44 = Mark 12:36 = Luke 20:42; Matt. 23:39 = Luke 13:35).
Only in three places does it represent Jesus as using the name Jehovah when not quoting the Old Testament (Mark 5:19; 13:20; John 6:45).
When one considers the fact that the Gospels report Jesus making hundreds of different statements, the paucity of places where even the NWT claims that he used the name Jehovah is striking. By contrast, Jesus made frequent use of the terms Father and God throughout the Gospels. As we mentioned earlier, Jesus is quoted as referring to or addressing the Father 50 times in John 14-17 alone.
4. The name that was the focus of the apostles’ preaching and teaching was the name Jesus, not the name Jehovah.
The Watchtower’s final proof text from the New Testament on the subject of the divine name focuses on the apostolic message. Here the Society offers a proof text from a speech by James at the Jerusalem Council when the apostles formally opened the gospel to the Gentiles:
“Men, brothers, hear me. Symeon has related thoroughly how God for the first time turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After these things I will return and raise up again the tent of David that is fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the men who remain may earnestly seek Jehovah, together with people of all the nations, people who are called by my name, says Jehovah, who is doing these things, known from of old’” (Acts 15:14-17 NWT).
James’s statement here does refer to the divine name, but this one statement does not show that the apostles regularly used the name YHWH or taught others to do so. Nor did James mean that the early church into which Gentiles were being called was known by its association with the name YHWH. His point in context is that God was now bringing Gentiles together with Jews into one people united in their faith in the same God.
It is instructive to notice what the Jerusalem Council stated in its official letter at the end of their deliberations:
“We have come to a unanimous decision to choose men to send to you together with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have given up their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:25-26 NWT).
The name of Jesus is in fact the dominant focus of the preaching and teaching of the apostles throughout the Book of Acts. There are 28 distinct references to Jesus’ “name” in Acts (2:38; 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 17, 18, 30; 5:28, 40, 41; 8:12, 16; 9:15, 16, 27, 28 [29 KJV]; 10:43, 48; 15:26; 16:18; 19:5, 13, 17; 21:13; 22:16; 26:9). We may quote just a few of these as additional examples of the great importance the apostles placed on the name of Jesus:
“Furthermore, there is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must get saved” (Acts 4:12 NWT).
So they went out from before the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of his name (Acts 5:41 NWT).
And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus went on being magnified (Acts 19:17 NWT).
The teaching of Jesus and the apostles throughout the New Testament simply does not support the Watchtower’s teaching that use of the name YHWH (in any form) is a mark of true Christians. Indeed, we may fairly conclude that a fixation on that name as some kind of major issue is an indication that a religious group has strayed from the teachings of the New Testament. Jesus told his apostles, “You will be witnesses of me” (Acts 1:8 NWT; see also Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 10:41; 13:31; 22:15; 26:16). The name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” betrays a misplaced focus that misses the Christ-centered faith of New Testament Christianity.
1. In the past, the Watchtower often spelled the name “Jehovah’s witnesses,” with a lower-case w, in order to avoid treating the expression as a formal name. Eventually, though, they came to embrace the term as their official name and even changed the domain for their website to JW.org.
2. “Prove to Be a Real Follower of Christ,” Watchtower, Jan. 15, 2010, 14.
3. “How Can You Recognize True Worship?” Watchtower, Aug. 1, 2011, 16.
4. “Now You Are God’s People,” Watchtower (Simplified Edition), Nov. 15, 2014, 29-30.
5. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Was the name Jehovah originally used in the New Testament?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).
7. The 8 plural occurrences (John 10:34, 35; Acts 7:40; 14:11; 19:26; 1 Cor. 8:5 [2x]; Gal. 4:8) and the 7 singular occurrences that obviously do not refer to God (Acts 7:43; 12:22; 17:23; 28:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Phil. 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:4a) may be set aside.
8. Including the nine occurrences that most Christian scholars think refer to Jesus Christ as “God” (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20). Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who deny that these texts call Jesus “God” think that most of them are referring to the Father as “God” (the usual exceptions are John 1:1, 18 and Acts 20:28).