Was the name Jehovah originally used in the New Testament?
Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that apostate Christians removed the name Jehovah from the Bible and that its “restoration” to the Bible and its constant use by Jehovah’s Witnesses mark them as the true Christians. However, there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament writers did not use the name Jehovah.
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
As their name signals, Jehovah’s Witnesses consider the name Jehovah to be an essential aspect of their religion. Indeed, they claim that their name and their regular use of the name Jehovah mark them as the true Christians. We will discuss that specific claim in the next article in this series.1 The main premise or basis for this claim is the use of the name in the Bible. Here Jehovah’s Witnesses object to the common practice in most translations of the Bible of using substitutes for the divine name in the Old Testament. Most English versions usually use “Lord” and occasionally “God” in place of the Hebrew name commonly expressed in English as Jehovah.
Jehovah’s Witnesses find this practice of using substitute titles or surrogates for the divine name to be not merely a mistake but a sign of apostasy. They blame apostates for “removing God’s name” from the Bible, both in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and in translations of the Bible. This is a criticism of traditional Christianity and of its Bible versions that the Watchtower makes incessantly. Here is an example:
God’s personal name has been removed from countless Bible translations and replaced with titles, such as “Lord” and “God.” This is one of the saddest and most reprehensible things that has been done in the name of religion.2
This criticism of Bible translations applies specifically to translations of the Old Testament, since the name YHWH (Yahweh, commonly translated Jehovah in English) appears in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament but is usually translated as “LORD” (or occasionally “GOD”). Jehovah’s Witnesses blame apostate Christians for the lack of occurrences of the name Jehovah in the Greek manuscripts of both the Old and the New Testament. The Watchtower argues that “the God-dishonoring tradition of removing the divine name from Greek manuscripts developed only later” in the century or so after the time of the apostles.3 “Apostate Christians of the second and third centuries removed it when they made copies of Greek Bible manuscripts and left it out when they made translations of the Bible.”4 The problem in the New Testament, in the view of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is that copyists who transmitted the text in Greek in the second or third century removed the divine name as they made new copies. The Watchtower Society sought to rectify the problem by “restoring” the name Jehovah to the New Testament in 237 places in their New World Translation, first published in 1950.
Jehovah’s Witnesses mount two lines of argument in defense of the use of the name Jehovah in the New Testament. The first line of argument is textual. The Watchtower maintains that the Septuagint—the ancient translation into Greek of the Hebrew Old Testament writings—originally used the name YHWH. In particular, the Watchtower Society claims that the Septuagint during the period of the apostles in the first century used the name YHWH, and therefore it was in the version of the Old Testament commonly used by the apostles (who wrote the New Testament in Greek).
The Watchtower’s second line of argument is theological. Jehovah’s Witnesses cite various texts in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 6:9; John 5:43; 17:6; Acts 15:14) to show that Jesus and the apostles used and reverenced the name Jehovah. 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.
In this article, we will look at the textual issues with regard to both the Old and New Testaments. The next article in this series will discuss the theological issues. Our treatment of the textual issues will be introductory; a thorough examination of all of the claims and counterclaims that have been made on various points of relevance would require a book—and that book would be fully understandable only to persons trained in the study of the ancient biblical languages. Nevertheless, the fundamental questions can be answered quite adequately and reliably without getting lost in the minutiae.5
What Is the Divine Name?
The distinctive Hebrew name for the God of Israel, the Creator of the world, is expressed in the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament by the name יהוה. Writers from ancient times have referred to this special name by the technical term tetragrammaton (which literally means “four letters”), sometimes shortened in modern scholarship to tetragram. The four letters reading from right to left (as in all Hebrew) would be represented in modern English by the four letters Y, H, W, H, and thus the name is transliterated (represented by the script of another language) into English as YHWH. Ancient Hebrew did not use letters that we would call vowels; a reader would recognize the words from context and in that way know what vowels to use when reading aloud. You could probably do the same if you read something in English with no vowels, such as the following text:
MST PPL CN RD THS; CN Y?
As will be explained shortly, the exact pronunciation of the name YHWH became uncertain in the centuries after the Old Testament era. Until the twentieth century, the name was most commonly represented in English as Jehovah, a form that first appeared in the thirteenth century (as Jehova). (The letter J was pronounced like Y or I in the medieval era.) Eventually the name Jehovah found its way into some English versions, most famously in seven passages in the King James Version (as God’s name, Exod. 6:3; Ps. 83:18; Isa. 12:2; 26:4, and as parts of other names, Gen. 22:14; Exod. 17:15; Judg. 6:24).6 Due to the enormous influence of the KJV, the form Jehovah gained popular currency as the standard Anglicized form of the name. The 1901 American Standard Version (a precursor to the popular NASB) used the name Jehovah consistently throughout the Old Testament. However, since about the middle of the twentieth century there has been a virtual consensus among scholars that the Hebrew form would be more accurately represented in English by the two-syllable name Yahweh. This form of the name is found in some English versions, notably the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) and the Lexham English Bible (2012).7
The reason why the pronunciation of the name YHWH became uncertain is that ancient and medieval Jews for centuries avoided speaking the name aloud. By the time medieval scribes added vowel points (little dots and dashes above and below the consonantal letters) to aid in reading the Hebrew text aloud, the exact pronunciation of the name was quite uncertain. Most (not all) scholars think the vowel points that appear in these medieval Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament around the name YHWH are actually the vowel points of another word, aDoNaY (i.e., adonai, “Lord”), which the Jews had been saying aloud whenever they came to YHWH in the text. When you use these vowels as part of the name YHWH, what you get is a three-syllable form, Yahowah—which may be the origin of the form Jehovah. Even this much, however, is disputed.
For our purposes, it probably doesn’t matter how the name was originally pronounced. The spelling Jehovah is perfectly acceptable when translating the Hebrew YHWH. I agree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument that if English-speaking Christians can use the form Jesus for the Hebrew name Yeshua (for example), they can use Jehovah for Yahweh (or whatever the original pronunciation was). The form Jehovah is found not only in the King James Version but also in orthodox Christian hymns, on church buildings, and in sound Christian literature. Only if the Witnesses claimed that Jehovah is the only correct spelling and pronunciation would their position in that respect be challengeable on the grounds that the original form differed. However, they don’t make that claim. Thus, I respectfully disagree with other evangelical Christian writers who have criticized the Watchtower position by saying that if they want to insist on using the divine name they should use the form Yahweh.
The Use of the Name YHWH in the Hebrew Old Testament
The name YHWH appears over 6,800 times in the Hebrew Old Testament books, on average once every three or four verses.8 To put this in some perspective, the most common Hebrew word translated “God,” ’elohîm, occurs about 2,600 times in the Old Testament.9 In addition, a short form of the name, YH (Yah), occurs 49 times: twice in Exodus (15:2; 17:16), four times in Isaiah (12:2; 26:4; 38:11 [twice]), and 43 times in roughly the second half of the Psalms (Ps. 68-150). The short form is familiar to us in English in the expression Hallelujah, which occurs 26 times in the Psalms and in Hebrew means “Praise Yah” (usually translated “Praise the LORD” or “Praise ye the LORD”).
Although the name YHWH is extremely common in the Old Testament, it is not used everywhere. The name is not found at all in the books of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.10 Its absence from Esther and Song of Solomon is due to the fact that both books lack direct references to God. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, uses the name ‘elohîm 40 times yet never uses YHWH. The name YHWH is found only once in Job 3-37, the debate speeches of Job and his three friends (in Job 12:9, in one of Job’s speeches), although it is found 32 times in Job 1-2 and 38-42. The name YHWH also occurs only eight times in the book of Daniel, all in Daniel 9. Yet Hebrew and Aramaic names translated “God” occur 66 times in Daniel, including 14 times in Daniel 9. Almost everywhere else in the Old Testament, the name is virtually pervasive.11
Until the middle of the twentieth century, the earliest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament were medieval copies dating about AD 900 and later. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient copies from as early as the second century BC have confirmed the accuracy of those medieval manuscripts with respect to such matters as the use of the divine name YHWH. Our information on its use in the Old Testament is extremely reliable and not in any serious dispute among biblical scholars.
The Divine Name in Ancient Greek Translations of the Old Testament
Matters are considerably more complicated and controversial with regard to the translations of the Old Testament into Greek done in the ancient world both before and after the time of Christ. The oldest and most influential Greek version of the Old Testament was produced in the middle of the third century BC by Jews in Alexandria and was a translation specifically of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), what Jews called the Torah (law, instruction). Over the next two centuries, Greek-speaking Jews produced translations of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians later called the Old Testament). These earliest, pre-Christian translations of the Old Testament are conventionally called “the Septuagint,” even though this name strictly speaking referred to the first Greek version of the Pentateuch. Scholars commonly refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX (the Roman numeral form of “70”), reflecting the traditional story of its being produced by 70 (actually 72) Jewish translators.
Until the twentieth century, virtually all of the known copies of the Septuagint were ancient copies made by Christians as part of their Bible (beginning in the fourth century AD). In these copies, the name YHWH was generally represented using the Greek word κύριος (kurios), meaning “Lord.” This practice continued in versions of the Old Testament produced in Latin and in other languages, including English, up to the present day. In most English versions, to indicate that the term Lord stands in place of the Hebrew name YHWH (rather than a Hebrew word literally meaning “lord”), the term is spelled with small capital letters, Lord.
Meanwhile, throughout the past two millennia Jews have avoided pronouncing the name YHWH aloud or even writing it (except in making copies of the Hebrew Bible itself), usually saying “Lord” (in Hebrew, Adonai) in place of the name. Thus, standard Jewish versions of the Bible in English, notably the version produced by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917 and its more recent version in 1985, employ the same practice of using “Lord” in place of the divine name.
Given the fact that both Christians and Jews universally accepted this practice of using “Lord” or similar substitute terms for the name YHWH, and that our earliest copies of the Septuagint reflected this same practice, it seemed obvious that the Septuagint had followed this usage from the very beginning. However, a handful of manuscripts (or fragments of manuscripts) of the Septuagint from the first century BC and later have come to light that were copied by Jewish scribes and that use some form of the divine name. Four manuscripts dated from the first century BC to the first or possibly second century AD use the tetragrammaton in Aramaic or paleo-Hebrew characters. Three of these manuscripts were found in Egypt (two in Oxyrhynchus, a treasure trove of manuscripts discovered in the late nineteenth century that scholars are still analyzing and publishing)12 and the fourth (the one using the “square,” Aramaic script) was found in the Judean Desert.13 In addition, a first-century BC Greek manuscript of Leviticus found among the Dead Sea Scrolls uses the Greek IAΩ (which we might pronounce “Ya-oh”), an attempt to transliterate the divine name to show how it would be pronounced in Greek.14 So far, no manuscripts of the Old Testament in Greek from this period (first century BC to the second century AD) have been found that use substitute terms such as “Lord” and “God.”
This manuscript evidence, though meager, could support the conclusion that the Septuagint originally used forms of the divine name YHWH, though what form would remain uncertain. Either the manuscript using the Greek IAΩ or the manuscripts using the tetragrammaton might represent the original reading. Suppose the tetragrammaton was the original reading. Then it would follow that the first-century BC manuscript using IAΩ was a deviation from that reading. Either way, we have evidence of different practices with regard to expressing the divine name in Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament by the first century BC. Once we realize this, we can see how precarious it would be to conclude with any dogmatism that the Septuagint originally used a form of the divine name. Likewise, it would be unwise with the evidence available at present to insist that the Septuagint originally did not use the divine name. We simply do not have sufficient evidence to draw any definite conclusion.
Although we cannot be sure how the original Septuagint handled the divine name, we have good evidence that by the time of the New Testament writers there were different editions or types of the Old Testament in Greek that handled the name in different ways. We have already mentioned two of these, one using the tetragrammaton and the other spelling out the name phonetically in Greek as IAΩ. We also have indirect evidence that Jewish writers in the first century used a version of the Greek Old Testament that employed the Greek noun for “Lord” (κύριος) in place of the divine name. The most important Jewish author in this respect is Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish scholar who wrote numerous books on Scripture, theology, and philosophy. His writings cannot be dated precisely but were written around the time of Jesus (probably between AD 25 and 50). Philo knew what the tetragrammaton was (and even used the word tetragrammaton) but consistently used the title κύριος in place of the divine name when quoting from or commenting on the Old Testament.15
This leads us to the question of the practice of the New Testament writers, to which we now turn.
The Divine Name in the Greek New Testament
The short form of the divine name, Yah, which we noted occurs 26 times in the Psalms in the expression Hallelujah, appears four times in the same expression used in the Greek manuscripts at Revelation 19:1-6. Otherwise, no form of the divine name, whether the tetragrammaton, the Greek phonetic form IAΩ, or any other form, appears in any of the nearly six thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament writings that are extant today.16
Let us consider for a moment the earliest extant Greek manuscripts of New Testament texts where one might hope to see the divine name. These manuscripts would be those containing passages that quote Old Testament statements that used the divine name in Hebrew. The earliest such manuscripts are all usually dated around AD 200, plus or minus about 25 years (175-225). These are manuscripts containing passages in Luke, John, and the epistles with relevant quotations from the Old Testament. The three most important of these manuscripts are P46 (containing over sixty such references from the epistles), P66 (containing five such references in John), and P75 (containing seven such references in Luke and John). The divine name appears nowhere in these manuscripts. Although P46 is usually dated roughly 175-225, some scholars have argued for a date around 125-150.
If we accept the conventional scholarly dates for the New Testament writings, these three early manuscripts were copied roughly 75 to 150 or so years after the books were originally written. To modern people unfamiliar with the preservation of ancient literature that may sound like a long time. However, relative to other ancient texts, having copies dating two centuries or less after the original composition is extraordinary. Moreover, these manuscripts were copied long before the Christian movement had gained any political acceptance (let alone power) within the Roman Empire, as it eventually did in the fourth century. In the late second century, Christianity was a quickly growing movement but one that had no centralized or hierarchical authority. Nor was there any guild or pool of authorized copyists acting on behalf of a single or organized religious institution. Serious efforts to standardize the Greek texts of the New Testament used throughout the church did not develop until hundreds of years later.
Here is the fatal problem with the Watchtower claim that the New Testament writers used the divine name: the claim inevitably requires a fantastic conspiracy theory to explain how all of the manuscripts that are extant, including manuscripts discovered in the past hundred-plus years, happen to lack the divine name. We have a couple dozen or more New Testament manuscripts dating from before Constantine and not one uses the divine name. We have thousands of manuscripts dating from after Constantine. Yet not one uses the divine name. Again, this is not because some church authority was telling the scribes what to write. The manuscripts from the first eight centuries or so (especially the first six centuries) have many differences from one another. Scholars categorize the manuscripts into four or five “families” in which the manuscripts display similar tendencies on the part of the scribes, or appear to have some history of copying in common. These differences should not be exaggerated—the historical accounts and the doctrines taught in the manuscripts are essentially the same—but they are significant enough to demonstrate the lack of any collusion or coordination, let alone conspiracy, in the production and preservation of the manuscripts. And again, the church had no mechanism during the second or third centuries to gather up unacceptable copies of the New Testament writings and dispose of them.
Two other points should be made here. First, not only do the New Testament manuscripts lack the divine name YHWH, so do the writings of the church fathers when they are quoting the New Testament, from the late first century (such as Clement of Rome) and down throughout the second and third centuries. Moreover, these Christian writers frequently argue against and criticize various groups of people for teaching false doctrines or advocating different practices, but they never even mention any dispute within early Christianity over the use of the divine name. It never comes up. There were no “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in the second century who were upset about the New Testament being copied without the divine name. It was a non-issue.
Second, the New Testament writings were quickly translated into several different languages in the second and third centuries, notably Syriac and Latin. The people doing these translations, especially the Syriac versions, would have been working largely independently of even what local church leaders there were in the Greco-Roman culture. Yet these versions in other languages also show no trace of the tetragrammaton.
The evidence is truly overwhelming that the New Testament writers did not use the divine name YHWH or any form of it, except for the expression Hallelujah in Revelation 19:1-6. As much as any statement of fact can be made about the original wording of the New Testament, this conclusion should be regarded as a well-established fact.
What about the Old Testament?
We have shown that the New Testament did not use the divine name YHWH. However, clearly the Old Testament, in Hebrew at least, did use that name. On this basis, Jehovah’s Witnesses—and some non-Witnesses as well—argue that English translations should use some form of the name in the Old Testament. As mentioned earlier, some do so, whether using the name Yahweh (e.g., the New Jerusalem Bible) or Jehovah (e.g., the American Standard Version of 1901). This position is a respectable one to take.17
On the other hand, since the New Testament quotes the Old Testament in Greek without using the name YHWH, one could view its handling of the Old Testament as establishing the precedent for translating the Old Testament into different languages with substitutes for the name YHWH such as “Lord.” Whatever the practice of the original translators of the Septuagint, this did become the standard practice of Christian copyists of the Greek Old Testament as early as the third century.
We may leave this question about translating YHWH in the Old Testament unanswered here. Either way, our handling of the New Testament should not deny the clear fact that in its Greek text it did not use the name YHWH or any form of that name, but instead used substitute terms, mostly “Lord,” where the Old Testament used YHWH.
1. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is Use of the Name Jehovah a Mark of True Christians?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).
2. Close to Jehovah (Watchtower, 2014), 8-9.
3. “Should the Name Jehovah Appear in the New Testament?” Watchtower, Aug. 1, 2008, 22.
4. The Divine Name that Will Endure Forever (Watchtower, 2006), 27. This publication does not seem to be available on the JW.org website but is referenced there several times in newer publications.
5. The most sophisticated defense of the Watchtower’s position, ironically, was produced by a former Jehovah’s Witness: Frank E. Shaw, The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of Iaw, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis & Theology 70 (Leuven: Peeters, 2014), originally a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Cincinnati (2002). The best overall treatment of the subject of the divine name YHWH, covering the Old and New Testaments and Christian history after the Bible, is Robert J. Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God: From the Beginnings to the Seventeenth Century, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 179 (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
6. The name Iehouah appeared six times in the 1599 Geneva Bible (Exod. 6:3; 15:3; 23:17; 34:23; Judg. 6:24; Ps. 83:18), just twelve years before the KJV.
7. The (Holman) Christian Standard Bible used the name Yahweh in about a tenth of the Old Testament occurrences of YHWH (643 times in its second edition), but the current (2017) edition has dropped its use altogether in favor of the traditional use of Lord.
8. The exact number according to the academic software program BibleWorks 10 is 6,828 occurrences. There are a relatively very small number of places in the Hebrew Old Testament where there is some textual variation or uncertainty about whether the name YHWH was used there.
9. According to BibleWorks 10, ’elohîm occurs 2,602 times. It is found in all but four books of the Old Testament: Esther, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and the extremely short book of Obadiah. In over 90 percent of those 2,602 occurrences, ’elohîm refers to the one God; elsewhere it is used as a numerical plural to mean “gods” or (in a very few instances) in reference to a single pagan deity. English versions typically use the name God slightly more than 3,000 times in the Old Testament (e.g., NRSV 3,074; NASB 3,073; ESV 3,091; KJV 3,100; but NET 2,730; NIV 2,799), representing mostly the Hebrew Elohim but also the related names El, Eloah, and in a few places other names.
10. There is a possible but unlikely occurrence of the short form of the name, Yah, at the end of Song of Solomon 8:6 (“the very flame of Yah”), but more likely –yah there is a suffix that intensifies the word’s meaning (“a most vehement flame,” KJV; “a blazing flame,” NET; “a mighty flame,” NIV; “a raging flame,” NRSV; etc.).
11. The only other notable stretches of text in which the name is not found are Genesis 32:11-38:9 and 40:1-49:17, which never use the name YHWH although they use the name Elohim 16 and 29 times respectively.
12. These manuscripts are known as 8HevXIIgr, P.Oxy. 3522, and P.Oxy. 5101.
13. This manuscript is called P.Fouad 266b.
14. This manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls is called 4QLXXLevb.
15. Sean M. McDonough, YHWH at Patmos: Rev. 1:4 in its Hellenistic and Early Jewish Setting, WUNT 2.107 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 79-84.
16. The number is well over 5,800 and continues to climb as scholars find additional manuscripts. I will be summarizing a lot of information on the New Testament manuscripts here. Some standard academic introductions to the subject include the following: Philip Wesley Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism (Nashville: B&H, 2005); Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and The Early Text of the New Testament, edited by Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). The list could of course be extended.
17. Jason BeDuhn, who generally defends the NWT as a superior English version, lauds it for using Jehovah in the Old Testament but criticizes it for using the name in the New Testament. See Jason David BeDuhn, “Appendix: The Use of ‘Jehovah’ in the NW,” in Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003), 169-81. The same position is taken (in a very different manner) in Lynn Lundquist, The Tetragrammaton in the Christian Greek Scriptures, 3rd ed. (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011). IRR maintains Lundquist’s website, http://www.tetragrammaton.org/, due to the generally excellent and detailed information provided there in his free books and articles. However, we do not endorse his view that translations of the Old Testament necessarily should use a form of the divine name (Yahweh or Jehovah).