Understanding the Tetragrammaton

In the religious world there is much confusion about the Tetragrammaton (a Greek term meaning “the four letters”), referring to the name of God in the Old Testament, designated with the consonants YHWH. There are some religious organizations that place great emphasis on this name, and there is also generally much confusion over how it is to be pronounced.

Understanding the Problem

It would be good to first examine the source of the problem: why is there confusion over how to pronounce YHWH? The Hebrew language in its original form was written without vowel pointings; after all, one wrote down what one heard and he could fill in the vowels when speaking. This is true of all western written languages before the Greeks developed an alphabet that included vowels. The entire Old Testament text, therefore, was originally not vocalized. As time progressed, naturally, there were difficulties maintaining proper pronunciation: to solve the problem at first, three consonants were given a new role as vowel letters to indicate vowel types (called matres lectiones, “mothers of reading”), and in the latter half of the first millennium CE, when Hebrew waned in Jewish culture, the group of Jews responsible for maintaining and handing down the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Masoretes, developed a system of vowel pointings used even today. Generally, the Masoretic pointing is accurate; it has been confirmed by transliterated names of people and places and also in other ancient documents. We must remember, however, that at the time of Christ the vowel letters were used haphazardly but otherwise vowels had to be supplied by the reader.

This difficulty is compounded by the Jewish traditions regarding the Tetragrammaton. Early in Israelite history few if any had difficulties in saying the name of God– YHWH– as evidenced in direct speech in narratives (cf. Ruth 2:4). As time wore on, however, traditions developed regarding the third commandment– to not take the name of YHWH in vain (Exodus 20:8)– that meant that no one at any time save the High Priest on the Day of Atonement should utter the Tetragrammaton. As long as the Temple stood there were some who would utter the Tetragrammaton on occasion, and even after its demise there is evidence that some Jews did remember the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. In all of our Hebrew texts with vowel pointings, however, there are none that in any way retain the true vocalization of the Tetragrammaton; therefore, all evidence regarding how YHWH is to be pronounced must come from other sources. Let us now look at the evidence for its pronunciation.

YHWH as Yahweh: The Evidence

As we shall see, the evidence we have points to the pronunciation of YHWH as “Yahweh.”

Derivation of “YHWH”

It is important to first understand how YHWH is derived. Its first attested use is by God in His speaking with Moses in Exodus 3:14:

And God said unto Moses, “I AM THAT I AM”:
and he said, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, “I AM hath sent me unto you.'”

In Hebrew, God calls Himself ‘ehyeh asher ‘ehyeh, and charges Moses to tell Israel that ‘ehyeh sent him to them. If we analyze ‘ehyeh, we see that it is a first person common singular imperfect form of the verb hayah, to be.

This form was turned from a first person to a third person (from “I am” to “he is”), and we have a change of glides: w/y are often interchanged in Hebrew, and the form we see later is YHWH, which, if translated, would be closest to “He is,” or “He will be.” A non-altered third person masculine singular form of hayah would be yihyeh.

The Divine Particle in Names and Translation

The first half of the Tetragrammaton– YH– was often used in names and even as shorthand for the name of God. Its shorthand form is used in Exodus 15:2 and it is “Yah” there, and this very form was transliterated into the Syriac Peshitta of Exodus 15:2. We also find this same phenomenon in names– Elijah (Eliyahu; the “u” ending provides more credence that the final half is pronounced “weh”), Jeremiah (Yirmeyahu), and Hezekiah (Hizikiyahu or Hizikiyah, and corresponding evidence from Assyrian cuneiform). Since Hebrew tends to accent words on their ultimate or penultimate syllables, these examples with the divine particle at the end of the names gives us the best evidence to show that the first half of the Tetragrammaton was pronounced “Yah.”

Early Christian Witnesses

We have three accounts from the “church fathers” of the first few centuries of Christianity regarding the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. Clement of Alexandria, around 180 CE, relates the following:

Further, the mystic name of the four letters which was affixed to those alone to whom the adytum was accessible, is called “Iaoue,” which is interpreted, “Who is and shall be.” The name of God, too, among the Greeks contains four letters [Greek theos, where “th” is represented with theta– ed.], (Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, V. 6).

Theodoret and Epiphanius, both later, establish that they heard the name as “Iabe.” From this information we confirm that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced “Yahweh,” since we must recognize the phonological differences between Greek and Hebrew: Greek has no consonantal “y” and recognizes the letter as the vowel “i” (as “Yeshua” becomes “Iesous”); Greek has no “h” save rough breathings at the beginnings of some words and does not account for the letter; Greek has neither “w” nor “v,” and it is very likely that a Greek listener (as were Theodoret and Epiphanius) would hear a “b” when a Jew said “v” (since in Hebrew b and v are separated by spirantization of the former only), and hearing “w” would sound like “ou.”

From this evidence, therefore, we can conclude that the Tetragrammaton was most probably pronounced as “Yahweh.”

What About “Jehovah”?

It will be asked by many, however, regarding the word “Jehovah,” the common translation (and supposed transliteration) of the Tetragrammaton in English Bibles. This form can be traced back to about 1489, and introduced popularly in 1520 by one Galatinus, a “confessor” of Pope Leo X (cf. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, p. 218). Its derivation is explainable as the mistake of a Christian reader of the Hebrew Bible who did not understand its pointing. Let us explain a bit about the pointing of the Hebrew Bible.

When the Masoretes pointed the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in the latter half of the first millennium, they recognized that there were many probable errors in the text. Since they held the text in high esteem, however, they would never alter any of the text itself, but instead favored a system called the ketib/qere system (ketib, meaning “written,” and qere, meaning “said”). When there was a word of some difficulty in the text, the consonants would remain unaltered, but there would be a note in the margin in Aramaic explaining what word should be read in synagogue. The vowel pointing in the text itself, however, would be the vocalization of what should be read (the qere) and not what was written (the ketib). A knowledgeable Hebrew reader would look at the word and recognize that the vowel pointing was not consistent with the written word and would therefore look for the qere in the margin to read.

This is precisely what happened with the Tetragrammaton, but as opposed to having a marginal note with the proper consonants listed it was considered a “perpetual ketib/qere,” meaning that whenever one saw the consonants YHWH as the Tetragrammaton one would recognize that it was a ketib and that the qere should be one of the various other designations for God– Elohim, Adonai, Ha-Shem (“the name”), etc. Depending on the text, YHWH would appear with the vowel pointings for one of the other designations. Our medieval friends came to one such Hebrew manuscript and simply transliterated what he saw: the consonants YHWH with the vocalization for Adonai: a o a, and we have “Yahoah.” Adapt the term to fit German reckoning, and we have “Jehovah.”

“Jehovah,” then, is a medieval misunderstanding of the Hebrew text and should not be understood as the proper pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. Its constant use in Bible versions (starting with one use in the KJV and becoming the translation of choice for YHWH in the ASV) secures its place in the English language and it will probably always be used to describe the LORD, the God of Heaven. While it is inaccurate it is not a “sinful” designation, but as those who strive to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), we ought to recognize and understand that YHWH was never pronounced as Jehovah but more likely as Yahweh.

Its Importance: The Unique Name of God

The student of the Bible will understand that YHWH as the name of God is important because it is the unique, personal name of God. The Lord said as much to Moses in Exodus 3:15, and demonstrated to Moses that He did not reveal Himself before as YHWH in Exodus 6:2-3:

And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.

And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am YHWH: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name YHWH I was not known to them.”

When we read the Scriptures, we see that the name YHWH is the only name that is unique to the true God. The other terms used are also used in other contexts: Elohim is used also to describe any other form of god(s), including the idols of the Canaanites (cf. 2 Kings 17:7); El, the singular form of Elohim sometimes used to refer to God, is also the name of the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon; Adonai also is used to refer to earthly masters; and while Shaddai is not used of anyone save the Lord, it is most often used in addition with other names for God, and is most properly seen as a description (most often translated “Almighty”). YHWH is important, therefore, in the sense that it is the only name of God not used to describe other gods or persons; Lord and God are terms that may be used to describe others, but YHWH is definitely the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

YHWH, Translation, and Transliteration

Having seen the importance of YHWH as the name of God, let us now examine the claims of many, particularly those of the so-called “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” that “Jehovah,” or “Yahweh,” as the name of God, has singular importance and that Christians must call upon the Lord by the name “YHWH.” Truth or error to such persons is partly determined by how much value is placed upon YHWH as the name of God. Let us examine this claim first by analyzing an important issue: if YHWH as the name of God is important for Christians to express, there would be evidence of this in the Bible in its original and earliest translated languages. Let us examine this evidence.

We must first recognize that the Jews of the time of Jesus’ day– and also a little earlier and down to the present day– consider the name of God as extremely holy and do not consider it proper to express it by voice. We have seen in our last edition that when the Scriptures were read in the synagogues, the Jews would replace the Tetragrammaton with another name of God– Adonai, Elohim, or ha-shem, “the Name.” Persons within the “Jehovah’s Witness” movement would consider this superstitious and false, and while we agree that the Jews did go too far, much farther than had originally been intended, it is evidence that the YHWH as the name of God, while holy and without blemish, need not be expressed by God’s people to make them holy.

Regardless, if early Christians considered YHWH as the name of God as extremely important and necessary for Christians to use, we would expect them to transliterate YHWH in their writings and/or translations, and not translate the name. For those who perhaps do not know, transliteration is the process by which a word in one language is expressed in the characters of another language without translation (i.e. “baptism” in English is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo), while translation is the expression of an idea conveyed in one language is converted to another language (i.e. Greek baptizo is translated into English as “to immerse”). Therefore, in texts like the Greek New Testament or even the Greek Septuagint, we would expect to see “YHWH” if the authors/translators considered the specific name of God as important to convey. Transliteration does occur from Aramaic into Greek, as even in English at Matthew 27:46:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying,
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”
that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

We can see that Matthew has considered the exact words of Jesus as expressed in Aramaic to be of such importance that he both transliterates the Aramaic and provides (in the Greek text) a Greek translation. Surely if YHWH as the name of God was deemed important for Christians to say he would have done the same with it.

The evidence, however, demonstrates that the early Christians translated YHWH as the name of God, and did not transliterate it. God is referred to in the Greek Septuagint (LXX; the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha; approx. 3rd-2nd centuries BCE) and the New Testament (1st century CE) with the Greek word Kurios, “Lord,” or the Greek word Theos, “God.”. In fact, the only transliteration of any term referring to God is in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6, where Jesus and Paul both refer to God by the Aramaic word Abba, which is the term of most intimate endearment in reference to a father! Similarly in the Latin Vulgate (4th century CE) God is referred to as Dominus, “Lord” or Deus, “God,” and in the Syriac Peshitta (approx. 2nd-5th centuries CE) as marya’, “Lord,” and Alaha, “God.” The only instance of transliteration I have found is in the Syriac Peshitta of Exodus 15:2, where the translator transliterates the divine particle yah but he also translates it with marya’. We can see, therefore, that YHWH as the name of God was not transliterated, as we would expect if it were deemed important for Christians to say, but was always translated with the general terms used for God.

Understanding Authority in a Name

The other difficulty with any idea that YHWH as the name of God is singularly important for Christians to use is a general lack of understanding of authority in a name. It is certainly true that in the ancient Near East many cultures considered the utterance of the name as expressing authority: from Egypt we have a myth regarding their gods that Isis, a fertility mother-goddess, was able to deceive Ra, the great sun god, to tell her his secret personal name; Isis therefore was able to gain power over Ra and be supreme since she knew his secret, personal name. This idea of authority in a name, however, is not expressed in the Bible. The power of a name in the Bible derives from the power inherent in the God behind the name. Let us use a human example to help us understand.

Most of us have checking accounts and write checks all the time, but have you ever stopped to think about the nature of the check and what makes it work? A check is a dated piece of paper authorizing a bank to take money out of one’s account and to give it to the payee. The check has the payee listed with the precise amount to give– and is authorized by a signature. The check is not good and cannot be authorized unless it is authorized with the written, signed name of the account holder. Is there any power inherent in your name? By no means! Your name on the check, however, is the authority that the bank needs to give out the money.

We can see the many truths about the name of God in the Scriptures in the same light. Let us read some of these Scriptures from Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:21, and Colossians 3:17:

And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying,
“All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

“And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Is God expressing to us that there is inherent authority in the word “Father,” or “Son,” or “Holy Spirit?” Or in “Lord?” By no means! The “name” here is like your name on the check: it is the appeal to the authority. The power in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the name of the Lord, is in the divine authority of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We can call Him Jehovah, Yahweh, Lord, God, Kurios, Theos, Marya’, Alaha, Dominus, Deus, Dieu, Gott, etc., and the authority does not change. We all are still calling upon the name of the Lord!

We have seen, therefore, that the Tetragrammaton YHWH is best pronounced Yahweh, and we recognize that while YHWH is important because it is the unique personal name of God, it is not required for Christians to use in order to be pleasing to Him. We see this from the evidence in the authorship and translations of the Bible, for in Greek, Latin, and Syriac we have no evidence for the transliteration of the Tetragrammaton and in all places it is translated. We have also seen that such an idea– that the name YHWH has inherent authority– is not an idea expressed in the Scriptures, since the idea of “the name of” is an appeal to the authority of the one named, not some inherent power in the name itself. Let us remember these things when we speak with those who have been perhaps confused about the Tetragrammaton.


One thought on “Understanding the Tetragrammaton

  1. Ethan-well done article. I appreciate most your conclusion that the mysticism associated with the Name should not be considered of spiritual value-the One behind the name and our righteous appeals to Him are what is really important.

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