The Divine Name

By Jørgen Christensen-Ernst

(An article in the Danish newspaper Jyllandssposten 26th of April 1998 by the same author re-written in English.)

In an article in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten 22.03 Bachelor of Divinity Henning Astrup presents his opinion on the use of God’s name. In the article he for example states that the Jews regarded God’s name as too holy to be pronounced.

It is true that Jews to a great extend avoid using God’s name. It is replaced by “adonay” (Lord), “hash-shem” (the Name) and at times even with a fusion of the two (adoshem). According to the Jewish historian Josephus, who was a younger contemporary of Jesus, the Divine Name was not used at the time of Jesus either (Antiquities, 2. book, chapter 12, paragraph 4). On the other hand, in a footnote to this section the translator William Whiston states: “It is however no doubt but both these cautious concealments were taught Josephus by the Pharisees, a body of men at once very wicked and very superstitious.”

The name was known

Even if one would disagree with this viewpoint one would still have to admit that Jesus was not likely to adjust to the Pharisees or to respect local taboos. Nor does it mean that the Jews never had pronounced the divine name. The name is found in a text engraved by a neighbouring king, namely Mesha of Moab during the time of the kings in Israel.[1] The divine name occurs in this text written with its four consonants. As king Mesha hardly was a reader of Israelite literature, one has the right to suppose that he knew the name because it was commonly used in his day.

This assertion is supported by the fact that the unwillingness of the Jews to use God’s name did not prevent them from using it in proper names. For instance the name “Nethanyahu” has the meaning “Yahuh (or Jehovah or Yahveh) has given.”

The divine name and its shortened for was and still is an element in many proper names of Jewish origin used by both Jews and Christians.[2] The reason for this is that people originally had no fear of using God’s name and that the proper names that contain it in time have become “common property.”

This takes us to the question of the correct pronunciation of the name.

In a footnote to the text quoted above William Whiston states that God’s name “seems to have been originally pronounced Jahoh og Jao.”[3] This would be consistent with the form it takes when it is a part of Hebrew names. Perhaps the last “h” has had a patach furtivum so that it has been pronounced something like Yahûah.

An artificial pronunciation

Personally I doubt the common explanation that God’s name originally was a hiphîl or causative and therefore pronounced Yahweh. This would not match the forms it takes when it appears in Hebrew proper names and when the meaning of the name is discussed in the Old Testament no causative sense is implied.

But even if the form Jehovah is not the correct pronunciation of the name and even if it is an “artificial pronunciation” this would not mean that the pronunciation is far from the original. (Please try to say Yahûah fast and try the same with Yahwah as the hiphîl may have sounded!) If though the pronunciation is far form the original this would still be no valid reason for removing the name or for pretending that the Bible has no proper name for God.

Wrong pronunciation

The way the name Jesus is pronounced in most languages is wrong. In English and in French the first phoneme in the name does not exist in Hebrew or Greek. In Spanish the first phoneme of the name belongs to a totally different letter in both Hebrew and Greek. In Turkish the Protestant Bible translators have used the form İsa which is taken directly from the Qur’an.[4]

Even the Greek form Yesous[5] that is used in the Greek New Testament is an incorrect form of the Hebrew Yeshûa[6] where the “a” represents a sound a little similar to “r” in the word “or” in British English.

God’s name is one of the most frequently used words in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (cf. Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, George V. Wigram, Samuel Bagster & Sons, London, appendix pages 20 – 23). To remove the name is a sign neither of honesty nor of professionalism.

When we read the Letter of Paul to the Romans chapter 10 it may look as if Henning Astrup has got a point. The word Lord is used as if it in all cases refers to Jesus. But this is only apparently so.

We have to keep in mind that the author of the Letter to the Romans was the apostle Paul who could read and speak Hebrew (cf. Acts chapter 22) and who had received instruction from the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. So when Paul quoted the Old Testament he knew where God’s name occurred in the text and when Franz Delizsch (who was not one of Jehovah’s Witness) translated the Letter to the Romans from Greek into Hebrew he inserted God’s name where it occurred in quotations from the Old Testament. If one reads Romans 10 with God’s name – or just its four consonants – inserted in the right places, the reading gives a different result from what is suggested in the authorised Danish translation and other translations where God’s name is hidden. In the chapter there is a clear distinction between the Lord God (Jehovah – Yahweh – Yahûh) and Jesus whom God “hath made … both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2;36)

Now of course someone could claim that those two in reality are the same one, but that would look like Sabellianism, wouldn’t it?

[1] The 9th century B.C.E.

[2] And by Muslims as well, for example Zakariyya [زكرّيا ] from the Hebrew name Zakaryahu [זכריהו]

[3] As the phoneme J does not exist in Hebrew J has to be replaced with Y.

[4] عيسى

[5] Ιησους

[6] יהושׁע [yehôshua] or the shorter form ישׁוע  [yeshûa]

About Antiochene

Writer and translatorliving in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey) and Copenhagen.
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