Jehovah's Witnesses and the Divine Name

The insistence upon the use of "Jehovah" as the only proper way to address God is a distinctive that is bespoken in the very name "Jehovah's Witnesses" itself. Yet this seems to be one of the weakest of their doctrines in terms of ability to defend.

The issue is not whether or not "Jehovah" is an allowable translation (many agree that it is acceptable, since we really do not know the right vowel combination from the Hebrew YHWH), but whether it is the only and exclusive way to refer to God.

Now in one sense this is already, clearly, a tempest in a teapot. Certainly no one is going to assign God another name such as Fred or Jerry or Wilma. But the root of the matter is explained on the Watchtower site thusly:

...many modern Bibles do not contain the name, and it is rarely used in the churches. Hence, far from being "hallowed," it has been lost to millions of Bible readers.

Has it been "lost"? I hardly think so -- any decent study Bible will explain about YHWH and the Tetragrammaton, and there are hundreds of books of OT theology with plenty of details. I know of few who do not know that "the LORD" represents a Hebrew name, YHWH. The question then becomes, do we do God an injustice by replacing YHWH with such words?

The site goes on to say, "God's name was clearly of crucial importance to Jesus, since he mentioned it repeatedly in his prayers." What this means is well known to apologists, and we will not repeat their arguments in detail (see links below); suffice to summarize that the word "name" was often a synecdoche for the entire person and their reputation (Gen. 12:2, "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing...") and that this offers an explanation for the command to "hallow the name" of God in a way that does not mean simply that we are required to constantly use it as a reference.

The Watchtower site has no answer (other than some of the same we see below) for the matter of YHWH not appearing anywhere in the NT (even though there are other Aramaic or Hebrew words used, for far less trivial reasons), or for the unjustified insertion of the divine name in the NWT text. The NT Greek uses kurios, "Lord," when repeating OT cites, and there is zero textual evidence to the contrary, which is definitive in light of the number and age of the Greek NT mss. we have and the fact that if "Jehovah" appeared even once in the NT, no one could possibly have controlled the entire textual tradition to the extent needed to completely cover it up. Moreover, there is not a hint of a "divine name" controversy in the early church.

Perhaps one of the most aggressive JW apologetic sites on the Net -- apparently now defunct -- tried to explain this significant problem in the JW equation with some rather creative explanations:

  1. According to the author, older copies of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint/LXX) use the Hebrew divine name rather than kurios. Hence, "we can easily deduce that if the writers of NT in their quotations of the OT used the LXX they would surely have left the Tetragrammaton in their writings the way it recurred in the Greek version of the OT."

    This finds no substantiation at all in the NT textual record, and since the newer LXX, as the author acknowledges, used kurios, how is one to decide that any kurios in the NT is not a quote of the newer LXX?

    The author also cites the work of "George Howard, of the University of Georgia (U.S.A.) who observes: 'When the Septuagint Version that the New Testamental Church used and quoted, contained the Divine Name in Hebrew characters, the writers of the New Testament included without doubt the Tetragrammaton in their quotations'. Biblical Archeology Review, March 1978, p.14."

    This only reports a small and favorable part of the article, for Howard also admits that there is no textual support for his argument, other than places where scribes may have confused "God" and "Christ" not knowing which one was intended for the divine name.

    But Howard offers no direct evidence that the Greek writers of the NT ever used the divine name, and even says that Jewish Christians may have approved of the use of kurios for YHWH as a way of differentiating the divine name from the rest of the text.

  2. Next it is argued that evidence indicates that Matthew kept the divine name in the original Hebrew version of his Gospel. No one would doubt this, but if Matthew or his disciple was responsible for the Greek version of that Gospel, as JWs would probably allow, then why did they not keep the name there also? One can only uselessly speculate, without evidence, that later scribes did the scrubbing.
  3. Appeal is made to the Jewish Babylonian Talmud, which says that one must cut the divine name out of the Scriptures of the minim (supposedly Hebrew Christians), hence they used the divine name. This is quite understandable, again, in a work prepared for Hebrew readers (as above) but it fails to explain the non-use of the divine name in the Greek NT.

The author did not go as far as suggesting wholesale tampering with the NT to get rid of the divine name. Another site I have seen does suggest that Gentile Christians after the death of the Apostles went through scrubbing the divine name out of ignorance, but relies on the false assertion that most Jewish Christians were killed by Roman authorities between 66-135 AD (thus leaving Gentile Christians somehow ignorant) and not explaining why, if this is so, certain Aramaic or Hebrew words did remain unchanged (maranatha and abba being the prime examples).

It is also speculated that the divine name was removed to appease Roman authorities and gain approval among Romans in general, and so these Gentile Christians "began to discard almost anything that made them look Jewish." Indeed? They forgot to remove a big Jewish plank in the house: the very Jewish concept of bodily resurrection, to say nothing of Jesus' origins in backwoods Judaism. Also:

  1. Knowledge that Christianity grew out of Judaism was common, so scrubbing a Hebrew name was not exactly going to be effective;
  2. If anything, Christians should have preferred to keep the divine name, as that would have been a pointer to allowing them to still be considered a sort of Jew and therefore under the protection of the same religious liberties allowed to Jews in the Roman Empire.

  • A helpful and more complete article by Robert Bowman can be found here.