Paul Derengowski, ThM
Have you ever wondered why the Jehovah’s Witnesses place so much emphasis upon what God’s “memorial-name” is (Ex. 3:15)? Anyone who has ever been involved in a protracted discussion with a JW inevitably will be confronted with the subject, particularly if the discussion with the JW includes any allusion to Bible translations and the JW presumption that they are all somehow corrupt due the exclusion of God’s name everywhere the Tetragram has been translated “Lord.” The tetragram is the four Hebrew letters hwhy, which exclude any kind of vowel pointing, that represent the spelling of God’s memorial name.
Typically the argument goes like this. God has a personal name which is Jehovah. To translate God’s special name as anything but Jehovah is considered a removal of God’s name from the text. Therefore, all translations failing to translate the Tetragram as “Jehovah” have removed God’s name from the translation, and are hence guilty of following the traditions of men. 1 There are several flaws with this kind of argument, starting with idea that the Tetragram should only be translated “Jehovah.”
The Philological Impossibility
The whole idea that YHWH is to be translated “Jehovah” is in the words of Emil G. Hirsch “a philological impossibility.” 2 According Hirsch, “Jehovah” is a “mispronunciation (introduced by Christian theologians” stemming from a “pronouncing of the vowels of the kere 3 …with the consonants of the ketib.” 4 In other words, the vowels of “Adonay” have been combined with the consonants YHWH to produce “Jehovah.” Yet, such a rendering also produced Elohim as well. The whole idea, though, was to provide two possible substitutions “to avoid profanation of the Ineffable Name” of God. 5
Other reputable Hebrew scholars coincide with Hirsch’s conclusions. Allen P. Ross argued that,
A misunderstanding of this hybrid [Adonay + YHWH] form lead early translations to use “Jehovah” (yehōwâ). Most modern translations, however, use the form that is read (called qerê, “what is read), “Lord,” and print it with initial cap and small caps to distinguish it from the actual word “Lord.” For greater precision, the letters in the text (called ketîb, “what is written”), Yhwh, are often used in scholarly writing on the Old Testament. 6
Paul Joüon and T. Muraoka add, “the divine name [YHWH]: the Qre is [Adonay] the Lord, whilst the Ktiv is probably [YHWH] (according to the ancient witnesses)…If the name [YHWH] is already preceded by the word [Adonay], [YHWH] is written: the Qre is [Elohim].” 7 They go on to reiterate what has already been said above concerning the introduction of the vowels associated with Adonay with the consonants of YHWH, meaning that the Jehovah’s Witness insistence that YHWH be translated as exclusively “Jehovah” is not philologically feasible.
The Historical Improbability
Historical improbability refers to the fact that regardless of how hard the Watchtower Society or a Jehovah’s Witness argues the case the correct pronunciation of the Tetragram has been lost and will not likely be recovered prior to the Second Coming of Jesus. Freedman points out that “Early in the modern period, scholars began to try to recover the pronunciation. The form yahweh is now accepted almost universally.” 8 The reason why is because of a philological understanding of how YHWH came to be pronounced as discussed above.
Second, Terence Fretheim notes that “The transliteration of the present Heb. form, ‘Jehovah,’ does not represent any known ancient pronunciation,” 9 mainly because the form itself arose in the Middle Ages, which would also been about the time the Masoretes began inserting the currently vowel pointing structure into the Hebrew text. That structure, though, produced a false pronunciation (yehōwâ). And since we do not know how the Jews pronounced the Tetragram prior to that time, mainly because of Jewish reverence for the name, and a fear that it would be mispronounced, then there is little, if any possibility that its pronunciation will be recovered. Jenni argues that “On the basis of philological considerations and Gk. transcriptions in the church fathers, scholars have concluded that the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was yahweh,” 10 which only reiterates that “Jehovah” is an inaccurate rendering, despite the fact that even “Yahweh” cannot be spoken with absolute certainty.
The Theological Relativity
Since therefore the philological and historical arguments for asserting that YHWH is to be translated only as “Jehovah” are either impossible or improbable, the question needs to be asked why the Watchtower and Jehovah’s Witnesses are so adamant about such a rendering? Ultimately only God knows for sure the motives of a man or an organization, but it would seem that there are at least three reasons for their adamant stance: textual superiority for the New World Translation, an imposed and exaggerated apostasy, and a self-exalted image as the new Judaism.
Textual superiority for the NWT is generally centered on the fallacious principle of tu quoque, or so long as there are alleged corruptions in all other versions, then the NWT’s corruptions are justifiable. In other words, since all other versions are assumed to have removed God’s name from their texts, then the WBTS believes that it is just to insert “Jehovah” in every instance where the Tetragram appears. That attitude spills over into other areas where the Watchtower Society has taken liberties with the biblical text 11 , and unless a person is aware of the fallacy upon which such reasoning is based, then one could fall victim to another fallacious conclusion, which is that the NWT is an adequate, if not superior, Bible translation when compared to all others.
The Watchtower Society, like so many aberrant groups, makes great, hyperbolic waves when discussing the alleged apostasy that took place shortly after the last of the apostles passed from the scene. As a sign of the alleged apostasy the Watchtower point to the removal of God’s name from the biblical text. In fact, the removal even extended to the manuscript copies! 12 Yet, as is usual, a complete misinterpretation of Scripture precedes such hyperbole, with allusions to passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and 1 John 2:18, 19 used as evidence to support the exaggeration. A careful rendering, though, shows definitively that no apostasy took place in the past, much less does the apostasy that will take place involve manipulation of the biblical text of the kind that the Watchtower speaks.
Finally, the Watchtower Society, perhaps due to its Seventh Day Adventism ties, often portrays itself as a sort of “new” Judaism, complete with a restoration of the phonetic pronunciation for God’s name that the early Jews had lost for “superstitious” reasons. With such a self-appointment the Jehovah’s Witnesses then believes that not only should they be afforded a certain Semitic respect, but that the text that they have worked hard to exalt Jehovah’s personal name should be afforded the same respect. The overall attitude is based on several false conclusions, starting with the idea that because one manipulates the biblical text to appear to be more Jewish that that in fact makes the Witnesses Jewish. The reality is that in order to be truly Jewish one needs to have their heart circumcised (Rom. 2:28-29) and not the religious text that one believes is better than all the others simply because someone arbitrarily decided to change Lord to “Jehovah.”
The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society has gone to great lengths to try and make a case for changing every single reference of YHWH to “Jehovah.” Yet, despite the effort, there is no philological, historical, or theological precedence for the changes. At best the reasoning of The Watchtower is self-serving, where it promotes a preconceived ideology than it does a biblical reality. It is not to say that God doesn’t have a name, and that that name means something special. It’s that in an effort to forward an agenda of self-importance and recognition, the Watchtower Society has sullied its reputation by ignoring or distorting reputable sources of linguistic and historical information that clearly rebut its ideology.
Worse yet, however, is that because the Watchtower Society makes such a big deal out of “translating” YHWH as “Jehovah” that one easily could conclude that it is committing an act of idolatry. In other words, regardless of the context, the linguistics, the history, or the theology involved, the word “Jehovah” is idolized, since the reader of the NWT presumably knows that when the word is seen, then YHWH must be behind the text. Little does the Watchtower and its adherents realize that whether one is speaking about Yahweh, God the Father, Elohim, or even Jehovah, one is speaking about the same person, which is much more important than whether one pronounces the Tetragram in a speculated way to the degree where God becomes an idol. It is a point that should be made every time a Jehovah’s Witness either wants to divert attention away from a controversial passage found in his “translation,” or whether he wishes to attack other translations for allegedly removing God’s name from the text. In either case the Jehovah’s Witness is arguing irrationally and it should be pointed out to him. Failure to do so is to grant credence where none is deserved, and to perpetuate the idolizing of God’s name that the Watchtower Society has become famous for propagating.
- Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower: Brooklyn, 1989), 194. ↩
- “Names of God.” Jewish Encyclopedia.com. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=52&letter=N#164>. ↩
- The kere (Qerê), variants that appear in the margin of the biblical manuscripts, are those that are “to be read,” instead of the ketib (kêthîbh), which is “that which was written.” According to Gesenius, “On this account the vowels of the marginal reading (the Qerê) are placed under the consonants of the text, and in order to understand both readings properly, the vowels in the text must be applied to the marginal reading, while for the reading of the text (the Kêthîbh) its own vowels are to be used.” E. Kautzsch, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 20th impression (Clarendon: Oxford, 1990), 66. ↩
- Emil G. Hirsch, “Jehovah,” Jewish Encyclopedia.com. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=206&letter=J> ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 60. ↩
- Paul Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 2 vols. (Editrice Pontifico Instituto Biblico: Roma, 2003), 2:72. It should be noted that the Watchtower misleads its readers by quoting Joüon and Muraoka as references supporting the “Jehovah” mistranslation of YHWH, by presuming that because they have provided a French rendering of YHWH for a French reading Hebrew Grammar, that that is their philological position overall on the subject. It is simply another example of how the Watchtower misuses its sources to prove a theological presupposition, rather than simply letting the sources speak for themselves, which regularly refute their presupposition. ↩
- G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 15 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ), 5:500. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:1296. ↩
- Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 2:522. ↩
- John 1:1c and Colossians 1:15, 16, and 20 are classic examples where the Watchtower “translation” committee has inserted definite articles and wording that is not justifiable according to normal rules of grammar and syntax. ↩
- “Christians and the Name,” in The Divine Name That Will Endure Forever on the Watchtower Library 2007 CD. ↩