Issues of Translation: Jehovah

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

One of our favorite hymns begins “Guide me oh thou great Jehovah.” We have all heard the word Jehovah used for God, but have you every wondered where it came from? This history of the “Name of God” has a long and illustrative history which shows just how difficult translating the bible can be.

To begin to understand the mystery of this word we must start back in the time of the Israelites captivity in Egypt and before. It is quite clear that the religious practices of the descendants of Abraham have always been devoted to God alone, though there is a surprising amount of biblical text that appears quite Henotheistic – admitting the existence of more then one god, but confining worship to a single deity. Regardless, in a world that was polytheistic all gods had names and particularly in Egypt, a physical description as well. It is at this point that God acquires a proper name.

Before I tell you what that name is (or not) it is necessary to move on in history a bit. By the 7th century BC Israel had an established state religion that was expressly monotheistic. God’s name became a liability. Why, they asked, should God need a name? There is only one God and there can be no doubt as to which god we might mean. The use of The Name became very rare and was to be used only on very special occasions, eventually being spoken only once a year by the High Priest in the temple on Yom Kippor. With the destruction of the temple in 66 AD there was now no place and no one allowed to speak the name of God.

The word “Jehovah” is an English trans­litera­tion of a German mis­transla­tion resulting from the use of Qere vowels on a Ketiv word which isn’t spoken because the name of God was too holy to use.

Repeated conquests and exiles also had an impact on their language. By the third century BC a significant number of believers spoke Greek or Aramaic. Worship was still in Hebrew, but with an ever declining number of people able to understand it, two projects were begun in order to keep the scripture accessible. The First was the translation from Hebrew into Greek, known as the Septuagint. The other was the creation of edited copies of the original Hebrew scriptures with the express purpose of making them easier to read aloud, and it is the latter that plays into the creation of the Word ‘Jehovah’.

To understand why, it is now time to dig into a bit of the mechanics of the Hebrew language. Like most ancient languages Hebrew started out as an aid to memory and used only consents. Even modern Hebrew is written with only 26 characters all of which are consents. If you know the language this is not any more of a problem then it is for an English speaker to decide whether the word “bow” should rhyme with “cow” or “row.” But for a people who no longer use the language outside of worship, the lack of vowels presented a real problem[1]. The sacred text could not be altered, but rabbinical scholars developed a system of markings that were placed above and below the characters to aid in reading the text aloud.

So now what about the Name of God? It was never read aloud and when it occurred in scripture it was instead pronounced adonai, a word that means lord. When these texts were then translated into Greek the name was instead replaced with the word “lord.” It is interesting to note that the name of God is not the only word to which such alterations were made. Even with copious effort to prevent mistakes, there are other places where the ancient text contains misspellings or inverted words. The translators believed that these had been placed there by the original authors and therefore did not change them, but instead wrote notes in the margin explaining what was to be read. The text as it was read aloud is called the Qere and the text as actually written called the Ketiv. The vowels for the Qere were placed on the consonants of the Ketiv.

Jump forward with me to the reformation and to the German scholars who were working on retranslating these “pointed” texts. They discovered the name of God with the vowels of lord. In English we might transliterate the consonants as YHWH, but in German English Y’s are instead J’s and W’s are V’s. Thus in German the Name of God became JHVH. Filling in the vowels for adonai renders the word JaHoVaH, which became the accepted pronunciation of the Name in English: “Jehovah.” Interestingly enough, we never find this word in the translation of scripture we use. Instead it is always rendered as Lord (with small Caps) a nod to the ancient tradition of not attempting to speak the name of God. This occasionally leads to some very awkward phrases like the translation of Exodus 6:3.

So the word “Jehovah” is an English transliteration of a German mistranslation resulting from the use of Qere vowels on a Ketiv word which isn’t spoken because the name of God was too holy to use. So what is the actual proper name of God? There is no way to know for sure. Some of the earliest Greek texts actually tried to transliterate the Name, but Greek and Hebrew vowels are not well matched. Many modern scholars have taken to using the term “Yehweh,” based on these texts. Others, including myself, prefer to leave the name unarticulated in recognition that though there are a great many ways to speak of God, the one Lord who created all that is does not need a proper name. God is God there is no other.

1. An interesting note is that most languages at some point developed (or stole) vowels and late biblical Hebrew was on its way using two of its characters as vowel sounds to distinguish commonly confused words.