For centuries, Jewish people have read the title “Adonai” in the place of the proper name “Yahweh” when it appears in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Most modern translations follow this pattern and use the word “LORD” in all caps to designate the Hebrew name of God. However, not all Bibles have remained faithful to this tradition, instead opting to use the name “Yahweh” or the consonants “YHWH.” In this post, we’ll examine a few popular examples of Bible versions that use the sacred name in the place of the LORD. This is by no means an exhaustive list but will help us explore the question of whether or not we should use Yahweh in our Bible translations.
Divine Name Used
21 Century King James Version
American Standard Version
Holman Christian Standard Bible
King James Version
Lexham English Bible
The Living Bible
Names of God
New American Bible (Revised Edition)
New Living Translation
The Passion Translation
World English Bible
Young’s Literal Translation
Table of the Use of the Divine Name in Most English Bibles*
*Keep in mind this is not a comprehensive list. This is a list of popular Bibles available for search on the website BibleGateway.com. The number of occurrences and percent alignment with the Hebrew Scriptures is based solely on the appearance of the word “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Instances where the name was shortened to “Yah” in the Hebrew Bible are not counted here.
The Divine Name of Choice
When it comes to the divine name, no one really knows how it was pronounced. Since the original Hebrew text did not have vowels, there is no way for us to know for sure how the words were originally pronounced. We are at the mercy of the Masoretes, who copied the Hebrew text in the late first millennium B.C. They added vowel points for us to aid in pronunciation and to help us differentiate between words with the same consonants. But something you need to understand about the Masoretes is that they held the Hebrew Bible in very high esteem. They refused to change anything about the original text.
So if there was something in the text that the Masoretes believed to be a mistake, they wouldn’t change it. Instead, they would make a note in the margin, almost like an ancient footnote. This was called ketiv qere. Over the consonants, they would place a K for ketiv, which is Aramaic for “written.” Then in the margins, they would fix the mistake and write a Q for qere, which means “read.” In other words, the Masoretes are telling us, “This is what’s written in the text, but this is how you should read it.” The vowel points they place on the consonants, then, reflect how you should pronounce the consonants in the margin. They do not belong to the consonants under which the markings appear.
Here’s where it gets fun. Every so often, there would be a word or phrase that the Masoretes would pronounce differently time it appeared. And if it appeared often enough, it became what’s known as Qere Perpetuum. The idea here is that the average reader of the Hebrew text should be familiar enough with these words that they didn’t need assistance in the margins. So instead of writing out the qere in the margin, the Masoretes would only change the vowel points.
What do you think the most common example of Qere Perpetuum is? You guessed it: the divine name.
When the Masoretes read the Hebrew scriptures, they wouldn’t utter the name of God. Instead, they replaced it with Adonai, or Lord. In instances where the text placed Yahweh and Adonai side-by-side (Lord Yahweh, or LORD God in most English translations), the Masoretes would pronounce Yahweh as Elohim, which means God. Again, when they copied the Hebrew text, they were not allowed to change the consonants. So they left the consonants YHWH in the text, but they changed the vowel pointing. If the vowel under Yahweh was an a, that meant you were supposed to pronounce YHWH as Adonai. If the vowel was I, that meant you were supposed to pronounce YHWH as Elohim. Again, since this was a common reading, the Masoretes would not put the new consonants in the margins. They just expected anyone who read the text to understand to read Adonai or Elohim.
Around the 12th century, just a couple hundred years after the Masoretic Text was transcribed, a misunderstanding of the qere Perpetuum led to the spelling of God’s name as “Yehowa,” using the consonants YHWH and the vowel pointing from Adonai. Sometime in the 16th century, this Germanized into Jehovah, a spelling that is still popular today in many Bible versions and worship songs.
So how did we get from Jehovah to Yahweh? Well, again, we really don’t know how the name was pronounced due to a lack of proper vowel points in the Masoretic text. Multiple pronunciations have been offered, but Yahweh is by far the scholarly consensus. This makes the most sense of the textual evidence since there seems to be a clear connection between the name of God and the first person “to be” verb, ehyeh (“I am who I am,” Ex. 3:14). This pronunciation also takes into account extra-biblical evidence in order to build the most convincing case for this pronunciation. Again, while we really don’t know for sure how the name was pronounced, Yahweh is most likely the closest we’ll get to firm answer.
All that said, translations that choose to use the name of God instead of the traditional LORD have a choice to make. Many versions, especially older versions or versions with a heavy KJV or ASV influence, continue to use Jehovah, despite the fact that it is based on a misunderstanding of Hebrew vowel points and ketiv qere. Other versions use Yahweh in an attempt to modernize the text and bring us closer to the original vocalization. Still others choose not to make a firm translation decision for something about which we cannot be certain and choose to leave the consonants YHWH. The decision of the translators is shown in the table above.
Translation Philosophy: The Issue of Consistency and Readability
Not all versions are equal when it comes to rendering the divine name as Yahweh, YHWH, or even Jehovah. The biggest problem translators have when approaching the Hebrew text with the intention of using the divine name Yahweh is consistency. Some translations, which approach the biblical text from a formal equivalent word-for-word philosophy use the divine name as often as possible, whereas versions that seek an idea-for-idea translation use the name considerably less often. Let’s look at a few examples.
As a baseline, keep in mind that the Hebrew Bible uses the name Yahweh roughly 6,800 times. As you can see in the table above, many of the formal equivalent translations (word for word) are mainly in line with the Hebrew Bible’s usage.
However, more readable versions that still attempt to use the divine name have a more difficult time with consistency. Take the Living Bible, for instance, which uses the name Jehovah less than 500 times. Or the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which used the name a little more than 600 times.
When it comes down to it, the sheer volume and repetition of the name Yahweh in Hebrew does not lend itself to a smooth reading in English. This is the main reason why, in their 2017 reboot of the HSCB (the Christian Standard Bible), the translation committee decided not to use the name Yahweh.
Traditionally, English Bible translations have chosen not to supply vowels in order make the name of God (YHWH) pronounceable; they simply render this name as a title (LORD). The CSB Translation Oversight Committee chose to come into alignment with other English translations, departing from the HCSB practice of utilizing “Yahweh” in the text. The HCSB was inconsistent, rendering YHWH as “Yahweh” in only 656 of 6,000+ occurrences of YHWH, because full consistency would be overwhelming to the reader. Yet feedback from readers also showed that the unfamiliarity of “Yahweh” was an obstacle to reading the HCSB. In addition, when quoting Old Testament texts that include an occurrence of YHWH, the New Testament renders YHWH with the word kurios, which is a title (Lord) rather than a personal name. This supports the direction of bringing the CSB is in line with most English translations, rendering YHWH as LORD.
Christian Standard Bible
Should We Say Yahweh or LORD?
The question we have yet to ask is whether or not Bible translations should even use the name of God. Is it appropriate to write Yahweh or YHWH?
From a pure translation perspective, I think it makes the most sense to use Lord or LORD in the place of the name of God. This conviction of mine is not theological in nature but merely reflects my own translation philosophy.
Our modern New Testaments are based on what’s called an eclectic text. Eclectic texts are pieced together by scholars using the discipline of textual criticism. Our New Testaments do not reflect one single document but take all the textual evidence into account.
Our Old Testament, on the other hand, is not based on an eclectic text. It comes from one Hebrew manuscript, the Leningrad Codex. Since the Leningrad Codex uses the vowel pointing for Adonai or Elohim over the consonants YHWH, it’s clear that they intended for Lord or God to be used instead of Yahweh. Since we are translating a single document, I think we ought to be as faithful to that document as we can.
Granted, in many instances, English translations do make use of textual criticism and go with other readings when appropriate (or when they just don’t understand the original Hebrew). However, due to the sheer volume of YHWH as Adonai or Elohim in the Leningrad Codex, it’s my personal conviction that we have no reason to alter the intentions of the original transcribers.
A more pressing question is whether or not it’s appropriate to use the name of Yahweh at all. As a worship leader for several years, I struggled with this question. Should we be singing songs that mention the name, Yahweh? Is it appropriate?
After much reflection, I personally don’t see anything wrong with using God’s name. God revealed his name to Moses thousands of years ago so that Moses and the Israelites could come to know him in a unique and intimate way. That invitation for a unique and intimate relationship with God is still open to us today, and I see no reason for not using the name Yahweh.
However, I would advise against using the name of Yahweh in public worship, simply because you don’t know who is listening. Using the name can be incredibly offensive to some groups of people. For that reason alone, I chose to stop singing songs that mentioned the name of God. Again, this choice was not theologically motivated but simply made out of respect for people that may find offense in my casual usage of a sacred and holy name.
Please let me know in the comments below if I’ve left anything out!…