by Luke Wayne
The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the original copies of the New Testament books used the "Tetragrammaton," (YHWH, the Hebrew word for the Divine Name) which they translate Jehovah. They teach that early scribes changed the text to remove God's name and replace it with the word "Lord." They believe this in spite of the strong, unanimous, early manuscript evidence to the contrary. They attempt to buttress this claim by pointing to Old Testament manuscripts, first explaining:
"Copies of the Hebrew Scriptures used in the days of Jesus and his apostles contained the Tetragrammaton throughout the text."1
And then further explaining:
"In the days of Jesus and his apostles, the Tetragrammaton also appeared in Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. For centuries, scholars thought that the Tetragrammaton was absent from manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Then, in the mid-20th century, some very old fragments of the Greek Septuagint version that existed in Jesus’ day were brought to the attention of scholars. Those fragments contain the personal name of God, written in Hebrew characters. So in Jesus’ day, copies of the Scriptures in Greek did contain the divine name."2
This second point is particularly important to their case because the vast majority of manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint use the word "Lord" rather than YHWH. The claim they are trying to make is that the Septuagint exclusively used YHWH in Jesus' day, and then scribes changed it. If scribes could do this to the Old Testament, then maybe they also did it to the New Testament. Be that as it may, what they present here as evidence is that, in the time period of Jesus, Old Testament manuscripts in both Hebrew and Greek contained the Divine Name.
First of all, obviously the divine name YHWH is in the Old Testament. A wide spectrum of manuscript evidence shows that to be the case, while also showing with equal force that the name YHWH wasn't in the New Testament. It is Ironic that Jehovah's Witnesses will use Old Testament manuscripts from 1,500 years after the time of Moses to prove the name YHWH is original to the Torah while trying to claim that manuscripts less than 200 years after the time of Jesus can't be trusted.
Second of all, their claim is only a half-truth. In the period that Jesus lived, there were a variety of conventions used by scribes to deal with the divine name. In some manuscripts written in the contemporary Hebrew script, the scribe would write the divine name in "paleo-Hebrew."3 In other words, they would write it in a completely different alphabet that had not been commonly used by the Jewish people for centuries. Other Hebrew scribes removed the name YHWH and replaced it with four dots or four slash marks.4 In many other cases, the scribes replaced the divine name with "El," the Hebrew word for "God."5 Similarly, with Greek translations like the Septuagint, the earliest manuscripts show a variety of ways in which copyists handled the name YHWH. In some Greek manuscripts, they would still write YHWH in paleo-Hebrew.6 In at least one copy, the original scribe left a blank space, but a later scribe added the divine name in contemporary Hebrew letters.7 The Dead Sea Scrolls contain one Greek copy of Leviticus where YHWH is replaced with the Greek letters IAO.8 In the vast majority of Septuagint manuscripts, the name YHWH is absent entirely, with the word "Lord" in its place. We also find this in the early Syriac Peshitta translation and the old Latin translations. (In a similar vein, the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain an Aramaic Translation of Job that replaces YHWH with "God."9) Justin Martyr (roughly 100-165 AD) was convinced that the Septuagint was a more accurate version than the Hebrew texts of his day10 and was under the impression that God did not have a proper name.11 Where would He get such an idea if not from the absence of God's name in the manuscripts he was reading and defending? There are, in fact, several such examples among the early Christian writers. It seems clear from this that they were reading from Septuagint manuscripts that had the word "Lord" in place of the name "YHWH" and that they had no knowledge of any other form of the Greek text, thus leading them to this conclusion.
Evidence also strongly points to the fact that "Lord" was the standard term used by Greek-speaking Jews in place of the divine name when talking or when reading aloud.12 The widespread practice of using "Lord" in place of YHWH in first-century Jewish life is thus well established, especially among Greek speakers. So, while it is true that there were copies of the Old Testament that did contain the name YHWH, even some in Greek, this was often in an archaic or foreign script and would have been difficult to read or pronounce for even the average literate person. Just as often, the name was omitted or replaced with some honorific word or title, usually "Lord" or "God." It is incorrect to think that all manuscripts in Jesus day used the divine name. Some did, others did not. Later copies that use the word "Lord" do not prove some radical change in the way scribes copied the text, they simply show that the copies that Christians had access to and were reproducing were the Greek copies that used the word "Lord" in place of "YHWH." This was one of the many legitimate conventions of the time period. Christians did not create the convention or impose it on the text; it is simply the version of the Septuagint that they had and used, just as we would expect the New Testament writers themselves to do.
Finally, even if all the early Old Testament manuscripts and translations really did contain the name YHWH, that would not prove that the original copies of the New Testament did. Since the name YHWH was obviously in the original books of the Old Testament, it is no surprise that copyists and translators would often faithfully render it. It is another thing to assume that this means the divine name would be used in every new document ever produced. The fact is that, outside of actual copies of the Old Testament, the divine name was rarely used in Jesus' day. In the many non-biblical documents found in the dead sea scrolls, God is almost always called "El" and very rarely called "YHWH."13 Many Greek-speaking Jewish writers preferred the word "Despotas" (meaning "master")14 and many Jewish books in Greek, including the Greek Apocrypha, call Him "Kurios" (Also meaning "master" or "Lord"). The Septuagint itself interprets Leviticus 24:16 to read "Whoever names the name of the Lord - by death let him be put to death."15 First-century Jewish writers like Josephus and Philo also expressed great caution about using the divine name.16 So even if all the Old Testament manuscripts contained the divine name, there would be no guarantee that the authors of the New Testament would do so. Indeed, the literary customs of the day would lead us to expect that they would not! The New Testament is a collection of first century letters and books. Letters and books composed by first century Jews rarely used the Tetragrammaton.
The Old Testament manuscripts of Jesus' day all display a certain sensitivity to using the divine name, choosing to write it in a different alphabet, replace it with spaces or symbols, or substitute it with other words. If various Christian scribes started with a New Testament that contained the divine name and they each wanted to change it, we would expect to see a similar variety of different forms of that change in the early manuscripts. Instead, we find perfect unanimity. All manuscripts and ancient translations use the word Lord and do not use YHWH. This only makes sense if Lord is the original form. Further, when Jews of that day wrote letters or books, they avoided YHWH and instead used God, Master, or Lord. Some Jews and all the Earliest Christians were clearly using copies of the Septuagint that used the word "Lord" in place of the divine name. This is the culture in which the New Testament was written. When Paul wrote his letters as a first century Jew, all the evidence points to the idea that he would not use the name YHWH. When Luke quoted from the Greek Septuagint, the evidence shows us he was probably quoting from a copy that already used the word "Lord." All of this reinforces what we see in every single New Testament manuscript and in every single early quotation of the New Testament in early writings: That the New Testament was written using the word "Lord" in place of the divine name. The New Testament never contained the word YHWH, and so our translations of the New Testament today should not contain the word "Jehovah."
- 1. New World Translation: 2013 revision, Appendix A5
- 2. ibid
- 3. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans, 2006) 102
- 4. ibid, 102
- 5. ibid, 102
- 6. ibid, 102
- 7. ibid, 102
- 8. Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English: Revised Edition (Penguin Books, 2004) 472
- 9. ibid, 463-470
- 10. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Section 71
- 11. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 10
- 12. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans, 2006) 107
- 13. ibid, 103
- 14. Richard Bauckham, Jude and the early relative of Jesus in the Early Church (T&T Clark, 1990) 304
- 15. Leviticus 24:16 in "A New Translation of the Septuagint" (Oxford University Press, 2007)
- 16. Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (William B. Eerdmans, 2006) 101-102