Jehovah

This has got to be one of my favorite scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Actually, I am positive that no one was actually stoned in ancient Judea for saying “Jehovah“. How can I be so sure? Because you could dance down the streets of first century Jerusalem shouting “Jehovah” at the top of your voice and no one would have a clue what you were saying.

The word Jehovah is actually a mispronunciation.

There are several words used to identify the deity in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, but God’s personal name is revealed to be a word made up of the Hebrew letters: י(yodh),  ה(he), ך (waw), ה (he), which, converted to our Roman alphabet, is rendered YHWH, or YHVH. The name YHWH seems to be derived from a root word in Hebrew which means something like “that which is” or “ that which is eternally existent.

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[d] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)

Centuries later, Jesus identified himself as I AM seven times in the Gospel of John.

58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.(John

To the Jews in the crowd, Jesus was clearly claiming to be divine. Either he was blaspheming or insane. Either way, it seemed like it might be a good idea to stone him.

You probably have noticed that the Divine Name consists of four consonants and no vowels. This is because the Hebrew alphabet has 22 consonants and no vowels. This is not as great a handicap in Hebrew as it would be in English because Hebrew, being a Semitic language, has a vocabulary based largely on root words of three consonants. The basic meaning of a word depends on the root consonants with vowels and additional consonants providing nuances of meaning, such as verb forms, cases, etc. In most cases, only the consonants are really needed to understand at least the basic meaning of a written work. Most scholars believe that YHVN is pronounced Yahweh.

So, how did Yahweh become Jehovah? The Jews believed, and still believe, that God’s personal name was too sacred to be pronounced aloud. When reading from the Hebrew Bible, either in liturgical or other uses, they developed the custom of saying the word “Adonai”, meaning “The Lord”.

Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language by the time of Jesus. That made understanding the Hebrew Bible a little more difficult, so sometime in the later half of the first millennium, the Hebrew scribes, known as Masorotes, developed a system for writing vowels. They didn’t introduce any new letters but created a system of diacritical marks called Niqqud. The Jewish scribes did not want anyone to accidentally pronounce the Name so they combined YHVH with the vowel marks for Adonai, resulting in something like YaHoVaH, or Jehovah.

During the Middle Ages, the only Bible known by Christians in western Europe was the Latin Vulgate. Knowledge of the Greek language of the New Testament and classical writers was all but unknown in the West. Starting from the fourteenth century, however, as the Byzantine Empire  fell to the Turks, Greek speaking scholars fled to the West, bringing knowledge of the Greek language and ancient Greek manuscripts, including the Bible. Renaissance scholars eagerly learned Greek from them and used this knowledge to produce new and better translations of the Greek manuscripts into Latin and the various vernacular languages. Among the works of translation was the New Testament. But the Renaissance scholars also wanted to translate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, so they learned Hebrew as well.

The first person known to have used the word Jehovah seems to be Galantinus, who learned Hebrew and Aramaic with the intent of using the Jew’s own scriptures and doctrines,including  the Hebrew Bible and the Cabbala, to refute them. He, and others were unaware of the pronunciation of YHWH and assumed the the diacritical marks were the correct ones. Most early printed editions of the Bible, including Tyndale’s English translation, used Jehovah, though others used “The Lord” where YHVH is in the text, including later editions of the King James Bible.

Modern editions of the Bible, including the New International Version, generally print “The Lord” in small capital letters. There are still editions of the Bible that say Jehovah, though fewer than before and it seems the use of Jehovah for the name of God is dying out, at least in English language translations. I have only seen one translation that uses “Yahweh”, the World English Bible.

So, the next time any Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your door, you can tell them that they have their name all wrong. They should be calling themselves “Yahweh’s Witnesses”.

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2 Responses to “Jehovah”

  1. Justin Hoffer Says:

    Rather impressed by your knowledge of that!

    Also found the bit about Jehovah’s Witnesses rather entertaining.

    • David Hoffman Says:

      Thank you. Unfortunately I have never had any Jehovah’s Witness show up at my doorstep to try that on. There were some Mormons once, but I didn’t think to ask them about the golden tablets.

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