Until the recent publication of the Legacy Standard Bible, “Sacred Name” Bibles were rather eccentric and eclectic Bibles published by non-mainstream publishers. For good reason: there is a longstanding tradition, in both Judaism and Christianity, to render the Divine Name with a reverent surrogate term: Adonai, when reading it in the synagogue, or LORD, when translating it into English. Sacred Name Bibles, such as the Jehovah Witness New World Translation, render the name of God as Jehovah or Yahweh.
The name of the Triune God is spelt with four Hebrew consonants: yod, hey, vav, hey. Their English or Roman counterparts are Y, H, V, H. (Some biblical scholars render the vav as a w – waw – but that’s a debate for another time). The vowels between these consonants, and the consequent pronunciation, are still the topic of hot debate. Some Bible translators, however, believe the debate is over. The translators of the LSB were confident enough to render the most important word in the Bible as “Yahweh”, as does the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and the Lexham.
Not everyone is convinced. R. Kendall Soulen in his book on the Tetragrammaton, Irrevocable, writes that Yahweh is a “hypothetical reconstruction with no living basis in either Judaism or Christianity”. The Anchor Bible Dictionary calls it a “scholarly guess”. Yes, the “scholarly consensus” is certainly that Yahweh represents the best reconstruction, but some Karaite Jews insist it is Yehovah (rendering null the objection that Jehovah is a Christian misreading of the Hebrew), and less-known renderings include Yahuvah, Yahoah and a host of others. The debate involves Hebrew morphology, the relationship of the Name to the verb “to be” (hayeh), the records of some early Greek writers of what they heard from Samaritans and Jews, the prefixes and suffixes of Hebrew names that contain the Name, and speculations on what Hebrew scribes did and meant.
The point is, no one is going to solve this debate anytime soon. There is simply too much circumstantial evidence, too many unanswerables and too much historical guesswork to settle the debate. So, should we translate the Divine Name into the word that the majority of scholars favour?
One point that is seldom considered is the practice of the Lord Jesus Himself. We have at least one account of Him in the synagogue, reading a text that included the Tetragrammaton: Isaiah 61:1-2. He also quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-6 when answering a scribe. However, when the Gospel writers render the words of Jesus in those instances, they use the Greek kyrios (Lord) where Jesus would have supposedly said the divine name. The question is: did Jesus pronounce the divine name, and then Matthew, Mark, Luke and John translated (and transformed) the original Hebrew name into “Lord”? Or did Jesus retain the Second Temple practice of reverently replacing the Divine Name with Adonai (Lord)?
The second option has a lot going for it. One piece of evidence is that when kyrios is used in place of YHVH in the New Testament, it is used without the definite article, signifying that is indeed a surrogate for the divine name. Another is that the Lord Jesus used many surrogate terms in place of the divine name: Heaven, the Name, the Power, and plenty of uses of what scholars call the divine passive. If Jesus did pronounce the divine name as frequently as the Sacred Name Bibles render it, the Gospel writers seem to obscure this fact. Since John transliterated the Hebrew Maschiach into the Greek Μεσσίας , why could he not not transliterate the spoken divine name into Ἰαβe (Greek has no v) or Ἰηωβα, if it was indeed spoken by the Lord Jesus?
If, on the other hand, Jesus preferred the practice of using reverent surrogate words instead of pronouncing the Name, this should give us pause before following the practice of Sacred Name translations. Even if Yahweh is the correct rendering of the name of God, are we not a little presumptuous if we insist on regularly and repeatedly pronouncing what even our Lord was cautious and reserved about doing?
To be clear, I do not think we are prohibited from pronouncing what we believe to be the name of God. I do not think it is sinful to print what we believe to be the correct rendering of the name of God. But given the uncertainty around how it should be pronounced, given the very likely possibility that the Lord Jesus spoke it sparingly (or not at all) in public, and given the longstanding English Bible tradition (inherited from Judaism) of translating it only rarely, and most often using a surrogate instead, Sacred Name Bibles find themselves charting new territory. One hopes it is ground that hallows, and never profanes His great name.