Handling the Tetragrammaton in English Translations

By Alan Whitby
(Bible Collectors’ World – Jan/Mar 1988)

A past issue of The Bible Collector (No. 57) contained an article by Matthew Alfs on “The Divine Name in Bible Translation.” This described some Bible versions of the past 150 years that restored the Divine Name in the text in some readable form, generally as Jehovah or Yahweh. The purpose of this article is to illustrate how this translation problem has been handled in at least a dozen different ways in English language versions of the Old Testament (OT).

The background only need be covered briefly here. The special name for God in the Hebrew text is written as four letters, (Greek: tetragrammaton, hereinafter abbreviated at TG). These letters are usually transliterated as YHWH. By about 700 AD Jewish “masters of tradition” (Massoretes) were adding a system of vowel points to indicate the accepted pronunciation. When handling the TG, vowel points for Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God) were deliberately inserted. This reminded the reader that “Lord” or “God” should be substituted in public reading. It had long been Jewish practice not to pronounce the sacred name. When translations were made into Greek, and later Latin, it became accepted practice to substitute words such as “Lord” in the translation. The first English versions from the Latin simply passed on this earlier decision.

This background has resulted in two opposing viewpoints amongst translators today. One is to follow the long established practice of substituting a title for the TG, usually LORD in all capitals. Smith and Goodspeed’s American Translation calls this following “the orthodox Jewish tradition.” 1 However, there are certain texts such as Exodus 6:3 where many feel the sense is incomplete without a proper name. On such occasions many leave tradition and insert a form of the TG. This pattern, started with Tyndale, was popularized by the KJV which used the form Jehovah on four occasions. 2

The alternative view is that the name should be consistently restored in the English version, wherever this can be supported by the Hebrew text. Depending on the actual text used this can vary between 5,500 3 and nearly 7,000 4 times. It is held that later Jewish tradition should not be the determining factor. If the earliest extant manuscripts (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) use a distinctive name so many times, then accurate translation demands the same. But what form should the name take?

There are of course many translations that do not fit comfortably into either above category. Some appear very inconsistent, using names or titles on the apparent whim of the translator (cf. Living Bible). The New Berkeley Version (1969) even manages to contain both Jehovah (Exodus 6:3) and Yahweh (Hosea 12:5) within the same translation!

An attempt will now be made to describe some different ways the TG has been handled in the history of OT translation. The following survey does not claim to be exhaustive. The dates in brackets relate to OT publication, which in many cases will mean the complete Bible. An asterisk (*) following the date indicates that the volume is featured in Herbert. 5


The reasons for substituting the title LORD have been outlined above. Versions consistent in this practice include Revised Standard Version (1952*), New American Bible (1970), New American Standard Version (1971), Good News Bible (1976) and New International Version (1978). These are amongst the most popular versions in use. The general reading public for whom they are addressed can easily remain unaware of the TG, unless they check a forward or footnote. Even in Exodus 6:3 the form LORD is retained.

It is interesting to note that the supervising translator of the Good News Bible, Robert Bratcher, has recently commented: “A faithful application of dynamic equivalence principles would require a proper name, and not a title, as a translation of YHWH…In the matter of the names for God, the GNB is still far from being a ‘perfect’ translation.” 6 It can also be noted that the NIV text used in Kohlenberger’s Hebrew Interlinear (1979-86) has restored the form Yahweh.

Other popular versions of the 20th century that generally use LORD, but make an exception in Exodus 6:3 include New English Bible (1961*). American Translation (OT 1927*), and Basic English (1949*). The usual practice is to print LORD in capitals when it substitutes for the TG. (This is not always the case. The much reprinted Douay-Challoner version uses small case letters, creating a problem of identity in Psalm 110 v. 1: “The Lord said to my Lord.”) Where the Hebrew text reads Lord, YHWH, rather than the obvious tautology Lord, LORD, most versions read Lord God (with or without capitalization). In such cases, the word God becomes a substitute word in translation for the TG.

To try and make a distinction in Exodus 6:3 some RC versions have transliterated the Hebrew word for Lord as ADONAI – cf. Douay-Challoner and Knox (1955*).


The three vowel sounds in the pointing used by the Massoretes led eventually to the sound Jehovah in Latin and then English. The first to use this form in English translation (as Iehouah) was William Tyndale (1530*). Some writers still erroneously credit him with inventing this spelling.7 Tyndale used Iehouah at Exodus 6 v. 3 and LORD elsewhere. The earliest English version to regularly use Jehovah where the TG occurs appears to be that of Henry Ainsworth (1622*). This writer has the 1639 folio of Ainsworth’s Annotations upon the five books of Moses and the books of Psalms, printed by M. Parsons for John Bellamie, and Jehovah (or Iehovah) is used throughout. According to Herbert, Ainsworth’s Psalms first appeared in 1612, and the Pentateuch from 1616. In his annotation on Genesis 2 v. 4, Ainsworth commented: “Iehovah - this is Gods proper name.

It commeth of Havah, he was, and by the firft letter I. it fignifieth, he will be, and by the fecond Ho, it fignifieth, he is…Paft, prefent and to come are comprehended in this proper name as is knowne unto all…It implieth alfo, that God hath his being or exiftence of himselfe before the world was, that he giveth being unto all things…that he giveth being to his word effecting whatfoever he fpeaketh.” (Although outside the scope of this article it should be noted that the form Jehova was previously used extensively in the Latin Bible of Tremellio and Junio first published in four parts over 1575-79.)

A little later in the 17th century than Ainsworth, the poet John Milton published his translation of the first eight Psalms (c. 1653 and now sometimes found bound with his poetry) in which he uses Jehovah fourteen times.

The 18th century saw a number of portion translations use Jehovah extensively, such as Lowth’s Isaiah (1778*), Newcome’s Minor Prophets (1785*). Dodson’s Isaiah (1790) and Street’s Psalms (1790*). The 19th century brought a flood of new translations that consistently used this form for the TG, including those by Benjamin Boothroyd (from 1824*). George R. Noyes (from 1827*), Charles Wellbeloved et al. (from 1859*). Robert Young (1862*), Samuel Sharpe (1865*). Helen Spurrell (1885*) and John Nelson Darby (1885*). The 20th century has seen other forms of the TG gain in popularity, but Jehovah has still been the consistent choice of the American Standard Version (I901*), the RC Westminster Version (from 1934*), New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (from 1953*), Steven T. Byington’s Bible in Living English (1972), Jay Green’s Hebrew-English Interlinear (1976) and less consistently in Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible (1971). The popular New English Bible (1961*) uses Jehovah in such verses as Exodus 6 v. 3.

A large number of portion translations and lesser known works could be added to this list. However unusual the sound might appear to an ancient Hebrew, after centuries of use “Jehovah seems firmly rooted in the English language.”8


Based partly on studies of proper names that incorporate the TG, many scholars favor Yahweh as the correct pronunciation. The use of this Hebrew form has steadily increased in recent years.

Who then was first to use Yahweh in translation? It is not so easy to be categorical. Certainly the first major translation of the complete OT to consistently feature Yahweh was J. B. Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible. The OT was first published in 1902*. Rotherham devotes much space to explain his use of Yahweh in preference to the popular form Jehovah. 9 Interestingly, in his later Studies in the Psalms (1911) Rotherham reverted to Jehovah on the grounds of easy recognition.10

However, Rotherham was not the first in print with Yahweh. Just one year earlier in 1901* James McSwiney’s translation of the Psalms and Canticles used the form YaHWeh on occasion. If McSwiney should prove to be first this is perhaps a little unfair on Rotherham. His OT translation was already completed by 1894, when the publication of Ginsburg’s Critico-Massoretic Hebrew Text caused him to delay publication to revise the whole work. 11

Since the turn of the century many others have followed these examples. The Colloquial Speech Version (from 1920*) published by the National Adult School Union used Yahweh. So did many translations of portions, such as S. R. Driver’s Jeremiah (1906), Gowen’s Psalms (1930), Oesterley’s Psalms (1939) and Watt’s Genesis (1963). The 1960s saw a number consistently use this form including the Anchor Bible (from 1964) and the popular Jerusalem Bible (1966).

A. B. Traina’s Holy Name Bible (1963) uses Yahweh, and is also consistent in Hebrewizing other names as well. In Traina’s NT (1950*) Jesus is Yahshua. 1979 saw the commencement of Kohlenberger’s NIV Hebrew Interlinear using Yahweh. Additionally, many popular versions that use LORD have chosen Yahweh for Exodus 6 v. 3, including An American Translation (1927*) and the Basic English Bible (1949*).

Returning to the question of who was first to use this form - if one allows for variant spelling, one can go back at least to 1881* when J. M. Rodwell’s Isaiah used the form Jahveh. The same spelling was used in T. H. Wilkinson’s Job (1901*) and G. H. Box’s Isaiah (1908*). Other spellings since then include Jahweh used by Edward J. Kissane in Job (1939*) and Isaiah (two volumes: 1941-43*). In his Psalms (two volumes: 1953~54*) Kissane reverted to the traditional spelling: Yahweh. Another slight variant is Iahweh used in Bernard Duhm’s translation of The Twelve Prophets (1912). Yet another is Jave used on a number of occasions by Ronald Knox in his OT (two volumes: 19490)12 In the popular one volume Bible of 1955 Knox dropped this completely and reverted to LORD in the text and Yahweh in occasional footnotes. Then there is Yahvah used in the Restoration of Original Sacred Name Bible (1976), a revision of Rotherham’s translation. Like the similar work of Traina this also Hebrewizes other names. In the NT (1968) Jesus becomes Yahvahshua.


Another approach has been to literally include the TG as four letters in the translation. “In the Beginning - A New Translatin of Genesis” by Everett Fox, consistently uses YHWH in the main text. Of course this is unpronounceable! In his forward (p. xxix) Fox discusses the use of Lord, Jehovah and Yahweh, and advises “as one reads the translation aloud one should pronounce the name according to ones custom.” Here we have a modern translator truly being “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9 v. 22 NIV).

This device had previously been used by several late 19th century versions. J. Helmuth’s literal translation of Genesis (1884) and E. G. King’s Psalms (1898) both favored the form YHVH. Another slight variation was provided by the Polychrome Bible (c. 1890s) which used JHVH. Additionally, a number of Jewish versions use the TG in Hebrew characters at Exodus 6:3 with a footnote advising the reader to substitute “Lord” – cf. New Jewish Bible (from 1962) and JPS ed. Margolis (1917*).

While these forms are unpronounceable, they can at least be recognized by the average student. But what does one make of the Concordant Version OT (Genesis 1958*) that consistently uses Ieue? On close examination of the CV’s transliteration key Ieue proves to be none other than YHWH. The pronunciation guide suggests it should be read as Yehweh - which at least looks more familiar! After publishing all the prophets using Ieue, the translators with Leviticus (1983) reverted to the form Yahweh.


Jehovah, Yahweh and similar forms are often described as transliterations since they incorporate in some way the four letters YHWH (JHVH). In this area of semantics, Eternal is a rare attempt at actual translation; in other words, an attempt to express the meaning of the name! 13 Most authorities link the TG with the Hebrew verb “to be” (or “to become”) and it has been variously defined as “the one who is, who was and who will be,”14 “to exist - to be actively present”15 and “he causes to be.”16(cf. Henry Ainsworth quotation above).

As translation “The Eternal” has been criticized 17 and apart from James Moffatt (1924*) few others in English have used it, although it is popular in French translations like Segond. In his forward Moffatt explains how he was poised to use Yahweh, and had he been translating for students of the original would have done so, but almost at the last moment followed the practice of the French scholars.18 Isaac Leeser (1854*) had previously used Eternal in Exodus 6 v. 3, Psalm 83 v. 18, and in an unusual combination for a Jewish version at Isaiah 12 v. 2 as “Yah the Eternal.”

Even if it could be agreed that Eternal (or another expression) accurately conveys the meaning, all other names in translation remain as names. Why should different rules apply here? One awaits with some trepidation an English version that translates the meaning of all names. The appearance of a “Sacred Meaning Scripture Names Version” can only be a matter of time.

This article has concentrated on the TG in the OT and the various decisions translators have made. Over the years a few NT translations have appeared that have also included the TG in some recognizable form. The basis for this has usually been in OT quotations, and more recently on the evidence of some early Septuagint fragments. This more controversial area can perhaps form the basis of a future article.


1 - An American Translation, preface p. xiii.
2 - Exodus 6 v. 3, Psalm 83 v. 18, Isaiah 12 v. 2 and 26 v. 4 (also in a few compound place names)
3 - Jay Green: Interlinear Hebrew/English Bible (1976) preface p. xi.
4 - J. B. Rotherham: Emphasized Bible (1902) Introduction p. 22.
5 - Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961, Darlow and Moule (revised A. S. 
      Herbert) BFBS 1968. A number of the portion translations mentioned in this article are not in Herbert.
6 - Bible Translator, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Oct. 1985). pp. 413. 414.
7 – cf. Dennett: Graphic Guide to Modern Versions of the NT (1965) p. 24. The spelling Iohouah was used by
      Porchetus de Salvaticus in 1303 (Victoria Porcheti adversus impios Hebraeos).
8 - Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (1 and 2 Samuel) 1930 edition. Note 1. On the Name Jehovah. p. 10.
9 - Rotherham: Forward. pp. 22-29.
10 - Studies in the Psalms (1911). Introduction, p. 29.
11 - Rotherham: Forward, p. 17.
12 - Knox (1949 two volume edition) Psalm 67 v. 5. 21; 73 v. 18: 82 v. 19; Isaiah 42 v. 8; 45 v. 5, 6; etc.
13 - Bible Translator, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Oct. 1985). pp. 401, 402.
14 - Idem. p. 402.
15 - Lion Handbook of the Bible (1973) p. 157.
16 - Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) Vol. 2, p. 410.
17 - Steven T. Byington: Bible in Living English (1972). Preface p. 7: “much worse by a substantivized adjective.”
        See also Bible Translator Vol. 36, No. 2 (Oct. 1985), p. 411.
18 - James Moffatt: Forward pp. xx, xxi.