Readers of the King James (or Authorized) version of the Bible will be familiar with references to God appearing in the Old Testament as “LORD” (in small capital letters), reflecting a strange and varied history.
In Exodus 6:2-3, God reveals his name to Moses: “I am the LORD; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty (“el shaday”), but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.”
In this verse, both LORD and JEHOVAH translate precisely the same Hebrew word: YHWH, which is generally pronounced by modern scholars as “Yahweh” — sometimes called by scholars the “tetragrammaton” or “four letters.” Every time the name LORD appears in the Bible in small capital letters, it translates this Hebrew proper name. The full spelling “Jehovah” was used four times by the King James translators (see Exodus 6:3, Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 12:2 and 26:4), and three times in transliterating Hebrew proper names (see Genesis 22:14, Exodus 17:15 and Judges 6:24); it thus entered common English usage.
The name “Yahweh” may be related to the Hebrew root HYH (“hayah,” “to be,” “to exist” or “to become”). Thus, “Yahweh” might mean something like “he who is.” Some scholars think Yhwh may also be related to God’s name as given to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14: “When (the Israelites) ask ‘What is his (God’s) name?’ … God said to Moses: ‘I am who I am.’ Say to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
“I am” in Hebrew in these verses is “eHYeH” (or “ehyeh”), the first person singular form of the verb HYH.
The proper name “Yahweh” is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and in many Hebrew theophoric names — names, that is, that contain the name of God. It seems to have been generally pronounced “Yahu,” or shortened to “Yah,” and anglicized (or put into English form) as “-iah.” Thus, “Jerem-iah” = “Yermi-yahu” = “Yahweh lifts up”; “Isa-iah” = “Yeshi’-yahu” = “Yahweh saves”; and “Elijah” = “Eli-yahu” = “Yahweh is my God.” Originally, the name seems to have been in common usage among ordinary Jews.
But some centuries after the return from Babylonian captivity (c. 538 B.C.), pious Jews began to interpret the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of Yahweh (the LORD) thy God in vain” to mean that the name shouldn’t be spoken in ordinary daily life. Thereafter, the name was only pronounced by priests in the temple, and, after the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, its true pronunciation was forgotten.
Greek-speaking Jews confused the matter further when they occasionally tried to transliterate Hebrew “Yahweh” into Greek. Greek has no letter for an internal “h” sound, as can be seen in Anglicized versions of such biblical names as “Aaron,” which was originally “Aharon.” Trying to write “Yahweh” became problematic in Greek due to its double internal "h."
Josephus claims that the name of God was written on the high priest’s golden crown with four vowels (“Jewish War” 5:235, alluding to Exodus 28:36), which he refused to write for his gentile audience. This is confirmed by occasional transliterations of the name “Yahweh” by early Greeks, Jews and Christians as “Iao,” “Iaou,” “Iaue” or “Ieuo,” which are all attempts to render “YaHweH”/”Yawe” without the "h."
By the third century B.C., Jewish unwillingness to pronounce the name “Yahweh” when reading scripture in the synagogue or speaking had led them to replace “Yahweh” in pronunciation with either with the word “adonay” (“the lord”) or “ha-shem” (“the name,” referring to “Yahweh”).
This practice was followed as well by the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible rendered into Greek in the second century B.C. There they translated the Hebrew “Yahweh” as “kyrios,” the Greek word for “lord.”
Unfortunately, however, they also rendered Hebrew “adonay” as “kyrios,” creating a confusing ambiguity in their translation between the proper name “Yahweh” and the ordinary title “adonay.” This confusion continued in the New Testament, where “Yahweh” is always rendered “kyrios,” as well as in the Christian Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, which likewise translates both “Yahweh” and “adonay” as “dominus” (= “lord”).
The King James printers tried to resolve this ambiguity by representing “Yahweh” as “Lord,” and “adonay” as “lord.” But doctrinal problems persist. When Jesus is called “Lord” (Greek “kyrios,” e.g. at 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Phillippians 2:11), does it mean simply that Jesus is a powerful ruler or master, or that he’s the biblical Yahweh?
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.