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The Divine Name:
What Jehovah's Witnesses Get Right and Wrong
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
This article appeared originally as a post on a discussion board at Apologetcs.com, 8/23/2006
WHAT THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES GET RIGHT ABOUT THE DIVINE NAME
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are right about a few things regarding the divine name. In the interests of full disclosure, telling the whole truth, we should acknowledge where they are right.
1. The spelling ‘Jehovah’ is perfectly acceptable when translating the Hebrew YHWH, even though most biblical scholars think that a closer representation in English would be Yahweh. I agree with their argument that if English can use ‘Jesus’ for Yeshua (for example), it can use Jehovah for Yahweh. (Some JWs try to argue that Yahovah or the like was the original pronounciation; the evidence is far from conclusive, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter.) The form ‘Jehovah’ is found in orthodox Christian hymns, on church buildings, in sound Christian literature, and four times in the King James Version. Only if the JWs argued that ‘Jehovah’ is the only correct spelling and pronunciation would their position in that respect be challengeable on the grounds that the original form differed. However, they don’t make that claim.
2. Some form of the tetragrammaton (YHWH) was used in at least some versions of the Greek Old Testament (OT) around the time of the New Testament and earlier. The evidence supporting this conclusion seems pretty solid.
3. There is some scholarly support for the belief that the New Testament (NT) may have originally contained some form of the tetragrammaton (beyond the undisputed use of ‘Hallelujah’ in Rev. 19:1-6). His name is George Howard.
4. There is evidence that Christian scribes occasionally made changes to the NT manuscripts they were copying and that some of those changes were theologically motivated (as Bart Ehrman has argued in his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).
WHAT THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES GET WRONG ABOUT THE DIVINE NAME
Please note that the following four points correspond to the four points made above.
1. Jehovah’s Witnesses erroneously teach that God is offended or that God considers worship directed to him to be unacceptable if the name ‘Jehovah’ (or some equivalent form) is not used. Neither the OT nor the NT teaches this doctrine. The Witnesses’ doctrine is fallaciously inferred from a variety of biblical texts that speak about God’s ‘name’ in certain honorable ways but that never teach that God cannot be properly worshiped apart from the use of this specific name.
2. The evidence we have of the Greek OT during and prior to the NT era is insufficient to draw any definite conclusions about what all copies of the Greek OT had in place of the divine name YHWH. Furthermore, there is evidence during this period that when Jews were reading the OT—whether in the Hebrew original or a Greek translation—they would say ‘Lord’ or another surrogate (such as ‘God’) in place of the tetragrammaton. So, whether or not Jesus and the apostles had copies of the OT in Greek that used KURIOS or QEOS in place of the tetragrammaton, the practice of using such surrogates when quoting the OT was already current in their day.
3. George Howard’s tentative suggestions notwithstanding, the evidence against the NT having originally used a form of the tetragrammaton is overwhelming. Contrary to popular opinion, this evidence is not limited to the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the NT, going back to the second century, that have KURIOS or QEOS in quotations of the OT. That evidence, of course, is weighty all by itself. However, there is significantly more evidence that confirms the reliability of the NT manuscript tradition in this regard:
a. The external evidence of the church fathers shows that the NT normally used KURIOS in place of the tetragrammaton when quoting from or referring to OT texts. The practice is not even disputed or defended in the church fathers; it is a given.
b. The internal evidence of the NT texts shows that the authors used KURIOS in place of the divine name. We know this because of the way they use it in context. See Romans 10:9-13 for an example, where Paul's argument to be coherent depends on KURIOS appearing in both verses 12 and 13.
The combination of manuscript evidence, internal evidence within the texts, and the external evidence of church history, has convinced virtually all biblical scholars that the NT did not originally contain the tetragrammaton.
4. On the basis of the fact that some copies of the NT were altered by Christian scribes, occasionally for theological reasons, one cannot validly argue that there was a conspiracy in the early church to remove the tetragrammaton from the NT:
a. Ehrman’s evidence of theological alterations in support of an orthodox theology come from the third and especially the fourth century, not the early second century, as the divine name conspiracy theory would require.
b. Ehrman is able to make his case for theological alterations of specific texts because we have a larger corpus of manuscripts containing variants that textual critics like Ehrman can compare in order to determine which is more likely to be original. Ehrman’s mode of argument could not get started without evidence of more than one reading in the manuscript copies of these specific texts that he says later scribes reworded. For example, the claim that later scribes changed "who" to "God" in 1 Timothy 3:16 depends on the existence of extant copies of 1 Timothy that have "who" instead of "God." On the other hand, we have no such evidence of some NT manuscripts containing the tetragrammaton where other manuscripts do not.
c. The plausibility of Ehrman’s case also depends on the fact that he can correlate these theologically motivated changes with historical accounts of theological controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries (for example, between Arians and Trinitarians). We know, independent of these manuscript variants, that there were disputes in the early church about whether Jesus was actually God. On the other hand, we have no such evidence of a move in the second century (or at any time) to replace the tetragrammaton in the NT with surrogates.