By Reed Benson
There is a small movement that vociferously asserts that Christians should only use the Hebrew names for our God. The words Jehovah, LORD, and Jesus are considered inaccurate and blasphemous bywords. Known as the sacred name movement, a loosely knit school of thought that cuts across a number of denominational and theological lines, they insist that one should only use the Hebrew names for God the Father and our Savior, correctly and precisely pronounced. The advocates of this view generally promote four basic ideas: First, the ancient Hebrew name for God can be accurately translated into English with scholastic confidence. Second, this original Hebrew name for God can be correctly pronounced by English tongues and lips. Third, you cannot know God unless you use the proper pronunciation of his name from antiquity. Fourth, your prayers are hindered and your eternal life may be compromised unless you know and call upon God’s precise name from the ancient Hebrew language of the Old Testament.
Are these claims true? What follows is an evaluation of the major ideas of the sacred name movement. That these four basic assumptions are either partly or completely flawed and some of the scholarship that attempts to support them is sloppy and superficial is the thesis of this article. Jehovah, LORD, and Jesus are absolutely acceptable. The translators of the King James Bible, the longstanding choice of Scripture for English speakers, made no errors in selecting these words to be the appellations for our God. The following questions commonly arise regarding this topic. They provide a fruitful manner to expand our understanding.
If we are not supposed to use Jehovah, LORD, or Jesus, what are we to use instead?
Here is one of the grave weaknesses of this movement, for there is no single agreed upon alternative for Jehovah or LORD. Many suggest that Yahweh is the only acceptable choice, but plenty of other sacred name advocates disagree. Some of the other leading candidates to displace Jehovah and LORD are these: Yah, Yahvah, Yahveh, Iahueh, Iahuah, and Yaohu. Nor is there unanimity of opinion for a replacement for Jesus. A few of the other options are Yahshua, Yasha, Yehuah, Yahushua, Yaohushua, Iahushua, Yahvahshua, and Yhwhhoshua. As one can see, there is considerable confusion and disagreement even inside the sacred name movement! And, do not forget that it is an axiom among them that you must get the pronunciation exactly right!
Is it true that the letter “J” is a recent addition to the English language? Indeed it is. The letter “J” came into common usage since the production of the King James Bible in 1611. However, and many sacred name advocates are reluctant to concede this critical point, the sound that J makes, as in "jump," is not a recent addition. Before the addition of the letter J, the letter “I” was used, and the reader had to discern from context whether to make the J sound or the I sound. This is why "Jesus" was spelled "Iesus" in the 1611 King James Bible, but was still pronounced "Jesus." We still do this with other letters, such as with the word "circle," in which the C makes two different sounds. We know from context and experience how to correctly pronounce it. The J sound has been in the English language for a long time; scholars disagree how it got there. Some suggest it came from the French language when William the Conqueror brought many French words to us in the eleventh century. If this is true, it was a slight alteration of the J in "Jacque," which is pronounced like the S in "asian" or the Z in "azure." Other scholars disagree and claim it came earlier when the Vikings invaded in the ninth century. Still others insist it has a more ancient history, rooted in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
Was there a J sound in the ancient Hebrew language? The King James translators thought so, although this is a question that cannot be answered easily. Arguments can be found going both directions, but the clues are scanty, luring linguists into a measure of speculation. Many simply assume the answer is no because there is no J sound in Modern Hebrew; instead, the Y sound is used. Yet, Modern Hebrew was revived from textual material alone, for until recent times, spoken Hebrew was utterly dead. Well over a thousand years passed between the death of New Testament Hebrew, which was probably the native language of Jesus, and modern Hebrew. Even more time has elapsed since the demise of classical Hebrew of Moses’ era. It has been suggested that classical Hebrew had a J sound that was derived from ancient Egyptian—an unproven thesis, yet not implausible. Furthermore the Hebrew letter gimmel is presently pronounced with a G sound; but some scholars think it used to sometimes make a J sound, as in "jimmel." This could have been possible since several Hebrew letters still make more than one consonantal sound.
It is self-evident the King James translators leaned toward the J sound rather than the Y sound when compelled to use the name of God. As a general rule, the translators avoided the translation of the Tetragrammaton, the name of God. They only attempted a transliteration into English when absolutely compelled by context to do so, a total of only seven times. And when they did, they selected the J sound. Plainly, reasons existed that pointed said powerhouse team in this direction. Otherwise, they opted for LORD (all upper case). In essence, their decision was to protect God’s name from casual use and improper familiarity by utilizing an Anglicized form of the Tetragrammaton as a “marker” to let the reader know that God’s sacred name was before them, a name that had no equivalent in English and English lips would be unlikely to correctly pronounce.
Was there a J sound in Greek or Latin from which we get Jesus? Most linguists agree that Latin did not utilize the J sound. It is less clear regarding Koine Greek, the Greek in use in the New Testament era which has not been spoken for some fifteen hundred years. And as far as Classical Greek, the language of the Iliad, composed some six hundred years before the time of Christ, little is known about the precise pronunciation of that more primeval dialect. This only emphasizes how little is known about long dead languages. Jesus is the Anglicized Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, the conqueror of Canaan. Was there originally a J sound in Joshua? Scholars cannot honestly assert with confidence if there was or was not. And of course this does not even address New Testament Hebrew that was probably Jesus’ native language, of which precise pronunciation is also not known since it has been a dead language for over a millennium. Thus, we cannot say with precision how our Savior Jesus’ name should be pronounced. Although Latin probably did not have a J sound, Greek and Hebrew might have. Honest scholars leave room for doubt on the precise pronunciation of Jesus’ name.
Can we know perfectly the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton? No. In terms of pronunciation, the four Hebrew letters that comprise the name of God do not correspond exactly to four letters in Greek, Latin, or English. We can approximate the four letters, and most sacred name advocates choose YHWH. Of course, W is a relatively recent addition to the English language as well as J, so it is odd that so many sacred name folks choose W since they seem so opposed to J. Others, however, think that JHVH is a better approximation of the Tetragrammaton in English. But that is only the beginning of the debate, for classical Hebrew had no vowels and no markings that indicated where vowels should be inserted or what vowel sounds should be utilized. Since it is impossible to speak without vowels, the ancient reader had to know by experience how to solve this problem. No clues were available until the ninth century after Christ when Hebrew scribes added little marks called vowel points to aid in proper pronunciation. But by that relatively late date, there is no assurance whatsoever that the language had not drifted in pronunciation dramatically from where it was in the Old Testament times when the Tetragrammaton was first used—a full two thousand years earlier.
To illustrate how easy it is for a language to drift, consider how "Did you" can end up sounding like "Did-jew." Or consider that the word "badge" has no J but certainly has a J sound. In brief, it is impossible to say what the precise original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton might have been. This is why the wisdom of the King James translators should not be lightly shrugged off. They were the best linguists in Europe in an age when the study of languages drew the best minds available. They were honest enough to recognize that which was unknown and allow their uncertainty to be reflected in their translation by using LORD as a marker for the somewhat mysterious name of God. LORD is a perfectly appropriate way to refer to our great Creator.
Is the name “Jesus” derived from the pagan Greek god Zeus? Absolutely not. Based on shallow and superficial observations, this absurd linguistic fiction has oddly gained traction with many who latch on to what they believe are new insights. The name Jesus came to Greek from the Septuagint several hundred years before Jesus was born (remember His name was Joshua) in the form Iesous. This was the most natural way to render Joshua in Greek and had nothing to do with a conspiracy to undermine our Savior's identity (He was yet unborn). From there it passed into Latin and English and other European languages. Proponents of the Zeus/Jesus connection claim Iesous really means "Hail Zeus" or alternatively "Healing Zeus." (Please note they do not agree with each other.) But these are superficial phonetic coincidences, which are common in all languages. It is a bit like saying that the golfer Tiger Woods was named after a jungle infested with large striped cats. Jesus and Zeus have nothing in common, and it is unnecessary to avoid the word Jesus.
Is the name “Christ” derived from the pagan Hindu deity Krishna? No. Again, this is a groundless assertion based on the most shallow of observations, certainly not a clear understanding of the Greek origin of Christ. The Greek word Christos is derived from Chrio, which means to anoint. In the Septuagint, it was used to mean the anointed one, an equivalent of the Hebrew word Mashiach, which has been Anglicized into Messiah. Christ and Krishna have nothing to do with each other. Christ is a wonderful and appropriate way to refer to our Savior.
Does the word “lord” refer to a pagan Canaanite deity? It can, but it almost never does in the Bible. The argument goes that lord (lower case) means baal, which was one way to refer to a pagan Canaanite god. Thus, the word lord (lower case) should be avoided. This represents only a superficial understanding of the situation. In truth, lord (lower case) means master on a personal level. It can refer to one's master in a lord/vassal relationship or in an employer/employee relationship or in a husband/wife relationship. If lord is a word to be avoided, someone needs to tell our God, for He used lord (baal) to describe Himself as a husband/master to Israel: "For thy maker is thine husband [baal]; the LORD of hosts is his name. . ." (Isaiah 54:5). Also in Jeremiah we find this: "Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband [baal] unto them, saith the LORD" (Jeremiah 31:32). It is clear from Scripture that we should not be afraid to use the word lord (lower case) or Lord (master with a divine inference) in reference to God.
Is Emmanuel an acceptable name for our Savior? Of course. It is odd that sacred name proponents do not press Emmanuel as an alternative to Jesus, for Matthew 1:23 plainly offers this as a most appropriate appellation for our Savior: "Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." Emmanuel is a cognate for the Hebrew word Immanuel. There has been almost no drift of the word from Hebrew to Greek to English. So why do they not trumpet Emmanuel as the only way to say the name of our Savior? The answer may lie in a peculiar quality that some people have: a desire for secret, special knowledge that they believe elevates them above others who are ignorant. Emmanuel has been too well known, too obvious, too ubiquitous in its usage. We need something new, secret, recently uncovered!
Do we have to use the sacred name of God to know Him intimately? No. We need to know the person—by whatever name or title is used. Many sacred name advocates will retort, "How can you know the person if you do not even know His real name?" To illustrate how this often actually happens, consider two relationships I had with authority figures in my life. I got to know them both very well, never using, and for a time never even knowing, their first names. Perhaps you can relate to these examples.
When I was in high school I had a shop teacher, Mr. Glenn. I took his class four years straight and knew him well, as he did me. He taught me, trained me, joked with me, and occasionally reprimanded me. I could read his mind by the expression on his face and knew the commands he was about to give before he spoke. I met his wife, knew his children, visited his church, and even drove his sporty car. His first name was Mike, but I would never refer to him or think of him as Mike, but always Mr. Glenn. I will never forget him or his impact on my life. On occasion I still see him, and now, thirty years later, he is still "Mr. Glenn" to me. To this day, I do not know if his first name is actually Mike or Michael, but it makes no difference because the relationship was not based on the name, but on the person and his position of authority.
A second illustration is my father. Long before I knew my father’s name was Carl, I loved him, trusted him, and knew that he cared and provided for me. I would sit on his lap, lean on his shoulder, look at the picture book he would read to me, romp on his back on the living room floor, and tremble when his voice grew stern. To me he was just "Dad." I remember the moment when I learned his first name was Carl and his middle name was Edward. My thought was this: how did he get such weird names? I had no friends named either Carl or Edward, so these seemed peculiar. But by that time, at about age five, my relationship with him was already well established and intimate. My life would have been shattered if he had been taken from me or I from him. Until then, he had never told me his real name, and I did not feel obliged to "figure it out." Today, decades later, knowing him as an adult, I still call him Dad and would be uncomfortable calling him Carl. In fact, it seems inappropriate, for Dad is a better reflection of my relationship to him than Carl.
In both these cases, it was the relationship that counted, not the name. The shared values and experiences defined these relationships and fill them with love, trust, respect, and sometimes a little fear. By themselves, a name, title, or appellation provide none of the vital sinews of an intimate relationship. So, do I need to know the precise pronunciation of Jesus to truly know Him? No. Merely knowing His name does not save our souls, but a personal relationship with His person does.
Is there anything more important than knowing God's name? Yes. God's Word is more important than His name: "I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name" (Psalm 138:2). This plainly implies that doing what He commands is more important than speaking His name, calling Him Lord, Master, Yahweh, Yashua, or any other lofty appellation. Please recall the words of Jesus: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he which doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me ye that wok iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man who built his house upon a rock" (Matthew 21:22-24). As a father, the obedience of my children is what fills my heart with joy. My willing obedience is what made my Dad proud of me when I was a youth. Our obedience is what makes our Father in heaven pleased with us, far more than having special knowledge about how to pronounce His name in a language long dead.
What is the conclusion of the matter? Advocates of the sacred name movement presume that the ancient Hebrew name for God can be accurately translated into English and our lips and tongues have the ability to properly pronounce it. In truth, it has been shown that God's Hebrew name from antiquity can only be approximated, and then not without scholastic doubt. They further insist that use of this special, formerly secret knowledge is the key to a vibrant relationship God, without which your prayers are hindered and your eternal life may be compromised. This gross error has been shown to be false. You can trust the King James translators when they landed upon Jehovah, LORD, and Jesus as appropriate appellations for our Creator and Savior.