WHAT IS THE NAME OF GOD?
[corrected version, 2nd]
by Eric V. Snow
Do Christians sin when we call God "God"? Is it wrong to call our Savior "Jesus Christ"? Are we breaking the Third Commandment when we refer to God as "the Lord"? Such questions may seem absurd to most Christians. But one doctrine a number are teaching today says that it is disrespectful to God, and a sin, to use any words other than the Hebrew names from the Old Testament to refer to the Creator. They insist that we call the Lord God "Yahweh Elohim," and Jesus Christ "Yahshua the Messiah," although they are divided among themselves about how to pronounce or transliterate "Yahweh" and "Yahshua." They reject translating any words that refer to God into English, Greek, or any other language. So--is this teaching correct? Fundamentally, because the Bible itself places no restrictions on its translation, and within itself does use words referring to the Supreme Being in Greek and Aramaic, and even translates some from Hebrew into Greek in the New Testament, we know referring to God using English words is acceptable to Him.
WHAT IS A "NAME" TO BEGIN WITH?
Before considering the "sacred names" issue further, we need to consider exactly what a "name" is to begin with. A word or name is a symbol that uses a particular sound and a particular squiggle on a page to stand for a concept, for something that exists in the real world. Of course, some words stand for things which have no actual physical or spiritual existence, such as "unicorn" or "centaur." Such words exist only as ideas in various humans' minds. Different languages will have correspondingly different words or names for the same things. For example, the jumping four-footed amphibian animal we call a "frog" in English is "la grenouille" in French and "la rana" in Spanish. When we turn to Supreme Being, our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, who is everywhere (omnipresent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-loving, the word customarily used in English to symbolize this Person is "God." Fundamentally, what matters is what a person conceives when he uses the English word "God" (in Spanish, "Dios," and French, "Dieu"), not the particular noise that he makes or the marks he writes to symbolize his reference to the Creator of the universe. Did he use it as a curse word? Or, did he use it reverently and sincerely while praying in faith? What matters is the attitude and belief behind the use of the word "God," not its specific pronunciation. This is why Christians may pray to God and refer to him in whatever modern language they speak. The Bible places no restrictions on its translation, and nowhere prohibits referring to the true God in languages other than Hebrew. Those who advocate using only Hebrew names to refer to God have to read into it such restrictions.
"YAHWEH"--THE TRUE PRONUNCIATION WAS LOST
Now we should investigate the Hebrew names for God more closely. The name of God that gets the most attention in this teaching is "Yahweh" or "Jehovah," which is more traditionally translated "the LORD." This name comes from the four consonant letters "YHWH" in Hebrew, and is so called the Tetragammaton. Because ancient Hebrew was written only in consonants and a few semi-vowels, those who read it aloud had to supply the missing vowel sounds. The Jews after returning from the Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 450 b.c.) began to reverence the name "Yahweh" so greatly they outlawed the very use of it, first for the common people, later for the priests. Finally, only the high priest, and then only on the Day of Atonement, was allowed to say it. When Simon (300 to 270 b.c.) died, who was the last high priest permitted to use it, a total prohibition against saying the Name came into force among the Jews. They would substitute the word "Adonay"--"Lord," or sometimes "Elohim"--"God," for the YHWH whenever they encountered it when reading aloud the scriptures. The medieval Jewish scribes who preserved the Hebrew Old Testament, the Masoretes, around the sixth or seventh century A.D. devised a system of using dots and other small marks to symbolize what vowels came between the originally inspired consonants. However, the pronunciation of "Yahweh" was not preserved by them. Whenever YHWH appeared in the next, they put in the vowel points for Adonay or sometimes, as appropriate, Elohim, in order to avoid saying "Lord" twice in a row. This clued the oral reader to say the substitute name for Yahweh.
WHY DID THE JEWS STOP SAYING "YAHWEH"?
The Jews came to have this misconception against saying "Yahweh" due to a misinterpretation of Lev. 24:11, 16. The Hebrew word translated "blaspheme" in these texts--nachav--can also be translated "to say clearly" or "to declare distinctly." If we translate nachav this way in Lev. 24:16, a total prohibition against saying "Yahweh" results: "'And whoever [declares distinctly] the name of [Yahweh] shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him . . . (NKJV throughout, unless otherwise noted).'" Since the Jews over the centuries made the oral tradition of interpreting the law a hedge or fence around the actual written law of the Torah to help ensure the latter wasn't violated, the same practice was adopted here. To play it safe, they decided never to say the Name--YHWH--even though the inspired scriptures contain this name time and time again, demonstrating the falsity of this tradition.
WHY CHRIST MUST NEVER HAVE SAID "YAHWEH" DURING HIS MINISTRY
The result of this prohibition was that Christ and the apostles surely never used "Yahweh" in their public preaching, at least among the Jews in the first century. If they had, the common people would have reviled them, and the Scribes and Pharisees would not have had to wait long to execute them all. Remember that when Christ was on trial, the Sanhedrin sought, and got, various false witnesses in order to accuse Him (Mark 14:55-59; Matt. 26:59-61). Had He said the name "Yahweh" any time during His public ministry, sentencing Him to death would have been easy. Consider when He quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 and applied it to Himself and His ministry (Luke 4:18-21) when he first began preaching, and visited the synagogue at Nazareth. Had He said "Yahweh," instead of "the Lord," it is incredibly unlikely His audience's reaction would have been this positive (v. 22, NASB): "And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, 'Is this not Joseph's Son?'" Instead, being shocked at what they would have heard, many would have called Him a blasphemer, and surely someone would have said He should be put to death.
The silence of the New Testament on this score is deafening, especially when considering the Scribes and Pharisees were looking for ANY flimsy charge to accuse Christ with, that neither He nor His disciples could have publicly used the Name--Yahweh. Of course, Christ Himself would not have believed it was wrong to say "Yahweh," especially since He was Yahweh in the flesh Himself (John 1:1, 14; I Cor. 10:4, 9; I Timothy 3:16). But, in order to be able to effectively evangelize and witness to the Jews, He simply could not have used the Name, because of the shock it would cause, and the distractions that would create against Him effectively communicating His message to the world--the Gospel. Since neither He nor His disciples used "Yahweh" then, Christians should not see it as a requirement for salvation to use "Yahweh" today.
TRANSLATING THE YHWH AS "THE ETERNAL"
But now, what does "Yahweh" mean? What would be a good translation for this name, instead of attempting to transliterate a word with a long-forgotten pronunciation into modern languages such as English? The name "Yahweh" comes from an archaic form of the verb "to be" in Hebrew, although its exact derivation is disputed. Some scholars suggest this name originally meant "He causes to be," others, "He exists," and one has simply, "He who is." One suggested derivation maintains "Yahweh" means "Was--Is--Will Continue to Be." The tie between "Yahweh" and the Hebrew verb referring to existence is clearly made in Ex. 3:14-15. After Moses saw the burning bush, he wanted to know God's name in order to proclaim it to the enslaved children of Israel in Egypt: "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: 'I AM has sent me to you. . . . The Lord [YHWH] God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.'" Some modern translators of the Bible, especially in the French language, bring out this main meaning for "Yahweh" by translating its meaning, instead of just leaving it up to the reader to guess its meaning after reading the transliteration "Yahweh." In English, Moffatt translated it "the Eternal," and Fenton "the Ever-living," in their translations of the Bible. Since the basic meaning has been preserved for YHWH, but the exact pronunciation has been lost, it is evident that what matters to God more is what this name for Him means. Otherwise, if the sound was what matters as a condition for salvation, He would have ensured its preservation.
SOME IMPLICATIONS OF THE NAME'S MEANING
Yahweh is the personal, covenant name of the God of Israel who visits and intervenes for His people to save them. It points to God as the Creator, as the self-existent One who inhabits eternity, who has existed into the infinite past, who is actively involved in the lives of His people presently, and who will always exist into an infinite future. As Jesus, who was the Yahweh of the Old Testament, described Himself (Rev. 1:8): "I am the Alpha and the Omega [the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet], the Beginning and the End . . . who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." Since everything in the universe depends on God for its continued existence, the existence of everything else pales in comparison to His Being. All of humanity matters only to the extent God cares about its continued existence (Isaiah 40:15, 17): "Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance . . . All the nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless." To the Eternal, disputes over how and whether to pronounce one of His names are trivial by comparison with us Christians today learning more about His magnificence, power, and authority, which the meaning of this name points to.
"JEHOVAH" AS AN INFERIOR TRANSLITERATION OF YHWH
Another, more common and traditional transliteration for YHWH than Yahweh is "Jehovah." This form of the divine name was largely a mistake by Roman Catholic scholars during the Middle Ages, who could read Hebrew only imperfectly. It resulted from the vowels points for Adonay ("Lord") or Elohim ("God") placed by the Masoretic scribes between the letters for YHWH being taken for the actual vowels for Yahweh. At that time, the letter "J" originally sounded like a "Y," so this form was originally pronounced "Yehovah." Traditionally, this form has been attributed to the Confessor of Pope Leo X (1513-22), Peter Galatin. However, it has been found earlier, such as in Raymond Martin's "Pugio Fidei" (1270). Although it is more familiar to the general public, and is found in the New World Translation and the American Standard Version, it is an inferior transliteration of the divine name to "Yahweh" from a scholar's viewpoint. Both "Yahweh" and "Jehovah," as transliterations, suffer from the problem of clouding the meaning of YHWH from English speakers, which is why an actual translation like Moffatt's "the Eternal" is superior. The connection of YHWH to God's self-existence in the Hebrew is largely lost when it is not translated, but only transliterated, into English.
"ELOHIM"--THE HEBREW WORD FOR GOD
Another name for God, which appears well over two thousand times in the Old Testament, is "Elohim." Literally meaning "Mighty Ones," this word normally appears in a plural form, although the singular "Eloah" is also used. This word is translated "God" in Gen. 1:26: "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . .'" However, normally this word for God is used in a singular construction. Hence, we have Elohim creates, makes, says, not Elohim create, make, say. The root word "El" was used to refer to various false gods of the nations which surrounded ancient Israel, as well as in Hebrew itself. The discoveries made by archeologists at Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite city found in modern Syria, prove this. The Canaanites who lived in this city (c. 2000-1200 b.c.) used a language highly similar to ancient Hebrew, such as in their myth about the struggle between the gods Baal and Mot. A form of "El" used routinely in Arabic today is the Muslim word for God, "Allah."
IS IT A SIN TO USE THE WORD "GOD" BECAUSE PAGANS DID?
This leads us to one of the great fallacies behind the view that Christians today should only use the Hebrew names for God. It is said that because the English word "God" was used for pagan gods by our ancestors centuries ago, this word should never be used to refer to the one true God, the Eternal. What this claim ignores is that the word "Elohim" and its various forms are repeatedly used in Scripture to refer to false gods time and time again. "Elohim" is used 240 times to refer to pagan gods, "El" 15 times, and "Eloah" five times. Once, in Isaiah 57:5 (KJV), "El" is translated "idols." When the Philistines celebrated their victory over Samson, the word "Elohim" was applied to their god, Dagon by the inspired Hebrew writer of this account (Judges 16:23). Furthermore, as the Ugarit discoveries imply, where its treasure trove of clay tablets is dated around 1400 b.c., the Semitic word "El" had been in use in the Middle East to refer to false gods long before Moses was born. By the same reasoning used to ban the English word "God," "El" should not have been used by the writers of inspired Scripture. The fact that "El" and "Elohim" were used time and time again in the Old Testament to refer to pagan gods, and the root word "El" was used by pagans to refer to their gods around the time the Torah was completed by Moses, conclusively proves God does NOT prohibit the use of words in other languages referring to Him that also have been used to refer to false gods. What matters is not the sound or marking that represents a concept as a word, but what the user means by the word in question when he says or writes it. Hence, the English word "God" is a perfectly fine way to refer to the Almighty, as well as to false gods such as Woden, Thor, Vulcan, Zeus, etc.
THE OLD TESTAMENT WAS ALSO WRITTEN IN ARAMAIC
Furthermore, it is often forgotten that some parts of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic, the language which began to replace Hebrew for the everyday speech of ancient Israelites, especially after returning from the Babylonian captivity. Jesus and His disciples conducted their ministry in Aramaic, which was one of the main languages in common use in Judea in the first century A.D. Greek also was used in Judea by many average people, not just the wealthy, well-educated, or well-traveled. These parts of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic: Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4b-6:18; Jeremiah 10:11. Scattered Aramaic words show up elsewhere also. Now--did the writers of Scripture use Hebrew words for God when they used Aramaic? No, they did not! Seventy-eight times God inspired Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezra to use the Aramaic word "Elah," not the Hebrew "Elohim." Here God clearly granted permission men to use words referring to Him in languages other than Hebrew. Furthermore, 16 times "Elah" is used to refer to pagan gods, showing once again God allows the same word to be used about pagan gods that is used to refer to Him. To say God only allows Hebrew words to be used about Him clearly contradicts the Old Testament.
THE WITNESS OF THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT
However, the strongest proof against the idea that God requires us to use Hebrew words about Himself is the New Testament, which was written in Greek. The Greek word for Lord, "Kyrios" is used to refer to God some 665 times in the New Testament, while "Theos," meaning "God," is used some l,345 times. Worse yet, in a number of places, where New Testament writers quote the Old, the Greek word for Lord, "Kyrios" is substituted for the Tetragammaton, YHWH. For example, note Matt. 3:3: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'" The Hebrew text for Isaiah 40:3 has YHWH for "the Lord," while the Greek has "Kyrios." When Christ entered Jerusalem, the crowds surely did not say "Yahweh" when quoting Ps. 118:26, but: "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Matt. 21:9). They would have regarded it as blasphemy, as shown earlier, to say "the Name." When Christ quoted Ps. 110:1 to refer to Himself, He certainly did not say "Yahweh," otherwise the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes could have demanded on the spot his execution (note Luke 20:41-44). Paul was no different: He substituted "the Lord" for the YHWH when quoting from the Old Testament (see I Cor. 1:31; Rom. 4:8; 9:23; II Cor. 3:17). Clearly, the Holy Spirit, by allowing "Kyrios" to be substituted for "Yahweh" in the New Testament, decisively demonstrates that the old Jewish tradition of substituting "the Lord" for "Yahweh" is not a sin in God's sight, even though it was originally based on an erroneous interpretation of Lev. 24:11, 16. Hence, although "the Lord" is definitely not the best standard translation for YHWH in English, as opposed to "the Eternal," the text of the New Testament decisively proves it is not a sin to translate YHWH as "the Lord."
WAS THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT GREATLY CORRUPTED?
The fundamental error of the "Sacred Names" teaching is that it comes up with a preconceived idea based on certain Old Testament passages. Then, when this idea is decisively refuted by the Greek New Testament, the text of the latter must be rejected as false, instead of rejecting the teaching that is contrary to it. Hence, when such scriptural facts as those mentioned above are presented, the normal reply is that the New Testament's text has been corrupted. Some unknown scribes centuries ago--presumably in the early second century--systematically edited out every Hebrew word that referred to God, and replaced them with Greek words. The principal problem with this claim is that absolutely no evidence whatsoever exists for it. There are no records of such editing occurring, nor is there a single Greek New Testament manuscript (out of some 5309 ones known to exist) with the YHWH or another Hebrew name for God appearing in it even once. These unknown, unproven editors must have been VERY good at their job! Or, maybe they were not so perfect, because they left in the Greek in James 5:4 the transliterated word from Hebrew for "hosts"--"sabaoth"--while supposedly changing the YHWH to "the Lord"! After all, with the Greek manuscripts increasingly being preserved by gentiles, who had no tradition of substituting "the Lord" for "Yahweh," or any notion of using "Elohim" for "God," it is unlikely they would have even thought of doing such editing. On the other hand, suppose the early church, when it was mainly Jewish, had routinely used Yahweh (which is very unlikely) and Elohim, and had been inspired to use these words in the Gospels and Letters. Those who came right after them in the Jewish Christian community certainly would not have changed their minds, go back to a traditional Jewish mind-set, and start editing out everything their spiritual fathers had just placed in the New Testament. They revered the word of God too much to handle it so carelessly.
Furthermore, Christ assures us His words, as part of the New Testament, would be accurately preserved: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). To insist the New Testament was so massively corrupted, that all the hundreds and hundreds of places "God," "Jesus," "Christ," "Lord," etc. appear in the Greek New Testament are false interpolations by unknown editors, denies Jesus' assurance His words would not pass away. If one really believes such massive changes were made in the New Testament text, then one has to wonder what else may have been changed! As it is, with fragments of manuscripts and quotes from early Catholic church writers going back to the early second century A.D., and complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts appearing in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., the time gap between the events that are recorded in the New Testament and the earliest preserved manuscript fragments (c. 90 years or less) is likely the smallest of any anciently preserved historical writings. The idea that all the Hebrew names for God were edited out of the New Testament demonstrates a lack of faith that God would preserve His Holy Word for us accurately enough that no basic doctrines would be lost. As it is, it requires much greater faith to believe the Hebrew names were there to begin with!
WHY THE NEW TESTAMENT WAS NOT ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN ARAMAIC
While some attempt to dodge this bullet by saying the whole New Testament was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew, this is plainly contradicted by the witness of ancient manuscripts, the grammatical structure of the Greek, and the writings of the early Catholic church writers. True, one can find a few of the latter who say Matthew or Hebrews was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew (by which they may have meant Aramaic). Church historian Eusebius (ca 260-339 A.D.), citing the earlier writings of Papias, and Jerome (ca 374-419 A.D.), the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible from Hebrew and Greek, both said Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, but that he later translated it into Greek. Eusebius also said that Paul wrote Hebrews (something which has been argued about for centuries) in Hebrew, but that Luke translated it into Greek. However, fundamentally what matters is what was preserved down through the ages as the original, from which other translations were made. In the case of both Matthew and Hebrews, if they were originally written in other languages, the Greek is all that remains for us today. Furthermore, noting the case of Matthew's Gospel in particular, the Greek cannot be easily translated back into Aramaic. Its Greek is too smooth, and and contains word plays possible only in that language. It becomes difficult to believe it was originally written in another language.
It is easily proven that the New Testament was not originally written in Aramaic, but rather the early Aramaic edition of the New Testament, which has been translated into English in the Lamsa Bible, is a translation from the Greek. There are at least a dozen cases where the Greek has quotes from the Aramaic, but then translates it. If the Aramaic had been the original language, there would have been no need to add statements that translate the Aramaic into Greek. Since there are such cases in the Aramaic version of the New Testament, the original language of the New Testament must have been Greek. For example, consider Christ's cry to God while being crucified (Mark 15:34): "And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?' which is translated, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" The Aramaic version of the New Testament contains the part "which is translated, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?," which is simply absurdly unnecessary if it was the original language that the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament in.
"MESSIAH" AND "YAHSHUA" AS THE HEBREW NAMES FOR JESUS CHRIST
Another point of attack by those who insist Christians must use Hebrew names for God is that "Christ" and "Jesus" are unacceptable. Christians should say "Messiah" and "Yahshua" instead, though they disagree among themselves as to the best transliteration for the Savior's name. The word "Christ" comes from the term, "the anointed one," and has the same meaning as the Hebrew word "Messiah." The English word "Jesus" comes from the Greek word "Iesous," which appears over 910 times in the New Testament. It means "Yahweh is salvation." The name "Joshua" comes from the exact same Greek word, and has the same meaning (see Hebrews 4:8). Here, concerning Jesus' name, the same mistakes are made, based on the same preconceived ideas developed by misinterpreting certain Old Testament passages. Since the New Testament does refer to our Savior using Greek terms and not Hebrew ones, there is nothing wrong today in using either the Greek terms, or their translation into English. The Bible simply does not prohibit translation of His names into other languages. One has to read such an idea into certain Old Testament passages, and then totally ignore all the evidence in both the Old Testament's Aramaic and the New Testament's Greek against it.
THERE IS MORE TO GOD'S NAME THAN PRONUNCIATION!
But now--what does it mean to do something "in the name of the Lord"? It does not merely mean vocalizing the sounds of God's name! A name, as Vine's says, stands "for all that a 'name' implies, of authority, character, rank, majesty, power, excellence, etc., of everything that the 'name' covers." Very often, it means to do something by the power or authority of God. For example, consider part of Jesus' prayer for his disciples and the church in John 17:11-12: "Holy Father, keep through your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name." Note the crudely literal interpretation of Jesus' words, which nobody believes, would say that "I kept them in Your name" means they were called "God" or "Holy Father" while on earth. Instead, what Jesus means is that He kept them and protected them under the Father's authority. Or, consider this Old Testament example (Micah 4:5): "For all people walk each in the name of his god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord [YHWH] our God forever and ever." This passage says that to "walk in the name" of a god or the true God is to be guided and identified by one's worship of that God. It does not necessarily mean so much pronouncing the word that stands for that God. A "name" could mean acknowledging or confessing something about God, such as when someone is baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 8:16), one is accepting Him as Savior. There is a whole lot more to "the name of God" than correctly pronouncing one of his names right!
THE ARTIFICIAL DISTINCTION BETWEEN "NAME" AND "TITLE"
Normally, at this point, those who teach God should only be called by Hebrew names will draw an artificial distinction between a "name" and a "title." Hence, in "Yahweh Sabaoth" (i.e., "the Lord of hosts"), or "Yahweh Elohim," the part that is a name is "Yahweh," while the words translated "Hosts" or "God" are titles. The principal problem with this distinction is that it is made nowhere in the Greek or Hebrew words translated "name." Even in English, this distinction is not watertight, as the Random House Unabridged Dictionary states: "Name, title both refer to the label by which a person is known. Name is the simpler and more general word for appellation . . . A title is an official or honorary term bestowed on a person or the specific designation of a book, article, etc." For example, consider how the titles of English aristocrats are treated in literature and historical writing. Often the "titles" becomes their "names." Arthur Wellesley was the English general who defeated the French Emperor Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, with the aid of the Prussians under Blucher. However, most people don't know him by that name. They call him "The Duke of Wellington," or simply "Wellington."
Hence, while one can call "Lord" and "Christ" titles, and "Jesus" the name, two or three of these are often combined in a compound form to which something was done or said "in the name of," such as in Acts 8:12; 16:18; I Cor. 1:10; 5:4, 6:11; I Thess. 1:12; 3:6. In some cases, "Christ" is evidently called a "name" in scripture: "'Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity'" (II Tim. 2:19; compare I Pet. 4:14). Similarly, the compound form "Lord of Hosts" is called a "name" in Jeremiah 10:16, 46:18; 48:15. Three names/titles appear, evidently combined into a compound name, in Amos 4:13: ". . . The Lord [YHWH] God of hosts is His name." In Amos 5:27, one finds: ". . . says the Lord [YHWH], whose name is the God of hosts." Ps. 48:10 says: "According to Your name, O God, so is Your praise to the ends of the earth." Even in Ex. 3:15, "Yahweh Elohim" is the complete name of God mentioned, not just "Yahweh," depending on where one places the commas and/or articles in English.
WHY CHRISTIANS NEED NOT SPECIFY WHICH GOD THEY ARE PRAYING TO
For ancient Israelites in their culture Canaanite deities such as Chemosh, Molech, Dagon, Baal, Astoreth, and Asherah were rivals against Yahweh for their affections. However, today it is not necessary for a Christian to strongly emphasize the difference between his God and the pagan gods by using the distinguishing name "Yahweh." After all, what really matters is the intent of the heart and who one is thinking of praying to, not the noises one makes when addressing God in some language. Jesus, in his model prayer, did not start it off using "Yahweh," or even "the Lord," but simply, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matt. 6:9). God knows who His children are even before they start praying to Him. Hence, it is not necessary to use a name that specifically distinguishes the true God from the false, since we as Christians are directing our prayers towards the true God to begin with, and would not dream of praying to some false god.
THE NEED FOR CLEAR COMMUNICATION WHEN EVANGELIZING
Furthermore, Christians need to use the time-honored language of their surrounding culture in order to make communication of the Gospel's message easier. After all, suppose someone totally ignorant of the Bible's contents suddenly encounters such words as "Yahweh," "Elohim," "Yahshua," etc. routinely in a magazine that is attempting to evangelize him. He may throw it away in confusion instead of continuing to read the message that is supposed to help save him. In order to communicate with the world, one has to approach it initially on its terms. Hence, Paul came to the Jews as a Jew, but approached the gentiles as a gentile (I Cor. 9:19-22). When he dealt with the pagan Greeks on the Areopagus in Athens, he approached them by referring to an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown God." He did not use such Hebrew words as "Yahweh," "Elohim," or "Yahshua," or else his audience, which was almost totally ignorant of the true God and did not know Hebrew, would have tuned him out completely. Similarly, as the silence of controversy on this point in the New Testament strongly implies, neither Jesus nor his disciples used "Yahweh" during His ministry. By using it, Christ would have drowned out anything else he said or done, including even His miracles.
THE BASIC ERRORS SUMMARIZED
Fundamentally, the error committed by the doctrine that Christians must use the Hebrew names for God is a preconceived idea that is read into, and gained from, certain Old Testament scriptures that God must be called certain names in one language. Then, when the Greek New Testament's text contradicts this teaching, the text of the New Testament is called wrong, instead of this teaching! It denies that the Holy Spirit placed its sanction on the substitution of the name "the Lord" for the tetragammaton YHWH when the New Testament makes citations from the Old. It assumes, without proof, and against the witness of the Old Testament itself, that it is a sin to use a word referring to the Creator that also has been used about pagan gods. It says it is a sin to translate or use other words that refer to the true God other than Hebrew ones without citing any specific commands in Scripture concerning this, and against the witness not only of the Greek New Testament, but also the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament. Furthermore, it turns certain particular noises made by human mouths and squiggles made by human hands into a condition for salvation. It confusedly exalts the sounds and sights of the symbol for a word over and above the meaning of a word itself, which is what really matters. Translating YHWH as "the Eternal" or "the Ever-Living" is superior to transliterating it "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" because it brings the core meaning of this name for God to the normally otherwise uninformed English speaker's mind, instead of letting it guess and grope for the meaning. For in the end, what matters in God's sight isn't what we say, including pronouncing His name in a certain manner, but what we do while serving him in faith: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
Eric V. Snow
811 Foote St.
Jackson, MI 49202
United Church of God--Lansing, Michigan