God has a personal name: YHVH. Like Semitic names in general, it was intended to reflect something of the bearer’s character. YHVH is related to the root h-v-h, “to be”, and reflects God’s eternity and timelessness.
The name of the God of Israel contained power and was used with reverence. The third commandment said it was not to be “taken in vain,” which meant that people were not to swear falsely by God’s name. However, this commandment came to be interpreted in its narrowest sense, and somewhere between the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. and the third century A.D., people stopped using the name at all when speaking.
When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the third century B.C., the tetragrammaton was often substituted by the Greek word kurios, which means “Lord.” This causes a slight complication when we read, because there is already a word for Lord in Hebrew, which is sometimes applied to God either in its singular form, adon, or as a plural with first person singular pronominal suffix, adonai, Lord, (literally, “my lords”).1 Thus it is not always possible in the Septuagint to tell whether the original underlying Hebrew referring to God was the tetragrammaton, adonai, or some other word.
Greek to Hebrew
This problem does not exist when translating the New Testament into most languages: translators just use the word for lord. However, in the Hebrew translation of the New Testament it was necessary to decide at each appearance of kurios whether to render adonai or YHVHor something else. In the case of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures the decision is simple enough. In a passage such as Matthew 22:44, the modern Hebrew New Testament returns to the original of Psalm 110:1 and reads, “ne’um yhvh (by tradition read as adonai) le’adoni,” where English translations have rendered, “The Lord [or Lord] said to my Lord.”
Notice in the above example that Matthew is quoting words which Jesus spoke to an audience. Would Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament have actually pronounced the Divine Name? The answer must be no. However, the translators felt justified in leaving the original wording of the Psalm, even though Jesus would have spoken the words “ne’um adonai ladoni,” substituting adonai for the tetragrammaton. In this case they were copying from the original Psalm rather than quoting the actual words which came out of Jesus’ mouth.2
Other instances where God is spoken of in direct speech are in the words of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1:28, 46, 68. In all of these cases the first edition of the modern Hebrew New Testament used YHVH to translate kurios, although the three speakers would have said adonai, as will the modern reader.
Hebrew to Greek
The Septuagint translators, who tended to be fairly literal in their translating, had been faced with the converse problem: how could they distinguish between adonai and YHVH in their Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible? The solution they generally seem to have settled on was to render adonai as ho kurios (the Lord), and YHVH as simply kurios without the definite article. This was done without distinction as to whether the passage was direct speech or narrative. The Septuagint was translated over a period of several generations, and this rule was not followed consistently by its various translators.
It is interesting to note that the Greek of the New Testament also has both forms, kurios and ho kurios, sometimes even coming side by side (e.g., Lk. 1:9, 11; 1:25, 28, 32; 1:45, 46). To make things more complicated, the form of kurios without the definite article is occasionally used of Jesus, as in Luke 2:11 (“…is born [a] savior, who is Messiah, [the] Lord”).3
Modern Hebrew Translations
The ﬁrst edition of the United Bible Societies’ Hebrew New Testament, with a few exceptions, had used the Septuagint practice as a guideline by rendering ho kurios as adonai, and kurios without the definite article as YHVH. However some members of the editorial committee called this into question. First of all, the distinction would not be clear to modern readers to whom it might seem strange to find the tetragrammaton being used in direct speech. Secondly, modern Israeli readers will say adonai when they encounter YHVH in the text.
To aid in making the decision, we asked a number of Israelis with a good academic command of Hebrew whether the translation should maintain yhvh or substitute instead an abbreviation such as H’ or ‘’, both of which are common in Hebrew literature and are read as adonai or ha-shem, “the name.” Opinions were divided, although most were in favor of maintaining YHVH, except in direct speech. Some of these argued that to use H’ or ‘’ would give the impression that the New Testament is just another secular book with less sanctity than the Hebrew Bible.
Those who argued against using YHVH said that it has simply never been done in texts other than the Hebrew Bible, from ancient times until today. Additionally, they said, more Israelis would be likely to read the New Testament if it did not contain the divine name. The first of these objections is contrary to the evidence: the divine name is found in non-biblical material in the Dead Sea Scrolls and especially in the Temple Scroll. The second objection is not at all certain. Those Israelis who are interested in reading the New Testament probably will not be put off by the appearance of the tetragrammaton. Those who refuse to read the New Testament do so because of objections to Jesus and Paul and the history of “Christian” treatment of Jews; changing YHVH to H’ or ‘’ will make no difference to them.
It was decided to abandon the Septuagint’s solution and treat each case on its own merits. Each one of the more than 300 occurrences of kurios in the New Testament had to be checked in its context. Where direct speech was involved, it could be translated by ha’adon, the Lord, adonai, or even elohim, God, as the Septuagint translators themselves had sometimes done (in the reverse direction, of course). The one exception to this is where the speaker is quoting a verse from the Hebrew Bible which includes the tetragrammaton. In these cases, as in the example from Matthew 22:44 cited above, the original YHVH has been maintained. In narrative sections YHVH has been left in the translation in almost every case. Some of the cases in the Gospels are in fact stock phrases in which the divine name of God is normal. Among these are malak YHVH, the angel of the Lord, yom YHVH, the day of the Lord, yad YHVH, the hand of the Lord, and kevod YHVH, the glory of the Lord. Here the Hebrew New Testament has preserved the familiar phrase.
In some places it needs a decision bordering on the theological to determine how to translate kurios. What should be done, for example, in a situation like Luke 19:31, 34: “You shall say ‘The Lord needs it.’”? Was the owner to understand that the Lord needed the colt or that the LORD needed it? In the modern Hebrew translation it would be possible to render kurios as either ha’adon, the Lord or as adonai, the Lord. English translations generally do not have to make such a decision because they use the distinctive Lord only in the Hebrew Scriptures. The modern Hebrew translators decided to use ha’adon, leaving open the interpretation that Jesus, the disciples’ master, needed the colt. Translation sometimes unavoidably involves interpretation, and in this case the interpretation could have gone either way.
Or, to take a similar example, how are we to understand the words of Jesus in Mark 5:19: “Go home to your family and tell them what ho kurios has done for you”? The first Hebrew New Testament edition used YHVH, but it need not have been so unequivocal since Jesus would not have pronounced the divine name. It is clear that Jesus said either adonai or ha’adon. To render kurios here as adonai would lose the ambiguity. It is better to stay with ha’adon, which could have been understood by the newly-healed demoniac (as well as by today’s readers) to refer either to the Lord or to Jesus. Judging from verse 20, the ex-demoniac may have understood the latter, because he went out to proclaim in the Decapolis “how much Jesus had done for him.”
As a general rule it was decided that the modern Hebrew New Testament would stay with adon, Lord) or adonai, Lord for kurios rather than use the tetragrammaton, YHVH. The exceptions to this are those quotations from the Hebrew Bible in which YHVH appears in the original. Other minor exceptions also can be found in places where the context seemed to demand using YHVH (for example, Rev. 19:6).
- The plural of adon is adonim. The regular plural with ﬁrst person singular pronominal suffix is adonai, my lords. In the Masoretic text, when God is intended and not “my lords,” the word is pointed (one exception of 425 occurrences, adonai in Judges 13:8).
- The Greek text of Matthew here uses the word kurios twice. The Septuagint used the word kurios to translate thirteen different Hebrew words. Therefore, when translating back into Hebrew we can choose which of those words is more appropriate to the context and situation. If YHVH is used, the modern Israeli reader will still say “adonai.” Today, as in the time of Jesus, it is permitted when copying Scripture to write the tetragrammaton even though one does not pronounce it.
- Two seventh-century Latin manuscripts of the New Testament (b and r1) change “Lord” in Luke 2:11 into the genitive, that is, “…who is Messiah of [the] Lord,” a more Hebraic expression (i.e., Meshiah YHVH).