Names for God

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


I've heard that Yahweh and Jehovah are really the same name for God. If that's true, how did that come about?


To begin with, any name for God is more than just a name, especially in Judaism. God's name represents their understanding of the divine nature, their understanding of their relation to God and His people. Needless to say, names for God were very sacred (consider the commandment that forbids taking God's name in vain). Because of this, scribes were very respectful and very hesitant to even write the name of God lest it be inadvertently misused. The most common way to refer to God was with four Hebrew consonants -- Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei (YHVH). This became known as the "Tetragrammaton," a word that comes from the Greek prefix tetra- ("four") and gramma ("letter"). Linguistically speaking, these four letters are related to the Hebrew root "to be," which seems an appropriate name in light of God's revelation of himself to Moses at the site of the burning bush. When God speaks His name, it is "I AM."

It is not clear how, or even if, these four letters were pronounced. Once Hebrew was no longer a living language, the Masorete translators (6th century CE) added vowel points to the consonant texts. For this word they added vowels rendering it as Adonai, placing them under the consonants. As readers would come upon this word, instead of accidentally reading the Tetragrammaton, they would say Adonai, translated, the Lord.

Legend has it that back in 1520 (in the time of Martin Luther), a Christian scribe, who was Pope Leo X's confessor, invented the word by mistake. Not knowing that the vowel points were only to alert readers not to pronounce the divine name, this individual combined the consonants with the vowels, essentially adding a-o-a into the tetragrammaton (which apparently renders the word unpronounceable in Hebrew). By using the letters from the Latin Vulgate – IHVH – it turned out to be IaHoVaH in 16th century English. Later on, it became known as Jehovah and, basically, the name stuck.

Other scholars question the accuracy of this legend and believe the word was already in use by the 13th century.

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.