Jehovah's Witnesses and the Divine Name

By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.



There is no consensus among Bible scholars as to the meaning of "Jehovah." According to the JWs, the divine name "actually signifies 'He Causes to Become.' Thus, God's name identifies Him as the One who progressively fulfills his promises and unfailingly realizes his purposes." [1] Similarly, the phrase in Exodus 3:14, usually translated "I AM WHO I AM" ('ehyeh asher 'ehyeh), is in the NWT rendered "I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT I SHALL PROVE TO BE." [2]

Other Bible expositors have argued for a similar interpretation of the divine name, though the details of the argument differ. [3] The exact interpretation of the name, however, is still a matter of debate, and we need not be concerned here to settle on the one right view. Instead, I wish to make a simple point that can be seen apart from an accurate analysis of the Hebrew form of the divine name. The fact is that most of the interpretations under serious consideration, if related properly to the biblical view of God, actually imply one another.

Let us consider these views briefly. One view holds that "Jehovah" means "He is," conveying that God simply is who He is and cannot be defined because He is greater than the human mind can completely comprehend. Another view also holds that "Jehovah" means "He is," but understands this to mean that God is the One who is self-existent; that is, eternal and dependent on no one and nothing else for His existence. A third view takes "Jehovah" to mean "He causes to be" and interprets this to mean that God is the Creator: everything that exists besides God Himself was created by God. A fourth view renders "Jehovah" as "He will become" and takes this to imply that God will do whatever is needed to fulfill His promises; this is essentially the JWs' view, and that of others as well.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Some of those who believe that YHWH "also" means "HE IS" (actually, the vast majority of the time), point out that YHWH means "HE IS" whenever "YHWH" is used by anyone other than YHWH Himself, or other than an angel acting as "YHWH's "mouthpiece". Sensibly, YHWH only means "I AM" on those occasions when "YHWH" is used by YHWH Himself, or when used by "the angel of YHWH" (YHWH's mouthpiece), at the "burning bush", or when used by Jesus of Narareth, when the Pharisees immediately understood that when Jesus used "I AM" that last time (count how many times Jesus had commonly said "I am ..." leading up to then) , that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, and they responded to Jesus' preceived "blashphemy" by their attempting to stone Him.

Whichever of these views is right, the truths about God which they understand the divine name to be expressing all necessarily imply one another. In order for God to be able to fulfill His incredible promises to His people, He must be in complete control of human history and indeed of the whole universe; but this implies that He is the Creator and Sustainer of the world. That God is the Creator of the world and the One who can guarantee such amazing promises about matters thousands of years in the future implies that He is not bound by time but is eternal; which in turn implies that He is self-existent. Such an amazing God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, who is beyond the restrictions of time, is certainly beyond man's ability to comprehend completely or exhaustively; which implies that He cannot be simply and neatly defined as the pagans labeled their many imaginary gods.

The essence of God's name "Jehovah," then, regardless of the precise original meaning of the Hebrew form, is that He is absolutely supreme and in control of everything. In short, the name "Jehovah" reveals God as Lord -- as the all-sovereign Lord of creation, of history, and of His people. It would appear to be no accident, then, and no mistake, that "Lord" has come to take the place of "Jehovah" both in the New Testament and in most translations of the Old Testament. That this conclusion is in fact biblically sound shall be further demonstrated as we consider the biblical teaching about the divine name.

One more point should be noted: the JWs do not really believe in this Lord whose absolute sovereignty is revealed in the name "Jehovah." JWs deny that God is incomprehensible except in the same sense that the wonders of the universe are incomprehensible. [4] Strictly speaking, they deny that God is eternal (that is, transcendent over time), maintaining rather that God simply has always existed and will continue always to exist. [5] Thus they deny His perfect foreknowledge of the future.

The JWs' God is also not omnipresent, but has a body of spirit located at some fixed point in space. [6] Thus, their "God" is not the absolute Creator of space and time, but is a relative entity locked into the universe of space and time along with the rest of us. Ironically, then, the very name about which JWs make such a fuss reveals God as being infinitely greater than their doctrine of Him admits.


According to JWs, it is essential that God's people use God's name "Jehovah" regularly when praying to Him and talking to others about Him. Only the name "Jehovah," they argue, applies uniquely to the true God and to no other god. False gods are called "God," "Lord," and even "Father"; such titles, then, are not "distinctive" designations of the true God. [7]

These arguments, though they seem reasonable to JWs, are not biblical. For one thing, it is not true that only the name "Jehovah" applies uniquely to the true God. For example, the expression "the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob" serves to identify the true God as well as does the name "Jehovah." More importantly, the New Testament does not use "Jehovah" once, but instead regularly uses "God" or "Lord" ("Lord" being the normal usage in quotations from the Old Testament). Thus the New Testament, at least as it stands, testifies by its lack of the name "Jehovah" that it is not essential to use it.

Because the evidence of the New Testament is obviously at odds with the JWs' teaching on the divine name, they have inserted the name Jehovah 237 times in their NWT New Testament. We need, then, to consider the arguments used by the JWs in defense of "restoring" the name Jehovah to the New Testament.


The "Septuagint" (for which the abbreviation "LXX" is standard) was a translation of the Old Testament ("OT") from Hebrew into Greek that was produced in the third century B.C., and from which the New Testament ("NT") frequently quotes. In most versions of the LXX (which have come down to us throughancient manuscript copies), the word "Lord" (Greek kurios) is used in place of the divine name, and this practice is also followed in all the thousands of ancient NT Greek manuscripts that have survived.

In order to counter this evidence, JWs argue that "Jehovah" was used in the original LXX and NT manuscripts, and that the versions which used kurios were produced after the first century by apostate scribes. They base this claim on some pre-NT manuscripts of the LXX containing the divine name which have been discovered in this century.

It is unnecessary here to discuss all the pros and cons of this theory. Several recent studies have been done which show that there is insufficient evidence to prove that the divine name was used in the original LXX, though everyone admits that some (not many) copies of the LXX did use it. These studies point out that the manuscripts on which the theory is based all contain signs that they were not typical examples of the LXX. Furthermore, internal evidence from the LXX itself shows that from the beginning it must have used kurios in place of the divine name. [8]

Even if it should turn out that the original LXX did use the divine name, that would not necessitate that the NT writers used it when quoting from the OT, since they did not always follow the LXX exactly even when quoting from it. [9] The only way we can know what the NT writers did is by examining the NT itself.


Thousands of NT manuscripts (in either portions or its entirety) written in Greek, its original language, have been found. So far, none of these manuscripts, which date from the second century and later, have contained the divine name. This the JWs admit. [10] All the manuscripts have regularly used kurios in places where the NT quotes from or alludes to an OT passage which in the original Hebrew used the divine name. Thus the NT, as it has actually been preserved in the manuscripts which have come down to us, definitely does not contain the divine name.

Despite this evidence, JWs argue that, like the Septuagint, the NT must have originally contained the divine name. They contend, for example, that Matthew wrote his gospel originally in Hebrew and would therefore have naturally employed the Hebrew name "Jehovah." [11] Although it is possible that Matthew wrote an earlier version of his gospel in Hebrew, this is not a certain fact; no copy of it has survived. Moreover, even if Matthew had used the divine name in a now-lost Hebrew gospel, this in no way proves that the rest of the NT writers did the same in their original Greek writings.

JWs also appeal to a large number of medieval translations of the NT into Hebrew which frequently used the divine name in place of kurios. [12] However, since these manuscripts were translated from the Greek, and were produced over a thousand years after the NT was written, they cannot lend support to the theory that the NT originally contained the divine name.

Ultimately, the JW belief in this matter rests not on these textual considerations, but on their understanding of what the NT actually has to say about the divine name. JWs argue that the practice of using substitutes such as "Lord" and "God" for the divine name was a superstitious practice which developed among the Jews as a way of avoiding taking the name of Jehovah in vain. Jesus, they reason, would not "have followed such an unscriptural tradition," given His forthright condemnation of the Pharisees for their traditions. [13] 

They maintain that Jesus showed His respect for God's name when He taught the disciples to pray, "Let your name be sanctified" (Matt. 6:9 NWT), and by His statement in prayer to the Father, "I have made your name manifest" (John 17:6 NWT). They argue on this basis that when Jesus read aloud in the synagogue from Isaiah 61:1-2, which contained the divine name in Hebrew, He must have spoken the divine name rather than a substitute. [14] The apostles are said to have continued Jesus' teaching in this regard by their referring to Christians as "a people for his name" (Acts 15:14-15 NWT). [15]

This line of reasoning is mistaken at every step. First, the practice of substituting "Lord" or "God" for the divine name can be traced as far back as the OT. For example, Psalm 53 is nearly identical word for word with Psalm 14, but four times substitutes "God" in place of "Jehovah" (Ps. 14:2,4,6,7; 53:2,4,5,6). [16] This one example proves that using substitutes for the divine name is not an "unscriptural practice."

Second, Jesus evidently used various substitutes, as can be seen from passages where He was not quoting the OT (e.g., "Power," Matt. 26:64; "Heaven," Luke 15:21). [17]

Third, Jesus' references to God's "name" are striking in that in the immediate context, even in the NWT, neither the name "Jehovah" nor any substitute is used. Thus, the model prayer which Jesus taught to His disciples addresses God not as "Jehovah," but as "our Father" (Matt. 6:9; see also Luke 11:2).

Not once in Jesus' long prayer in John 17 does He address God as Jehovah, but always as "Father" (John 17:1,11,21,24,25). In these passages God's "name" evidently stands for His character and reputation; while Christians are to honor these, there is noconcern expressed that they use the divine name.

In fact, even with the use of "Jehovah" in the NWT Jesus appears to have used the divine name very sparingly. In the NWT it occurs in 20 texts reporting the words of Jesus, most of which are quotations from the OT (e.g., Matt. 4:4; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 3:35; John 6:45). By contrast, Jesus used the word "God" over 180 times and "Father" roughly 175 times.

Fourth, if Jesus had used the divine name in His speech and when reading aloud from the OT, His doing so would have been harshly condemned by the Jews (since they opposed doing so). Yet, we never read of any controversy over His use of the divine name.

Fifth, the apostles' teaching likewise does not show any evidence of concern for the use of the name "Jehovah." In Acts 15, when James speaks of a people for God's name, even in the NWT, James does not use the name "Jehovah" except when quoting from the OT (Acts 15:17); elsewhere he speaks simply of "God" (15:14,19). James's point is not that Christians are a people who use the name "Jehovah," but a people who identify themselves with the true God and honor what His "name" represents.

As I have already explained, the essential significance of the name "Jehovah" (YHWH), whatever its original precise meaning, is that He is the Lord. Thus, however the practice of substituting "Lord" for the divine name arose, in God's sovereign purpose this practice reflected the true significance of His name.

Finally, the claim that the divine name was removed from the NT by apostate scribes and an unscriptural substitute put in its place, besides contradicting the Bible's own teaching and having no evidence to support it, contradicts one of the JWs' own teachings about the Bible. Repeatedly one finds in their publications strong affirmations that "the Bible has not been changed" through the process of copying and recopying over the centuries. [18] This affirmation is not only factually correct, it is necessarily true if the Bible is to be believed as God's unchanging Word (Isa. 40:8; 55:11; Matt. 5:18).


JWs deny that Jesus is Jehovah, maintaining instead that He is a created angel. Although the NT does not say in just so many words, "Jesus is Jehovah," in more than one place it does say that "Jesus is Lord," which is the clearest way the NT could affirm that Jesus is Jehovah (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). Elsewhere the NT calls Jesus "Lord" in contexts where it is quoting or paraphrasing OT texts which in the Hebrew used the divine name (e.g., Heb. 1:10-12; 1 Pet. 2:3; 3:14-15). Moreover, when the apostle Paul uses the expression "one Lord" (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:6), it is clear from the context that he always has Jesus in mind, even though "one Lord" in the OT means "one Jehovah" (Deut. 6:4). [19]

The JWs have attempted to turn this evidence on its head by arguing that the substitution of "Lord" for the divine name in the NT resulted in "confusion" between the Lord Jehovah and the Lord Jesus. They have recently found an ally in this claim in Bible scholar George Howard, who also supports their claim that the original Septuagint used the divine name. [20]

The evidence from the NT, however, contradicts the JWs' (and Howard's) theory. As already noted, the claim that the NT originally used the divine name contradicts the manuscript evidence and the teaching of the NT. Moreover, it can be shown that if "Jehovah" is substituted for "Lord" in the NT selectively in order to avoid Jesus being called Jehovah, the passages where this is done become incoherent. This is especially clear in Romans 10:9-13 where Paul's argument depends on the "Lord" of verse 13 (who must be Jehovah, since it is a quotation from Joel 2:32) being the same as the "Lord" (Jesus) of verse 9.


JWs take great pride in their constant use of the name Jehovah, even to the point of calling themselves "Jehovah's Witnesses." Ironically, the passage of Scripture on which this name is based indicates that they are not faithful witnesses to Jehovah, since it states that the primary truth to which those witnesses were to testify was that Jehovah is the only God and Savior (Isa. 43:10-11). By their teaching that Jesus was a created god and a divine savior under Jehovah, the JWs prove themselves unfaithful witnesses.

A faithful witness of Jehovah would not systematically distort His Word, as this series has shown that JWs do. Nor would such a witness diminish His greatness and deny His incarnation in Christ. Though they mouth His name, JWs have demonstrated by their perversions of His Word, the Bible, that they are not truly "on Jehovah's side" (Ex. 32:26).


1 The Divine Name That Will Endure Forever (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society [hereafter WTBTS], 1984), 6.

2 On Exodus 3:14, especially as it relates to John 8:58, see this author's Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 121-29.

3 Charles R. Gianotti, "The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH," Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (Jan.-Mar. 1985):38-51.

4 Reasoning from the Scriptures (WTBTS, 1985), 148-49, 425.

5 Ibid., 148-49.

6 On this and related points see Duane Magnani, The Heavenly Weatherman (Clayton, CA: Witness Inc., 1987).

7 Aid to Bible Understanding (WTBTS, 1971), 885-86.

8 See especially Albert Pietersma, "Kyrios or Tetragram: Renewed Quest for the Original LXX," in _De Septuaginta: Studies in Honour of John William Wevers on His Sixty-fifth Birthday, ed. Albert Pietersma and Claude Cox (Mississauga, Ontario: Benben Publications, 1984), 85-101, and Doug Mason, JEHOVAH in the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation (Manhattan Beach, CA: Bethel Ministries, 1987).

9 This may be verified by studying Gleason L. Archer and Grego Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983).

10 Divine Name, 23.

11 Ibid., 24.

12 Ibid., 27.

13 Ibid., 14.

14 Ibid., 15.

15 Ibid., 16.

16 Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names, trans. Frederick H. Cryer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 15, 209 (n. 2).

17 Ibid., 17.

18 Reasoning from the Scriptures, 63-64.

19 D. R. DeLacey, "'One Lord' in Pauline Christology," in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982), 191-203.

20 George Howard, "The Tetragram and the New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (1977):63-83.