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Jehovah's Witnesses and the Divine Name

by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Do Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) understand the Bible rightly? In the previous installments of this series I have argued that JWs systematically distort the teachings of the Bible by viewing the Watchtower organization as sole interpreter of the Bible and by mistranslating and misinterpreting specific texts of the Bible. This fourth and concluding article will show that JWs likewise distort the Bible in their handling of its major doctrinal themes. As a case study in point I will discuss the JWs' teaching on the divine name.


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.

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 through ancient 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 H