Some time back I made the observation that whereas it was rare for English bibles to transliterate the tetragrammaton, preferring to simply translate it as “LORD” in capitals, most Chinese Bibles transliterate rather than translate the tetragrammaton.

Richard Bauckham makes an observation as to the origins of the English practice in the following extract from a sermon:

So God identifies himself – in two ways. First, there is his name. There’s an important point here about the translation of our Bibles that I should explain if you don’t already know this. If you look at this passage in most English translations of the OT you’ll find that the name of God is given as ‘the LORD’ – with the word Lord written in capital letters. That’s the conventional way of representing the Hebrew name of God. It’s not really a translation, it’s a kind of substitute for the name itself. And Bible translations use it because this is a practice that was already being followed by the Jewish people in the time of Jesus and the New Testament. They treated the divine name as too sacred to pronounce. They didn’t want God’s name to be bandied about like any Tom-Dick-or-Harry name. This is the name that names who God is. And so, when they read the scriptures, they didn’t say the name, they substituted the word ‘Lord.’ And our translations have followed that practice, so that wherever you find LORD in capital letters in the OT, it stands for the Hebrew name of God. Where it’s not in capital letters, it doesn’t.

I follow that Jewish practice of not saying the divine name itself, because it was followed by Jesus and the early Christians, and I don’t see why we should change that. It’s also offensive to Jews to bandy the divine name around in the way that some Christian biblical scholars do. So I avoid that.

But it is a name, and that’s very important. The God of Israel has a name, a personal name, a name that stands for his identity, the way our names stand for our identities. What Richard Bauckham means is me, me and no other person. If you use my name it’s because you’re wanting to distinguish me from any other person you might be talking about or anyone who might be confused with me. It identifies who I uniquely am. So with the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ. This God is not some general divine principle or idea, not some vague divinity that we can portray in any way we choose, not a deity we can adapt to our needs or wishes as we choose. This God has a unique identity which he makes known to us so that we can know him.

Who God is and how to love God

(A sermon preached in St Andrew’s church, St Andrews, 23 October 2005)

Bauckham as such supplies us with the reason why the tetragrammaton was not quoted in the NT, it was considered too sacred to be used in daily or ordinary conversation. However, it is precisely because it is sacred and the unique name of God which is why it was not used, it isn’t because the NT decided that the tetragrammaton was dispensable or could be substituted out. There is as such a critical theological value to retaining the tetragrammaton even in a translation to emphasise the unique divinity of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob precisely in the very specific name or nominal He has chosen to reveal of himself. It is not merely a matter of human or linguistic convention, as if we were discussing simply substituting “red” for 红, where the object referred to the word matters more than what word we chose here. In this case, it is the word itself which is of significance, the function of which is to precisely identify a unique specific referent, and cannot be substituted for anything else.

If this line of argumentation is correct, then while it is fine to use the word “LORD” in daily conversation, even in quotation, to refer to the tetragrammaton, I think a written Biblical translation should have use the tetragrammaton precisely as a permanent written and sealed record to the very specific and unique name which God has chosen for himself, to uniquely identify his deeds and acts in salvation history. The Chinese practice as such seems to be the right one. It is interesting to note that the Latin Vulgate does not contain the tetragrammaton, we might wonder what effect this would have on Western theology or scholasticism in general the absence of the tetragrammaton might have.

In this sense, I am looking forward to the Legacy Standard Bible which I believe is a mainstream conservative Bible translation which has chosen to transliterate the tetragrammaton.

One thought on “An Argument for Transliterating the Tetragrammaton”
  1. Don’t even transliterate it. There is a Jewish OT translation on Sefaria which just plops the Hebrew letters into the English. Unironically this is the best option.

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