God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: What is the correct pronunciation of the tetragrammaton?

I’ve just returned from my summer break, so I’ll be posting regularly again and also catching up on the questions from the About page.

I’ll start with Rabbi Morton Kaplan, who asks simply, “What is the correct pronunciation of the tetragrammaton?”

I’ve already explained a bit of the background. I have more information in my Jerusalem Post article (which, unfortunately, lost most of its formatting when the Jerusalem Post migrated to a new website), and I have even more in Chapter 4 of my In the Beginning.

But that information — the bottom line is that I don’t think the tetragrammaton originally had a pronunciation — is all about the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, which may be different than the “correct” pronunciation.

That’s because I think “correct” has to take into account not only the original text, but also what has happened with it over — in this case — roughly 3,000 years. There’s a long-standing Jewish tradition that the tetragrammaton represents the long-lost not-to-be-pronounced name of God, and that adonai is used as a substitute. I see no reason that modern scholarship should change this ancient tradition. (Whether Christians want to adopt the Jewish tradition seems like a more complicated question.)

More generally — and this is why I like Rabbi Kaplan’s question — I think that “original” or “scientific” is only one way of being “correct.”


August 22, 2010 - Posted by | translation theory | , , ,


  1. “the bottom line is that I don’t think the tetragrammaton originally had a pronunciation” — wouldn’t this preclude the Name originating in an oral context, and imply that the Name is only as old as writing itself?

    Comment by Stephen C. Carlson | August 22, 2010

    • Yes.

      And, in fact, there is no evidence of the tetragrammaton before the Hebrew scriptures. YHWH is surprisingly lacking in any reasonable etymology, and has no apparent cognates. It seems to have appeared at the same time as advances in writing among the ancient Hebrews.

      I have lots of evidence in In The Beginning, but here are a few facts that point in the direction of my thesis:

      1. The tetragrammaton is comprised only and entirely of matres lectionis.

      2. The Israelites invented the widespread use of matres lectionis, perhaps even with the express purpose of spreading Scripture.

      3. We know from Genesis that inserting a heh was one way of making a name “Jewish” (more accurately, Israelite): avram became avraham. Similarly, sarah got a heh.

      4. More importantly, elohim is just elim (“gods”) with a heh in the middle.

      From (3) and (4) we see that the patriarch, matriarch, and deity of the ancient Israelites get their names from otherwise common words with a heh stuck in the middle. I do not think it’s a coincidence that what’s inserted into these words is the heh, which — along with yud and vav — made reading and writing possible.

      Rather, I think we see clues in the text that the original authors understood the monumental impact of reading and writing.

      Comment by Joel H. | August 22, 2010

      • Thanks for making your view crystal clear.

        Comment by Stephen C. Carlson | August 22, 2010

  2. I think it’s meant to be pronounced Adonai. The masora make that clear, sir. If it’s good enough for Paul and Jesus, it’s good enough for me.

    But seriously: I’ll have to get your other book. I just reviewed “And God Said” on Amazon. The review should be up in 2 days or so. I already read that Jerusalem Post article last time you posted it and your argument sounds fascinating (and convincing).

    Comment by Gary Simmons | August 22, 2010

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