Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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3 reasons to recover the pronunciations of biblical names

Don’t you hate it when people keep pronouncing your name wrong?

One of my peculiar habits when I read Scripture (whether to myself or others) is I try to pronounce names in the ways their owners likely would have. So, for example, Exodus 3:15 would read:

And God said again to Mosheh, “So you must say to the Yisraelites, ‘Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my remembrance from generation to generation.'”

In a way, this is just an idiosyncrasy of mine. It’s certainly not a hill to die on. But in my opinion, more Christians—and Bible translation teams—should at least consider recovering these original pronunciations, for at least three reasons:

1. Other languages are beautiful

I love the variety of languages, and the different sounds you find in them. It’s a shame that we’ve lost the sound of the Hebrew names, because they are interesting and different and pleasing in ways that the Anglicized ones are not. Learning even a little about other languages helps us to expand and refine our appreciation of beauty, and makes us a little less insular.

2. Language creates context

In my experience, the sounds and words we use when reading help create a kind of aural context for the message itself. It’s easy to forget, when we read Anglicized names, that these were not actually Anglicized people. Hearing the original names helps to put the passage back into its historical context, and perhaps inclines us to appreciate that context more.

Learning how other languages are pronounced expands our appreciation of their beauty, as I mentioned above. But it also helps us appreciate that our Western cultural lens is not the only one—nor even always the best one—through which to view the world.

Of course, this isn’t to say we should cultivate a negative attitude toward our own culture, or become Zionists or something. But it is often very helpful for understanding not only the Bible, but also the world, to cultivate an interest in how other cultures do things—even if it is as simple as how they pronounce names markedly differently to the way we previously thought came straight from the lips of God himself.

3. Pronouncing them wrong is…wrong

At the risk of slipping into the young, restless and Reformed cliché, I think it’s the spirit of Protestantism to always be reforming; and just because we’ve been doing something as a matter of tradition for a long time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change it if it’s wrong. Otherwise we’d all be buying indulgences and worshiping Mary, right?

So the fact that we happen to have inherited the names in the Bible through several layers of translation—first Greek, then Latin, then German, before a final transliteration into English (by then often mangled beyond recognition)—isn’t any reason to maintain this dubious tradition, any more than there’s good reason to keep basing our translations on the Textus Receptus rather than more reliable manuscripts (yes Mr NKJV, I’m looking at you).

I mean, it bugs me when people pronounce my name Dominique (doh-min-eek) instead of Dominic. It’s disrespectful when I’ve just told them my name and pronounced it correctly for them. How much worse saying “aye-zay-uh” instead of Yeshayahu?

Two particularly egregious examples

In this vein, let me mention two translation decisions that particularly bug me:

  1. Rendering the tetragrammaton (the Hebrew consonants YHWH) as “the LORD”. The best reconstruction of the tetragrammaton is almost certainly “Yahweh”, and it is the personal, covenant name of God. The fact that we inherited a silly Jewish superstition that YHWH should be pronounced “Adonai” (lord) in Hebrew, because to say the actual name of God amounted to blasphemy, is not a good reason to render it “LORD” in English. That just isn’t a personal name—it is a title. God gave Israel his covenant name precisely so that they—and by extension we—could know it and use it. Doing this emphasized his great love and his personal relationship with them (and us). I don’t think we should be sacrificing that sign of God’s covenant relationship for the sake of an old Jewish superstition.
  2. Rendering the title “ha’satan” as “Satan”. This is a converse criticism: take Job 1:6 for instance. In the Hebrew it reads, “…and came also the accuser [ha’satan’] among them.” This is simply not a personal name, and should not be translated as such—yet every single translation I know of renders it as the proper name “Satan”. Now I have no doubt this was indeed the same spiritual being later called Satan (Gk: Satana) in the New Testament, such as we see in Mark 1:13. But the Hebrew ha’satan’ simply means “the accuser” (rather like a prosecutor in a court of law); so to translate it as a proper name is flatly wrong.

Why don’t Bibles get this stuff right?

I think for two related reasons: the profits of publishers, and the ignorance of lay Christians.

Even the translation of the tetragrammaton as Yahweh instead of LORD is in the minority for modern translations. Despite being a clearly superior translation choice, and an extremely minor change in the grand scheme of things, the only modern translations I know of that do this are the LEB (which is intended as a more scholarly Bible) and the WEB (which is open source and doesn’t have to worry about selling Bibles). The NET, ISV and others all disappointingly still use LORD.

This seems to be because the vast majority of Christians are unaware of the translation error here, and are accustomed to the traditional rendering—and so won’t be as inclined to buy new Bibles that “break” their perception of what is right.

This is a lousy reason to knowingly translate something in God’s own word incorrectly. And it reflects a lousy ignorance on the part of Christians. Imagine if Bible translation teams had more integrity, and pastors actually taught their congregations. Indeed, imagine if the NIV or ESV or another popular translation team decided to fix their past errors—what kind of teaching opportunity that would be.

Yeah, you’re right. Expecting Christians to learn and accept something new rather than coasting on what they like…that is pretty crazy.

2 comments

  1. DaBudaMasta

    Islam claims to be also an Abrahamic monotheistic religion. Is the name Allah a title or a proper name? Please enlighten us ignorami if you have an opinion on this issue. Thank you. Will appreciate your scholarly response.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    You’d need to ask a Muslim.

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