In the comments of my previous article, ‘What’s the big deal with translating Yahweh as LORD?’ a commenter named John raised the issue of how the New Testament translates יהוה (yhwh—“Yahweh”) from the Old.
He pointed out that the New Testament writers didn’t exclusively quote the LXX, which translates יהוה as κύριος (kurios—“Lord”). In fact, they sometimes made their own translations of the Hebrew Bible, and they themselves rendered יהוה as kurios, rather than transliterating it as a name.
This is rather like if we took the Greek word Ἰησοῦς (Iesous—“Jesus”) and rendered it as “the Christ”. As I argued, this is a poor, indeed illegitimate translation option, for obvious reasons.
So a question arises: since God, by his Spirit, used kurios to translate יהוה for Greek-speaking people, why isn’t it better for us to use the word Lord for English-speaking people, rather than Yahweh?
It’s a good question. I think if we reframe it slightly, we can start to see where the answer lies:
If it is illegitimate to translate Iesous as “the Christ” instead of as Jesus, because the translator’s job is to faithfully represent the text in the new language, then why did the New Testament writers consider it legitimate to translate יהוה as kurios instead of as the Greek equivalent of Yahweh?
A pragmatic reason dismissed
When the New Testament was written, the name Yahweh had already been lost. So if the NT writers had wanted to use Yahweh instead of kurios, they were pretty stuck. They probably couldn’t translate it as a name while still being understood by their audience. (We are in the opposite situation: the name Yahweh has been unlost.)
But it would be circular reasoning for me to say that they translated it as kurios only because they couldn’t translate it as Yahweh. I would be begging the question if I said that they wanted to translate it as Yahweh, and were only prevented by circumstance. I simply can’t know that from the mere facts of history. And indeed, I highly doubt this, because of the considerations below.
Translation versus theologizing
The key issue revolves around that question of why it is illegitimate to translate a name as a title. Why is it illegitimate to translate Iesous as “the Christ” rather than as Jesus, for example?
The answer, I’ve already said, is that the job of a translator is to faithfully represent the original text in the new language. So names are transliterated as names, and titles and translated as titles.
So here’s the crunch:
The job of the NT writers was not translation but teaching
This is critical. The NT writers deliberately conflated Jesus and Yahweh by using the term kurios, which could easily and naturally be applied to both. This is exactly what many Christians do in their prayers by addressing the Lord—they are directing their prayer to God, rather than to a specific person.
(That said, Jesus does instruct us to direct our prayers to the Father in Matthew 6:9-13.)
Using Lord or kurios in this way is completely legitimate as a theological interpolation. It is a basic example of theologizing the text. The New Testament writers did it because, under inspiration, they were emphasizing the deity of Jesus—just as Christians do it when praying because they are speaking to both Jesus and the Father (and, let us hope, the Spirit).
Theologizing is antithetical to “pure” translation
The job of a translator, however, is explicitly to not make theological interpolations like this. The job of a translator is purely to faithfully transmit what the text actually says.
We can easily see the dramatic importance of this by simply asking whether a translator can theologize other texts in the way that the New Testament writers do. Can they not only theologize יהוה as “Lord”, but also other parts of the Hebrew Bible according to the New Testament theologizations?
To take a concrete example, Hebrews 10:5 quotes Psalm 40:6 as saying “a body you have prepared for me”. Now, the Hebrew text of Psalm 40:6 actually says, “ears you have dug out for me”. Suppose I am creating a new translation of the Old Testament. Can I legitimately render the Hebrew, “ears you have dug,” as the English, “a body you have prepared”?
The Hebrew doesn’t say that. My job as a translator is not to interpolate NT theology onto the Hebrew text where it doesn’t actually exist. It is to faithfully represent what the Hebrew actually says.
But by the same token, “the LORD” is not a faithful representation of יהוה—any more than “the Christ” would be a faithful representation of Iesous.
- Job 1:6 and following, where ha’satan is not a proper name, but simply means “the accuser”;
- Isaiah 7:14, where “virgin” is not the most fitting rendering for alma, but rather “maiden”.
Now, I have presented quite a stark sketch here. There are serious questions of nuance that you need to address when doing translation. For example, does God’s “digging out” of ears in Psalm 40:6 refer to metaphorically opening them, or is it a picture of drilling a hole in the ear of a slave? Either option will, to some extent, theologize the text—which is not ideal. But “ears you have dug out for me” is unhelpful in its own right, being something we would not say in English, and thus not easily understood—which is also not ideal.
These nuances are important, but they don’t bear on the basic question of whether we should translate names as names, and titles as titles. That goes without saying for just about any other example you can think of in any text at all.