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The Tetragrammaton in Phoenician (1100 BC to AD 300), Aramaic (10th century BC to 1 BC) and modern Hebrew scripts.
The Tetragrammaton in Phoenician (1100 BC to AD 300), Aramaic (10th century BC to 1 BC) and modern Hebrew scripts.

The Tetragrammaton (Greek: τετραγράμματον word with four letters) is the usual reference to the Hebrew name for God, which is spelled (in Hebrew); י (yod) ה (heh) ו (vav) ה (heh) or יהוה (YHWH); it is the distinctive personal name of the God of Israel.

Of all the names of God, the one which occurs most frequently is the Tetragrammaton, appearing 6,823 times, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. The Biblia Hebraica and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia texts of the Hebrew Scriptures each contain the Tetragrammaton 6,828 times.

In Judaism, the Tetragrammaton is the ineffable name of God, and is not read aloud. In the reading aloud of the scripture or in prayer, it is replaced with Adonai ("my Lord"). Other written forms such as ד׳ or ה׳ are read as Hashem (the Name), for the same reason.

One theory regarding the disuse of the Tetragrammaton is that the Jewish taboo on its pronunciation was so strong that the original pronunciation may have been lost somewhere in the first millennium. Since then, many scholars (particularly Christians) have sought to reconstruct its original pronunciation. For example, around 1518 Christian theologians1 introduced the pronunciation Yehovah, which is generally held to be implausible, based on the written form יְהֹוָה (read normally, "Yehovah") that was used to indicate to the reader of the Bible in Hebrew to pronounce it "Adonai" (אֲדֹנָי). (Note that due to a rule of Hebrew grammar, the beginning E of the first transliteration is analogous to the beginning A of the second, although they are pronounced differently.)

This theory regarding the disuse of the Tetragrammaton is the result of an interpretation of the Third of the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people stopped saying the Name by the 3rd century out of fear of violating the commandment "You shall not take the name of YHWH your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). It is possible that the practice was in effect prior to early Christian times as Jesus prayed to the Father "I have made your name known". (John 17:26)



According to one Jewish tradition, the Tetragrammaton is related to the causative form, the imperfect state, of the Hebrew verb הוה (ha·wah, "to be, to become"), meaning "He will cause to become" (usually understood as "He causes to become"). Compare the many Hebrew and Arabic personal names which are 3rd person singular imperfective verb forms starting with "y", e.g. Hebrew Yôsêph = Arabic Yazîd = "He [who] adds"; Hebrew Yiḥyeh = Arabic Yahyâ = "He [who] lives".

Another tradition regards the name as coming from three different verb forms sharing the same root YWH, the words HYH haya [היה]: "He was"; HWH howê [הוה]: "He is"; and YHYH yihiyê [יהיה]: "He will be". This is supposed to show that God is timeless. Other interpretations include the name as meaning "I am the One Who Is." This can be seen in the traditional Jewish account of the "burning bush" commanding Moses to tell the sons of Israel that "I AM [אהיה] has sent you." (Exodus 3:13-14) Some suggest: "I AM the One I AM" [אהיה אשר אהיה]. This may also fit the interpretation as "He Causes to Become." Many scholars believe that the most proper meaning may be "He Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists".

This meaning has caused an English colloquial expression saying that this or that person is "the Big I Am round here".

The name YHWH was not always used within monotheism: see Asherah and other gods.

Using consonants as semi-vowels

In Biblical Hebrew, most vowels are not written and the rest are written only ambiguously, as the vowel letters double as consonants (similar to the Latin use of V to indicate both U and V). See Matres lectionis for details. Therefore it is, in general, difficult to deduce how a word is pronounced from its spelling only, and the Tetragrammaton is a particularly bad example: all its letters can serve as vowels. Thus, Josephus in Jewish Wars, chapter V, wrote, "…in which was engraven the sacred name: it consists of four vowels". For similar reasons, an appearance of the Tetragrammaton in ancient Egyptian records of the 13th century BC sheds no light on the original pronunciation. 2.

Josephus's teaching that the sacred name "consists of four vowels" may be valid in a Hebrew text that has no vowel points, but in a Hebrew Text that has vowel points [e.g. a Masoretic Text], there are Biblical Hebrew grammar rules that do not allow a yod that begins a Hebrew word to be used as a vowel letter. Therefore, the initial yod in the Tetragrammaton would have to represent a Y sound (IPA [j]).

Using the vowels of YHWH

Josephus wrote that the sacred name consisted of four vowels. Many sacred name ministries who believe that YHWH consists of four vowels, pronounce these four vowels as "ee-ah-oo-eh" and believe that indicates God's name was either "Yahweh" or "Yahuweh". In what may be a coincidence, the Greek name "ιαουε" would have been pronounced "ee-ah-oo-eh", using the same Greek pronunciation rules that James Strong used.3

Gerard Gertoux also believes that YHWH consists of four vowels, and that it must be vocalized either "Yeho-ah" or "Yehou-ah" [i.e., Yehua”].4 One should, however, note that few (if any) scholars would support Gertoux' theory.

Vowel marks

To make the reading of Hebrew easier, marks or points above and below the letters were added to the text by the Masoretes, to function as vowels. See Niqqud for details. Several manuscripts from the 7th century and on contain vowel marks over the Tetragrammaton. Unfortunately, these do not shed much light on the pronunciation. For example the Leningrad codex contains no fewer than 6 different variations on the vowel marks of the Tetragrammaton.

An added problem comes from the fact that the diacritical vowel marks on the Tetragrammaton may have served a purpose different than indicating the pronunciation. When the term is read out loud by Jews, the Tetragrammaton is substituted with the word Adonai ("my Lord(s)"), Elohim ("God(s)"), Hashem ("the name"), or Elokim (no meaning), depending on circumstances (see Jewish use of the word below). Since someone reading the text aloud might inadvertently pronounce the name, the diacritical vowels of Adonai or Elohim are normally printed with the Tetragrammaton, to remind the reader to make the change, so the text contains the letters YHWH interlaced with the vowel marks of Adonai/Elohim. This is the case in modern editions of the Hebrew Bible, and also explains a number of medieval codices. In other words, these marks do not and were never intended to explain how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton.

In particular, this is a convincing explanation of the vowel marks on the Tetragrammaton in the Ben Chayim codex of 1525 (see its importance below). It is worth noting that the aleph in Adonai has a hataf-patah (pronounced "ah" in Modern Hebrew) under it while the yod in the Tetragrammaton has a sheva (pronounced as a very short "eh" in Modern Hebrew). This can be explained by rules of Hebrew grammar, which forbid a sheva under an aleph, although this explanation is not entirely satisfactory.

In English

The first English transcription of the Tetragrammaton appeared on the title page of William Tyndale's translation of 1525 as "IEHOUAH." Sir Godfrey Drivers’ Introduction to the Old Testament of the New English Bible states:"The Reformers preferred Jehovah, which first appeared as Iehouah in A.D. 1530 in Tyndale's translation of the Pentateuch (Exodus 6.3)," Subsequent translations into English, including Miles Coverdale's (1535), the Great Bible (1539), The Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishop's Bible (1568), and the Authorized Version of 1611, also used IEHOUAH in several places, while most translations substitute the title THE LORD in place of the Tetragrammaton. Some argue that this practice reflects the Jewish tradition that it is forbidden to say the name of God. Many modern Christian translations of the Bible continue to use THE LORD (in small caps); some notable exceptions are American Standard Version (1901) which used Jehovah throughout the text, the New World Translation (1950) which used Jehovah extensively (including in some instances within the New Testament where the tetragrammaton is not present), and The Jerusalem Bible (1966) which used Yahweh similarly.

It is likely that Tyndale's IEHOUAH comes from an interlace of YHWH and the vowels of Adonai as explained above, but it is difficult to substantiate this claim since we do not know which codex he used for his translation. The King James Version's IEHOUAH was definitely influenced by the Ben Chayim codex, which was the source used for the translation. The spelling Jehovah appeared first during the 1762-1769 editing of the King James Bible. Hence there is a certain basis to the claim that the transcription Jehovah is nothing but a misunderstanding by Christian translators of Jewish reading traditions. As of 2005, this is still the most common spelling of the Tetragrammaton in English.

In contrast, there are various arguments why Jehovah actually is the original pronunciation. For example, other transcribed names in the Bible containing portions of the name such as: Jeho-ram and Jeho-shaphat give linguistic support of this transcription. This point of view is occasionally associated with believers in the "King James Version Only" point of view. Recently Gerhard Gertoux advanced the pronunciation Yehowah and has gained a certain following.

Transcription in other languages

Table of different language transcriptions of the tetragrammaton. (If the native language uses non-European characters or pictographic symbols, the table shows the common English/European transliteration of the target language script, together with the tetragrammaton in the native font if available):




Mandarin in Simplified Chinese

Yéhéhuá / Yǎwēi














Mandarin in Tranditional Chinese






Jehova / Jahve








Jehowa / Jahwe


Jehovah / Jahwe(h)



Jeová / Javé







Jehovah / Yahweh










Jahve / Jehova



Jehová / Yavé


Yahvé / Jéhovah








Jehova / Jahve


Jehova / Jahwe





Iehova / Yiahve
Ιεχωβά / Γιαχβέ















Geova / Jahve



u Yehova







Ehoba エホバ



u Jehova


Yeohowa 여호와








Reconstructed pronunciation

  • The Hebrew spelling "יַהְוֶה" [i.e., Yahweh] appeared in the early and mid 19th century.
  • It is sometimes referred to as a "Scholarly Reconstruction" and is based in large part on various Greek transcriptions (ιαουε—iaoue and ιαουαι—iaouai and ιαβε—Iabe) dating from the first centuries BC and AD.
  • Particularly cited is Clement of Alexandria's spelling of the Tetragrammaton in his Greek Stromata Book V. Chapter 6:34, but questions have been raised about whether or not he used "ιαουε" - see Iaoue. The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910-11 states that "Iaou" not "Iaoue" is found at Stromata Book V. Chapter 6:34 in the 11th century Greek Codex Laurentianus V 3. 5
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 says: “Inserting the vowels of Jabe [i.e., Latin form of Iabe] into the Hebrew consonant text, we obtain the form Jahveh (Yahweh), which has been generally accepted by modern scholars as the true pronunciation of the Divine name.” 6
  • Some scholars suggested that the Josephus quote above supports this pronunciation.
  • Arguments based on possible interpretations, and on analogies with other Hebrew words, such as hallelujah, have also been introduced to support it.
  • Despite the work at reconstruction, it is still impossible to say with certainty how the name was originally pronounced, and discussion continues among scholars.
  • See some links below.

Scholarly sources in which "יַהְוֶה" is found

  • The vowelized Hebrew spelling of the Tetragrammaton "יַהְוֶה" started to appear in scholarly sources in the 19th century, or possibly earlier.
  • Wilhelm Gesenius [1786-1842], who is noted for being one of the greatest Hebrew and biblical scholars, 7 wrote a Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament which was first translated into English in 1824. 8.
  • Smith's " A Dictionary of the Bible" [published in 1863] notes 9 that Wilhelm Gesenius punctuated YHWH as "יַהְוֶה".
  • Smith's " A Dictionary of the Bible" supposed that "יַהְוֶה" was derived from the "Iαβε" of Epiphanius and not from the "Iαου" of Clement of Alexandria.10
  • [NOTE!] Smith's " A Dictionary of the Bible" states that Clement of Alexandria wrote "Iαου" and not "Iαουε" in Stromata Book v.11
  • In 1863, Smith's "A Dictionary of the Bible" does not consider "יַהְוֶה" to be the best vowelised Hebrew spelling of the Tetragrammaton, which it is aware of.
  • The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901-1906 recognizes that "יַהְוֶה" is spelled "Yahweh" in English, but "יַהְוֶה" is only one of two vowelized Hebrew spellings, that they believe might have been the original pronunciation of YHWH. "יַהְוֶה" is found in the online Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901-1906, under the article: "NAMES OF GOD" and under the article sub heading: "YHWH".12
  • Although "יַהְוֶה" was not the only vowelized Hebrew spelling of the Tetragrammaton that appeared in scholarly sources in the 19th century, it gradually became accepted as the best reconstruction of the vowelized Hebrew spelling of the Tetragrammaton.
  • The Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown and S.R. Driver and C.A. Briggs shows "יַהְוֶה" under the heading "יהוה".
  • The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon describes "יַהְוֶה" as: "the proper name of the God of Israel"

Jewish use of the word

In Judaism, pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton is a taboo; it is widely considered forbidden to utter it and the pronunciation of the name is generally avoided. Usually, Adonai is used as a substitute in prayers or readings from the Hebrew Bible, but some instances of the Tetragrammaton are by tradition pronounced Elohim instead. The difference is marked by the vowelization in printed Bibles—the Tetragrammaton takes on the vowels of the word it's to be pronounced as. Torah scrolls have no diacritical vowel marks, and therefore the reader must memorize the correct pronunciation for each instance of the Tetragrammaton (as for every word he reads).

According to Rabbinic tradition, the name was pronounced by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement as well as the only day when the Holy of Holies of the Temple would be entered. With the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, this use also vanished, also explaining the loss of the correct pronunciation.

There's a Jewish tradition that the actual name of God, only known to and stated by the high priest, was actually 72 letters long. The name was written out on a long strip of parchment, then folded and slipped inside the fold of the high priest's bejeweled breastplate. When someone would ask the high priest a question of Torah, or Jewish law, the high priest could invoke the Name, wherein the 12 jewels, representing the 12 tribes of the Israelites, would light up in a certain order whose meaning was, too, only known to the high priest. Through the power of the 72-letter name of God, the high priest communed, as it were, with the Almighty.

Why 72 letters? The answer may be found in the medieval rabbinic use of Gematria, that is assigning a number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, allowing scholars to attribute numeric sums to words, find equivalencies in certain words, even use sums to try to predict a year and date for the coming of the Messiah. Even today, Jews often attribute mystical significance to the number 18, which has a possible Hebrew letter equivalent in the word "Chai", meaning "Life". Using "Gematria", we find that "Chai" equals 18: it's composed of the letter "chet", which equals 8, and the letter "yod", which equals 10, i.e. 8+10=18; consequently 18x4=72, so, in a sense, each letter of the 4-letter form of the Name represents a metaphoric symbol of the living power of God. Keeping along these lines, the Tetragrammaton, since it's only an abbreviation of the actual name, is not as powerful by nature (or supernature) as the original full name of God, though it's still not something to use in vain.

The name Adonai (technically translated "my lords", but more appropriately "my lord") has come to be so connected with the Tetragrammaton that even this word has restrictions among pious Jews. When it refers to God, it is only used in prayer and Bible readings, or instructions of those subjects. When most religious Jews refer to the name of God in conversation or in a non-textual context such as in a book, newspaper or letter, they call the name Hashem, which means "the Name." Similarly, the word Elohim is prononuced "Elokim" outside of certain religious contexts when it refers to God, and likewise for a few other names of God. When any such word is used to refer to anything but God (e.g., Adonai to mean "my lords", or Elohim meaning "gods" generally), it is pronounced as normal by even the most traditionalist Jews.

A number of modern translations of the Hebrew Bible and of Jewish liturgy render the Tetragrammaton as "the ETERNAL" (emphasized or all caps), because it is gender-neutral (unlike "The Lord") or to distinguish it from "The Lord" as used to render "Adonai." The Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton are the only ones required to write the Hebrew sentence "haya, hove, ve-yiheyeh" (He was, He is, and He shall be), hence "Eternal."

Possible effect on the Hebrew Language

Other Semitic Languages, including Arabic and Ugaritic, use a vocative particle ya, roughly corresponding to English "O." Ya Allah = "O God!" The absence of this common vocative in Hebrew may perhaps be attributed to the taboo on pronouncing Yah - an abbreviated form of the Tetragrammaton.

Alternative names

In an analogue to the euphemism Hashem for God, the euphemism Hashem Hameforash (literally, the explicit name) is sometimes used to refer to the Tetragrammaton.

Another name, four-letter word, has lost its popularity for obvious reasons. Some people refer to the Tetragrammaton as Hebrew word #3068 [1] after the numbering in James Strong's concordance. See also The name of God in Judaism.

Popular culture

  • In the motion picture Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones must cross a room of lettered tiles. To step on the wrong letter would trigger a deadly trap. An ancient Latin manuscript provides a clue to safe passage: he must walk in a sequence that will spell out "the name of God." He remembers not a moment too soon that "in the Latin alphabet, 'Jehovah' begins with an 'I.'"
  • In the film Equilibrium, a dystopic view of the future in which the government mandates that all individuals take psychiatric medications to suppress feeling, the agency responsible for policing the state is known as the Tetragrammaton.
  • In Pi, a group of kabbalistic Jews looking for the true name of God enlist the help of a mathematician to analyze the Torah.
  • In Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe, the "real" pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton is rendered as "Yahu-Wahu". (The "evidence" for this is that the cartoon character representing the author is struck by lightning while speculating whether the original pronunciation of YHWH is "Yehowah [Jehovah], Yahweh, or even Yahu-Wahu". Later in the book, Israelites are shown attacking a Canaanite city while uttering the war cry "Yahoo! Wahoo!").
  • In Monty Python's Life of Brian, a man is persecuted for saying out loud the name of God ("I only said that this meal was fit for Jehovah!"). The accuser then accidentally lets this "blasphemy" slip out and is himself stoned.
  • In Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos, a sort of alternate history in which magic and religion have objective reality and scientific status, the Tetragrammaton is used as the insignia of United States Army Intelligence units.
  • A Mexican idea of what 'Yahweh' means: "Yo soy quien soy y no me parezco a nadie" = "I am who am I and I do not look like anybody" (from a popular song).

Possible origins

A common suggestion, as articulated by biblical scholar Mark S. Smith in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, is that the Israelite Yahweh was derived from the traditions of the Shasu, linguistically Canaanite nomads from southern transjordan. An Egyptian inscription from the Temple of Amun at Karnak from the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BCE) refers to the "Shasu of Yhw," evidence that this god was worshipped among some of the Shasu tribes at this time. Biblical archaeologist Amihai Mazar, in Archaeology of the Land of the Bible Volume I, suggests that the association of Yahweh with the desert may be the product of his origins in the dry lands to the south of Israel. Egyptologist Donald Redford, in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, suggests that the Israelites themselves may have been a group of Shasu who moved northward into Canaan in the 13th cetury BCE.

See also

Other articles relating to the Tetragrammaton:



  1. Galatin, Peter - De Arcanis Catholicæ Veritatis, 1518, folio xliii
  2. See pages 128 and 236 of the book "Who Were the Early Israelites?" by archeologist William G. Dever, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.
  3. “ιαουε” is pronounced ee-ah-oo-eh
  4. Gerard Gertoux explains to JW BERT why JHW-H must be vocalized Yeho-ah or Yehou-ah.
  5. Encyclopedia Britannica 1910-11 states that “Iaou” not “Iaoue” is found at Strom V. 6 in the 11th century Codex L. (i.e. Codex Laurentianus V 3)
  6. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910- sub-heading : “To take up the ancient writers”.
  7. Wilhelm Gesenius is noted for being one of the greatest Hebrew and biblical scholars.
  8. Wilhelm Gesenius' Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament was first translated into English in 1824,
  9. Smith's "A Dictionary of the Bible"
  10. Smith's "A Dictionary of the Bible": Yahweh supposed to have been derived from "IaBe"
  11. Smith's "A Dictionary of the Bible": Clement of Alexandria wrote "Iaou" not "Iaoue" at Stromata Book V.
  12. The online Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901-1906

Other uses of the word

Occasionally someone has called himself by a name including "Yahweh". One such is a man called Prophet Yahweh. Such uses would be very objectionable to devout Jews and to many Christians.

External links

Articles about the Jehovah vs. Yahweh debate

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