They are one of the first repeated sounds that a baby hears and learns – and arguably the one vocalization that you hear more than any other in life.

Names are central to how we think of ourselves – that’s the underlying import of the verse in the Revelation to Saint John that God will give everyone who is redeemed a new name, known only to the person and to God.

And historically, knowing a person’s name was often thought to give one some amount of power over them.

Names are also central to how we think about others. Some people are so great an example of some characteristic that it’s connected with their name — for example, “Honest Abe” Lincoln, “Mother Teresa” for compassion.

One modern problem is that names for God are a bit iffy.  One reason for this is the reticence actually to say a name for God — we substitute “Lord” or “God”, but those are titles, not names.  

The old version of God’s name(in the Authorized or “King James”) translation of the Bible was “Jehovah”.  We now know that “Jehovah” is a hybrid name, used because Hebrew didn’t have vowels. So the divine Name “YHWH” not only had consonantal shifts (Y to J, W to V), but had the vowels inserted from the title “Adonai” — the sequential vowels A-O-A inserted into JHVH gave“Jehovah”. Linguistic studies have basically shown that no Jew in Jesus’ time would have pronounced it as “Jehovah”.  

Newer translations sometimes use “Yahweh” as the name of God. And there is a tradition which translates the name of God as “I am” – which is how “yhwh” is parsed in Hebrew.  In parts of the US, people used “The Great I AM” as the name of God.
But what name should we use?  Should we use it at all, sparingly, or every time we speak to or of God?

Fred Williams

Image: Adam naming the animals, Theophanes of Crete (St. Nicholas Anapavsa Monastery, Meteora; 16th Century)


  1. The Jewish people in Jesus’ day avoided saying the name of God; only the High Priest could say it and only inside the Temple. They usually substituted Adonai (“Lord”) for it in their writings, which I suppose is a reason why the vowels from Adonai were later used to construct the name Jehovah (perhaps these vowels were inserted to remind the reader to pronounce “Adonai” when he came to the divine Name). Curiously, Adonai is a plural form, perhaps to convey respect (analogous to the British monarch’s use of “we”).
    This reticence to speak the Name appears to have grown over time; earlier stories and manuscripts suggest that the Name was commonly pronounced. Many Biblical names incorporate fragments of the divine Name (for example, a terminal “yah” as in Isaiah).
    In rabbinic Judaism, even “Adonai” was held to be sacred, something to be said only during worship. In common speech, Hashem (“the Name”) became a more common circumlocution.
    In most modern Bibles, a distinction is made between the ordinary word “Lord” (meaning ruler) and LORD (all caps) which represents Adonai, the euphemism for the divine Name.
    Some modern Jews are so sensitive about saying the divine Name that they will not even print the word “God,” substituting “G-d” for it. That seems extreme, given that the term “God” is used in the Old Testament. Actually, there are multiple terms translated “God” including El, Elohim, and Shaddai.
    By the way, “Lord” in the ordinary sense of ruler was one of the titles given to the Roman emperor, so saying “Jesus is Lord” was a startling and potentially seditious thing to say.

  2. I was under the impression that the “imperial we” stemmed from the time of two Roman emperors, one in Rome itself, the other in Byzantium/Constantinople. Each was pictured as representing the other, so would be addressed with the plural “you”. That set the pattern.

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