How Should the Names
of Deity be Properly Rendered?
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1991
It is difficult to render words in one language into an exact agreement of meaning with words in a foreign one. This is a well-known fact. But it is important, especially in the biblical revelation, that we get as close as possible to the meaning of the prophets and apostles as we can in conveying their teachings to the English world. This is particularly essential in rendering the names of Deity. We need to know what the meanings of the divine names are and how they can best be translated into English. In this Doctrinal Report I give a preliminary discussion on this important biblical matter.
There are some cardinal principles that must be adhered to if modern translators of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into the English language can do it properly for Christians who live at the end of the 20th century. Some of these important principles must be understood by all, and both the translators and those reading the translations must be well aware of these facts.
First, the teachings of the prophets in the Old Testament must be understood in the way that they thought their prophecies and teachings were to be reckoned. We must try to “get into their shoes” and give a clear rendition of what they meant for the generation in which they lived. Once this is done, then we must turn right around and admit that this procedure is not good enough. Believe it or not, what the original prophets, priests, kings, and lawmakers first understood as being the meaning of their writings must be further interpreted by later revelation in order to arrive at what they (the prophets) really meant from the point of view of God’s intention. This principle is made clear by the apostle Peter:
“The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
1 Peter 1:10–12 RSV
This means that the prophets themselves (or even the angels) could read many of the early prophecies in the clearest language of the time, but they would still not be able to determine the real meaning of the teachings. This is a major point to consider and many people have made disastrous mistakes in not understanding this New Testament teaching. Some modern expositors want the earlier prophets and psalmists to interpret what the New Testament writers meant, rather than letting the later writers of the New Testament interpret what the prophets and psalmists really meant.
This principle should never be forgotten in trying to understand the real meaning of all the Holy Scriptures. What must be done is to let the apostles (and the apostles at the latest period of their ministries) be the interpreters of ALL (this deserves capitalization and underlining) the earlier writings of the Bible — even including earlier portions of the New Testament. It is most important to realize this essential principle.
Yet, a warning must accompany the use of the principle. That is this: modern interpreters must be sure they understand fully what the final and mature teachings of the New Testament writers really are. Without a comprehension of what the final teaching is all about, people can be led far astray in interpreting (or even translating) earlier parts of the Old or New Testaments. Only the latest teachings of the New Testament will do.
Christ confirmed this point when He taught the original apostles. He said that a period was coming (future to the time He made His statement) that the apostles would be led into “all the truth.” Note the definite article that I have underlined. It is important to realize that Christ said that those apostles back at that time would be led into all the truth. The essential truth (all of it) would finally be given to them.
“I have yet [said Jesus] many things to say to you, yet you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak of his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare unto you the things that are to come.”
John 16:12–13 RSV emphasis mine
Only the latest information that the apostles were given in their ministerial careers is capable of truly interpreting what all of the other writings of the Old or New Testaments really mean. This is the plain teaching of the scripture, and I see no reason why those who love the biblical revelation should not adopt this principle as the proper one.
On the other hand, if one wishes only to understand the Old Testament in the Jewish way of reading it (without Christian interpretation), then all that one needs to do is to get the modern Jewish Publication Society’s English translation (which by the way is in the proper order for the Old Testament books) and that will be the end of the matter. But we at A.S.K. are interested in trying to discover what the totality of the Bible is endeavoring to teach from the most mature Christian point of view. This is one of the main reasons why we will allow the apostles (who received their teachings from the Holy Spirit) to have their say in what the doctrines or intentions of the Old and early New Testaments were all about. The only ones having authority to do this were the writers of the New Testament. We, ourselves, do not have that liberty.
A good example of apostolic understanding of a verse within a context that the New Testament saw was necessary, is that of Luke when quoting James in Acts 15:17, referring to Amos 9:11–12. While the official Jewish interpreters read Amos 9:12 as indicating the people or nation of Edom, James rendered the word (as its variant would allow) “men” — to all men in general and not to a specific people or nation. An interesting point is that both interpretations may be true depending on the context of the reader, but one must be aware of how James (the head of the Jerusalem congregation) understood the Hebrew.
There are even doctrines which the New Testament writers find in the Old Testament that cannot be found there without the knowledge of Christian teaching. For example, it could not be seen clearly in the Old Testament that there would be two distinct appearances of the Messiah — one to bear the sins of the world and to die for mankind, and the other many hundreds of years later when He would return from heaven to rule on this earth in the prophesied Kingdom of God. These distinctions (which could only be known with the advent of Christ in the 1st century, and realizing what the events of His life really entailed) were not that plain in the Old Testament text itself. That is why Christ, after His resurrection, went through all of the Old Testament, from Moses to the end, and related to the apostles those passages that referred to Him and His mission on earth (Luke 24:44–45).
All Christian interpreters today must take into account these latest teachings of Christ and the apostles, or else one will be as much in the dark about what real Christianity entails as those who began to hear Christ only at the start of His ministry. It is the final meaning that must lead us in our understanding of what the words of the Old and New Testaments really signify. This is especially so if we want to understand the names of the divine personages of the Bible and the significances attached to those names.
The latest New Testament teaching must be used to comprehend the meanings of the divine names. Let us first look at four of the common Old Testament names for the Deity: El, Eloah, Elyon, and Elohim (and we will consider another “El Shadday” at the end of the Report). As one can see, these names all bear a similarity because they have within them the word “El” which signifies “might,” “strong” or “power.”
El as a title occurs about 250 times. It is singular and it means “strong” and “mighty.” An English phrase that could adequately denote the Hebrew meaning: “the Mighty One.”
Eloah (singular) is from the word ahlah, to worship, to adore and the word represents the power who is to be worshiped. It occurs 56 times. An English phrase that denotes it is “the Adorable One.”
Elyon (singular) denotes the power who possesses. It occurs 36 times. In English it could be rendered “the Most High Owner.”
Elohim (plural) of Eloah and occurs some 2700 times. This word in English really means “the Mighty Ones.” This is a most difficult word to render in English because it most often in the Old Testament takes singular verbs and adjectives (not always, however, because in Genesis 1:26 it is connected with plural verb. and pronouns). It is important to note that the word does not exclusively refer to the Supreme Being. It can describe angels, human legislators and judges, or even humans in general. It also refers to heathen deities (or the angelic powers that motivate them), so it is not a word that of itself has any unique reverence or holiness attached to it. It can denote the “good” or the “bad” indiscriminately. And with its plurality of meaning (like collective nouns in English) it is a difficult word to render satisfactorily into the English language.
We English speakers find it peculiar to make sense of it in all its occasions because it is jangling to our ears to say, for example, “the Mighty Ones is the creator of heaven and earth.” Be that as it may, it is not always difficult in every English usage because all Americans would completely understand the headline: “The United States are at war with Iraq” Here we have a plural phrase that is understood as a singular entity — a single country. We would also understand: “The United States are fifty states that we call America.” But to say “the Mighty Ones is the One we worship” is jangling to us and is unacceptable.
To properly translate Elohim we need an English word that can take both singular and plural verbs without having to change its normal plural form. Such uni-plural words (or collective nouns) are “army” or “family.” The latter is excellent to denote Deity since we are told in the New Testament that the divine unit is made up of a Father, a Son and it even includes us humans since we are the children of the Father. Is there a modern English word that denotes “power” (as does Elohim) and can denote (like the word family) both singular and plural understandings depending on its use in the context? Yes there is. It is the word “Dynasty.”
Our word “Dynasty” means “a powerful family” and usually it signifies one that endures over the generations. The word derives its meaning from the Greek word dounasteia and it denotes “top lordship, dominion, regime, sovereignty.” When it refers to the divine family in heaven who controls all in the universe, it means the Supreme Family of Power and Authority. But it has other meanings in various contexts. It can refer to wicked families, such as the Dynasties that make up groups of evil angels promoting heathen gods, or the “good” and “bad” of human Dynasties like we are familiar with on television.
Only the context can determine how Elohim is be used (whether denoting Deity or not). But still, from the latest revelation of the New Testament, what this Report shows about Elohim is proper. As far as Supreme Deity is concerned, Elohim means a Divine Family (a Dynasty). It is the Dynasty made up of a group of powerful entities. And what does the apostle Paul state the Deity represents? “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14–15). The divine Dynasty is named after the family head (the Father) whose name is Yahweh. The Godhead is represented in the New Testament writings as a Family with a Father at its head, a firstborn Son (Christ Jesus) sitting on His Right hand, and there are other children (all of us) numbered with them. All of us together are the divine Dynasty.
And what is the divine human congregation (ekklesia) of Christ? We are a large number of people who make up the one body of Christ. Remarkably, the motto of the United States (e pluribus unum — “one out of many” adequately describes the Godhead (as well as the ekklesia — the Body of Christ).
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews, Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
1 Corinthians 12:12–13 RSV
Since we are in Christ, and He is with the Father in heaven as His firstborn Son, so are we potentially in the same divine classification (through our attachment to Christ). We are, through the Father and the Son, part of a “Powerful Family” of beings who (when we are resurrected to be with them) will represent the divine Dynasty that controls heaven and earth. That is what Elohim does, and we are His children to inherit His powers (Psalm 82:5; John 10:34–35).
Note how the word “Dynasty” for Elohim would sound in a few places in the Old Testament “In the beginning, the Dynasty created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Or, for verse 26: “Then the Dynasty said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” In both cases, the word “Dynasty” contains both the singular and plural aspects that Elohim possesses, while the word “Dynasty” has as its very roots the word “power” as does Elohim. For the section on the Ten Commandments it could read:
“And the Dynasty spoke all these words saying, I am Yahweh your Dynasty [the one who heads “your Dynasty”], who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other Dynasty before me, [etc.].”
And in what is called the Shema, it would be: “Hear, Oh Israel, Yahweh our Dynasty is one Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And Isaiah 45:5 would be: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no Dynasty [that truly rules].” Thus, we see the Supreme Deity is really a single, powerful, divine family.
The truth is, there is in heaven one Yahweh and one Dynasty of which the Father is the head. But Christ Jesus is His firstborn son who is a prime member of that Dynasty, as well as all of us. “I say, you are a Dynasty, children of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:5). This means that we humans are all “blue blood” (that is, of royal, holy origin) and that we are reckoned to be a part of the single Dynasty that rules heaven and earth. The only difference with us humans at the present is the fact that we have not yet attained to the spiritual composition of the rest of the family, nor have we reached the state of righteousness and glory that they have. But, through Christ and His actions for us, that is what each of us is promised. The divine Dynasty is producing children (all of us) to cause the members of the Dynasty to increase in number.
While this looks proper, I am not dogmatically suggesting that the word “Dynasty” is the one always to use as the English translation of “Elohim.” But the later teaching of the New Testament would certainly permit it as far as meaning is concerned. Elohim actually signifies “Mighty or Powerful Ones,” and does not the word “Dynasty” mean (even when used in the singular, as the verbs of Elohim most times demand) “a single family of powerful ones that exists for a long time”? Of course it does. This shows singularity (one Godhead) and plurality (many members) described in one English word.
As for “El Shadday,” it means “the Almighty who is All-Sufficient.” In combination with El (singular) and Shadday (plural) it occurs 7 times (e.g. Genesis 17:1), and alone it is “the All-Sufficient,” 41 times in the Old Testament.
There is also Adon (singular) which means Sovereign, Lord, Master, Possessor. It occurs 30 times (e.g. Exodus 23:17).
Then there is Adonahy (plural, perhaps like Elohim) which means the same as Adon and it occurs about 200 times (e.g. Genesis 15:2, 8).
In conclusion, there is the most important word “Yahweh” which is the approximate pronunciation of the holiest of the names of Deity in the Old Testament This is what is called the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). How should it be rendered in the Manuscript Version? It would be correct (and the easiest thing) to simply transliterate it with its proper vowels as we have done in this Doctrinal Report. However religious Jews will not pronounce the name with its real vowels as we have done in this Doctrinal Report. They prefer to substitute the phrase “Ha Shem” (which means “the Name”), and there are biblical reasons why they should do this. In next month’s Doctrinal Report I hope to explain why it would be important to avoid translating the Tetragrammaton with its real vowels, and the proposition is not as silly as it might at first seem.
Since we are informed in the Book of Revelation that the word YHWH actually means “was, is [or being], coming” (Revelation 1:4), the English meaning of “Yahweh” is something like the “Continually Existing One,” or as Moffatt translated it, “the Eternal.” We will discuss this and the meaning of the Greek Theos next month. The next Report will be interesting indeed.
Ernest L. Martin
[NOTE: See the next article “What is the Proper Name for the Father of Jesus?” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d910401.htm ]
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