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Letter to the Bishops Conferences on The Name of God

On June 29, 2008, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote to the presidents of all conferences of bishops, prohibiting use of the term Yahweh in the liturgy, particularly in hymns and Psalm translations.

CONGREGATIO DE CULTU DIVINO ET DISCIPLINA SACRAMENTORUM

Prot. no. 213/08/L Rome
Rome, June 29, 2008

Your Eminence / Your Excellency,

By directive of the Holy Father, in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments deems it convenient to communicate to the bishops' conferences the following as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine Name signified in the sacred tetragrammaton, along with a number of directives.

The replies received from the bishops’ conferences were studied by the two Congregations, and a report was made to the Holy Father.  At his direction, this Congregation now writes to Your Eminence / Your Excellency in the following terms:

I. Exposition

1. The words of Sacred Scripture contained in the Old and New Testament express truth which transcends the limits imposed by time and place. They are the Word of God expressed in human words. By means of these words of life, the Holy Spirit introduces the faithful to knowledge of the truth, whole and entire; and thus the Word Christ comes to dwell in the faithful in all its richness (cf. Jn 14:26; 16:12-15.) In order that the Word of God, written in the sacred texts, may be conserved and transmitted in an integral and faithful manner, every modern translation of the books of the Bible aims at being a faithful and accurate transposition of the original texts. Such a literary effort requires that the original text be translated with maximum integrity and accuracy, without omissions or additions with regard to the contents and without introducing explanatory glosses or paraphrases which do not belong to the sacred text itself. 

As regards the sacred name of God himself, translators must use the greatest faithfulness and respect. In particular, as the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (n. 41) states:

    In accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above- mentioned Septuagint version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning.

    [Iuxta traditionem ab immemorabili receptam, immo in (...)versione "LXX virorum" iam perspicuam, nomen Dei omnipotentis, sacro tetragrammate hebaraice expressum, latine vocabulo "Dominus" in quavis lingua populari vocabulo quodam eiusdem significationis reddatur.]

Notwithstanding such a clear norm, in recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel's proper name, known as the holy or divine tetragrammaton, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in form הךהי, YHWH. The practice of vocalizing it is met with both in the reading of biblical texts taken from the lectionary, as well as in prayers and hymns.

It occurs in diverse written and spoken forms, for example, Yahweh, Yahwè, Jahweh, Jahwè, Jave, Yehovah, etc. It is therefore our intention, with the present letter, to set out some essential facts which lie behind the above-mentioned norm and to establish some directives to be observed in this matter.

2. The venerable biblical tradition of Sacred Scripture, known as the Old Testament, displays a series of divine appellations, among which is the sacred name of God revealed in the tetragrammaton YHWH הךהי. As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of Sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: Adonai, which means "Lord."

The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint, dating back to the last centuries prior to the Christian era, had regularly rendered the Hebrew tetragrammaton with the Greek word Kyrios, which means "Lord." Since the text of the Septuagint constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek-speaking Christians, in which language all the books of the New Testament were also written, these Christians, too, from the beginning never pronounced the divine tetragrammaton. Something similar happened likewise for Latin-speaking Christians, whose literature began to emerge from the second century, as first the Vetus Latina and, later, the Vulgate of St. Jerome attest. In these translations, too, the tetragrammaton was regularly replaced with the Latin word Dominus, corresponding both to the Hebrew Adonai and to the Greek Kyrios. The same holds for the recent Neo-Vulgate which the Church employs in the liturgy.

This fact has had important implications for New Testament Christology itself. When in fact St. Paul, with regard to the crucifixion, writes that "God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9), he does not mean any name other than "Lord," for he continues by saying, "and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil 2:11; cf. Is 42:8: "I am the Lord; that is my name.") The attribution of this title to the risen Christ corresponds exactly to the proclamation of his divinity. The title in fact becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith, even though it is not in fact one of the titles used for the Messiah of Israel.

In the strictly theological sense, this title is found, for example, already in the first canonical Gospel (cf. Mt 1:20: "The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.") One sees it as a rule in Old Testament citations in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:20): " The sun shall be turned into darkness. . . before the day of the Lord comes (Joel 3:4); 1 Peter 1:25: "The word of the Lord abides for ever" (Is 40:8)..

However, in the properly Christological sense, apart from the text cited of Philippians 2:9-11, one can remember Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved"), 1 Corinthians 2:8 ("they would not have crucified the Lord of glory"), 1 Corinthians 12:3 ("No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit") and the frequent formula concerning the Christian who lives "in the Lord" (Rom 16:2; 1 Cor 7:22, 1 Thes 3:8; etc).

3. Avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own [rationale]. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.

II. Directives

In light of what has [just] been expounded, the following directives are to be observed:

1. In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced.

2. For the translation of the biblical text in modern languages, intended for the liturgical usage of the Church, what is already prescribed by n. 41 of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam is to be followed; that is, the divine tetragrammaton is to be rendered by the equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios; "Lord," Signore, Seigneur, Herr, Señor, etc.

3. In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present, one after the other, either the Hebrew term Adonai or the tetragrammaton YHWH, Adonai is to be translated "Lord" and the [word] "God" is to be used for the tetragrammaton YHWH, similar to what happens in the Greek translation of the Septuagint and in the Latin translation of the Vulgate.

Francis Cardinal Arinze
Prefect

Albert Malcolm Ranjith
Archbishop Secretary

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