Refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses’ errors
Did Jesus die on a stake or a cross? And is God’s name Jehovah or Yahweh? Why do English Bibles translate God’s name as LORD?
Frank K. from USA wrote to us asking for clarification on various claims often made by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Hi, my name is Frank. I am 85 years old. I think it’s time I try and get right with my creator. I have some Jehovah’s Witness friends who seem to live a very commendable way of life. I was raised catholic so when they told me Jesus was hung on a stake and not a cross, I was surprised. I was told that the translation of the original word we have believed was cross actually meant stake or possibly tree.
Can you give me any input on this subject? Also, why most Christian religion seldom use the name Yehova or Jehova in their preaching?
I’m really trying to get my worship right so a little help would be great.
Thank you for taking the time to write to us.
You raise several good questions, and I am glad that you are seeking the truth. I will try to write as plainly as possible.
The Jehovah’s Witness organization is a cult. As an evangelical organization, CMI does not consider them to be Christians as they deny several essential doctrines of the faith. Among some of these include their rejection of the Trinity (See: Jesus Christ our Creator: A biblical defence of the Trinity) and their view that Jesus is not God, but that he is just a created being (See: The Wisdom of God: Jesus or a created thing?; Hypostatic Union: Did Jesus know when he was coming back?).
They also err in their rejection of justification by faith alone, and not surprisingly, also reject biblical creation. Instead, they hold to a combination of ‘day age’ and Genesis 1:1 as an indeterminate amount of time within which to fit ‘true science’. Please refer to the articles mentioned earlier as they answer those issues, plus the related articles below.. But to put it plainly, those who believe in the gospel of Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe in a different gospel from that which was preached by Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:8–10). With that said, let’s examine some of the claims you mentioned earlier on.
Shape of the cross
The shape of the cross is a non-essential issue, although Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that Jesus was crucified on a stake rather than a cross. The Greek language itself is not entirely clear on the subject matter, so the insistence by Jehovah’s Witnesses that it had to be a stake is not something that can be established from the Greek text. Any Jehovah’s Witness claiming that the stauros must mean a stake and not a cross based on the Greek, is telling you a tall tale.
JWs are right that the Greek word translated as cross is stauros (Greek σταυρός, pronounced stavros in modern Greek). A stauros may be a vertical pole if it is referring to the stakes used in a palisade, but when it is used to refer to a means of execution or torture, especially Roman crucifixion, it is usually a cross. There are several instances where we know that the Romans crucified people on various types of crosses: an X-shaped cross (Apostle Andrew) or upside-down (Apostle Peter) according to church tradition. Yet these same early church records also consistently tell us that Jesus was crucified on an upright cross, in the way the Romans typically crucified people. Here are what the leading Greek lexicons on New Testament Greek say about the shape of stauros.
The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (LOUW) says, “a pole stuck into the ground in an upright position with a crosspiece attached to its upper part so that it was shaped like a T or like a †—‘cross’.
It goes on to clarify, “In Mt 27:32 (τοῦτον ἠγγάρευσαν ἵνα ἄρῃ τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ ‘they forced him to carry his [Jesus’] cross’) the reference is probably the crosspiece of the cross, which normally would have been carried by a man condemned to die. Because of the symbolism associated with the cross, translations of the NT in all languages preserve some expression which will identify the cross, not only as a means of capital punishment, but as having a particular form, namely, an upright pole with a crossbeam. In some receptor languages the term for a cross means simply ‘crossbeam.’ In other instances it is composed of a phrase meaning ‘crossed poles.’ It is important, however, to avoid an expression which will suggest crossed sticks in the form of X rather than a cross consisting of an upright with a horizontal beam… .”
- A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) says: “a pole to be placed in the ground and used for capital punishment… a stake sunk into the earth in an upright position; a cross-piece was often attached to its upper part (Artem. 2, 53), so that it was shaped like a T or thus: †.”
- The Dictionary of Biblical Languages (DBL) says, “a cross (a pole stuck in the ground with a cross piece)”
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) has a long discussion, but it basically explains that the word is sometimes used to describe an upright stake when used for fencing, as in a palisade. But when it is used as an instrument of torture, there are three main forms. The first is a vertical, pointed stake which was used in a fortification to repulse attackers, to hang an impaled severed head, or it can also be used in concealed pits as a sort of trap. So this is essentially an impaling or pointed stake/spike, or a vertical wooden stake. When this is used, the device is called a skolops (σκόλοψ) [not to be confused with stauros, cross]. But TNDT also notes in its section on skolops that this is not a common Greek word. Furthermore, it emphasizes that, “In the LXX [i.e. the Septuagint: Greek Old Testament] σκόλοψ is not used for “stake”.” Skolops may also used to describe a splinter or a thorn, among other things. For example, in 2 Corinthians 12:7, skolops is the word for the ‘thorn’ in the flesh that was tormenting the Apostle Paul. The other two forms of stauros consist of an upright with a cross-beam above it (T-shaped, crux commissa), or have two intersecting beams (t-shaped, crux immissa). Neither of these fit the idea of a single vertical stake for crucifixion the way most Jehovah’s Witnesses claim.
Roman crucifixion, in particular, is very well documented. TDNT explains concerning Roman crucifixion: “Crucifixion took place as follows. The condemned person carried the patibulum (cross-beam) to the place of execution—the stake was already erected. Then on the ground he was bound with outstretched arms to the beam by ropes, or else fixed to it by nails. The beam was then raised with the body and fastened to the upright post. About the middle of the post was a wooden block which supported the suspended body; there was no foot-rest in ancient accounts. The height of the cross varied; it was either rather more than a man’s height or even higher when the offender was to be held up for public display at a distance. On the way to execution a tablet was hung around the offender stating the causa poenae, and this was affixed to the cross after execution so that all could see. Crucifixion was regarded as one of the worst forms of execution. Cicero calls it the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful and ugly. Jos. Bell., 7, 203 agrees. Scourging usually preceded it. The condemned person was exposed to mockery. Sometimes he was stripped and his clothes were divided among the executioners, though this was not the common rule. Crucifixion took place publicly on streets or elevated places. Usually the body was left to rot on the cross. But it could also be handed over for burial. The physical and mental sufferings which this slow death on the cross involved are unimaginable. Crucifixion as a capital penalty was ended only by Constantine the Great.”
In other words, all the leading Greek Lexicons point out that the most natural reading meant that Jesus was crucified on an upright cross with a cross-beam—not a vertical stake. This is typical of most Roman crucifixions. Stauros when used in the context of crucifixion, is properly translated as cross.
Furthermore, the Gospels themselves give some indirect hints that it really was a cross, for two reasons:
- The sign is inscribed in three languages (placed over Jesus’ head (Matthew 27:37). This makes sense if His arms were stretched out on a horizontal beam on a traditional cross, making His head the highest part of his body. But if Jesus’ hands were stretched vertically on a stake, then the sign would have been above His hands.
- Thomas demanded to see the mark of the nails (plural) (John 20:25). This makes sense if the hands were widely separated so required a nail each. But this rules out one nail for both hands on a stake, as JWs often portray.
If a Jehovah’s Witness wants to insist that it is not a cross, the onus is on them to show otherwise. It is not enough to show that the word may be used to refer to a palisade post or pillar. The onus is on him to show that it cannot be translated as a cross, as that is indeed the most natural translation from the Greek, especially in the context of Roman crucifixion and the Gospel evidence.
The divine name
God’s name is not Yehova or Jehovah. Rather, the divine name of God as revealed in the Old Testament is YHWH. Some people, and especially various cult groups out there take issue with the pronunciation of YHWH, but most Hebrew scholars are confident that it would have been pronounced as Yahweh.
The evidence from known rules of Hebrew vocalization/linguistics, the way the divine name is shortened in other parts of Scripture to “Yah”, to even the way it is transliterated in other languages such as the Syriac Peshitta of Exodus 15:2, and even the transliterated pronunciation given by the Early Church, all support this conclusion. For example, Clement of Alexandria (AD 180) wrote that it was pronounced Ιαουε (Iaoue, pronounced approximately yaweh). Later, Epiphanius (c. 320–403), bishop of Salamis, stated that it was pronounced Ιαβε and Theodoret (c. 393–c. 457), bishop of Cyrrhus, concurred. By this time, the Greek β had changed pronunciation from b to v, as it is in modern Greek. Meanwhile, the Hebrew waw (ו) was also changing from a w to a v pronunciation, which explains the Greek transcription. Thus at the time, YHWH was pronounced Yave. If there is any doubt, then one can always just write the consonants YHWH.
Origin of the name Jehovah
So how did the word Jehovah come about? While YHWH was the covenantal name given by God to his people, later Jewish superstition begin to regard the tetragrammaton as being too sacred to pronounce. So whenever they came across YHWH in the text, they would substitute it with Adonai (meaning Lord). In modern day Judaism, this practice is still carried out, with the divine name substituted with Adonai (meaning: lord), or HaShem (meaning: the name).
To remind themselves to read Adonai rather than Yahweh, the Masoretic scribes would write the vowel points of Adonai (meaning: Lord) around the text of YHWH.
Hebrew is a language of consonants (E.g. YHWH). But vowels are what is pronounced and read out loud as they give voice to the consonants. During the medieval period, Jewish scribes (Masoretes) invented a system of writing down vowels so that the pronunciation of a text would be retained. These scribes would sometimes come across a text that might contain a copyist error or where an important note needs to be made to the reader. The scribe would then copy the written text as they see it, and then make marginal corrections. The written text is known as the ketîv (meaning: “it is written”), while the text the reader is supposed to read is known as the qerî.1The Scribes were careful to differentiate between ketîv and qerî, as only the ketîv is regarded as inspired and sacred. The name of God is the most common ketîv/ qerî combination in the Hebrew Bible. Since the divine name occurs very often in Scripture, the scribes would often just write down the vowels of Adonai (as a qerî) around the text of YHWH (the ketîv) to indicate to the reader that they were to substitute it with Adonai (lord) when reading instead of pronouncing the divine name. When this is done without marginal notes but only around the ketîv text, this is known as qerî perpetuum.
The word Jehovah is the result of a mistranscription of the Masoretic text. The word first appeared in the fourteenth century—less than 700 years ago. Someone made the mistake of mashing together the vowels of Adonai with YHWH, resulting in a completely new word, Jehovah; the Y became transcribed as a J—Jehovah, because the J was originally pronounced in English like a modern Y. But God’s covenantal name is not Jehovah, it is YHWH, and no scribe would have pronounced God’s name as Jehovah—and certainly not with the modern English pronunciation of the J! The ketîv was never meant to be combined with the qerî and read as a single word. Even less, there is no indication that one must call God by the name Jehovah in order to be saved. So if it is indeed true (as Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claim) that one must call God by his personal name in order to find favour with God, then all faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses fail the test because they are calling on the wrong name!
From this mistranscription, some early English translations begin to use the word Jehovah. E.g. Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, and in more recent times, the King James Bible or American Standard Version. Other English Bibles recognize the problem and instead translate it as LORD.
The practice of using “Lord”
So why do many modern English Bibles translate YHWH in the Old Testament as LORD. Why not retain the original text which reads YHWH?
When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), the Hebrew word, YHWH was translated into the Greek as Kyrios (Greek: Κύριος), meaning, Lord. A few isolated manuscripts retained a paleo-Hebrew rendering of YHWH in the middle of the Greek Old Testament whenever YHWH appears. In other rare instances, they would leave a space (called a lacuna) whenever YHWH appears. All these instances came about because the scribes wanted to show honour to God’s name. But in almost all other instances, YHWH was always translated in the Greek Old Testament as Kyrios (Lord). It is usually written as a nomen sacrum—a sacred name, abbreviated as: ΚΣ (i.e., KS) with a continuous horizontal line above both letters.
In similar fashion, whenever the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament passages on YHWH, they would follow the Greek Old Testament practice and used the word Kyrios (Lord) in its place. Thus, when the New Testament authors called Jesus Kyrios (Lord), they are essentially referring to Jesus as YHWH of the Old Testament.
There are many examples, but here is one: Romans 10:9–13:
‘That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord (Kyrios),” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’
Verse 13 provides the context of what ‘Lord’ means in ‘Jesus is Lord’—it is a citation of Joel 2:32:
‘And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD [YHWH] will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD [YHWH] has said, among the survivors whom the LORD [YHWH] calls.’
Here, the Hebrew text makes it clear that it is referring to YHWH, yet Paul applies it to Jesus. (It also undermines the superstition against pronouncing YHWH—clearly the Jews were meant to call on this name!)
Please refer to: Defending vital doctrines and the deity of Christ where we cover in greater detail many other examples, including passages which speak of both Jesus and the Father as YHWH. YHWH is a trinitarian name, thus, it is sometimes used of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Modern English Bibles follow the footsteps of the New Testament authors and the Greek Old Testament when they translate YHWH as LORD.
To differentiate between lord (lower case) and the divine name, most English Bibles write the divine name as ‘Lord’ in small caps, as in LORD, to signify to the reader that this is a reference to YHWH. We cannot really criticize them for doing so without also implicating the New Testament authors.
So there is an acceptable range of views among most biblical scholars today whether we should use LORD (in small caps) or YHWH when translating these Old Testament passages. One faithfully follows the Hebrew Old Testament, and one faithfully follows the Greek Old Testament. My personal preference is to use the divine name, YHWH, as this is what is written in the Old Testament Hebrew text (My colleague Dr Jonathan Sarfati, a Jewish Christian, concurs). YHWH was a covenantal name that was revealed to God’s people for his people. For this reason, several newer English translations such as the recently published Legacy Standard Bible have consistently used the word Yahweh when translating these passages in the Old Testament.
Note however, that New Testament only ever uses the word kyrios (Lord) and not YHWH (Hebrew)—that is because the New Testament is a Greek text. The kyrios/YHWH translation issue only comes up when discussing Old Testament texts. So ironically, it is actually the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are guilty of changing the New Testament. They remove Lord (kyrios), from the God-breathed New Testament, and replace the text with their man-made term Jehovah! JWs claim that the original manuscripts had Jehovah but it was replaced with kyrios, but the available manuscripts contradict this claim.
In all, JWs replaced Kyrios with Jehovah in 237 places in the New Testament of their New World ‘Translation’. Of course, none of these replacements occurred where Kyrios referred to Jesus!2 However, in 1968, leading NT textual expert Kurt Aland analyzed the then known Greek NT manuscripts, and YHWH was in none!3 Subsequent manuscript discoveries have just confirmed the absence of YHWH.
Since Jehovah Witnesses regard Jehovah as a reference to the Father and not the Son, this changing of the biblical text results in a defective Christology, and a denial of the divinity of the Son.
Revelation 22:18–19—I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, andif anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
I hope this reply answers the questions you have. While I have taken time to address Jehovah’s Witnesses claims concerning the word Jehovah, it’s important to get off the subject of the name of God to the Person of God, namely, their belief that Jesus Christ is not God, but just a created being (See: Is Jesus Christ the Creator God?). This is a serious error.
Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to a modern version of the ancient heresy known as Arianism, condemned by the historic Nicene Creed. Instead, the Bible clearly teaches that God the Son took on human flesh to live a sinless life and then gave His life willingly as a sacrifice for sin so that all who call on Him might be saved (See: The importance of the Resurrection of Christ to our salvation). Read Why do people worship false gods? for more details.
At the start of your letter, you mentioned that you want to get yourself right before God. If this is indeed the case, I would recommend reading Good news as it shares with you the good news of how you can get right before God. In particular, Jesus Himself requires:
that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him (John 5:23).
Stay away from Jehovah’s Witness’ teachings. They fail to honour the Son just as the Father, therefore they dishonour the Father too. We pray that you don’t copy their fatal heresy.
Creation Ministries International (US)
References and notes
- Rogers, J., Where did “Jehovah” come from?, Reason & Revelation 38(12):134–136, Dec 2018; apologeticspress.org. Return to text.
- Daniel, P. Tetragrammaton and Jehovah’s Witnesses, crossexamined.org, 6 Oct 2016. Return to text.
- Aland, K., Greek New Testament: its present and future editions, J. Biblical Literature 87(2):179–186, 1968. Return to text.