Jehovah's Witnesses have had to revise their chronology and various doctrinal interpretations due to events and scholarly corrections. But the one teaching where they have been consistently ahead of the curve is the importance of Jehovah's name.
I'm going to run through a (necessarily selective) timeline of JW events and scholarly publications that demonstrate the phenomenal success of this teaching in the last days. At the end I'll mention a fascinating new book that helps support some of the key claims JWs make about the divine name, and discuss the implications.
1931 - JWs change their name to reflect the growing importance of God's name in their message
1939 - fragments of the early Septuagint (LXX) - Fouad 266 with the divine name in the form of the tetragram are discovered in Egypt
1944 - a few of the fragments containing the tetragram are published by W G Waddell in the Journal of Theological Studies
1948 - realising the significance of this find, the WT Society sent two Gilead missionaries to photograph the rest of the fragments
1950 - the NWT of the New Testament was released using the divine name in the NT partly on the basis of the evidence from papyrus manuscript Fouad 266 and included photographs of the fragments
The NWT was not the first Bible translation to use the divine name in the NT. The translation by Herman Heinfetter and the Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson had used the divine name. And many foreign language Bibles use the divine name in the New Testament. Nevertheless it is fair to describe the NWT as groundbreaking in its treatment of the divine name for a number of reasons:
1. It was the first systematic defence and implementation of the restoration of the divine name to the New Testament.
2. Whereas other translations that use the divine name in the NT are relatively obscure, the NWT has become one of the most popular and ubiquitous modern translations available.
3. The NWT is inextricably linked with "the people for his name" that God has called in the last days.
4. The NWT explicitly drew upon recent LXX findings as supporting the continued use of the divine name into the NT era
5. In the years that followed its publication in 1950 more discoveries and scholarly research supported the NWT's use of the divine name
1953 - Walter Martin publishes his Jehorvah of the Watchtower which ridicules the idea that God's name belongs in the NT
1953 - Patrick Skehan publishes an early fragment of Leviticus in Greek that uses IAW for the divine name and he suggests this was the original form of the divine name in the LXX rather than Kyrios or YHWH
1960 - the compete NWT is released restoring the divine name to both old and new testaments
1963 - a scroll of the Minor Prophets from the Dead Sea containing the tetragram is published by Dominique Barthélemy adding more evidence for the use of the divine name in the LXX
1977 - Bible scholar George Howard publishes article in the Journal of Biblical Literature not only agreeing with JWs that the divine name appeared in the original NT, but supplying additional lines of support and arguing that the removal of the divine name from the NT resulted in confusion between Jesus and Jehovah and later Trinitarian dogma
1978 - The Watchtower proudly promotes the work of George Howard as an answer to critics like Walter Martin
1983 - a Greek fragment of Job from the Oxyrhynchus papyri containing the tetragram is published adding further support
1984 - Bible scholar Albert Pietersma in his essay “Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original New Testament” attempts to refute George Howard by arguing that, contrary to MS evidence, the original LXX used "Lord" instead of the tetragram. Many scholars follow Pietersma’s lead and go back to supporting the traditional view that the early LXX avoided God’s name.
1984 - Jehovah's Witnesses publish the booklet The Divine Name that will Endure Forever setting out the importance of the divine name and its use in all parts of the Bible
1987 - Bible scholar Lloyd Gaston in his book Paul and the Torah supports George Howard’s argument that the divine name appeared in the original NT
2000 - New Testament scholar David Trobisch publishes his book The First Edition of the New Testament in English where he argues in favour of the divine name in original NT writings
2002 - Classical scholar Frank Shaw completes his PhD thesis arguing that the divine name was used by Jews at the turn of the era in non-mystical settings
2003 - Senior scholar of the LXX Emanuel Tov publishes comments stating that he finds Pietersma's argument against the divine name in in the initial LXX unconvincing
2003 - Manichaean scholar Jason BeDuhn praises the NWT as the most accurate modern translation in his book Truth in Translation but argues that the inclusion of the divine name in the NT is a mistake
2011 - yet another fragment of the early LXX is published supporting the use of the tetragram this time from the Psalms
2013 - the revised edition of the NWT reaffirms the importance and use of the divine name in the NT and adds further support
2014 - excellent new book is published on the divine name: The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of IAW by Frank Shaw adds tremendous detailed support for the use of the divine name among Jews at the turn of the era
The view of JWs that the divine name continued to be used in the first century has been corroborated by various manuscript discoveries over the decades. Their argument that this means the divine name appeared in the original NT has been supported by scholars George Howard, Lloyd Gaston and David Trobisch.
The new book on the divine name by Frank Shaw does not argue dogmatically for the divine name in the NT. That is not the focus of the book. What it does do is masterfully refute many of the contentions of those who have downplayed the importance and relevance of the divine name. It shows that the Greek form of the divine name IAW was used by Jews in and around the first century; that this use was widespread and not confined to mystical contexts; that the early LXX did not eliminate the divine name; and that awareness and use of the divine name continued into the Christian Era. It draws on a tremendous amount of new evidence and gathers together disparate scholarly work in favour of the continued importance of divine name in the period.
Particularly fascinating is the chapter on the use of the IAW form of the divine name in Christian onomastica. These were early lists of names, sometimes described as rudimentary Bible encyclopaedias, copied by early Christians. Crucially these early fragments show that Christians were aware of the divine name and that biblical texts were the source of this knowledge.
Another interesting chapter explores the evidence from classical authors that Jews continued to use the divine name. Plus an entire chapter is devoted to refuting the common, but rather incredible view, of Pietersma and others that the LXX essentially eliminated the divine name with only a few revisionist exceptions (such as all the fragments that have come to light). It's hard to escape the conclusion that religious considerations must be involved in some scholars downplaying the importance of the divine name against the flow of considerable evidence here. Once again Shaw is not dogmatic about the original form of the divine name in the LXX, if it makes sense to even talk about an original form. Instead he notes the fragmentary nature of the historical traces and the evidence for variety of usage in Jewish practice. But Shaw is also clear about the lack of evidence for the traditional view that the early LXX had essentially eliminated the divine name.
All this tends to support some very important distinctive claims of Jehovah's Witnesses. In particular their contention that the divine name was still in use in Jesus’ time and that Christians continued to use the divine name.
For atheists and others who do not regard the Bible as inspired, the question whether Jehovah's Witnesses are right about the original New Testament employing the divine name may be regarded as little more than historical curiosity. Either Jehovah's Witnesses or evangelicals may have egg on their face if it's proved one way or the other, but that's about it.
However, for those who maintain the holy scriptures, it poses a number of deeper questions. The prescient or fortuitous championing of Jehovah's name by Jehovah's Witnesses is as striking as has been the growing scholarly and evidential support for their position. Would almighty God have allowed this group of Christians to champion his name at this crucial time if they did not enjoy his blessing and support?