The Divine Name and Alfonso de Zamora’s Quest for Textual Accuracy

IN THE year 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain, issued a decree: “We order all Jews and Jewesses . . . that by the end of July of this year, they leave all of our stated kingdoms and dominions with their sons and daughters and male servants and maids and all Jewish familiars, both great and small, regardless of age, and that they dare not return to them.”

Under that expulsion order, every Jewish family in Spain was given a choice either to go into exile or to renounce their religion. A rabbi by the name of Juan de Zamora may have felt that it was a better option to convert to Catholicism and remain in Spain, where his ancestors had lived for generations. In view of his Jewish background, it is possible that Juan sent his son Alfonso to the renowned school of Hebrew studies in Zamora. Later, Alfonso became versed in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic. After finishing his studies, he started teaching Hebrew at the University of Salamanca. Soon thereafter, his linguistic expertise was put to good use in behalf of Bible scholars all over Europe.

In 1512 the new University of Alcalá de Henares elected Alfonso de Zamora to the chair of Hebrew studies. Since Zamora was one of the foremost scholars of his day, cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, the university founder, enlisted his help in preparing the monumental Complutensian Polyglot. This six-volume Bible contains the sacred text in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as portions in Aramaic. *

About this project, Bible scholar Mariano Revilla Rico notes: “Of the three Jewish converts that participated in the work of the Cardinal [Cisneros], the most celebrated is Alfonso de Zamora, grammarian, philosopher and expert on the Talmud, apart from being a scholar of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.” Zamora’s studies led him to the conclusion that accurate Bible translation required a comprehensive knowledge of the original ancient languages. In fact, he became one of the main promoters of the renaissance in Biblical scholarship that began to flower at the beginning of the 16th century.

Nevertheless, Zamora lived at a difficult time and in a dangerous place for the  promotion of Bible scholarship. The Spanish Inquisition was at its height, and the Catholic Church venerated the Latin Vulgate translation as the only “authorized” version of the Bible. However, since the Middle Ages, Catholic scholars had already noted that the Latin text of the Vulgate was far from perfect. By the early 16th century, Alfonso de Zamora and others embarked on the task of doing something about it.

‘Salvation Required Translation’

Among the projects that Zamora worked on, the Hebrew edition of what is commonly called the Old Testament, along with its translation into Latin, was undoubtedly the most significant. He probably intended that this material be used extensively for the projected Complutensian Polyglot. One of his manuscripts is in El Escorial library near Madrid, Spain. Cataloged as G-I-4, it contains the complete book of Genesis in Hebrew, along with an interlinear, or word-for-word, translation into Latin.

In the prologue is this acknowledgment: “Salvation of the nations required the translation of the Holy Scriptures into other languages. . . . We have considered it . . . absolutely necessary that the faithful have a word-for-word Bible translation, done in such a way that for each Hebrew word there is an equivalent one in Latin.” Alfonso de Zamora had the qualifications needed to undertake such a new translation into Latin because he was a recognized scholar of Hebrew.

‘My Spirit Cannot Find a Resting Place’

In one respect, 16th-century Spain was the ideal place for scholars like Zamora to work. During the Middle Ages, Spain had become a center of Jewish culture. The Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “With its large Muslim and Jewish populations, medieval Spain was the only multiracial and multireligious country in western Europe, and much of the development of Spanish civilization in religion, literature, art, and architecture during the later Middle Ages stemmed from this fact.”

Since there was a large Jewish population in Spain, Hebrew Bible manuscripts abounded. Jewish scribes in many parts of Spain had laboriously copied those manuscripts for use in the public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogues. L. Goldschmidt, in his book The Earliest Editions of the Hebrew Bible, notes that “not only the Spanish-Portuguese prints of the Pentateuch enjoyed the highest reputation for accuracy amongst Jewish Scholars, but also the manuscripts from which these and the scholarly polyglots were printed.”

Despite the advantages Spain offered, dark clouds of opposition loomed over would-be Bible translators. In 1492, the Catholic armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the final Moorish enclave in Spain. As mentioned earlier, in that same year the monarchs decreed that all those holding to the Jewish religion be expelled from Spain. A similar edict banished the Muslims ten years later. From that time on, Catholicism became the State religion of Spain, and other religions were no longer permitted.

How would this new religious climate affect the translation of the Bible? The experience of Alfonso de Zamora is a case in point. Although this scholarly Jew had become a Catholic convert, the Spanish hierarchy refused to overlook his background. Some opposers criticized Cardinal Cisneros for using the expertise of Jewish converts in the preparation of his Polyglot Bible. These attacks caused Zamora much suffering. In a comment in a manuscript that can be found at the University of Madrid, Zamora laments: “I, . . . abandoned and hated by all my friends​—who have become my enemies—​cannot  find a resting place either for my spirit or the soles of my feet.”

One of his principal enemies was Juan Tavera, the archbishop of Toledo, who later held the post of chief inquisitor. Zamora became so disheartened by Tavera’s attacks that he even appealed to the pope. His letter said in part: “We request and beg that Your Holiness help us . . . and preserve us from our enemy the bishop of Toledo, Don Juan Tavera. Every day, without letup, he causes us numerous, unpleasant afflictions. . . . We certainly find ourselves in great anguish, since we are just like beasts for the slaughter house in his eyes. . . . If Your Holiness heeds this petition directed to you, ‘Yahweh will be your security and he will preserve your foot from capture.’ (Prov. 3:23)” *

Alfonso de Zamora’s Legacy

Despite these attacks, Zamora’s work continued and prospered for the benefit of many Bible students. Although he never translated the Scriptures into the vernacular languages of his day, he rendered an invaluable service to other translators. To understand his contribution, we must remember that Bible translation invariably depends on two types of scholars. First, there must be scholars who study copies of the sacred text in the original languages​—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—​to produce a refined and accurate text in these languages. Then a translator can use this work as a starting point for his translation into a vernacular language.

Alfonso de Zamora was the principal scholar who prepared and refined the Hebrew text that was finally published in the Complutensian Polyglot in 1522. (His Hebrew-Latin vocabulary and Hebrew grammar that appeared in the same work also facilitated the efforts of translators.) Erasmus, a contemporary of Zamora, performed a similar task for the Christian Greek Scriptures, commonly called the New Testament. Once these refined texts in Hebrew and Greek became available, other translators could embark on the vital task of putting the Bible into the language of the people. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, he was one of the first translators to take advantage of the Hebrew text of the Complutensian Polyglot.

The wide distribution of the Bible today is a fitting tribute to the labors of men like Zamora, who dedicated their lives to improving our knowledge of the Scriptures. As Zamora realized, salvation depends on people’s understanding God’s Word and following it. (John 17:3) That, in turn, requires translation of the Bible into languages that people can understand, for only then can its message touch the hearts and minds of millions.


^ par. 4 For a discussion of the significance of the Complutensian Polyglot, see the April 15, 2004, issue of The Watchtower, pages 28-31.

^ par. 15 It is interesting that Zamora used the divine name, not a title, in his appeal to the pope of Rome. In a Spanish translation of Zamora’s petition, the name appears as “Yahweh.” It is uncertain in what form it appeared in the original Latin. Regarding Zamora’s translation and use of the divine name, see the box “Translating the Divine Name” on page 19.

 [Box/​Pictures on page 19]

Translating the Divine Name

It is of special interest to note how Alfonso de Zamora, a learned man of Hebrew background, transliterated the divine name. As can be seen in the accompanying photograph, a marginal note in his Hebrew-Latin interlinear translation of Genesis contains God’s name written as “jehovah.”

Evidently, Zamora accepted this translation of the divine name into Latin. During the 16th century, when the Bible was translated into principal European languages, this spelling or a very similar one was adopted by many Bible translators, including William Tyndale (English, 1530), Sebastian Münster (Latin, 1534), Pierre-Robert Olivétan (French, 1535) and Casiodoro de Reina (Spanish, 1569).

Thus Zamora became one of the first of many 16th-century Bible scholars who helped shed light on the divine name. The ignorance regarding God’s name occurred first as a result of Jewish superstition that did not allow the name to be pronounced. Under the influence of this Jewish tradition, Bible translators of Christendom​—Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, for example—​replaced the divine name with such terms as “Lord” or “God.”


Close-up view of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton translated “jehovah” by Zamora

[Picture on page 18]

Decree from the king and queen of Spain, 1492

[Credit Line]

Decree: Courtesy of the Archivo Histórico Provincial, Ávila, Spain

[Picture on page 18]

University of Alcalá de Henares

[Picture on page 21]

Frontispiece of Zamora’s interlinear translation