When Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door, they may offer you a pamphlet, compliment your house or garden, and ask if they can come in to share some important news about the Bible. Whether you say yes or no, they are then likely to launch into a memorised script about one or all of three things. These are:
“Did you know that all modern translations of the Bible are inaccurate?”
“Did you know Jesus wasn’t crucified but put on a stake?”
“Did you know that the churches have deliberately removed the name of God (Jehovah) from the Bible?”
The media delight in portraying the Church as shifty and hypocritical, and most people are aware that there are many different translations of Scripture, so these questions may echo thoughts that are in peoples’ minds already. We will certainly meet people who have been confused by the JWs, and we should know enough about JW teachings to be able to reassure them. Christians should also look on visits from JWs and others, as evangelism opportunities. But this means we need to be prepared!
Truth cannot be decided on the basis of a majority decision. But it is important to remember that the JW’s ideas are rejected by highly qualified men and women from every kind of Christian and academic background.
There is substantial agreement between all mainstream denominations about how the Scriptures should be translated. The differences between modern translations are in most cases simply differences of emphasis or style. For example the Good News Bible is written in simple English and uses a limited vocabulary, the NIV tries to translate fluidly, phrase for phrase, while the RSV adheres as closely as possible to the word order and sense of the original languages.
The JW’s translation, the “New World Translation” stands completely outside the context of any serious academic study. Here are quotes from just a few well-known scholars:
- Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, professor of New Testament at Princeton University, calls the NWT “a frightful mistranslation,” “Erroneous” and “pernicious” “reprehensible” “If the Jehovah’s Witnesses take this translation seriously, they are polytheists.”
- Dr. William Barclay, a leading Greek scholar, said “It is abundantly clear that a sect which can translate the New Testament like that is intellectually dishonest.”
- British scholar H.H. Rowley stated, “From beginning to end this volume is a shining example of how the Bible should not be translated.”
- Dr. Julius Mantey, author of A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, calls the NWT “A shocking mistranslation.” “I have never read any New Testament so badly translated as The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of The Greek Scriptures…. it is a distortion not a translation.” “It is neither scholarly nor reasonable to translate John 1:1 ‘The Word was a god.”” (Julius Mantey, Depth Exploration in The New Testament (N.Y.: Vantage Pres, 1980), pp.136-137). Dr Mantey also described the JW translators as ‘diabolical deceivers.’
All of this sounds harsh, but it should hardly be surprising. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded by Charles Taze Russell, a draper from Pittsburgh. Russell claimed to be an expert in the translation of the Scriptures, but could not even recognise the letters of the Greek or Hebrew alphabets. Subsequent Jehovah’s Witness “translators” have had little greater knowledge.
Chief translator (and later president of the JWs) Fred Franz had studied Greek for two years at the University of Cincinnati (he never graduated), but was ‘self-taught’ in Hebrew. Asked in a Scottish courtroom if he could provide a translation of Genesis chapter two verse four, Franz said he could not. His explanation of the process of writing the New World Translation was that God “passed them to the Holy Spirit who, invisible, communicates with Jehovah’s Witnesses – and the publicity department.” Fred Franz ran the publicity department at the time.
This information is from the book Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, Fred’s nephew and a former member of the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It is simply not true that all modern translations of the Bible are inaccurate. We have manuscripts of most books of the Bible which date back to within two hundred years of the life of Jesus. There is wide consensus amongst Christian and non-Christian academics and translators about how these manuscripts should be translated. And we have hundreds of letters and sermons from the early, pre-Constantine, Church which show us exactly what was taught and believed from the earliest days.
Even in the absence of this overwhelming evidence, mere common sense would tell us that it cannot be true that after nearly 2,000 years Jehovah’s Witnesses alone have discovered the truth. This would mean that every teacher and preacher from the time of the Apostles was wrong in understanding who Jesus is, and that God allowed a complete distortion of the Gospel to be proclaimed everywhere until Mr Russell, and subsequently “Judge” Rutherford came along to put everyone right.
If nothing else, the JW’s history of failed predictions would show that their interpretation of Scripture is not to be trusted. Deuteronomy 18:22 says “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed Jesus had returned in 1873, and that this would be made manifest in 1914. Sorry, 1915. Well, 1918 then. No, we made a mistake, it’s 1920, when the advertising slogan “Millions Now Living Will Never Die!” was first used. Definitely 1925. OK, 1975. Or maybe not …
What of the claim that Jesus was not crucified, but hung on a stake? JWs base this claim on the fact that in classical Greek the word “stauros”, translated “cross” in the New Testament, means stake, and only stake. They will sometimes argue that well-known Christian scholars like Westcott and Hort support this view. But this is not true. No one disputes that in the Greek of Homer, “stauros” usually meant stake. But the New Testament was written some six to eight hundred years after Homer. The Greek of the New Testament (Koiné, or common Greek), is different in a number of ways from classical Greek, and many words, including stauros, have changed or broadened in meaning. We only have to consider the changes in the English language over time to understand how this happens. Words in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or even in Shakespeare, do not always mean the same thing they mean now.
We know that stauros can and does mean cross in other examples of Koiné literature from New Testament times. Early Christian art (and even Roman graffiti mocking Christians) shows Jesus on a cross. Roman writers, writing in Latin, talk of Jesus having been crucified. We know from archaeology and written records that crucifixion, not impaling or hanging on a stake, was a common Roman punishment. There has never been any dispute about the fact that Jesus was crucified. To suggest that after 2,000 years the JWs suddenly discovered the truth about this, a truth unknown even to those who were there, is ludicrous in the extreme.
But isn’t it true that the name Jehovah has been removed from the Bible? Mostly yes, because Jehovah is not the name of God. It is a spelling mistake by medieval Bible translators.
The Massoretes or Jewish scribes who kept and copied the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) invented a system of dots and other symbols to show where the vowels should go. This made reading Hebrew a lot easier, because originally Hebrew was written without vowels and with the words all running together. Ycnshwdffcltthswldhvmdttrd (You can see how difficult this would have made it to read).
The name of God, usually written YHWH, was too holy to be pronounced. The practice in synagogue when reading aloud was to say the word ‘adonaï’ – ‘Lord’. So whenever YHWH appears in Hebrew, the Massoretes wrote the vowels for adonai, indicating that this was what the reader should say. Early Bible translators didn’t know this, and mixed up the consonants YHWH with the vowels of Adonai and came up with the nonsense word Jehovah.
We don’t know with any certainty how the name of God was pronounced (perhaps Yahweh or more probably Yahu) so most modern translations follow the Jewish scribes and write LORD, the capital letters indicating that this stands in place of the divine name.
Finally, JWs will sometimes claim that their beliefs are shown to be true by the fact that they live upstanding lives, that there is no dishonesty or abuse in their congregations. But is this true?
In 1914 Charles T. Russell sued The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for libel when the paper exposed him for fraudulent attempts to sell ordinary wheat at the then extraordinary price of $60 per bushel claiming it was “Miracle Wheat”, and claimed that his religious activities were a money-making front. Russell lost this case in court.
Earlier he had sued a Baptist minister, J.J. Ross for publishing an article that claimed Russell mistranslated the bible throughout, had no higher learning and did not have the adequate knowledge to translate Greek or Hebrew. Russell tried to stop the circulation of these documents and failed.
Russell not only lost the suit in court, but also was found to have committed perjury when he lied under oath about his knowledge of the Greek language. In the end Russell admitted that he had no knowledge of biblical languages, and Ross won the case. This is part of the trial transcript:
Question: (Ross’s Attorney Staunton) “Do you know the Greek Alphabet?”
Answer: (Russell) “Oh yes.”
Question: (Staunton) “Can you tell me the correct letters if you see them?”
Answer: (Russell) “Some of them, I might make a mistake on some of them.”
Question: (Staunton) “Would you tell me the names of those on top of the page, page 447 I have got here?”
Answer: (Russell) “Well, I don’t know that I would be able to.”
Question: (Staunton) “You can’t tell what those letters are, look at them and see if you know?”
Answer: (Russell) “My way…” [he was interrupted at this point and not allowed to explain]
Question: (Staunton) “Are you familiar with the Greek language?”
Answer: (Russell) “No.”
In 1908 Maria Russell (Charles T Russell’s wife) was granted a divorce from her husband. Divorces were much harder to obtain at that time. But Maria testified, with the support of others, that her husband had been seen kissing and fondling Rose, an orphan girl who shared their house. Rose was thirteen and fourteen at the time. Amongst other things the court was told that that he called Rose his little wife and jelly-fish, and told her that a man’s heart was so big he could love a dozen women, but a woman’s heart was so small she could only love properly one man.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not in any position to point the finger at other groups in relation to child sexual abuse. There is a website – silentlambs.org , run by and for people who have been sexually abused within the Jehovah’s Witness community, and particularly for those who have been discouraged or mistreated when they reported this abuse. The claim that there is no dishonesty or abuse in Jehovah’s Witness congregations is simply false.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are very badly misled. Their beliefs are a mixture of ridiculous inventions and ancient heresies long ago rejected by the Church as contrary to the Scriptures and to the teaching of the apostles.
When they arrive at your door, see this as an opportunity to share the life-giving truth about God’s love for them in Jesus. You may not wish to engage them in debate, but you could agree to accept some of their literature, if they agree to take and read some of yours (perhaps a copy of this paper). Finally, remember to pray for them, knowing that Jesus loves them and gave his life for them, just as he did for us.