The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT) has been a subject of critical scrutiny over its accuracy and reliability as the Bible version. The Watch Tower and Tract Society (WT) – a premier group of Jehovah Witnesses – released a full version of this translation in 1961 for global distribution1. The group claims the NWT was translated literally from three original texts: Classical Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek2. The foremost subject examined by reviewers is how the NWT handles the deity of Christ. The doctrine of anti-trinitarianism is evident in the NWT translation of original Greek texts3. As a result, translators’ theological bias is seen in translation errors and inconsistencies with the NWT’s stated philosophy and motives.
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A critical examination of its reference to Christ’s divinity, faithfulness to original texts, and adherence to the principles of Greek exegesis would affirm the body of critique that questions the NWT’s validity as a devotional resource. This translation, for instance, diverges from theological beliefs of Protestantism and Catholicism in its treatment of “pneumatology, ecclesiology, and thanatology”, which tend to suit the WT’s agenda4. This paper evaluates the NWT’s reliability by examining its historical background, Greek textual sources, translation committee and controversies, and problematic passages and how they diverge from evangelical theology.
History Behind Translation
Prolific writing characterized the Society’s early history; after the release of its Watchtower publication in 1879, over 10 billion materials were published in the subsequent years to support its missionary work5. Before the first NWT translation was published in 1950, the WT membership used a variant of the King James Version (KJV) called the Berean Bible released in 19076. In 1944, the society launched its American Standard Version (ASV) due to its usage of Jehovah to refer to the OT Tetragrammaton7. The NWT would later augment this translation.
The primary rationale for releasing the NWT translation was that Bible versions in common usage at the time, including KJV, used archaic linguistic variants8. WT linguists sought to release an updated version, devoid of archaisms. Moreover, extant Hebrew and Greek texts on which the KJV was based were accessible to them. As such, they could access manuscript evidence to ascertain the correctness of earlier translations. Their argument was that modern linguists were better placed to understand and interpret obscure passages written in Hebrew or Greek than original translators were9.
The 1946 proposal for a new Bible translation by the then WT president Nathan Knorr set in motion the production of the NWT10. This first version was called the Christian Greek Scriptures. In 1947, a special group – the New World Bible Translation Committee – was established to produce this translation11. Its membership comprised anointed Jehovah’s Witnesses said to have received a special revelation to reexamine the scriptures. However, the group’s activities were unknown to the WT until 1949 when Knorr informed the society’s leadership of its existence at the 1949 convention12. He told them that the committee had produced a modern translation of original Greek manuscripts that were ready for publication. Subsequently, WT directors voted to adopt this version, which included a refutation of mainstream doctrines.
In August 1950, the NWT of the Christian Greek Scriptures was launched at a church gathering convened in New York13. After this convention, NWT’s Old Testament (OT) translation called the Hebrew Scriptures was published between 1953 and 196014. This OT version was produced in five separate volumes. In 1961, Jehovah’s Witnesses received the NWT of the Holy Scriptures, an entire Bible that was updated in 198415. The WT started to release the NWT in different languages, such as French, in 1961. The Watch Tower Society states that the NWT sought to bring out the intended contextual meanings of Greek and Hebrew terms as used in original texts16. It mostly employed literal renderings of words without paraphrasing the manuscripts to preserve the message as much as possible.
The NWT marked a crystallization of the doctrine embodied in the works of Rutherford and the Russellite theology17. Previously, Jehovah’s Witnesses defended their doctrinal beliefs based on quotations from the writings and sermons of society’s leaders. According to Gruss, the NWT mistranslates verses and interprets scripture out of context to suit a predetermined view18. Multiple criticisms have led to revisions (including the 1984 review), which imply that there are inherent theological weaknesses in the translation.
Greek Text Source, Translation Committee, and Controversy
The NWT translation of the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) was based on extant Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The original Hebraic text used in the translation was Biblia Hebraica with the 1984 NWT version relying on “Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta”19. The translators also referred to Aramaic Targums, the Torah, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among others, in producing this translation20. The Greek source was the 1881 resource by Westcott and Hort’s21. This manuscript was primarily an Alexandrian text that was developed from extant works at the time. The translators also consulted the 1948 Novum Testamentum Graece to produce the NT translation22. Later revisions of the NWT were based on the works of the United Bible Society and Jesuits.
The NWT Translation Committee was formed in 1947 to produce a modern Bible translation23. Initially, the Watch Tower Society, on the request of the translators, kept the committee’s membership secret. The publishers did not want attention directed at them but rather to God, “the Author of the Scriptures”24. As such, their backgrounds and qualifications remained unknown until a former WT director, Raymond Franz, revealed that the translation team comprised five people: Nathan Knorr, Fredrick Franz, Albert Schroeder, George Gangas, and Milton Henschel25. After this revelation, it became apparent that the Committee had no trained translators knowledgeable in Greek or Hebraic exegesis. Reed observed that only Fredrick Franz had formal training and a basic understanding of these two languages26. He studied Greek for two years and he taught Hebrew27. Thus, the Committee lacked the capacity to do an accurate literal biblical translation that reflects the Greek or Hebrew linguistic context as it claimed.
The NWT contains controversial renderings of Scripture. The translations of specific verses dwelling on the group’s doctrines differ remarkably from those in other modern Bible versions. The main controversy centers on the divinity of Christ in John 1:1, which, in the King James Version, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. However, in the NWT, this verse is translated as “In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god”28. This translation was meant to make the NWT consistent with the group’s belief about the deity of Christ29. The inclusion of brackets to clarify or emphasize textual meaning is also controversial. The NWT explains that the parenthesis was meant to indicate an alternate translation of the Greek word30. However, the insertions are controversial because they are lacking in the original manuscripts.
Secrecy, Raymond Franz
Between 1879 and 1942, the writers of WT publications were named. However, during Nathan Knorr’s tenure – the period in which the NWT was released – publications were anonymous31. Unlike his predecessors – Russell and Rutherford, Nathan was not an author, and as such, he depended on Fredrick Franz to write for him32. Anonymous publishing began at the WT to avoid promoting personalities.
It is against this backdrop that the NWT was published without attribution to individual authors. The first page of the NWT reads, “Rendered from the original language by the New World Bible Translation Committee”33. For a long time, the identities of individual committee members as well as their educational backgrounds were kept secret from the public. According to Raymond Franz, a former official at the WT, Nathan Knorr, his uncle, Fredrick Franz, Albert Schroeder, and George Congas were the individuals who made up the translation team34. As stated above, the members had no formal training in either Greek or Hebrew, except Franz35.
Problem Passages w/ Evangelical Theology
The refutation of the divinity of Christ is fundamental to the WT and Jehovah’s Witnesses theology. In this regard, the NWT version contains no reference to Jesus as the Lord. To this end, the NWT verses contain insertions of ‘Jehovah’ as a translation of theos and Kurios, which in Greek mean God and Lord, respectively36. Therefore, the NWT text distinguishes God from Jesus Christ – an anti-trinitarian dogma that is inconsistent with evangelical theology. Some examples of mistranslated verses and passages in the NWT bible are explained below.
The NWT’s treatment of John 1:1-18 is different from that of modern Bible translations. According to Ruggiero, John 1:1 first echoes Genesis 1:1 in the clause, “In the beginning”37. This phrase implies that God pre-existed the ‘beginning’ in a logical sense. The NWT’s rendering of this clause is similar to that of other Bible versions. The second phrase says that the Word – a distinguishable entity – was in communion with God at this time. To affirm monotheism, the third clause clarifies that the Word was God.
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The NWT translates John 1:1 as, “In [the] beginning the Word was, the Word was with God, and the Word was a god”38. According to Rhodes, the third phrase of John 1:1, “and the Word was a god”, contradicts the deity of Christ as preached by mainstream evangelicals. Ruggiero considers the NWT rendering of this verse a theological bias that depicts Witnesses as polytheists39. The translation favors the anti-trinitarian view that Jesus is a creation (a god) and is inferior to Jehovah.
John 1:14 – a part of the prologue to the Gospel of John – says, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. According to Rhodes, the divine Word, which was God, assumed a physical form – something that was not a part of His essence – to interact with His creation40. The verse is consistent with the Exodus experience where God lived among the Israelites, which contradicts NWT’s position that the Word is inferior to Jehovah. Another controversial verse is John 1:18, which says, “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him”. The NWT renders the second clause as “the only begotten God”, implying that Christ is a unique creation, not God incarnate as believed in evangelical Christianity41.
In Col 1:16-20, the NWT inserts the word ‘other’ five times in brackets to refute the eternity of Christ. The insertions are lacking in the original Greek text that the translators used. By inserting ‘other’ in parenthesis, the passage does not conform to the evangelical belief that Christ is the creator42. Although a translator can add a word parenthetically to stress the original message, the interlinear translation of Col 1:16-20 in the NWT involves a deliberate insertion of the word ‘other’ to justify the anti-trinitarian dogma43. It is important to note that earlier versions of the NWT used this term without the parenthesis.
The Colossian passage in the NWT translation denies the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. For if “all things were created by Christ, and for him” (Col 1:16), then He must be the Creator. The NWT renders this verse as, “All things came into existence through him, and apart from him, not even one thing came into existence”44. Thus, the translation implies that Christ is a ‘creation’. Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to the phrase “first-born of every creature” in verse 15 to support this interpretation. However, Stanley clarifies that the clause “the first begotten of all creation” signifies that Christ is unique, not created45.
In the NWT, the clause “Thy throne, O God” (Heb 1:8) is rendered as “God is your throne” to avoid touching on Christ’s divinity. This verse refers to Jesus as an everlasting deity; however, the NWT interpretation blurs the godhead of Jesus46. The Father identifies the Son as God reigns eternally with righteousness in His Kingdom47. This distinction sets Christ apart from angels or other messengers. Thus, from this verse, Jesus is not only the Father’s Son, but He is also God as stated in verse 10, i.e., “the heavens are the works of thine hands”. This view is foundational to evangelical theology on atonement and salvation.
The words “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) are mistranslated as “the blood of his own (son)48. The aim is to deny Christ’s work as an atonement for sin. The NWT translation attributes salvation to Jehovah’s own blood, not that of Christ. According to Ruggiero, the idea of ‘the blood of God’ does not augur well with the interpretations of the Greek manuscripts by early scribes49. Thus, a plain reading of this verse affirms the deity of Christ. The NWT translation ignores the possessive adjective in ‘his own’ by including the word ‘Son’ in the parenthesis instead of inserting it into the text if it appears in the Greek text50. Thus, clearly, the insertion is meant to refute the divinity of Christ and atonement. The flaw with this view is that the shedding of actual blood at the Cross – evangelical theology – is indisputable.
In the NWT, “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised” (Rom 9:5) is rendered “Christ, [sprang] according to the flesh: God who is over all, [be] blessed forever”. The clear declaration of Jesus’ deity is blurred in the NWT translation. This verse talks about Christ being the Messiah who would come from the lineage of David and ascribe praise to Him as God51. However, the NWT version does not use the term ‘God’ to refer to Christ to conform to the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It makes a distinction between Christ and Jehovah. However, according to Stanley, it would be contextually appropriate to ascribe the term ‘God’ to Jesus since the previous verses talk of Israelites’ privileges and the rejection of the Messiah52.
In the NWT, “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13) are rendered as “the great God and the Savior” This translation separates God from Christ to refute His divinity. The NWT speaks of two persons – a violation of the Granville Sharp rule that should be followed when translating from Greek53. In the original manuscript, the nouns God and Savior refer to one entity. Therefore, there is an express proclamation of Christ’s divinity in this verse that is obscured by the NWT’s rendering of the text.
Overall Evaluation and Conclusion
When read as a whole, the NWT seems to favor a predetermined theological view. The rendering of several New Testament verses tends to downplay the divinity of Christ to conform to the anti-trinitarian doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the NWT, the translation of John 1:1 and 1:18 shows attempts to identify the incarnate ‘Word’ as a ‘god’ and the first among all creations. In other verses, there are strained efforts to distinguish God the Father from Christ. For example, in Romans 9:5 the word ‘sprang’ is inserted in parenthesis to separate Jesus, who, genetically, is from the lineage of David, from God who should be praised eternally. Thus, theological bias is evident in the way specific verses touching on Christ’s deity are treated in the NWT. The translators might have sought to justify the NT’s religious view rather than being faithful to a word-to-word translation of the Greek text.
The NWT has also not been faithful to original figures of speech; it violates the Granville Sharp rule applied to Greek Exegesis. For example, it separates God from the Savior in Titus 2:13, and thus, it speaks of two persons instead of one, as is the case in the manuscript. Although the publishers might have sought to produce an accurate translation, it can be inferred from these verses that there was a deliberate attempt to obscure the deity of Christ. Thus, it can be concluded that the translators made efforts to alter scriptures that are inconsistent with the doctrinal belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This obvious bias had a significant influence on their philosophy and values, resulting in a distorted or erroneous rendering of specific Bible verses.
Further, the translation committee lacked the qualifications and capacity to translate Greek manuscripts into English. Only Frederick Franz had a basic understanding of the Greek language. Earlier publications by WT presidents – Russell and Rutherford – sought to dispute the Holy Trinity doctrine. Thus, it can be inferred that their thoughts were crystallized in the NWT, which manipulates certain verses to support their agenda. Subsequent revisions of the NWT after the 1961 volume introduce footnotes to support the text. Thus, insufficient translation and theological biases raise questions about the NWT’s reliability as an inspired religious resource.
Bowman, Robert M. Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991.
Chryssides, George D. “Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, Book 85, 145-168. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008.
Franz, Raymond. Crisis of Conscience. Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1983.
Gruss, Edmond C. Apostles of Denial: An Examination and Expose of the History, Doctrines, and Claims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Newhall: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970.
McKinney, George D. The Theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962.
Reed, David A. Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1993.
Ruggiero, Louis. The Tower of Deception: Christianity’s Response to Jehovah’s Witnesses. San Dimas: Tree of Life Publishing House, 2008.
Stanley, James B. Fallacies of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Los Angeles: Olivet Baptist Church.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose. New York: International Bible Students Association, 1959.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. New World Translation of Holy Scriptures. New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1984.
- Edmond C. Gruss, Apostles of Denial: An Examination and Expose of the History, Doctrines, and Claims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Newhall: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), 116.
- George D. Chryssides, “Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” in Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, Book 85 (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 148.
- Robert M. Bowman, Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 47.
- Ibid., 54.
- David A. Reed, Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 34.
- Ibid., 38.
- Edmond C. Gruss, Apostles of Denial, 81.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose (New York: International Bible Students Association, 1959), 3.
- Ibid., 12.
- Robert M. Bowman, Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses, 58.
- Ibid., 59.
- Ibid., 61.
- Ibid., 77.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, 16.
- Edmond C. Gruss, Apostles of Denial, 104.
- George D. Chryssides, “Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” 152.
- Ibid., 53.
- George D. McKinney, The Theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), 109.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, 9.
- David A. Reed, Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse, 117.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of Holy Scriptures (New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1984), 456.
- George D. McKinney, The Theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 73.
- Tower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Divine Purpose, 15.
- David A. Reed, Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse, 321.
- Ibid., 326.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of Holy Scriptures, 1.
- Raymond Franz, Crisis of Conscience (Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1983), 47.
- Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1993), 193.
- Louis Ruggiero, The Tower of Deception: Christianity’s Response to Jehovah’s Witnesses (San Dimas: Tree of Life Publishing House, 2008), 25.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of Holy Scriptures, 325.
- Ruggiero, The Tower of Deception, 29.
- Ron Rhodes, Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 196.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of Holy Scriptures, 384.
- Ruggiero, The Tower of Deception, 41.
- Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, New World Translation of Holy Scriptures, 384.
- James B. Stanley, Fallacies of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Los Angeles: Olivet Baptist Church), 66.
- Ruggiero, The Tower of Deception, 76.
- James B. Stanley, Fallacies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 84.