Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Jehovah's Witnesses

We've got lots to learn from the Jehovah's Witnesses. One important thing we can learn is how easy it is to be sincerely wrong, and then misinterpret utterly obvious evidence in the light of your initial wrong conclusions.

JWs believe that God should usually be referred to as "Jehovah". This despite the fact it's a combination of a dodgy transliteration of the consonants of one Hebrew word ("YHWH" = God's name in Hebrew) into English via Latin combined with the vowels of another Hebrew word ("Adonay" = Lord). They also claim that Jesus wasn't God. This leads them into significant problems when it comes to the New Testament, for the following reasons:

  • Jesus almost always addresses God as "Father". He never addresses God as "Jehovah". When he teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them to say "Our Father".
  • The New Testament was written in Greek; the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. YHWH, which is what "Jehovah" is trying to represent, is a Hebrew word. Greek doesn't have an H or a W, and it doesn't really have a Y either, or a J or V for that matter. Hence it would be kind of tricky to say either YHWH or Jehovah if you only spoke Greek.
  • The New Testament follows the convention of the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament and translates YHWH as kurios (Lord). While in a few cases in the NT kurios means "master", in most cases it refers to God. Most English Bible translations follow this convention as well - they translate YHWH as "LORD" and adonay or kurios as "Lord".
  • The standard confession of faith in the New Testament is "Jesus is Lord" - Jesus is kurios, which can pretty clearly be understood to be claiming Jesus as God.

That all adds together to make things look pretty bleak for the JWs. However, they have a cunning theory to deal with this. They claim that when the NT was originally written, the authors included a lot of YHWHs (using Hebrew lettering of course), and that they were then expunged and replaced with kurios at the Council of Nicea, which then decided to announce that Jesus was God when up until that point the Bible had been clear he wasn't.

There are all kinds of problems with this theory. Notably, we've got a lot of writings from before the Council of Nicea where leaders in the church claim that the Bible is clear that Jesus was God. We've also got a lot of partial New Testament manuscripts from before the Council of Nicea, when there were meant to be all these YHWHs in the text, and they just aren't there. The JWs make claims that are testable on the basis of manuscript evidence, and those claims are demonstrably false.

The JWs of course don't worry about this much. Their Bible translator (conveniently anonymous) decided for himself which "Lord" was a YHWH and which wasn't, and he did so on the basis of their theology. So their theology claims to be entirely based on their translation of the Bible, but their translation was badly done in order that it could give that theology. I wonder if their Bible translators worry that they're being dishonest.

If I held opinions about a field of academic study that not one respectable scholar in that field agreed with, it would worry me. It worries me that it doesn't worry the Jehovah's Witnesses I chat to. I take it their belief is based on their membership in the group rather than reason and evidence...

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