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...

Monday, October 14, 2013

How Can We Know God?

There are four possible answers to that question.

Some people claim that great thinkers – Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Dawkins and so on can give us insight into God and what he is like. Some of what they say is right, some of what they say isn't, but as mere mortals we can never fully understand God, so whatever we say will always be incomplete. Because of this, the wiser followers of great thinkers are always open to add new ideas into what they already believe.

Others claim that we can know God because he has been revealed, often by angels, visions and so on to specific prophets – particular people in history like Moses, Mohammed or Joseph Smith. But when we look at what those prophets say, they agree on some important ideas like God being powerful, but disagree dramatically on others, like who God's chosen people are.

It therefore seems that the wisest course is agnosticism - the belief that we just can't know; we don't have enough information to make a good decision. That's pretty much David Mitchell's view...

But the apostle John tells us another way.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.
1 John 1:1-3

John makes the startling and incredible claim that he can speak about the ultimate reality – the one from the beginning, the one who is eternal life - because he has known him not as an abstract concept or a vision or a trance, but as a man he had seen and touched and eaten with and followed.

The incredible claim at the heart of Christianity is that the God who made everything became a man – Jesus Christ – so that we could know him. And it is attested to by eye witnesses – people like Matthew who knew Jesus, like John and Peter who were close friends with him, like Luke the Greek historian who researched carefully and even Jesus' mum Mary became convinced that he was god. Not just a god in some kind of trendy manifestation of the spiritual, but the one true God, uniquely become human.

How good do you have to be to convince your best friends and even your mum that you are God? Even when they've watched you die?

Brian couldn't do it in Monty Python's mostly magnificent satire, because his mum knew that he wasn't the Messiah; he was a very naughty boy.

The Roman Emperor Caligula couldn't do it, even though he tried to convince everyone he was a god. His own bodyguard assassinated him.

But Jesus convinced his friends and family that he really was God, so much so that they travelled around the world and were willing to give their own lives to say that he really is and that therefore we can know God as he reveals himself to us in Jesus.