How The Watchtower Relied On A Spiritualist Bible Translation

Fr. Mitch Pacwa

Defenders of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society point out that the very name of the organization highlights the role of the Bible in its beliefs. Many Catholics take a defensive position regarding the Jehovah's Witnesses who canvass their neighborhood, because they assume that these Witnesses know the Bible far better than they.

Of course, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society agrees. It has written: "Over the last seven decades, in conjunction with proclaiming the glorious hope of Jehovah's incoming Kingdom, Jehovah's Witnesses have spread around the world a veritable flood of denunciation and judgment. In hundreds of millions of frank, hard-hitting Bible-based publications, they have exposed Christendom as the most powerful force in the religious whore, 'Babylon the Great,' denounced in Revelation chapters 17 and 18" (The Watchtower, April 1, 1988, 24).

So convinced is the Watchtower of the truth of its claims it proclaims, "Outside the true Christian congregation, what alternative organization is there? Only Satan's organization consisting of his political 'wild beast' and his Babylonian world empire of false religion" (The Watchtower, March 1, 1979, 24).

In the face of such claims, a Catholic has three choices: Accept the truth of the Watchtower's statements and join the Jehovah's Witnesses, remain unconvinced but confused by not knowing how to answer them, or refute the claims and demonstrate the truth of the Catholic faith.

The most important difference between the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the Catholic Church is seen in answer to the great question of Jesus Christ: "Who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15). The Catholic Church continues to proclaim with Peter, the rock on which the Church was built, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). The Watchtower refers to 1 Thessalonians 4:16 for its answer: "The Lord himself will descend with a command, an archangel's voice, a trumpet blast."

According to Watchtower understandings of 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Jesus has the voice of an archangel, and, since Michael is the only archangel mentioned by name in the Bible (Jude 9), members of the Watchtower conclude Jesus must be Michael the Archangel and therefore a creature. This is a little less direct than Simon Peter's answer, but it satisfies the Watchtower.

Of course, Jehovah's Witnesses must support their claim with other passages, one of the most important being John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God." The standard Watchtower translation of this last phrase reads, "The word was a god."

The Watchtower is fond of backing up its claim with support from a variety of scholars, one of whom Johannes Greber, was an ordained Catholic priest. Greber's German translation of the New Testament was translated into English in 1937 as The New Testament — A New 'Translation and Explanation Based on the Oldest Manuscripts. No doubt the Watchtower believes that having an ex-Catholic priest corroborate its translation lends credence to its claim that Christendom knows the truth and hides it from the dupes who remain within it. Clearly, once a Catholic as clever as Greber learns the truth, he must leave Satan's organization, the religious whore, Babylon the great.

There are numerous examples of Watchtower appeals to Greber's work. "Similar is the reading by a former Catholic priest: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the word was a god. This was with God in the beginning." A footnote here cites Greber's New Testament translation and notes the 1937 "front cover of this edition being stamped with a golden cross" (The Watchtower, September 15, 1962, 554: the same quotation appears in The Word: Who is He According to John, 1962 ed., 5; and Aid to Bible Understanding 1969 ed., 1669). This is an odd boast given the present Watchtower claim that Jesus did not die on a cross but on a torture stake.

In addition to John 1:1, the Watchtower has consulted Greber to clarify its key interpretation of Matthew 27:51-53: "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (RSV translation).

The Watchtower denies the physical resurrection of the body of Jesus Christ, and, of course, the resurrection of the dead at the time of Jesus' death. Greber translates the text. "The earth quaked and the rocks were shattered. Tombs were laid open and many bodies of those buried there were tossed upright. In this posture they projected from the graves and were seen by many who passed by the place on their way back to the city."

The Watchtower cites this passage approvingly a few times. One article cites earthquakes in Ecuador and Colombia as evidence, along with Greber's translation, for the denial of the resurrection of those bodies (Aid to Bible Understanding,1969 ed., 1134). Another Watchtower passage says that the Bible does not say that the bodies came to life but merely that they were raised up or thrown out of their graves. To prove that this interpretation does no damage to the Greek text, it cites Greber's translation (The Watchtower, October 15, 1975, 640). Once The Watchtower claimed that the accuracy of Greber's translation was proved by an earthquake in Guatemala that opened some graves (The Watchtower, April 15, 1976, 231).

There is good reason for a Catholic to make special note of the Watchtower's frequent use of Greber as an authority to back up its Scripture translations. Since 1956, at least six years before the Watchtower first quoted Greber, it knew an important fact about his translation: It was based on spiritualism. This recognition occurred in a Watchtower discussion that condemned spiritualism, as any believer in the Bible must.

First, The Watchtower referred to Greber's translation of 1 John 4:1-3: "My dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to learn whether they come from God. For many false spirits have emerged from the abyss and gone out into the world and are speaking through human mediums. This is how you can find out whether a spirit comes from God: every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ appeared on earth as a man comes from God. While every spirit who seeks to destroy belief in Jesus as our Lord incarnated, does not come from God, but is sent by the adversary of Christ. You have been told that such spirits would come, and they are already appearing in the world."

One needs to contrast this rather odd translation with a standard translation, like the RSV: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God: for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit, which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit, which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already."

Leaving aside the problems other Christians may have with Greber's free interpretation of this biblical text, what The Watchtower says next is stunning: "Very plainly the spirits in which ex-priest Greber believes helped him in his translation"(The Watchtower, February l5, 1956, 111). In other words, the Watchtower acknowledges in 1956 that Johannes Greber was a spiritualist and that he used spiritualism to translate the Bible! Nevertheless, it cites two texts from Greber's translation to support its own translation and interpretation of John 1:1 and Matthew 27:51-53.

In its "Questions From Readers" section (April 1, 1983, 31), The Watchtower addressed this question: "Why, in recent years, has The Watchtower not made use of the translation by the former Catholic priest, Johannes Greber?" The response begins by admitting:

"This translation was used occasionally in support of renderings of Matthew 27:52-3 and John 1:1, as given in the New World Translation and other authoritative Bible versions. But as indicated in a foreword to the 1980 edition of the New Testament by Johannes Greber, this translator relied on 'God's Spirit World' to clarify for him how he should translate difficult passages."

The Watchtower then quoted the same foreword to show that Greber's wife, "a medium of God's Spiritworld [sic], was often instrumental in conveying the correct answers from God's Messengers to Pastor Greber." It added the disclaimer "The Watchtower has deemed it improper to make use of a translation that has such a close rapport with spiritism (Deut. 18:10-12)." Rather, it proclaimed the soundness of the "scholarship that forms the basis of the above-cited texts in the New World Translation" and maintained it "does not depend at all on Greber's translation for authority." Then an odd conclusion: "Nothing is lost, therefore, by ceasing to use his (Greber's] translation."

Nothing except The Watchtower's credibility. But credibility seems to be not much of an issue. When admitting that the founder, Pastor Charles Taze Russell, made mistakes in his book The Finished Mystery, the organization said, "That it [Russell's book] contains some mistakes is freely admitted. Even the Bible contains some. By mistake we mean a misunderstanding or misapplication. It does not contain any erroneous doctrines" (The Watchtower, April 1, 1920).

However, this disclaimer about misunderstanding or misapplication cannot refer to the Watchtower organization’s use of Greber, because the use of a spiritualist to translate the Bible is a serious sin. One need only examine the Deuteronomy text cited in The Watchtower disclaimer of April 1, 1980:

"When you come into the land which the Lord [Hebrew: Yahweh] your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord [Hebrew: Yahweh]; and because of these abominable practices the Lord [Hebrew: Yahweh] your God is driving them out before you" (Deut. 18:9-12).

I include verse nine in the quotation because it highlights the teaching that these abominations of the nations include mediums and spiritualism, such as Greber practiced. Anyone who performs these abominations becomes an abomination to the Lord Jehovah. This judgment must necessarily apply to the Watchtower organization, since it referred to Johannes Greber as Bible translation authority years after it published an acknowledgment that Greber practiced spiritualism.

Another quotation from The Watchtower may be relevant here:

"Sometimes a member of a class will refuse to engage in the canvassing for the books because there are some mistakes in the books, and says his conscience will not permit him to put books in which there are mistakes into the hands of the people. Of course this is another method that the enemy adopts to confuse the minds and furnish an excuse for not being faithful to the Lord. As every one knows, there are mistakes in the Bible and there never has been a book written yet that is perfect that has been written by any human hand. The Lord will take care of our infirmities if we use our best endeavors to serve him" (April 15, 1928, 126).

The evidence shows the willingness of the Watchtower organization to participate in a spiritualist interpretation of the Bible and to recommend a spiritualist as an authority to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and the physical resurrection from the dead. Far from being in the clutches of the enemy, those Watchtower members who refuse to distribute erroneous literature may be suffering from nothing more than a well-formed conscience. In fact, that is precisely this type of faithfulness to the Lord all Jehovah's Witnesses need to exercise, for the good of their own souls and for the prevention of the spread of Watchtower errors to other souls. It will be the love of the truth for its own sake that will win over the Witness from spiritual ruin and abomination to the salvation, which only the real Jesus Christ of the full gospel can offer.

Fr. Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the University of Dallas. His most recent book is Father, Forgive Me for I Am Frustrated: Growing in Your Faith Even When It Isn't Easy Being Catholic.