Saturday, December 31, 2011

Did the NWT's Translators Know Hebrew?

Because of theological bias, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT), published by Jehovah's Witnesses, is a common object of attack by those who embrace traditional Christianity.* However, these attacks are usually misleading or outright incorrect. This post provides positive evidence against a common accusation - "The NWT is not a fresh translation of the Bible, but is in fact only a revision of some other English translation."

It is commonly alleged that the NWT's translators did not know the original biblical languages, and that the NWT is really just a revision of the Authorized Version, the American Standard Version, or Rotherham's Emphasized Bible. The "source" of the NWT varies depending on the person forwarding the argument, but it is usually one of those three.

History of the Argument

The argument in its various manifestations probably stem from a criticism by Dr. Julius Mantey. He frequently attacked the NWT because of his bias against Jehovah's Witnesses. Although some use Mantey's testimonies against the NWT because of his credentials, this is an appeal to an unqualified authority (Argumentum ad Verecumdiam) because of his obvious bias and prejudice against Jehovah's Witnesses. Speaking of the Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures - an Interlinear of the Greek text of the New Testament and the NWT - the original Mantey argument is this:

In fact, it is not their translation at all. Rather, it is a distortion of the New Testament. The translators used what J. B. Rotherham had translated in 1893, in modern speech, and changed the readings in scores of passages to state what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and teach. That is distortion, not translation." -- Julius Mantey, Depth Exploration in the New Testament (NY: Vantage Press, 1980), pp. 136-37.

Where did Mantey get the idea that the NWT wasn't a translation at all, but a revision of Rotherham's Emphasized Bible? Did he ever have evidence to back this up? He never presented any. Without evidence, it is a baseless assertion. Is he not letting his own personal bias against Jehovah's Witnesses affect his objectivity as a scholar? This appears to be the case. His bias against Jehovah's Witnesses and the NWT is evident, which is why he may be dismissed as an unqualified authority against the NWT.

Mantey's original comments which was confined only to the New Testament portion of the NWT has since grown to embrace the entire NWT, including the Old Testament portion. And it is in the Old Testament portion that positive evidence that the NWT's translators knew Hebrew that is here presented. This is of interest because it is commonly alleged that the NWT's translators may have had training in basic Greek, but were completely untrained in Hebrew.

Evidence that the NWT's Translations Worked Directly with the Hebrew Text

In 1953, The first volume of the NWT of the Hebrew Scriptures was published. Originally Leviticus 23:21 read:

"And you must proclaim on this very day Jehovah's holy convention for yourselves." 

Here is a picture of Leviticus 23:21 in the original versions of the NWT:

This stood for 26 years. Then the verse was changed to read:

"And you must make a proclamation on this very day; there will be a holy convention for yourselves."

Why the change? The NWT's translators had misread the Hebrew word יהיה (YHYH, it will be) as the similar looking word יהוה (YHWH, Jehovah). Misreading a Yod as a Vav, and vice versa, is common for readers working with the blocky Hebrew alphabet. This only would have happened if the translators were translating directly from the Hebrew text, and not comparing with other translations. For no other translation has "Jehovah" in this verse.

It may be claimed that perhaps the NWT's translators were restoring the Divine Name in Leviticus 23:21. Sometimes the NWT has "Jehovah" in places were the Hebrew Masoretic Text - the source of the Hebrew portion of the NWT - does not have the tetragrammaton. However, the NWT's translators were not restoring the Divine Name in Lev 23:21 in this instance. This is because they explicitly mention all restorations in the footnotes, yet they don't mention it at Leviticus 23:21. When restoring the Divine Name in the Hebrew Scriptures, they only followed Hebrew scholar C. D. Ginsburg's list of 134 places as published in The Massorah. Ginsburg doesn't restore the Divine Name anywhere in Leviticus.

The Divine Name doesn't appear in the textual apparatus of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia for Leviticus 23:21, or in the Septuagint, which was based on an early Hebrew text that oftentimes matches Ginsburg's list. Therefore, in no way could it be said that the NWT's translators were restoring the Divine Name in Leviticus 23:21.

We are left with positive evidence that the NWT's translators were working directly with the Hebrew text, translating Hebrew into English, producing an original translation. They were not "revising" an already existing English translation.

* There is a distinction between "traditional Christianity" and "scriptural Christianity" - the two are not necessarily the same thing!

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