Do Jehovah's Witnesses Deny Biblical Monotheism?
An Answer to Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and His Book Why You
Should Believe in the Trinity
By Mitchell Gray
Robert Bowman seems to believe that Jehovah's Witnesses deny
Biblical monotheism. He writes in his book, "It is therefore important to note
that the JWs flatly deny this most basic of biblical teachings" (Bowman 50).
This, then, raises a question: Do Jehovah's Witnesses really deny Biblical
monotheism? The answer is no, but Mr. Bowman would love nothing more than to
have his readers believe 'yes.' If anything Mr. Bowman and the host of other
Trinitarians are the ones that deny Biblical monotheism and express a form, a
branch of monotheism that did not exist in Bible times.
Bowman writes that although JWs "admit that there is only one Almighty God, they claim that there are, in addition to that God, many creatures rightly recognized in the Bible as 'gods'" and that JWs are really henotheistic (Bowman 50). Bowman is guilty of two things: first, not understanding the difference between Biblical monotheism and the monotheism he expouses, which I will explain shortly, and of only having two distinctions for the word "god." Bowman believes that there are only true G-god(s) and false G-god(s). In the true G-god(s) category only one exhausts the requirements for being the True God, the God worshipped by Jews and Christians. Then there are false G-god(s) of which belong everything worshipped that does not fit in the True God category (Bowman 51).
Bowman claims that Jesus could not be "a god" without being a false God (Bowman 94). This is due to the fact that he fails to understand (1) Biblical monotheism, (2) the Biblical meaning of the word 'god' and (3) the different categories of true/false G-god(s). All of this will be clarified shortly.
We should begin by differentiating Biblical monotheism from the monotheism that Bowman holds to. I have after a careful study come to the conclusion that there are currently two forms of monotheism. There is Biblical monotheism and then there is strict monotheism. Simply put Biblical monotheism is the belief in one Almighty and Supreme God, but this allows for others to wear the title "god" without actually being a false god. This differs from henotheism by the fact that in henotheistic belief, one worships one Almighty God without denying the existence of other Gods that can be worshipped. Henotheism should not be confused with monotheism or polytheism (the worship of more than one god).
In Biblical monotheism one worships and serves only one Almighty God. There are NO other gods that can be worshipped. There are, however, beings that can wear the title of "god" but are not gods in toto. The Almighty God gives them (or allows them) a position and measure of authority to do his will; act as his agents (or simply rule with great power). Take, for example, the angels. They can be called "gods" but are not worshipped as gods (Rev. 22:8-9). They have the title "gods" bestowed upon them by the One Almighty God because they act as his agents. They are (in)visible representatives of him. They deliver messages to humans for Him. They exercise great power and authority, granted to them by the Almighty God. They can kill, chastise, or punish anyone if they deem it necessary (Luke 1:8-20; Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2; Gen. 19:11).
Humans, likewise can be known as "gods." There are Biblical examples for all of this (along with extra-Biblical) which I will present later. Bowman objects to Biblical monotheism and subscribes instead to strict monotheism. Strict monotheism is quite different than Biblical monotheism. Strict monotheism was built by people that pushed for an ever stricter sense of definition of monotheism than that which is defined in the Bible. I can only assume that it was the early churches (or the later churches) way of battling heretics, those such as the Gnostics and Marcions. As more ideas about the nature of God and his relationship to Jesus surfaced, the Christians (and Jews) felt the need to change the meaning of monotheism (consciously or subconsciously) to keep these "heretical" ideas from entering Christian theology.
Strict monotheism is what abounds today. There can be only one God. No one can wear the title "god" and if they do they are false gods. This view, though, was not held by the Jews and early Christians.
In his book Mr. Bowman criticizes two examples JWs use to prove Biblical monotheism; angels and humans. Bowman gives several reasons why he doesn't believe angels or humans can be called "gods" in the Bible. We will discuss these arguments of his in some detail. Although Bowman’s discussion begins with angels, we will begin with humans.
The Biblical Usage of the Word 'God'
In the Bible the term "god" may represent one of three entities. It could describe (1) the Almighty God, (2) a false god, or (3) a person/being that has had power and authority given or allowed to them by the Almighty God. There are only two categories that are worshipped: The Almighty God and the false idol gods of the nations. Since only one can be the True God and be worshipped as such, all other gods that are worshipped are false gods. Notice that they are worshipped as gods, but because they are not the True God, they are false gods.
The other category is the "gods" that are not worshipped in any way. Then how are they "gods" you might ask? It is true that in our modern usage of the term "gods" we see it as a being that is given worship. However, this meaning has developed according to the strict monotheistic view of who God is. It is not true of ancient times though. In Bible times the term "god" could be applied to anyone with great power and authority. Anyone, like a king, army leader, or even a prophet could be called "a god." Most of the time (especially in the Hebrew world) the person given the title of "god" was someone appointed by the Almighty God to be his representative on earth. What keeps them from being false gods is that they were not given worship and in many cases refused to be worshipped. They did, however command great respect and authority. Therefore, Bowman only confuses the issue when he restricts the term "god" to either the True God or a false god.
I will now try to lend support to all that I have said in the preceding paragraphs by documenting how humans and angels could be considered "gods" without breaking with their historical Jewish monotheism. The same monotheism which I describe as Biblical monotheism. I believe that the documented evidence (Biblical and non-Biblical) that will be provided will demonstrate that the Witnesses position is not a baseless one.
Humans Can Be 'Gods'
Bowman argues that humans cannot be "gods" in any shape or form. He writes that the "bible explicitly denies that powerful men, such as kings and dictators and military leaders are gods" (Bowman 55). Of course, this is based on Bowman's misunderstanding of the Biblical usage of the word God. To support his views, Bowman criticizes instances where JWs see that humans are termed "gods." For example, Bowman says that the interpretation of Psalms 82:6 by JWs is incorrect. He claims that the human judges called elohim in this verse are really being called "gods" only in irony. Bowman explains that "the judges called 'gods' in Psalm 82 could not have been really gods, because the Bible denies that mighty men or authoritative men are gods. . .more likely they are called 'gods' in irony, to expose them as wicked judges" (Bowman 58). Is Mr. Bowman correct in thinking this? Let us just examine Psalm 82 and test the soundness of his interpretation.
I do not disagree with Bowman's assertion that the humans in this Psalm are being called gods in a way that exposes them for their wickedness. This can be seen by what God tells these judges in the second verse. He asked them how long they will judge with injustice and partiality. Bowman uses this verse as a means of "proving" his point, that they are "gods" in an ironic way. This, however, does not fit with the context in which it appears.
God states to these "gods" that they should be the judges for the people in a low estate and for those with little means. They should not allow the wicked to trample and abuse those who have nothing, because they walk around in what God calls "darkness" (vv. 3-5). It is likely that this darkness is a spiritual darkness. It is the religious leaders that do the judging and therefore, because they are wicked, do not teach the people the deeper things of God. However, this does not mean that the judges are being called "gods" in irony. In verse six we read: "I myself have said 'You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.'" God explicitly tells us (and them) that they are gods, given the authority by the Almighty to pass judgment on others. This is seen by the preceding verse that reveals that they are judging the people wrongly, using their power incorrectly. It looks like they have gotten the big head, they have become puffed up with pride. This could be the reason God next says, "surely you will die just as men do, and like anyone of the princes you will fall!" (v. 7). Apparently, they even believed that they would not die. More likely they viewed themselves as having so much authority and power that death seemed so remote that it would not affect them. These men have abused their power granted to them by God Almighty and because of this the Psalmist says that God should stand up and judge the earth in righteousness (v. 8). However, the conclusion is quite different than Bowman's. Verse 6 emphatically says that these humans are "gods". They are "gods" because the Almighty allows them to rule as his representatives on earth. This is far from irony. They are "gods" who abused their power, and because of this God will judge them with the same judgment they meted out (Matt. 7:1-2).
Whatever the reason, Bowman also fails to consider the example of Moses. He was truly a righteous man and was called "God" by Almighty God in Exodus 7:1. Exodus tells us that Moses was made "as God to Pharaoh", and Moses acted as God to Pharaoh by pronouncing judgment on him and the rest of Egypt. Surely Moses was not called "God" in irony!
Returning to Psalm 82, there is further Scriptural evidence that Bowman’s views are unsound. Jesus Christ pointed out to the religious leaders of his time that they too where "gods" when they falsely charged him with claiming to be God (John 10:33). In John 10:34 Jesus says, "Is it not written in you Law, 'I said: "You are gods"?'" He then says that those were called gods but the Scriptures came against them. They died just like ordinary men even though they believed they were more than ordinary men. They died even though they had all of this power bestowed upon them by God and Scripture. Christ was defending himself against false accusations. He demonstrated that those religious leaders were "gods," but they used their power incorrectly by abusing those in a lower estate.
We can safely conclude, then, that humans can be called "gods." They are not false gods because no worship is given to them. They are gods in the sense that they have authority granted to them by God to act in his behalf. There is no irony here in Psalm 82. They will be judged with the same judgment they handed out to the people.
Bowman uses a number of Scriptures to support his contention that humans cannot be considered gods in an unqualified sense. Although he did not consider a number of relevant Scriptures, for now, we will concentrate one what he has listed. He offers Ezekiel 28:2 as one proof that it is Biblically incorrect to call men "gods" in respect for their authority. This verse, though, does not imply what Bowman would like it to. In this chapter we read of the king of Tyre who has seated himself in the throne of God. Ezekiel 28:2b has the king of Tyre saying: "I am a god. In the seat of god I have seated myself, in the heart of the open sea." The careful reader will quickly notice that the king of Tyre has made himself a god. He placed himself in the seat of his god. He claimed to be divinity. This is far from the humans who were granted the authority of God by the Almighty. The king of Tyre has made himself a god in opposition to the True God. He would, therefore be a false god, and not the "god" that has a title of respect given to them.
Bowman, with his misunderstanding of the term "god" and Biblical monotheism has mislead his readers, and has done so very successfully since his book was first printed in 1989. Ezekiel 28:2 does not disprove the notion that humans can be "gods" in title only. It disproves the notion that humans can make themselves gods and not be false gods. The Almighty bestows the title and authority of "god" on people that represent him. No one can give themselves the title "god," that can only come from the Almighty God himself.
Bowman asks his readers to compare Ezekiel example with Isaiah 31:3. Unfortunately, Bowman has taken this verse completely out of context. He hopes that his readers will read verse 3 in isolation from its immediate context. However, a quick look at the context will show that this verse is speaking of Israel seeking help in Egypt instead of Almighty God. Isaiah tells us that there were some going to Egypt to help them defend themselves from attack because Egypt was a mighty nation with many horses and chariots, well trained soldiers and generals (vv. 1-2). They were the world power at that time, controlling large amounts of land and welding great influence over other nations. But, they are only human and can only do so much for Israel, while God is Almighty, all powerful and stronger than all the nations combined. God tells Isaiah that he is like a lion that will defend those who trust in him. The enemy might scream and cry and puff themselves up and show their muscles but Jehovah will not back down. He is not human and will never fear mortal man (vv. 4-5). This is far from the "proof text" that Bowman offers to defuse the belief that humans cannot be considered "gods."
The last text that Bowman uses is 2 Thessalonians 2:4. Again, a careful reading of this verse shows that it is people that make themselves gods and who demand worship. This is far from those who are granted authority by God and have this honor placed upon them. We can see that Bowman really offers no proof that humans cannot be considered "gods," as long as they wear that title in a manner that is righteous and God has bestowed that title and authority upon them.
Can Angels Be 'Gods'?
Bowman also denies that angels could be considered "gods." Bowman gives some reasons why he feels that angels cannot wear the title "god." Contrary to his assertions, there is sound Biblical and extra-Biblical reasons for believing that angels can be granted the title "god" by the Almighty. And, in Jewish minds angels were a sort of non-worshipable "god."
We find support for this belief first in the Bible. If we turn to Psalm 8:5 we read: "You also proceeded to make him [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings" (NIV). The Hebrew word translated "heavenly beings" in the NIV is elohim. Elohim literally means "gods" but it is clear that it is angels by the context. Bowman, however, finds this difficult to believe. He offers another interpretation of Psalm 8. He says that "it is questionable that in its original context elohim in Psalm 8:5 should be understood to refer to angels and translated 'gods' or 'godlike ones' [NWT]. This is because in context this Psalm is speaking of man's place in creation" (Bowman 52). Bowman continues his thought by explaining that Psalm 8 can be linked back to Genesis 1. Bowman correctly notes that in Genesis 1 man was created in the image of elohim, or the image of God. He then states, "This makes it quite reasonable to conclude that in its own context Psalm 8:5 is meant to be understood as saying that man is a little lower than God, not angels" (Bowman 52). But perhaps Bowman believes his knowledge exceeds that of the Divinely inspired Apostle Paul, because he directly contradicts Paul by this statement. If we look at Hebrews 2:6-7 we read: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You make him a little lower than the angels."
Perhaps Bowman is also unaware of the LXX rendering of this verse. The LXX uses the Greek word angelous (aggelouv) instead of the Greek word theos (god, yeov) or theoi (gods, yeoi). In fact, even the Latin Vulgate uses the word angelis instead of the Latin word for God. Therefore Bowman's assertions that the context suggest that men are a little less than God is baseless, and in fact unbiblical. We can outline this very clearly with Eccl. 3:19-21.
"For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit, so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast, for everything is vanity. All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust. Who is there knowing the spirit of the sons of mankind, whether it is ascending upward; and the spirit of the beast, whether it is descending downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 [NWT])
Can Bowman really believe that man, who is put on the same level as the beast of the field, is just a "little lower than God"? Humans die just like animals, and in fact, "there is no superiority of the man over the beast." Or, as Psalm 49:12: "And yet earthling man, though in honor, cannot keep lodging; he is indeed comparable with the beast that have been destroyed." Humans are hardly a "little lower than God" if they are compared to common beast of the field!
I should give Bowman the credit he deserves as a well respected authority in the apologetic community. He does point out that the LXX rendition using angels instead of gods. He correctly notes that because Paul quoted the LXX, that does not mean that "the Septuagint rendering he [Paul] quoted [Heb. 2:7] was a literal or accurate word-for-word translation of the Hebrew text" (Bowman 52). This of course is true because angelous ("angels") hardly has the same meaning as elohim ("God, gods"). It is commonly accepted that the LXX is not a literal translation of the Hebrew text all of the time. The LXX, in many cases is more of an interpretative translation. It does contain Jewish thought and Jewish interpretation and therefore, in the minds of the Jewish scholars that made the translation, the elohim of Ps. 8:5 were angels. It is good to note that these Jews are the same Jews that believed the form of monotheism that Christianity accepted. It is clear that these scholars did understand the angels to be elohim, though in a subordinate nature, far less than God Almighty, and they chose to make this clear in their translation. We will come back to the Jewish thinking concerning angels and their stature as "gods" in one moment.
We should also point out that Paul was an inspired writer of many books of the Bible. Therefore, even if Paul was quoting the LXX that still does not explain away the fact that what Paul wrote was given to him by God himself. Bowman can claim ‘this and show that’ but he cannot deny the fact that the author of Hebrews was not inspired by God to write angels and that what was written did not reflect the thoughts of God.
Bowman gives yet another reason why angels could not be called gods. "The Bible flatly states that demonic spirits are not gods. . .Since demons are just as much spirits and presumably just as much 'mighty ones' (though wicked) as the angels, it follows that angels cannot be 'gods' by virtue of their being 'mighty ones'" (Bowman 54). This is absolutely absurd!
Bowman tries to equate holy angels with evil, wicked demons! Simply being a 'mighty one' does not give you the right to wear the title "god." Only those who have had that title bestowed upon them by God can be called "gods." Bowman is completely off base by asserting that angels could not be called "gods" because demons are not, not to mention the logical fallacy he commits by asserting it.
Angels and the Dead Sea Scrolls
As promised earlier we now will return to the Jewish thought about angels/gods. This can best be illustrated by the use of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most important manuscript finds of the century. They have completely changed the scholarly view of ancient Jewish belief and Bible interpretation. They will also help us better understand how Biblical monotheism is better and more accurate than the strict monotheism of today.
The reason for consulting the Dead Sea Scrolls is simple. The community that prepared and preserved them is the Qumran community. These formed a religious group known as the Essenes. The Essenes were one of the most influential theological groups of their time. They were just as, if not more, influential as the sects of the Pharisees and the Saducees that you read about in the Gospel accounts, and because they were so influential to Jewish beliefs and traditions and due to the age of the community, it is only wise to see how they viewed angels.
In one fragment labeled 4Q403 I i, 30-46 we read of the Song of the holocaust of the Seventh Sabbath on the sixteenth of the month." In this fragment we read of how the angels are called the "high among all the gods of knowledge" and "the holy ones of the 'gods' sanctify the King of glory," and the "Princes of the praises of all the 'gods', praise the God of majestic praises" (Vermes 225). The writer of this exhalation exhorts them to "celebrate all the celebrating gods the King of majesty, for all the gods of knowledge celebrate his glory and all the spirits of righteousness celebrate his truth" (ibid.). They are also called "divine spirits" but the strongest proof we have for believing this author is talking about angels is by what he writes next.
Praise him, divine spirits, praising for ever and ever the firmament of the highest heavens, all...and its wall, all its structure, its shape. The spirits of the holy of holies, the living 'gods', the spirits of eternal holiness above all the holy ones...The divine spirits surround the dwelling of the King of truth and righteousness; all its walls (Vermes 226).
We can see that the author viewed angels as "gods." To him, there was nothing in his very strict Jewish belief that angels could not be called "gods" and yet compromise his monotheism. There is more in these fragments that can help us understand monotheistic Jewish thought concerning angels. One fragment called 4Q405 19ABCD offers a great deal of help in this matter.
The figures of the 'gods' shall praise him, the most holy spirits...of glory; the floor of the marvelous innermost chambers, the spirits of the eternal gods, all...figures of the innermost chambers of the King, the spiritual works of the marvelous firmament are purified with salt, spirits of knowledge, truth and righteousness in holy of holies, forms of the living 'gods,' forms of the illuminating spirits. All their works of art are marvelously linked, many-coloured spirits, artistic figures of the 'gods,' engraved all around their glorious bricks of splendour and majesty. All their works of art are living 'gods,' and their artistic figures are holy angels. From beneath the marvelous inner most chambers comes a sound of quiet silence: the 'gods' bless...(Vermes 228).
The author here describes the Most Holy chamber of the Temple. It was in this chamber that the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This is where Jehovah dwelled (symbolically). Everything in the Most Holy was made of the finest gold. The Bible tells us that the Temple was ornamented with pictures of angels (1 Kings 6:27-32). Therefore, this description of the "gods" ministering to the Almighty fits perfectly with the Bible. The curtain that separated the Holy from the Most Holy even has pictures of angels ("gods") woven into it (2 Chron. 3:14).
In one fragment the author seems to be writing about the angels stationed before God in heaven. This seems to be the best interpretation when you compare the first line (and the rest of the fragment) to what was written in Job 1:6 and 2:1. In the fragment we read:
The 'gods' praise him when they take up their station, and all the spirits of the clear firmament rejoice in his glory...when the gods of knowledge enter by the doors of glory, and when the holy angels depart the realm, the entrance doors and the gates of exit proclaim the glory of the King...the fear of the King of 'gods' is awe-inspiring to all the 'gods,' and they undertake all his commissions by virtue of his true order (Vermes 229).
This is not just the thought of one author, because in what is called The War Rule we read that "the host of warring 'gods' gird themselves for the Day of Revenge" (1QMXV, Vermes 121). We also find in the fragment titled by Vermes as The Song of Michael and the Just (4Q491 fr. II, Ma) an incomplete sentence that says that there is "a throne of strength in the congregation of 'gods' so that not a single king of old shall sit on it, neither shall their noble men...(Vermes 126). The one called Michael is also held as saying "I am reckoned with the 'gods' and my dwelling place is in the congregation of holiness" and "for I am reckoned with the 'gods,' and my glory is with the sons of the King" (Vermes 126).
As we can see from the numerous Dead Sea Scrolls quotes, the ancient Jews really had no problem with calling angels "gods." They recognized that angels were not to be worshipped, that they received their power and authority from Almighty God himself, and it is he that bestowed this title upon them. It cannot be claimed that the Jews were not monotheistic, for, they were the epitome of a monotheistic religion. They loathed any person or nation that worshipped more than one god. They did, however, understand the difference between worshipping something and giving something the respect it deserves. They worshipped God Almighty, the Only True God. They rejected idols (most of the time) and others who claimed to be gods and wanted worship as false gods. Yet at the same time they recognized that angels represented God. They had the authority from God to act as God in his place. They, therefore, rightly recognized them as "gods." A title that gave them the honor and respect they commanded and deserved, but they were also careful not to give worship to them. They knew that worship belonged only to Jehovah. Bowman is therefore wrong by claiming that angels could not be "gods."
Can Jesus Be Called 'a God'?
Despite Bowman’s knowledge and expertise, he makes another serious error in his book. On page 54 of his book he writes that "even if angels were gods in some positive sense, that would not explain in what sense Jesus Christ is called "God," since he is not an angel—he is God's Son" (Bowman 54). The booklet makes it clear how Jesus could be "a god" by stating: "Jesus has a position far higher than angels, imperfect humans, or Satan...Because of his unique position in relation to Jehovah, Jesus is a 'Mighty God'" (Should You 28). The booklet makes it quite clear as to how Jesus could be considered "a god." It is because he exercises all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). he is the King of God's Kingdom (Rev. 11:15). He is Christ and lord. Prophet and Savior. The King of kings and Lord of lords. Every knee in heaven bows to him and soon, every knee on earth will bow to him (Phil. 2:10-11). Christ Jesus is the second highest being in the universe. The second most powerful person in the entire expanse of heaven and earth. That is why he can be considered "a god," but, he is not The God. He is not Almighty God.
We can see, by the abundant evidence and many proofs that Jehovah's Witnesses are not polytheistic, nor are they henotheistic. They subscribe to Biblical monotheism, and not to the false, overly restrictive, strict monotheism that Christendom subscribes to. Angels and certain humans can be considered "gods." They can have great power bestowed upon them by the Almighty Jehovah God. Jesus Christ can be considered "a god" without being a false god. One quick note however. Bowman brings out that Satan is called the "god of this age" but says that Witnesses have wrongly used this to show that others can be "gods" without compromising Biblical monotheism. In this point he is correct. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Satan is called a god but we would have to recognize that he is a false god because he seeks worship for himself. Therefore, this example is not an appropriate one for Jehovah’s Witnesses to employ to prove others can be "gods."
1. Bowman's misunderstanding of the Biblical usage of the term "god" will be discussed shortly.
2. The KJV says "a god" which would also fit with the translation in Ex. 7:1.3.
3. The Greek Septuagint. A very ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek.
4. The scrolls in the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the oldest existing manuscripts of the Old Testament.
5. Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London: Penguin Books, 1990, p. 225. Hereafter cited parenthetically as (Vermes xx).
6. The first ellipsis belongs to Vermes, the second is mine. Because of the age of the Scrolls, some portions are missing or are too badly preserved to make out. Therefore, the translator simply uses an ellipsis to show this.
7. Some call it "The War Scroll."
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