Bible Translation and Study 

Robert Hommel's Comments on the New World Translation

It seems that attacks on the NWT fall into two main categories, (a) that the NWT is biased in that it has been specially produced to support the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses and (b) that the NWT translators were incapable of producing an accurate Bible translation.  Leaving aside the first charge, which can only really be answered on a case-by-case basis, it is interesting to consider the second accusation.

If it were really true that the New World Translation committee was not made up of competent Greek and Hebrew scholars, then it should be relatively easy for opposers to point to hundreds of infelicitous and incorrect renderings in areas that were not doctrinally contentious.  In practice, however, such criticisms are few and far between.  Most attacks on the NWT focus on certain controversial verses, considered important because of relevance to Christian doctrine.  This in itself is a strong argument against the assertion that the translators did not really know Hebrew and Greek.

Opposers of Jehovah's Witnesses frequently criticize the New World Translation on the basis of the credentials of the translators.  Of course, the translators were anonymous, so it is not known what, if any,  paper qualifications they had.  In any case, the lack of formal qualifications would not necessarily disqualify a person from being a talented and capable translator.  There are more ways to learn Biblical languages and translation skills than through traditional university studies.

In this article, we shall discuss claims made by Robert Hommel, who has written an article on the subject.  Hommel believes that Greg Stafford's defence of Fred Franz is "superficial, inaccurate and misleading". [1].  

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that we don't really know for certain who produced the New World Translation.  Of course, various writers have made assertions on the matter, but, until proof isNew World Translation forthcoming, that is all they are - assertions.  To say that Franz or anyone else was on the New World Bible Translation Committee is pure speculation.  It may be true and it may be false.  It would not be at all surprising if F. W. Franz were one of the translators, possibly even the main translator.  But the fact remains that we don't know for sure.  How can critics insist so vehemently on the truth of something for which they have so little proof?  

What is surely beyond dispute is that someone translated the New World Translation. After all, translations don't make themselves.  And to be able to translate the Hebrew Scriptures, someone had to know Hebrew.  The idea that a person or group of persons with little or no knowledge of Hebrew could translate the whole of the Old Testament - as Hommel apparently believes - stretches credibility to its very limits.  

That is even more obvious if you consider the comments of a man like Benjamin Kedar, who is an a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:           

 "In my linguistic research in connection with the Hebrew Bible and translations, I often refer to the English edition of what is known as the 'New World Translation.' In so doing, I find my feeling repeatedly confirmed that this work reflects an honest endeavor to achieve an understanding of the text that is as accurate as possible. Giving evidence of a broad command of the original language, it renders the original words into a second language understandably without deviating unnecessarily from the specific structure of the Hebrew ... Every statement of language allows for a certain latitude in interpreting or translating. So the linguistic solution in any given case may be open to debate. But I have never discovered in the 'New World Translation' any biased intent to read something into the text that it does not contain."  

Let's analyse what Professor Kedar is able to tell us.  First of all, is he qualified to express an opinion?  Some critics think not.  True, he is apparently not a teacher of Biblical Hebrew, or a translator.  But, to engage in 'linguistic research in connection with the Hebrew Bible', Professor Kedar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem must surely be a competent scholar of Hebrew.  

I have never discovered in the 'New World Translation' [of the Hebrew Scriptures] any biased intent to read something into the text that it does not contain
Professor Benjamin Kedar, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Kedar is no friend of the Watch Tower Society.  In a subsequent communication he is quite critical of the Jehovah's Witnesses' organization, and even remarks: "I do not feel any sympathy for any sect and this includes Jehovah's Witnesses."  But Kedar apparently has the integrity to admit that even people he doesn't like can achieve worthy objectives that should be recognised.  Perhaps Kedar doesn't feel pressured to defend a particular doctrinal position.  When challenged about his statement [2] , he stood by his original comments about the New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, stating:           

 "Several years ago I quoted the so-called New World Translation among several Bible versions in articles that deal with purely philological questions (such as the rendition of the causitive hiphil, of the participle qotel). In the course of my comparative studies I found the NWT rather illuminating: it gives evidence of an acute awareness of the structural characteristics of Hebrew as well as of an honest effort to faithfully render these in the target language. A translation is bound to be a compromise, and as such its details are open to criticism; this applies to the NWT too. In the portion corresponding to the Hebrew Bible, however, I have never come upon an obviously erroneous rendition which would find its explanation in a dogmatic bias. Repeatedly I have asked the antagonists of the Watchtower-Bible who turned to me for a clarification of my views, to name specific verses for a renewed scrutiny. This either was not done or else the verses submitted (e.g. Genesis 4:13; 6:3; 10:9; 15:5; 18:20; etc.) did not prove the point, namely, a tendentious translation."[3]  

Kedar obviously has a lot to teach many of the Watch Tower Society's detractors about impartiality, bracketing and scholarly debate. To put it simply:  just because you don't like Jehovah's Witnesses or disagree with them doctrinally, that does not give you the right to make unsubstantiated accusations against them.

It is not necessary to know the translators' academic qualifications in order to assess the quality of the translation

Robert Hommel has made an astonishing conjecture, which he rather arrogantly calls a 'fact',  that "anyone with an adequate library of English Bibles, Lexicons, and Bible Dictionaries could produce a translation similar to the NWT, with only a limited knowledge of the original languages."  Hommel does not say whether he or anyone he knows has actually tried such an experiment.  Of course, all translators have recourse to lexicons, concordances, dictionaries and other reference material.  Indeed, it would be foolish for anyone to attempt to make a Bible translation without drawing on the centuries of scholarship that had preceded them.  That applies to the translators of the NWT just as much as to all other Bible translators.  However,  Kedar's words speak for themselves. You don't get a "broad command of the original language" or an "acute awareness of the structural characteristics of Hebrew" by playing around with dictionaries and copying out of other Bible translations![4]

Rolf Furuli, who is a Lecturer in Semitic Languages at Oslo University, says with regard to the Hebrew portion of the NWT:

"In connection with writing my book I read the English text of the NWT against the Hebrew text, word for word. After first reading the Hebrew and then the English text, I sometimes said to myself: "Was this nuance really in the Hebrew text?" And certainly it was! The translators of the NWT have been extremely faithful both to their own translation principles and to the Hebrew text."[5]

Now, I think it's obvious that neither Kedar nor Furuli would be able to make the comments they did if the NWT translators had minimal or no knowledge of Hebrew.  Hence, to say that the translators had no scholarship is patently untrue.

Hommel rejects the view that "the NWT itself is testimony that the Committee was skilled in the original languages", believing that such an approach ‘begs the question', and asserts: "To demonstrate that the NWT is, indeed, a scholarly translation, one must produce positive evidence that the Translators possessed the skills necessary to render the Bible from the original languages into English."  Of course, Hommel is right when he implies that it is not the instances where the NWT renderings coincide with other translations that show the quality of the translation, but rather the instances where they differ.  And a different rendering could conceivably be the result of either superior scholarship or of ignorance. But to determine which of the two it was does not require that we know the qualifications (on paper or otherwise) of the translators.  What it does require is that we examine the actual evidence for and against each of the renderings and make our own judgment.  So if Hommel means that an examination of the translation itself by competent Hebrew scholars is insufficient 'positive evidence' of the translators' skills, then his assertion is palpably untrue.  If Hommel's view were correct, it would be impossible to determine the accuracy of any number of translations, such as the Greek Septuagint, whose translators remain anonymous to this day.  As it is, anyone with a knowledge of the original and target languages can compare the two and make a judgment about whether the translation is accurate or not  (which is precisely what people like Kedar and Furuli have done) and, on that basis, draw inferences about the skills of the translators.[6]  

Hommel's argument can also be refuted another way:  if assessing the quality of various renderings is not a legitimate way of  proving the scholarly credentials of the anonymous translators, then neither is it a way of disproving them!  If you can't use good renderings to infer that the translators were competent, then neither can you use poor renderings to infer the opposite.[7]  

Interestingly, although Hommel maintains that "there is no evidence that the NWT Translation Committee possessed the training or skills necessary to produce an English Bible from the original languages", his article fails to mention a single rendering that he views as evidence of lack of competence.  The maxim ‘publish or perish' would seem to apply here. 

Scholar Frederick Fyvie Bruce provides food for thought in his book "A History of the English Bible" when he speaks of Thomas More's reaction to the Tyndale translation:           

 "It affords no pleasure to us to-day to contemplate two great Englishmen, men of principle who were both to suffer death for conscience sake, engaging in bitter controversy of this kind. But the issue was one in which the lives of men - and, as both Tyndale and More believed, the souls of men - were at stake; and both men would probably have thought that the urbanities of modern theological debate betokened a failure to appreciate the seriousness of the issue. Yet More was no bigoted obscurantist; he was a leading humanist and patron of the new learning, and a warm friend of Erasmus, whose Greek New Testament Tyndale had now turned into English. One might have thought that he would at least have appreciated the cultural value of Tyndale's work, however much he deplored Tyndale's theological position.           

"But no: Tyndale's New Testament, said More, was not the New Testament at all; it was a cunning counterfeit, so perverted in the interests of heresy "that it was not worthy to be called Christ's testament, but either Tyndale's own testament or the testament of his master Antichrist." To search for errors in it was like searching for water in the sea; it was so bad that it could not be mended, "for it is easier to make a web of new cloth than it is to sew up every hole in a net.           

"We may well rub our eyes at these charges. Tyndale's New Testament lies before us, and Erasmus's Greek Testament of which it is a translation, and we can only be surprised that a scholar like More should go to such lengths in denouncing so good an achievement. True, there were things in it which were capable of improvement, as Tyndale himself acknowledged, but it was a pioneer work; the New Testament had never been turned from Greek directly into English before. Tyndale complained that if his printer so much as failed to dot an i, it was solemnly noted down and reckoned as a heresy."[8]

This passage contains some very sobering thoughts.  It is easy to criticise what we do not agree with.  But it is quite another thing to defend our criticisms. 

By the way, have you ever seen 'The Watchtower' launch vitriolic attacks on other translations the way many of its critics do?  Of course, reasoned critiques of the rendering of certain verses are published, but there is nothing approaching the venom that comes across in many web pages that criticise the New World Translation.  In fact, Watch Tower publications have quoted literally dozens of Bible translations.  In just one year (2003), 'The Watchtower' quoted from the Contemporary English Version, An American Translation, Charles B. Williams, the Greek Septuagint, J. B. Philips, Today's English Version, the New International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, King James Version, Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible.  We have to wonder: Who is being reasonable and who is fanatical?  

 Footnotes and References

[2] Perhaps Kedar was unaware at the time of his original statement of the reaction that his opinions would provoke.  Anyone who comes out publicly as agreeing with anything Jehovah's Witnesses do or teach is likely to receive an avalanche of mail and email from religious opponents trying to induce them to change their minds.  In Truth in Translation, Jason Beduhn describes his fellow scholars as "engaged in their own very specialized and arcane researches, and perhaps unaware (as I was until rudely shaken out of my ignorance) of the debate raging around us." (p. ix-x)  In any case, the volume of queries received by Kedar after his comments apparently obliged him to issue a circular letter to be sent to all enquirers.  This testifies to the intensity of the hatred for the New World Translation felt by many opposers.

[3] Kedar's full statement can be found on many internet sites.

[4] Unless, of course, you are getting help from above!  But Watchtower has made no such claim and we may reasonably suppose that Hommel would like that explanation even less.

[5] B-Hebrew discussion list, 15/6/01.  While it is true that Furuli is one of Jehovah's Witnesses, it would not be fair to say that this disqualifies him from expressing an opinion.  Are critics who refuse to accept Furuli's testimony merely because he is a Jehovah's Witness willing to apply the same standard to the scholars they cite? That would mean that no scholar could be trusted to critique a translation that came from his own theological background.  To apply that rule only to Furuli but not to evangelical scholars is special pleading.

[6] It is interesting that well over 90% of criticisms of the New World Translation concern the ‘New Testament' portion that was written in Greek.  Published criticisms of the NWT's Hebrew renderings are conspicuous by their almost complete absence, despite the obvious fact that the Hebrew scriptures are three to four times longer than the Greek.  This may, of course, be due in part to the fact that many more evangelical scholars have studied Greek than have Hebrew, as well as that the New Testament is generally agreed to be much more significant theologically.  However, the lack of published data on the matter, particularly viewed in the light of the extremely critical attitude of Witness detractors, certainly militates against the idea that the NWT translators were incompetent in Hebrew.

[7] Hommel also states: "To date, no such evidence has been provided by the Watchtower or its apologists."  However, since he artificially limits the 'evidence' he is willing to consider to information about the translators' educational background, he omits from consideration information such as Rolf Furuli's detailed study entitled The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation: With a special look at the New World Translation of Jehovah's Witnesses , published in 1999 (at least five years before his essay was written).  It is difficult to see how a sound conclusion can be reached if all the relevant information has not been taken into account. 

[8] 1979, 3rd edition, Lutterworth Press, London - pp. 39-41.  We are indebted to the Defence of the New World Translation website for bringing our attention to this illuminating piece of history.


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