SHORT CHRISTIAN READINGS SELECTED FOR FORMER JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES
Jehovah's Witnesses and Luke 23:43
A Case Study in Watchtower Interpretation
"Truly I say to you, Today you will be with me in Paradise."
By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
How do Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) interpret the Bible? What sort of assumptions do they make, and what kind of methods do they use? In this article I shall analyze the way the JWs interpret a single verse of Scripture, Luke 23:43, and the arguments they offer in defense of their interpretation. This analysis will illustrate ten principles of interpretation which JWs consistently violate in their handling of Scripture.
Luke 23:43 in the New World Translation (NWT) reads, "And he [Jesus] said to him [the repentant thief]: 'Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in paradise.'"
As opposed to this most translations have something like the following for Jesus' words: "Truly I say to you, Today you will be with me in Paradise." In other words, the single point of disagreement is whether the word "today" belongs with "truly I say to you" or with "you will be with me in Paradise." To rephrase it as a question, does the comma belong before or after the word "today"?
This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial for the JWs to translate it as they have in order to support their doctrinal position. Like some other controversial groups, the JWs believe that at death human beings cease to exist as persons. That is, they deny that there is an immaterial soul or spirit which can exist as a personal being apart from the body. This position is obviously contradicted by Jesus' promise to the thief that he would be with Him in Paradise "today." By changing the position of the comma, however, "today" is shifted away from "you will be with me in Paradise" and placed alongside "truly I say to you." Thus the idea that Jesus and the thief went to Paradise immediately after their deaths is eliminated.
The proper position of the comma cannot be determined by a simple appeal to the Greek text. In ancient Greek there were no punctuation marks: indeed, all of the words were run together with no spaces between them and every letter was capitalized.
It might seem, then, that there is no way to prove which translation is correct, and that the NWT rendering is a legitimate possibility. However, such is not the case, as this article will show. And this leads me to my first observation about JW interpretation: JWs often assume that if their translation is grammatically possible, it cannot be criticized. More generally, JWs seek to justify the interpretation that fits their doctrine instead of seeking to know the interpretation which best fits the text. But there is more to interpreting the Bible correctly (or any other text for that matter) than coming up with a grammatically possible translation. In the case of Luke 23:43, there are other considerations which decisively prove the usual translation correct and the NWT rendering wrong.
"AMEN I SAY TO YOU"
EDITOR'S NOTE: This editor did his own study of this topic back around 15 years ago. In fact, THREE Gospel writers used THREE variations of the introductory phrase in question, with THREE degrees of emphasis: 1) "I am saying to you, ..."; 2) "Amen, I am saying to you, ..."; and 3) "Amen, Amen, I am saying to you, ...". I can't recall the individual breakdown, but I believe that the grand total for all THREE variations was around 129 times. NONE suggested that the NWT translation of Luke 23:43 is correct.
The words "Truly I tell you" are more literally translated "Amen I say to you" (Greek: _amen soi lego_). This is an introductory expression or formula Jesus used only when introducing a truth that is very important and perhaps hard to believe. (In the Gospel of John, it is "Amen, amen I say to you.") In its form and usage it is rather like the Old English expression, "Hear ye!"
An even more appropriate parallel is the Old Testament expression, "Thus says the Lord." This suggests that "Amen I say to you today" would be just as unlikely an expression as "Hear ye today!" or "Thus says the Lord today" would be.
It is highly significant that out of the 74 times the expression occurs in the Bible, the NWT places a break immediately after it 73 times; Luke 23:43 is the _only_ exception. (Most translations follow this pattern in all 74 instances.) These breaks are placed in one of two ways. In 10 cases, the NWT has the word "that" immediately after the expression, so that the text reads, "Truly I tell you that..." (e.g., Matt. 5:18; 16:28; Mark 3:28; Luke 4:24). In 63 cases, the NWT inserts a comma immediately after the expression and capitalizes the following word (e.g., Matt. 5:26; 26:13,21,34; Mark 8:12; 14:9,18,25,30; Luke 11:51; 21:32; John 1:51; 21:18).
Unless there is overwhelming evidence from the context that Luke 23:43 is an exception to the above pattern, it should be translated according to Jesus' normal usage of the expression. This leads me to my second observation (related to the first): JWs usually interpret a biblical text deductively rather than inductively. That is, they usually base their interpretation on what they have already concluded must be true ("deductive" reasoning) rather than examining all of the relevant material in Scripture before drawing a conclusion ("inductive" reasoning).
THE POSITION OF "TODAY"
In defense of their translation JWs will point to the fact that in the Greek text, Luke places "today" (semeron) immediately after "Amen I say to you." However, had Luke wanted "today" to be understood as part of Jesus' opening expression, he could have made this unambiguous by writing, "Amen today I say to you" or "Amen I say to you today that" (by adding the word hoti, "that"). These wordings would have required an interpretation like that of the JWs in Luke 23:43. But since in Jesus' usage the expression "Amen I say to you" consistently stands apart from everything that follows it, the fact that Luke used neither of these alternative wordings confirms that "today" is meant to be understood as part of what follows. This illustrates a third point: JWs typically do not consider whether their interpretation best fits the precise wording of the text.  They are only interested in choosing an interpretation that, if possible, does not obviously contradict the text and which is in keeping with their doctrinal position.
A footnote in the 1984 Reference Edition of the NWT points out that the Curetonian Syriac version (a 5th century A.D. translation of the New Testament) "renders this text: 'Amen, I say to thee to-day that with me thou shalt be in the Garden of Eden.'" 
Ironically, this is not evidence in favor of the NWT punctuation, but against it. As the famed Princeton Greek scholar Bruce Metzger has explained, it is only because the Syriac version "rearranges the order of words" (not punctuation) from what is found in the original Greek that it is able to place "today" in the first part of the sentence.  My fourth observation is therefore this: JWs often regard poorly supported textual variations or peculiar ancient versions as supporting their incorrect renderings when, if anything, they constitute evidence against them.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF "TODAY"
JWs reason that by saying "truly I tell you today" Jesus was emphasizing that His promise to the thief came on a day (i.e., the day of their crucifixion) when the faith in Jesus exhibited by the thief was amazing.  Although this may sound plausible, there is no evidence for this explanation in the immediate context. The text makes no reference to the thief's faith, nor is there anything else stated that would support this interpretation.
The orthodox interpretation understands the significance of "today" to be that while the thief asked for a place in Jesus' future material kingdom (v. 42), Jesus offered him a place with Him that very day in a spiritual Paradise (v. 43). This view ties directly into the immediate context, and is therefore to be preferred.
This illustrates a fifth point: JWs regularly abuse the concept of "context" by broadening it beyond the immediate written context in order to include their hypothetical reconstructions of how a statement was understood originally.
The word "Paradise" in biblical times had a varied history. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Jews in the first century, the word referred to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8-10, etc.), as well as to a future transformation of Israel's land to resemble the Garden of Eden (Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35). In first-century Judaism, however, "Paradise" referred primarily to a "hidden" place of blessedness for the righteous between the time of their death and the future resurrection. This is clearly the usage reflected in Jesus' reference to Paradise in Luke 23:43. 
In an attempt to show that this was not the Jewish understanding in Jesus' day, the JWs cite The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology which states: "With the infiltration of the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul paradise becomes the dwelling-place of the righteous during the intermediate state."  In context, however, this reference work is saying that the idea of an intermediate Paradise for the dead had been developed in Judaism after the Old Testament period, and was the Jewish view in Jesus' day. It goes on to state, "In Lk. 23:43 it [the word 'Paradise'] is no doubt dependent on contemporary Jewish conceptions, and refers to the at present hidden and intermediate abode of the righteous." 
In two different discussions of Luke 23:43, the JWs cite James Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible to prove that there is "little support" for the "theory" that first-century Judaism conceived of an intermediate Paradise.  What Hasting actually says is this: "It is certain that the belief in a lower Paradise prevailed among the Jews, as well as the belief in an upper or heavenly Paradise."  The article also states regarding Luke 23:43 that "Christ referred to the Paradise of heaven." 
These two examples of misuse of biblical scholarship illustrate my sixth point: JWs often cite scholarly sources selectively and out of context, usually to support a conclusion opposite to that supported by the source. Now, it is one thing to show that a scholarly source provides evidence for one's position despite the source itself reaching a different conclusion; that is legitimate. But that is not what the JWs have done. Rather, they have all too often quoted from the scholarly work in a way designed to give the misleading impression that the source reaches the same conclusion as the JWs. 
The only other references to "Paradise" in the New Testament are Revelation 2:7 and 2 Corinthians 12:4, and both of them are instructive. The JWs themselves state that the "Paradise of God" in Revelation 2:7 is a heavenly Paradise, though they do not recognize it as an intermediate state for the dead between their death and resurrection. 
2 Corinthians 12:4 is even more interesting. The parallel between "Paradise" and "the third heaven" indicates that Paradise here is a heavenly realm, as nearly all biblical scholars commenting on the passage have recognized. Indeed, Paradise was said to be in the third heaven in Jewish literature circulating in the first century. 
The JWs, however, have argued that Paul was referring to "a spiritual state among God's people" during "the time of the 'harvest season'" which would come just prior to the End.  In other words, they claim that Paul had a vision of the Jehovah's Witnesses of today! Of the many objections to this interpretation, we may mention just two: (1) Nothing in the context of 2 Corinthians 12 hints that "Paradise" is the people of God in the last days; and (2) if Paradise there means God's people, then so does "the third heaven," which is absurd.
The JWs' handling of 2 Corinthians 12:4 illustrates a seventh observation: JWs frequently allegorize prophecies and visions in Scripture to make them refer to events in the history of the JWs, always with no basis in the text itself.
Jesus promised the thief: "You will be with me in Paradise." This statement contradicts the JWs' doctrine in two ways. First, "you will be with me" implies that all believers in Christ will live in His presence, whereas JWs think that most believers -- including the thief in question -- will live on the earth while a select few will live in heaven with Christ. Second, "with me in Paradise" implies that Christ went to Paradise, whereas JWs teach that Paradise will be on earth and Christ will stay in heaven.
The JWs explain: "He will be with that man in the sense that He will raise him from the dead and care for his needs, both physical and spiritual."  However, in other places where Jesus speaks of believers being "with Me," the JWs take it literally (Luke 22:28; Rev. 3:21; see also Rev. 14:1; 20:4,6). There is no good reason not to do so also in Luke 23:43. This is a good example of my eighth observation: JWs are often forced to interpret simple expressions in highly figurative fashion, with no warrant from the context, in order to maintain their doctrinal position.
WHERE DID CHRIST GO?
When Jesus died, the Bible indicates that He went initially down into Hades, even down into the "abyss" (Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:27,31; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; Rev. 1:18). How, then, could He promise the thief that they would be together in a heavenly Paradise? Did He not tell Mary after His resurrection that He had "not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17)? The JWs argue that these facts are incompatible with the orthodox interpretation of Luke 23:43.
Before responding to this argument, the reader should take note of what the JWs have done. Instead of dealing with Luke 23:43 on its own terms and in its own context (which, as we have seen, they cannot do and maintain their beliefs), they argue that Luke 23:43 cannot mean what it appears to mean because that would contradict their understanding of other biblical passages. Now, in one sense this might be taken positively as an indication of the JWs' commitment to the absolute truthfulness of all Scripture. No doubt they would insist that this is indeed what is at stake.
What is in fact being done, however, is that the JWs are "saving" the Bible from contradiction by misinterpreting it. That is, they are implying that the Bible as it stands is contradictory, so that it cannot be taken at face value even after all the particular features of the wording and context are taken into consideration. In short (and this is point number nine), JWs pit one part of Scripture against another part to force the Bible to agree with their doctrine. This is one of the most frequent errors of JW biblical interpretation.
A little digging into the historical usage of the term "Paradise" easily clears up this apparent discrepancy. In first-century Judaism the intermediate Paradise was sometimes thought of as in Heaven per se, but at other times was thought of as a "happy" compartment in Hades.  Jesus' words in Luke 23:43 refer most probably to Paradise as a part of Hades for the righteous (cf. Luke 16:22-26). That is, Jesus was not promising the thief that they would be together in heaven that day, but in the blessed resting place of the dead. From 2 Corinthians 12:4 it can be gathered that Christ in effect took Paradise to heaven with Him when He ascended to heaven. 
In putting matters this way, we should keep in mind that the heaven which is God's "abode" is not a physical locality fixed within our space-time universe. The physical "heavens" cannot contain God (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:48-49). Even if we could travel fast enough, we could not find God or His "abode" by searching the stars. Thus, language about "where" Jesus and the thief "went" should not be taken literally.
This suggests a tenth point: JWs interpret the spiritual realities spoken of in the Bible in a rationalistic manner. By "rationalistic" I mean not simply expecting the teachings of the Bible to be in accord with sound reason, but demanding that the Bible's teachings always fit man's limited comprehension. Human understanding is finite, but God in His being and understanding is infinite. In any matter concerning the essence of God or the relationship between God and His creation, we should expect paradoxes. The JWs' system of doctrine seeks to do away with all paradox. They demand a God they can understand.
TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
1. Do not seek to justify the interpretation you favor, but to arrive at the interpretation that best fits the text.
2. Interpret a biblical text inductively (i.e., deriving general truths from particular facts) by considering all the relevant biblical material.
3. Seek the interpretation which best fits the precise wording of the text.
4. Base the interpretation of Scripture on the best Hebrew or Greek texts as God has preserved them.
5. Root the interpretation of the text as closely as possible to the immediate written context.
6. Do not cite scholarly sources (a) out of context, or (b) to bolster interpretations not supported by the text itself.
7. Interpret prophecies and visions in Scripture on their own terms and in keeping with the Bible's explicit teaching.
8. Interpret simple expressions simply unless otherwise demanded by the context.
9. Do not pit one part of Scripture against another part, but do interpret each part on its own terms and in its own context before seeking to understand how they relate to one another.
10. Interpret the spiritual realities spoken of in the Bible in the humble realization that God is infinitely beyond our finite comprehension.
1 For other examples, see my Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).
2 New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures: With References (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society [hereafter WTBTS], 1984), 1279n.
3 Bruce M. Metzger, _A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 181-82.
4 Aid to Bible Understanding (WTBTS, 1971), 1269.
5 Joachim Jeremias, "paradeisos," in _Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. V, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), 766-69.
6 Hans Bietenhard and Colin Brown, "Paradise," in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 761, cited in Reasoning from the Scriptures (WTBTS, 1985), 286.
7 Bietenhard and Brown, 761.
8 James Hasting, Dictionary of the Bible (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1900), III:669-70, cited in Aid to Bible Understanding, 1269, and in Reasoning from the Scriptures, 286.
9 Hasting, III:671.
11 See n. 1 for more examples.
12 Aid to Bible Understanding, 1270.
13 Jeremias, 768.
14 Aid to Bible Understanding, 1270.
15 You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (WTBTS, 1982), 171; see also Reasoning from the Scriptures, 287.
16 Aid to Bible Understanding, 1269.
17 Jeremias, 768.
18 On Hades and Paradise before and after the ascension of Christ, see Herbert Lockyer, Death and the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 94-99.