You are here

None Dares Call It Bias: A Review of The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation

Printer-friendly version

None Dares Call It Bias: A Review of The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation

Furuli, Rolf. The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation: With a special look at the New World Translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu Books, 1999. xx, 334 pp. ISBN: 0-9659814-4-4.


The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation is one of several books published in recent decades by Jehovah’s Witnesses as independent works, as distinguished from publications of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. This review will focus on the author’s perspective and proposed methodology with regard to the translation of the Bible.

The Role of Polemic in Furuli’s Work

The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation is the second book defending the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings to be published by Elihu Books. The title of the first, Greg Stafford’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended,1 made its polemical intent plain. Rolf Furuli’s title, on the other hand, is less candid. In his Introduction, Furuli characterizes his book as a scholarly study that happens to use the New World Translation (hereafter NWT), the official Bible version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,2 as a case study. The book promises to shed light on the principles and process of Bible translation and to offer “a theoretical foundation for a literal Bible translation based on modern linguistic principles” (Furuli, xiii). It will make readers aware of commonly overlooked aspects of translation (xiv) and of the role of theology (xv). The NWT is chosen as the object of study because it is “a modern, literal translation that, more than any other translation, is accused of being dogmatic, biased and at times even dishonest” (xvi). Furuli claims that in his book “the role played by theology and bias in Bible translation is not judged in the light of some full-blown theological system, but in the light of the lexical semantics, grammar, and the syntax of the original languages, as well as in the light of translation theory, psycholinguistics, patristics and church history” (xvii). He admits that theological influence is not completely avoidable, but promises to keep such considerations to a minimum (xvii and n. 8). From this description one would imagine that Furuli were writing a doctoral dissertation, but in fact it is a polemic—albeit a well-written and sophisticated polemic—in defense of the NWT.

The polemical purpose of the book is clear from the fact that Furuli focuses his efforts in the second half of his book on responding to two books critical of the NWT. The first of these is Robert Countess’s book The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament,3 one of the best-known critiques of the NWT. Furuli refers to Countess in several places throughout his book.4 The second is my book Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John5, which was devoted solely to a critique of the NWT rendering of John 1:1 and John 8:58. Furuli gives my book somewhat sustained attention in the section of his book dealing with these two texts.6 In a footnote Furuli mentioned a third book as a major source of the objections he will consider (xvii n. 8, cont. on p. 9). But this book, Kubo and Specht’s So Many Versions, contains merely half a chapter dealing with the NWT,7 and Furuli makes only scattered references to it.8

Furuli does not interact or even mention my book Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses (hereafter Bowman, Understanding), which deals more comprehensively with many of the issues raised in his book. This is surprising, since I am (after Countess) the second-most cited author in Furuli’s book. The lack is also a serious deficiency, since my book was published more than seven years prior to his. Specifically, in that book I discuss general principles of biblical interpretation, various examples of theological bias in the NWT, the divine name in the New Testament, scholarly opinion about the NWT, and the word stauros (“cross”) in the New Testament.9 Furuli discusses these subjects, but his treatment suffers from lack of consideration of various points raised in Understanding. That is, while Furuli is under no obligation to interact with me at all, his handling of various topics fails to take into account certain facts and lines of reasoning that call his conclusions into question, and that are presented in Understanding.

There is nothing wrong with honest polemic; there is something wrong with disguised polemic. Furuli does not even mention the fact that he is a Jehovah’s Witness (something that has since been confirmed online).

Can the NWT Possibly Be a Competent Translation?

Early in his Introduction, Furuli assures us that it “is a gross misunderstanding” to think that a knowledge of biblical languages is all that is needed to translate the Bible accurately. According to Furuli, “sociosemiotics,” as well as “linguistics, communication theory, psychology, anthropology, theology and history,” are disciplines “in which the Bible translator must have some knowledge if he or she is going to provide us with an accurate or even adequate translation of the Bible” (xiv). By this standard, obviously, no translation of the Bible produced prior to about 1900 could possibly be adequate; and if we include sociosemiotics to the list no translation produced prior to about 1980 could be adequate. This is not only bad news for the KJV, but it is also bad news for the NWT! Although the Watchtower Society continues to say nothing about the identities of the NWT committee, it is safe to say that the combined knowledge of the members of the committee did not include all these subjects. How, then, can the NWT be regarded as accurate?

Perhaps Furuli can invoke inspiration at this point. He could claim that the NWT committee were uneducated folk whom God inspired (as the Mormons claim God similarly inspired Joseph Smith) to produce a translation of the Bible that would ordinarily take scholars with knowledge no one even possessed in the 1950s when they did their work. Somehow, I doubt Furuli would be willing to make such a claim, particularly since the translators disavowed making that claim themselves: “No translation of these sacred writings into another language, except by the original writers, is inspired… No inspired translator or committee of translators can claim any direct command from the Most High God to engage in translating the divine Word into another language.”10

Knowledge of the subjects Furuli mentions undoubtedly can be helpful in evaluating a translation. But it is a good example of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” to suggest that only people familiar with the most current theories are competent to translate the Bible.

Literally Confusing

We have already mentioned Furuli’s claim that his somewhat original contribution will be to offer “a theoretical foundation for a literal Bible translation based on modern linguistic principles” (xiii). By “literal” Furuli means a translation that reproduces the idiom of the biblical writers rather than converting the biblical statements into idiomatic forms of the modern language into which it is translated. Or, to put it more simply, Furuli favors a translation that is essentially word-for-word rather than, say, thought-for-thought. According to Furuli, it is possible for readers of the Bible to make “informed choices” in the interpretation of the text “only with a concordant or literal translation” (xvi). Three years before the first edition of the NWT, Eugene Nida defined a “concordant” translation as one in which translators try “to translate in what they feel is a consistent manner by always rendering the same Hebrew or Greek word by the same English word, and similarly for many types of grammatical constructions.”11

In his Introduction, though, Furuli exhibits some confusion in his assertions about literal and nonliteral translations, notably in the following sentence regarding the NWT:

It is extremely literal, closely following the sentence structure of Hebrew and Greek, but at the same time has several elegant, idiomatic renderings (xvi).

The only coherent construction I can put on this sentence is that the NWT is for the most part extremely literal, while in several places it departs from this literalness and employs idiomatic English renderings. But if this is what Furuli means, then he is admitting that in places the NWT departs from what he claims is the proper method of Bible translation. Anyone who knows anything about Hebrew and Greek sentence structure knows that following those structures too closely results in extremely inelegant English. The result is that the NWT, which does characteristically attempt to render biblical texts in a word-for-word manner, is widely regarded by professional translators as an extremely wooden, stilted version (whatever its other merits or demerits).12 Furuli’s description seems to amount to saying that the NWT somehow is able to have its “literal” cake and eat it too.

Likewise, Furuli offers inconsistent comments on the value and validity of “idiomatic translations,” that is, translations that are not concordant but seek to express biblical statements in the idiom of the modern language into which they are translated. On the one hand, Furuli comments, “While idiomatic translations serve a great need, they should not be the only translations available” (xvi). Later he remarks that such versions “communicate meaning to the receptors in a much better way than did the older, more literal ones” (2), while maintaining that “there is also a need for modern, literal translations” (3). These statements appear to express acknowledgment of the validity of idiomatic translations. Yet in a footnote to the first statement just quoted, Furuli asserts, “All modern Bible study aids may help the student who is interested in coming closer to the original text, but the idiomatic translations really constitute an obstacle in reaching this goal” (xvi n. 6). What “great need” can legitimize translations of the Bible that function as obstacles to coming closer to the original text?

Moreover, Furuli begs the question by assuming that literalness is the primary value of the Bible translator and reader. What does it mean, for example, to come “closer to the original text”? Does this mean to come closer to using the actual words of the text? Or does it mean to come closer to expressing the actual meaning of the text? Furuli clearly presupposes the former goal, but fails to acknowledge that this is a different goal from the presumably all-important latter goal.

If anyone wants to come as close as possible to the wording of the original text, the obvious answer is to use a critical edition of the Hebrew Old Testament and one of the Greek New Testament. To come as close as possible to the word-for-word text while using English, one cannot do better than an interlinear. But an interlinear, as Furuli puts it in his first chapter, “can hardly be called a translation at all in the normal sense of the word” (7). Why, then, hold out as the ideal for a translation a description that actually applies directly to an interlinear?

Moreover, an interlinear is susceptible to enormous abuse in the hands of readers who do not understand how the original language works. For example, an interlinear cannot provide any guidance to the reader as to the significance (or lack of significance) in the original language of a noun being plural rather than singular in form. Amateur exegetes have drawn all sorts of wildly erroneous doctrinal conclusions from the use of plural forms in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Old Testament. Interlinears also cannot convey the significance (or lack thereof) of the use or lack of the article (“the”); they provide no help in recognizing ancient idioms; they do not reveal what words are most likely in the emphatic position in a sentence.

The point is that interlinears have their place as biblical study tools, but they are not meant to be read as if they were translations of the text. Likewise, the ideal of a concordant translation—one step away from the interlinear model—is based on an inadequate understanding of how languages convey meaning, as Eugene Nida explained in the work cited earlier:

This type of translation, which has been called “concordant,” makes an immediate appeal to those uninformed about the problems and principles of linguistic usage. But no two languages correspond throughout in their words or grammatical usages, and such a literal type of translation actually distorts the facts of a language rather than reveals them.13

Furuli quotes with approval Nida and Taber’s definition of translation: “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message; first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.”14 He rightly infers that in translation “communicating the message is more important than conveying the lexical meaning of words” (1). Oddly enough, though, Furuli claims, as we have already noted, that we should as much as possible use a single English word to represent a single biblical word in all its occurrences. Such a position is diametrically opposed to Nida and Taber’s definition of translation as Furuli himself has explained it.

Inconsistent Methodology

The fundamental problem facing Furuli is that the NWT does not follow its own stated translation methodology consistently. It is not the faithfully concordant translation it purports to be. To treat all or even many of the relevant examples thoroughly would make this article more ambitious than a book review, but some brief comments will hopefully give the reader some concrete understanding of the problem.

Furuli highlights the usual examples of its concordant renderings: the distinction in the NWT between kosmos as “world” and aiōn as “system of things” (17-20); the uniform rendering of sarx as “flesh” and of both nephesh and psuchē as “soul” (23-27, 33-38). But the NWT is famous more for its departure from the concordant ideal than for those places where it actually follows it.

The most notorious example of the NWT translating a Greek word in two different ways is not technically a violation of the concordant standard only because another, even more serious error is the reason. As is well known, the NWT translates kurios frequently as “Lord” but substitutes “Jehovah” for kurios (and occasionally for theos, “God”) in 237 occurrences in the New Testament. The real basis for this practice is the Watchtower’s theological criterion that the Lord Jesus cannot be the Lord Jehovah but is his greatest creature.15 Furuli expresses this criterion when he complains that “the use of the one word kurios for two different individuals is really confusing...and suggests that not everything is well with the text” (182). Technically, the NWT assumes that a different word (YHWH) appeared in some of the places where kurios now stands, so from that standpoint the difference does not count as a departure from the concordant ideal. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claim that the NT originally used YHWH in these places, however, is historically implausible in the extreme.16

Other clear-cut examples of theologically driven departures from the concordant method are not even addressed in Furuli’s book. The word pneuma, often correctly translated “spirit,” is also rendered “spiritual life” (Heb. 12:9, 23), “spirituality” (Jude 19), “inspired expression” (1 John 4:1-6), and even “force” (Eph. 4:23). These renderings are driven by the Witnesses’ rejection of the ideas of the Spirit as a person (as in 1 John 4) and of the human spirit as existing beyond death (as in Hebrews 12). Pisteuō is translated “believe,” “has faith,” and the like, but also “exercise faith” (John 1:12; 3:16, 18; Rom. 4:3), reflecting the Watchtower’s rejection of salvation through faith alone. Proskuneō is translated “worship” when its object is God, the Devil (Matt. 4:9), the Beast (Rev. 13:4, 8, etc.), idols (Acts 7:43), or an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:8), but always as “obeisance” when its object is Christ (e.g., Matt. 28:9, 17; John 9:38; Heb. 1:6). Pseudomai is translated “lie” or “lying” in every occurrence except when the object is the Holy Spirit, where the word is instead translated “play false” (Acts 5:3, 4). In these and other ways, the NWT takes away from its readers the power to make their own “informed choices” that Furuli claims is its chief virtue—and in a way that runs roughshod over the meaning of the texts.



1. Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: A Reply to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu Books, 2000). The book has since gone through two significant revisions.

2. Furuli bases his study primarily on the edition that was in use at the time he was writing, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures: With References (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984). He also occasionally cites the first edition of the New Testament portion, New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower, 1950).

3. Robert H. Countess, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament: A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987). Furuli cites the first (1982) edition.

4. Rolf Furuli, The Role of Theology and Bias in Bible Translation: With a Special Look at the New World Translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu Books, 1999), especially 150-64, 192-97, 218-20, 275-79.

5. Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).

6. Furuli, Role of Theology and Bias, 199-245.

7. Sakae Kubo and Walter F. Specht, So Many Versions? 20th Century English Versions of the Bible, rev. and enlarged ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 98-110.

8. Furuli, Role of Theology and Bias, primarily 293-94.

9. Robert M. Bowman Jr., Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why They Read the Bible the Way They Do (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 31-37, 65-74, 109-22, 125-39, 141-44.

10. New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1950), 5, 7.

11. Eugene A. Nida, Bible Translating: An Analysis of Principles and Procedures, with Special Reference to Aboriginal Languages (New York: American Bible Society, 1947), 11-12.

12. Note especially the reviews by Old Testament scholar H. H. Rowley, who commented that the “wooden literalism” of the NWT “reminds one of nothing so much as a schoolboy’s first painful beginnings in translating Latin into English.” H. H. Rowley, “How Not to Translate the Bible,” Expository Times (Nov. 1953): 41-42; for a summary of Rowley’s reviews, see Bowman, Understanding, 137-38.

13. Nida, Bible Translating, 12.

14. Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Helps for Translators 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1969; reprint, 2003), 12, quoted in Furuli, Role of Theology and Bias, who incorrectly gives the page number from Nida and Taber as page 77.

15. On this subject, see Bowman, Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses, 109-122.

16. See Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 157-59, and the sources cited there (335 nn. 3-11). See also The Tetragrammaton and the Christian Greek Scriptures, 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Word Resources, 2000), an excellent study by an anonymous writer.