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
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
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".
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 is
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:
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.
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
, he stood by his original
comments about the New World Translation of the Hebrew
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
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
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!
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."
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.
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.
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:
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
"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."
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?