Jehovah's Witnesses and Luke 23:43
A Case Study in Watchtower Interpretation
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 "today" belongs with "truly I say to you" or "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
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"
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;
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
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 Gk.
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."[