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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 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.


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).


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.[1] 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.'"[2] 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.[3] 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.


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.[4] 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.[5]

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."[6] 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."[