The Jehovah’s Witnesses and their official organization, The Watchtower, publish a version of the Bible called The New World Translation (NWT). In it, they make a series of notable differences, especially in key verses that mention the nature of Jesus. Apologetic literature has quite a bit of information on this issue, and it is readily available, but I will give but a summary here. The focus will be on John 1:1, John 8:58, and Jesus receiving worship.
When the first version of the NWT was published in 1950, it broke new ground by translating John 8:58 as “Before Abraham was, I have been.” Other English translations have something similar to “Before Abraham was, I am.” In the next verse, the Jews pick up stones to stone Jesus to death. Since He had committed no immediate crime deserving capital punishment according to the Mosaic law, they most probably were accusing Him of blasphemy, claiming to be God.
Researchers such as Walter Martin spent quite a bit of effort trying to figure out who was on the translating committe for the NWT, and later a Watchtower insider defected, and corroborrated that the NWT was written by Fred Franz, Nathan Knorr, Albert Schroeder, George Gangas, and Milton Henschel (1). Other than Franz, none of these men had attended college, and had no formal studies in languages. Unfortunately for Franz, he ended up under cross examination in official court in Edinburgh, Scotland, and when presented with a simple Hebrew text, could not read nor translate it. (2)
Later editions of the NWT tried to add credibility by quoting Greek scholars such as Julius Mantey, author of a standard Greek grammar. The NWT cited Mantey in support of its rendering of John 1:1, “the word was a god” which is different from all other English translations, which render it “the word was God” or “the word was divine” or similar. Mantey took offense, and on July 11, 1974, wrote a terse letter to the Watchtower demanding that his name be removed from the citation and explaining the NWT’s Greek errors. (see here)
The NWT’s footnotes often have lengthy explanations of nouns with and without the definite article (“the”). I am not a Greek scholar, but can cite the scholars and use the proper language tools to draw safe conclusions based on scholarly texts. If we define a Greek scholar as someone who has published a Greek text or grammar that is in use in an accredited university anywhere, then we can have an objective measure, for if the language texts are incorrect, then we can make no conclusion about the language whatsoever. If we were to say “all the Greek grammar texts are wrong” then we would have no means of making the statement, for the grammars define the language. Saying “all the grammars are wrong” is therefore a self-refuting statement.
In summary, no Greek scholar supports the NWT’s view. Not Dana & Mantey’s A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (p.140, 149-151), not Robertson & Davis A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament (p.279), not A. T. Robertson’s The Minister and His Greek New Testament (p.67), and not Wallace Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (p.266 ff.). These four Greek grammars specifically refute the NWT view, but more importanly represent a significant portion of modern language study. Again, if these are wrong, we can make no objective statement about the language, for we would have no basis from which to make the claim.
As further proof of the NWT’s mistranslation of John 1:1, Wallace quotes a double handful of instances in the first chapter of John where the NWT violates their own rule about indefinite nouns. But we do not need a grammar text to do so: merely check the nouns in John 1:2, 6, 12, 13, 18, etc. Verse 6 even has God (theos) without the definite article, yet the NWT changes their rule on the very same page as where they make a big deal out of John 1:1. Wallace quotes R. H. Counteas, who counted 282 instances of the indefinite theos, and the NWT was only consistent with their rule 6% of the time, not surprisingly only in locations where the nature of Jesus is at stake.
As for Jesus being worshipped, if we can show that Jesus accepted worship, he would be God. The term for worship (proskuneo) is used about 55 times in the New Testament, about 15 of which are in reference to Jesus. With trifling general references excepted, the NWT is consistent in translating the word as “worship” in every instance except when it refers to Jesus, where they translate the word “obesience.” The pattern is conspicuously clear: they edited the English word so that Jesus did not appear to be receiving worship. For a good chart illustrating this, see here.
Think of the conclusions the Watchtower is trying to tell us: All other published Greek grammars are wrong, but they are right; all scholars on every English Bible translation committee are wrong, but they are right; 2000 years of church doctrinal statements are wrong, but they are right. Their position stretches beyond any sense of credulity.
Given that the Watchtower appears to have intentionally changed the word of God to fit their view, and the change is such that it affects a central point of doctrine, we can only conclude that their beliefs have them falling outside of Christianity.
(1) see Crisis of Conscience, p. 50; Jehovah of the Watchtower, p.176; The Challenge of the Cults, p. 94.
(2) Kingdom of the Cults, (1985), p. 73.
Note added 5/10/12: One comment below pointed out that the footnote in the original edition of the NWT actually used the phrase “rendered in” in reference to the John 8:58 verb, as if it was speaking of the English. With all of the inconsistencies the Watchtower has presented over the years with its citations, I will have to wait till I can get to a seminary library to verify the actual footnote. But meanwhile, I will assume the commenter was correct, and this makes my comment about the NWT footnote incorrect. However, if this was the original meaning of the footnote, it seems odd that they changed the note in the very next edition, and kept changing the note in several subsequent editions, mentioning different tenses. Nevertheless, though I stand corrected on this point, Mantey, Dana, Robertson, Wallace, and all published Greek grammars disagree with the NWT. –hs
Note added 6/2/13: I finally got around to finding a 1950 edition of the New World version, and the footnote for John 8:58 could indeed be referring to an English verb tense, not a Greek one. I have not researched Watchtower publications following the 1950 edition to see how they may have defended their statements, but they did remove the phrase in question from the footnote in subsequent editions. As such, I will hold the commenter below as accurate, and Walter Martin as mistaken on this point. I have therefore removed my statement about this phrase from the blog post, and I stand corrected. However, none of this says anything about the main thrust of the post, which is that John 8:58 is incorrectly translated in the New World version, and every published Greek grammar disagrees with the Watchtower on this.
Note added 6/19/16: Regarding the NWT footnote on John 8:58, while there is some support in the footnote for assuming the Watchtower was speaking of the “perfect indefinite tense” as referring to English, not Greek, there is still no grammatical support for translating the passage the way the NWT does. The verb in Greek is a present indicative. I have only found the “perfect indefinite” in a very obscure English grammar, namely A New English Grammar Logical and Historical, by Henry Sweet, published in 1900. Most would call “I have been” a perfect continuous or similar. Regardless, the point is that you cannot translate a present into a past using any normal syntax rule, which is why the entire scholarly community is against the Watchtower. Further, as is common with Watchtower supporters, the bulk of the post is ignored for this one distraction. The several points in the post still stand.