iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Michael Gilmour

GET UPDATES FROM Michael Gilmour

Jehovah's Witnesses and (Academic) Dialogue with Non-Members at the Society of Biblical Literature?

Posted: 09/30/11 05:14 PM ET

The highlight of the academic calendar for me is the Society of Biblical Literature's annual meeting. SBL is "the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines" (http://sbl-site.org/aboutus.aspx). Its annual conference "is the largest gathering of biblical scholars in the world. Each meeting showcases the latest in biblical research, fosters collegial contacts, advances research, and focuses on issues of the profession.... At this meeting, scholars benefit from sessions on religion, philosophy, ethics, and diverse religious traditions" (http://sbl-site.org/meetings/AnnualMeeting.aspx). When joined with the American Academy of Religion, which is the case for the November 2011 conference in San Francisco, thousands more specialists representing the broad spectrum that is religious studies contribute to the often-spirited conversations and debates.

The ancient world is the focus of much of the work SBL members engage in but various sessions also examine the distinctive perspectives of modern Bible reading communities. Some of these represent geographical and/or ethnic/racial points of view (e.g., African Biblical Hermeneutics; African-American Biblical Hermeneutics; Asian and Asian-American Hermeneutics; the Islands, Islanders, and Bible Consultation; the Korean Biblical Colloquium; Latino/a and Latin American Biblical Interpretation). Others approach biblical literature with attention to the highly specialized questions of particular interest groups (e.g., Disability Studies and Healthcare in the Bible and Near East; LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics; Minoritized Criticism and Biblical Interpretation). There are also scholars examining the distinctive viewpoints of specific faith-based reading traditions. The 2011 meeting, for instance, includes affiliated sessions organized by the Adventist Society of Religious Studies, the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. There are also program sessions examining the Qur'an and Biblical Literature, and the Latter-day Saints and the Bible.

When working on a short paper about the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society / Jehovah's Witnesses a few years back (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2006/2006-12.html), it occurred to me that this is a reading community not represented in the diverse conversations at SBL. To the best of my knowledge, SBL has never attempted a sustained analysis of this group's use of the Bible. Also surprising is the dearth of respectful, academically robust literature analyzing the Jehovah's Witnesses' hermeneutics and distinctive theology. There are plenty of books examining the organization's beliefs, to be sure, but many of these are confrontational and apologetic in tone (often from Protestant conservatives), intent on disproving some aspect of their doctrine or promoting other viewpoints. Other academic disciplines examine facets of the organization's story and praxis - American religious history, law, medicine (owing to beliefs regarding blood transfusion), sociology - but relatively speaking, treatment of the Jehovah's Witnesses by scholars working in religious and biblical studies is limited.

The apparent lack of conversation between Jehovah's Witnesses and the academy is regrettable because they represent a sizeable Bible reading community (for 2010 statistics reported by the organization, see http://www.watchtower.org/e/statistics/worldwide_report.htm). What is more, they regularly bring the Bible into the public sphere owing to its persistent evangelistic efforts; often-controversial views on patriotism, blood transfusion, and pacifism; abstention from popular cultural and religious events on theological grounds (like birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and Halloween); and their frequent criticism of other faith traditions. In addition to these subjects, there is much else for scholars of religion to examine. They have their own translation of the Bible (The New World Translation, 1961), read their own history as a movement into its pages (see my notes on their commentary of John's Apocalypse at the link above), and on many occasions depart from 'traditional' readings of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, publishing those conclusions in an enormous body of commentary literature.

Intrigued by this gap in the scholarly conversation about contemporary uses of the Bible, I recently proposed an SBL session examining the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society's use of Scripture. I received approval to proceed but then dropped the ball before getting too far along and circulating a call for papers. Here's why. Though there are good reasons for scholars to engage this Bible reading community in a context like SBL, I wonder whether it is a responsible or even ethical thing to do if members of the organization are not part of the conversation. Said differently, is it appropriate for outsiders to put a religious tradition under the microscope without insider representation?

The difference between the Jehovah's Witnesses and other contemporary reading communities examined at SBL is participation. Sessions treating other religious perspectives on biblical literature - such as the Latter-day Saints and the Bible section - enjoy active participation by adherents. To illustrate, scholars from Brigham Young University are active in this group. It seems unlikely this would occur in prospective sessions on the Jehovah's Witnesses. Indeed, the Watchtower views biblical scholarship with profound distrust so the very idea of a conversation about their hermeneutics at SBL is problematic. Their 1988 commentary Revelation: Its Grand Climax at Hand!, for instance, repeats suspicions about the integrity or acumen of biblical scholarship, referring with disdain to "Worldly commentators" who offer alternative readings of Revelation (120 and passim). And there's the rub. Can we have a substantial, respectful, constructive conversation about this group - or any other religious community - if there are no insiders, no representatives of the tradition involved?