The Watchtower Society and Johannes Greber


Ken Raines



During the 1960s and 1970s, the Watchtower Society occasionally used the translation of the New Testament by Johannes Greber to support their similar renderings of John 1:1 and Matthew 27:52,53. In 1983 they officially stopped using his translation because of its "close rapport with spiritism." The information that Geber Was a Spiritist Was readily available to the Society's writers. In 1955 and 1956 the Society's writers themselves wrote of Greber's spiritism. Their use of Greber's translation to support their New World Translation and their explanations for it is evidence of shallow scholarship.



Johannes Greber was a Catholic priest turned spiritist who translated the New Testament "with the help of God's spirits." His experiences with spirits and their communications with him are related in his book, Communication With the Spirit World published in 1932. (See previous article)

Greber's translation reads similarly to the New World Translation at Jn. 1:1 and Matt. 27:52,53. The Society quoted and referred to it in support of their controversial renderings of these verses in material they published from 1961 to 1976.


The Society Quotes Greber

The Society's much disputed translation of Jn. 1:1 is "the Word was a god" in clause c. Since this translation is usually considered "tendentious" or even impossible by recognized scholars, the Society has sought support for this rendering in lesser known, and in some cases, obscure sources. They have, for example, quoted Johannes Greber's and John S. Thompson's translation that render it in the same manner. Both individuals apparently received this translation from spirits. [1]

The Society quoted Greber's translation of Jn. 1:1 as if he was a noteworthy Greek scholar or authority in their publications The Word--Who Is He According to John, 1962, p. 5; The Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1962, p. 554; Make Sure of all Things, 1965, p. 489, and Aid to Bible Understanding, 1971, p. 1669.

Greber's New Testament translation was also used by the Society in support of their unusual translation of Matt. 27:52,53. These verses describe an apparent resurrection at the time of Jesus' death. Most translations render these verses much like the NIV which has:

The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

The early church Father Ignatious apparently referred to a resurrection of some Old Testament "holy people" at the time of Jesus' death and resurrection that were seen in Jerusalem. [2] However, only Matthew's gospel records such an event in the Bible and the grammar of the Greek text here is somewhat ambiguous. Both the Society's and Greber's translations of these verses state that instead of a resurrection (neither believe in a bodily resurrection) there was simply a projection of dead bodies out of their graves as a result of the earthquake that accompanied Jesus' death and these dead bodies were thereafter seen by others who passed by on their way into Jerusalem.

They quoted Greber's translation of these verses to support their similar translation in The Watchtower, Jan. 1, 1961, p. 30; Aid to Bible Understanding, 1971, p. 1134; The Watchtower, Oct. 15, 1975, p. 640, and The Watchtower, April 15, 1976, p. 231.


Greber a Spiritist

The Society however, in 1955 and 1956 wrote material that used Greber's translation and book as an example of spiritism. This appeared in the booklet, What do the Scriptures Say About "Survival After Death?" where they said:

It comes as no surprise that one Johannes Greber, a former Catholic clergyman, has become a spiritualist and has published the book entitled "Communication With the Spirit World, Its Laws and Its Purpose." (1932, Macoy Publishing Company, New York) In its Foreword he makes the typical misstatement: "The most significant spiritualistic book is the Bible... [3]

Also the February 15, 1956, Watchtower made these famous statements:

Says Johannes Greber in the introduction of his translation of The New Testament, copyrighted in 1937: "I myself was a Catholic priest, and... never as much believed in the possibility of communicating with the world of God's spirits. The day came, however, when I involuntarily took my first step toward such communication,.... My experiences are related in a book that has appeared in both German and English and bears the title, Communication with the Spirit-World: Its Laws and Its Purpose." (Page 15, ¶ 2, 3).... Greber endeavors to make his New Testament read very spiritualistic.... ex-priest Greber believes [spirits] helped him in his translation. [4]

From these quotations it is apparent that the information that Greber was a spiritist and that he "translated" the New Testament with the help of spirits was readily available to the Society's writers and was known by at least one of the Society's writers in 1955 and 1956. This is only five years before they began quoting Greber favorably.


Letter to the Greber Foundation

The Johannes Greber Memorial Foundation republished Greber's New Testament translation and Communication book in 1980.[5] Apparently aware of the Society quoting approvingly of his translation they sent a copy of the 1980 ed. of the translation as well as a copy of Greber's Communication With the Spirit World of God book to the Society's headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.. In response, the person occupying desk "EG:ESF" in the Society's correspondence department responded with a thank you letter dated December 20, 1980. This letter said:

139 Hillside Ave.
Teaneck, NJ 07666


This is to acknowledge receipt of the two books you recently sent to us, The New Testament translated by Johannes Greber, and his book "Communication With the Spirit World of God."

We appreciate you sending these volumes on to us. For some years we have been aware of the translation by Johannes Greber and have on occasion even quoted it. Copies of the translation, though, have been hard to obtain. Since we have four libraries... we wonder about the possibility of obtaining a few additional copies of The New Testament.[ 6]

Here the writer at the headquarters asks for more copies of the translation but not of the Communication book. "EG" knows that they have been quoting from it "on occasion" and have been aware of it for "some time".


The Society Responds to Questions

Before and after the above letter from the Society was sent to the Greber Foundation, numerous individuals wrote the Society about the translation. For example, Keith Morse of Personal Freedom Outreach (PFO) wrote the Society one year after the above letter was sent to the Greber Foundation. He asked about the translation and was told in a response by the Society:

With reference to your inquiry regarding the publication the New Testament, by Johannes Greber, we have to inform you that we do not publish or stock this book. In line with your comments, on the title page of our library copy of this book, against the date 1937, the publishers are given as John Felsburg, Inc., 88 N. Fourth Ave., New York, NY. This is really the only information that we have,... [7]

Here, one year after receiving a copy of the 1980 edition of his New Testament translation and asking for additional copies for their other libraries, the Watchtower correspondent, desk "EW:ESG", says the only information they have is the address of their library copy (not 'copies') which was the 1937 John Felsburg edition. What happened to the other copies? Did they throw them away because of their spiritistic origin or were they in different libraries which the correspondence desk didn't check? Others who wrote asking about the Greber New Testament and an address of where to obtain a copy got the same answer. [8]

This prompted M. Kurt Goedelman of PFO to write the Society about this. In his letter dated September 27, 1982, he gave the Society some of the references in their literature to Greber as scholarly support of their translation and then said:

The reason I am directing this letter to you is to receive a response to why you use Greber's work to support your theology? This may seem like a peculiar question, however when one checks into the source of Mr. Greber's work, we find he is a spirit medium. The fact that he is a medium is not hidden from public knowledge, but rather is the very heart of the Greber message.

I have enclosed a photocopy of a flyer furnished by the Johannes Greber Memorial Foundation which explains briefly his mediumship. Also this flyer gives insight into how Greber allegedly made his 'New Testament' translation. I have marked this flyer as "Figure #1" for your convenience.

In addition to Greber's 'New Testament' he has written a book entitled Communication With the Spirit World of God, .... I know that the Watchtower Society is aware of this publication as they have purchased a copy of this very work from the Greber Memorial Foundation. This is proven by the enclosed photocopied Watchtower letter (marked "Figure #2"), which has also been provided by the Greber Foundation.

Thus I restate my question as to why the writers of Watchtower material are in use of a double standard. That is, numerous Watchtower publications roll off your presses instructing members to have nothing to do with spiritistic works, then they themselves quote from spiritistic material to endorse the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses....

Also in closing I would very much appreciate your comments concerning the enclosed photocopied Watchtower letter to Mr. Keith Morse (marked "Figure #4"). The Society informed Mr. Morse that they do not know where to obtain a Greber 'New Testament' translation and only furnished him with an out-of-date address. Take careful note of the date of the letter to Mr. Morse (December 10, 1981) and then note the date of the letter to the Greber Foundation (December 20, 1980). This proves that the Society did have an up-to-date address, but provided bogus information to Mr. Morse's inquiry.

I ask that you please not pass my letter over or discard it before a reply is sent. I will be anxiously awaiting your prompt response.


M. Kurt Goedelman,

Director [9]

Needless to say, they never sent him a reply. Counter-cult groups like PFO published material on the Society's use of Greber and what they considered the "bogus" information and cover-up of their knowledge of Greber. This information eventually reached JWs themselves. For example, Marilyn Zweiful wrote a letter to the Society dated December 21, 1982, after a friend of hers was asked about the Greber situation by her son-in-law who had heard a recorded message tape ('A message for JWS') that discussed this subject. It discussed the Society's use of Greber, his spiritism as explained by the Society itself in the 1956 Watchtower article and their recent correspondence with the Greber Foundation. She stated that she didn't know how to explain this contradictory information to her "confused" friends and asked for the Society's help. In reply, the Society wrote a letter dated March 15, 1983(desk ER:ESZ). This letter to me is revealing. In it they stated:

No doubt you have had opportunity to read the comments in our letter dated December 31, 1982, to Brother Jack Gottfried, secretary of your congregation. In our letter we addressed the issue of the propriety of the Society in quoting Johannes Greber's translation as an example of another translation that agreed with the New World Translation. It was stated that it was not our concern to go into the background or religious convictions of each translator. Who really can say if Mr. Greber was under the influence of the demons when translating a particular verse or portion of his translation? If he was under demon influence in translating John 1:1, then it is not beyond the Devil or the demons to tell the truth on occasions, if doing so will advance their evil ends in some way, such as giving opposers some excuse for claiming that the translation published by Jehovah's Witnesses must not be correct because it happens to translate John 1:1 in a manner similar to the way the translation in question does....

You also mention in your letter a tape recording which mentions a "thank you" letter to the Greber Foundation from the Society.... Our having this Bible translation in our library by no means indicated that we agreed with everything in it. We have a large number of books written by a wide range of religions. We keep these simply for reference.

I do not want to analyze this response to death, but it is interesting to me for a number of reasons. They said it was not their "concern" to go into the background of the translators they quote in support of their translation. This is simply shoddy scholarship. Also, in saying that it is not beyond the Devil or the demons to tell the truth about how John 1:1 is to be translated if it will further their cause "such as giving opposers some excuse" for claiming the JW's translation must be incorrect or suspect is incredibly paranoid and myopic.

Think about it. Greber's translation was printed in 1937, thirteen years before the Society released its New Testament translation in 1950. Demons had Greber translate John 1:1 correctly, unlike most translations, as "the Word was a god", simply so opposers of Jehovah's Witnesses starting thirteen years later would have an "excuse" for calling into question such a translation! A JW could argue that the Society believed in the "a god" translation years before Greber's translation, so the demons were trying to discredit the JW interpretation by giving the "correct" translation to a spiritist like Greber! This is simply myopic in the extreme. What about John S. Thompson's similar translation from 1829 when he was influenced by spirits? This is well before JWs were around. Did the demons influence Thompson to translate it as the "Logos was a god" just so opposers of JWs would have an "excuse" to call into question the Society's translation over one hundred years later?


Questions from Readers

As a result of these numerous letters, the Society formally ended their use of Greber's New Testament in 1983. In the April 1, 1983 Watchtower they printed the following:

Why, in recent years, has The Watchtower not made use of the translation by the former Catholic priest, Johannes Greber?

This translation was used occasionally in support of renderings of Matthew 27:52, 53 and John 1:1, as given in the New World Translation and other authoritative Bible versions. But as indicated in a foreword to the 1980 edition of The New Testament by Johannes Greber, this translator relied on "God's Spirit World" to clarify for him how he should translate difficult passages. It is stated: "His wife, a medium of God's Spiritworld was often instrumental in conveying the correct answers from God's Messengers to Pastor Greber." The Watchtower has deemed it improper to make use of a translation that has such a close rapport with spiritism. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) The scholarship that forms the basis for the rendering of the above-cited texts in the New World Translation is sound and for this reason does not depend at all on Greber's translation for authority. Nothing is lost, therefore, by ceasing to use his New Testament. [10]

This "official" statement by the Society contains several problems. First, by saying "But as indicated in a foreword to the 1980 edition" to his New Testament he relied on spirits in the "translation" process, they are implying that the 1937 edition they had and used before did not contain this information or that they were not aware of it. This is further born out by the later statement that they have "deemed it improper to make use of a translation that has such a close rapport with spiritism". If they did know during the 1960s and 1970s that he was a spiritist, then they wouldn't have used it in the first place. That appears to be the implication.

However, the 1937 edition's introduction said the same as the 1980 edition. This can be demonstrated by the Society's quoting from it in the 1956 Watchtower quoted above. They quoted the introduction as well as his Communication With the Spirit World book to show he was a spiritist. The Society appears to be saying in this 1983 article that they had just found out that Greber was a spiritist based on the introduction of the 1980 edition. This was directly stated by the Australian branch of the Watchtower. John Pye wrote a letter to the Australian branch shortly after this Questions from Readers item appeared. Going by the name of John Richards for the sake of privacy he asked them in a letter dated June 3, 1983, when they first found out about Greber's spiritism. They replied with a letter dated June 14, 1983. The respondent was desk "SA:SP" who said:

We are replying to your letter of June 3, 1983, in which you inquired as to the time the Watchtower first discovered that Johannes Greber relied on the spirit world to clarify for him how he should translate difficult passages. As soon as we found out that he had connections with spiritism, we ceased using his translation as an authority and openly made this known in the April 1, 1983 issue of the Watchtower. Some may wish to impute wrong motive in regard to our original use of this translation, but please be assured we take an honest approach to our study of God's Word. Jehovah's Witnesses have always been opposed to any form of spiritism....

The rendering of John 1:1 in the New World Translation is no way dependent on the translation by Johannes Greber. It is based on good scholarship and a sincere desire to render the text according to the original Greek used by the writer. If individuals or other organizations wish to analyze our motives and present these in a critical and negative manner, we leave that to them. We stand before our God with a clear conscience as we promote true worship...

Here the branch correspondent, going by the April 1, 1983, Watchtower claimed that as soon as they found out about his spiritism they stopped using his translation. This is not true. They knew he was a spiritist in 1955 and 1956! By "they" and "the Society", I mean Watchtower Society writers. Is it possible they all forgot about Greber's spiritism? Did the author(s) of the 1955 and 1956 material die or forget five years later who Greber was? This could be possible. This writer asked Ray Franz, one of the compilers of the Society's Bible Encyclopedia Aid to Bible Understanding which quoted Greber twice, if he was responsible for either of those two references and if he knew who Greber was. He replied:

On the Aid material, all articles were always read by and, if considered necessary, edited by at least one other person on the project staff. So I am certain to have at least reviewed the writeups of the two articles you list. And I am equally certain that in doing so the thought of Greber's being connected with spiritism never entered my mind. I was doing circuit and district work in the Caribbean at the time the October 1, 1955 and February 15, 1956, articles came out with their information on Greber. I read them of course, but in the years that followed between then and the start of the Aid project in 1966, I also read thousands of articles in the 240 other Watchtowers and the 240 Awakes published during those ten years, plus many other publications. I would no more remember his name than I would remember the name of Doctor Rumble or Jean Brierre, mentioned on the same page with him in the 1955 magazine, or Bishop Samuel Fallows, mentioned on the same page with him in the 1956 issue. Had I remembered the brief mention of him in the 1955 and 1956 articles I am sure it would have caused me to express concern over the use of his translation. It was not until after leaving the Brooklyn headquarters that the issue of the propriety of quoting from Greber's translation ever came to my attention. What is true of me is, I believe, true of the others working on the Aid project.... I believe most of the staff members I knew would have conscientious qualms about quoting anything connected with spiritism, other than in discussing the wrongful aspects of spiritism... [11]

I believe these statements are true. Most people would forget a mention of an individual in an article years later. However, it doesn't address the question of why the society's authors quoted his translation in the first place. This to me indicates the shoddy nature of Watchtower scholarship and research.


Watchtower Scholarship

Why did they quote him if they didn't know who it was they were quoting? It seems to me in reading thousands of pages of their literature, that the writers do not do much serious research. Nor do they present their material in a scholarly or scholastically sound manner. It is hard to escape the impression that what they do many times is simply look for evidence that supports the Society's position and present that without fairly analyzing the evidence or presenting competing views in addition to their own.

This appears to be the case with their quoting Greber and their material on John 1:1 in general. A writer probably simply went to the Bethel library and quoted a few things (including Greber's translation) that they could use and didn't do much if any research on who they quoted and why they held their position. This seems to be indicated by the response to Marilyn Zweiful's letter to the Society. The response she got as quoted above was that it was not their habit of going into the "background and religious convictions" of the translators they quote. Given this, it is easy to see why something like this could happen. Since this shortcoming apparently hasn't been corrected, it is easy to see why this still happens, such as their quoting John S. Thompson's translation.

I will make an even harder statement about Watchtower Society material. I can't think of anything they have produced that evidences serious, sound scholarship and research on their part. This is true of all subjects, not just translation questions such as John 1:1. A few JWs and ex-JWs have tried to defend the Society on some of this, but unsuccessfully in my judgment. [12] As Jerry Bergman in a letter to the author stated:

... the Watchtower's historical archives provide a seemingly inexhaustible pool of craziness, superficially written articles, and naive acceptance of in vogue ideas. One would think that a person who was Biblically oriented would have stayed closer to the wealth of scholarship that had been completed up to that time.... Much of the Society's problem is their incredibly superficial research, and the fact that the attitude of "God directs us" tends to cause one to be lazy--why work hard if God directs your ways, for God will insure that only what is true will be published... [13]




References and notes

1. See the articles, "The American Quarterly Review and John S. Thompson" and "Johannes Greber" in this issue.

2. Ignatious, Magnesians, chapter ix; Trallions, chapter ix.

3. What do the Scriptures Say About "Survival After Death?", 1955, p. 88. These comments were repeated in The Watchtower, October 1, 1955, p. 603, ¶33.

4. The Watchtower, February 15, 1956, pp. 110, 111.

5. The Communication book was retitled Communication With the Spirit World of God with the 1980 edition.

6. For a photo copy of this letter see: Cetnar, William, Questions For Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 53 (hereafter Questions); Magnani, Duane and Barrett, Arthur, Dialogue with Jehovah's Witnesses, Vol. 1(Clayton CA.: Witness, Inc.), 1983, p. 62. (Hereafter Dialogue.)

7. Letter from the Watchtower Society to Keith Morse, December 10, 1981. For a photo copy of this letter see, Dialogue, vol. 1, p. 61; Questions, p. 53.

8. See Waters, Randall, Thus Saith the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, 1982, 1987, pp. 56-59.

9. Letter from M. Kurt Goedelman to Watchtower Society, September 27, 1982, pp. 1, 2.

10. The Watchtower, April 1, 1983, p. 31.

11. Letter from Raymond Franz to author, March 8, 1993. Ray in the letter also stated [page 2]: "That does not mean that the handling of inquiries by the Watch Tower's offices is consistently straightforward, for it obviously is often not. The 1983 letter and also the Questions from Readers... clearly exemplify a degree of deviousness. The inquiries sent in plainly set out the facts so that the writer of the reply would not be dependent on a photographic memory to see the connection."

12. Herle, Nelson, The Trinity Doctrine Examined in the Light of History and the Bible, 1983; Penton, M. James, Apocalypse Delayed, 1985, pp. 174-5. Penton also says on pages 196 and 197 that the Society's writings on evolution such as Did Man Get Here by Evolution or Creation? from 1967 "are among the best published by the Watch Tower Society" as they relied on JWs who had "scientific and technical knowledge". Such publications are examples of the Watchtower's shallow scholarship. The Evolution book is a collection of misrepresentations, quoting out of context, and other typical Society misuses of sources.

13. An excerpt of this letter was published in the Vol. 1, #4 issue of JW Research, "Angels and Women", p. 28.






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