I was barely 8 years old when my mother allowed a nice Jehovah’s Witness “sister” to come into our home. Shortly afterwards Mom decided to accept the lady’s offer for a “free weekly Bible study.” I realized later that because the “sister” seemed very sweet and sincere, she could easily charm my Catholic mother in practiced ways that quickly overwhelmed any objections. She was even able to convince my mother that a Bible study “would be good for your young son.”
For the next couple of months that sweet JW sister studied with both my mother and me for one hour each week. We’d open our Bible a few times, but most of our time in “Bible study” was spent reading paragraphs from a green book entitled “Let God Be True.”
Initially, I looked forward to quietly sitting in on the study with my mother and the friendly lady. Even at that early age I was a “bookworm,” so I loved it when she’d ask me to read some of the paragraphs out loud. She took a special interest in me and showed me many techniques that she used to look up Bible verses. Thanks to her, I quickly learned how to look up the referenced verses in our family Bible, an old King James Version with pictures and footnotes. That Bible even had red text to show “the actual words of Jesus Christ.” I’d constantly thumb through it whenever conversation between my mother and the JW lady got boring or drifted on to more adult subjects.
A few months later, another woman replaced the first sister. Her personality didn’t seem as friendly toward me, and I found her methods of conducting the study rather stiff and less open to discussion. By then I’d grown bored with being involved with a “Bible study” that rarely used the Bible at all. I quit sitting in the weekly study, and decided to spend my free time after school reading more challenging books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Huckleberry Finn.
Several weeks went by before that sister’s husband, also a Jehovah’s Witness, began studying from the “Let God Be True” book with my Southern Baptist father. After a rather rocky start that almost ended up in a fist fight, my father finally agreed to calm down and follow along with the process. Eventually, he even joined my mother and me when we began going to meetings at the local Kingdom Hall. Within two years both of my parents were baptized – setting the course of events for everyone in our family for the rest of our lives. I wanted very much to please my parents, so I submitted to baptism just before my eleventh birthday.
I must admit that during the thirteen or more years that I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I never actually read the Bible from cover to cover. Like most Jehovah’s Witnesses, I often read small sections and found and memorized a few dozen verses that I could use in the door-to-door preaching work. However, it was only several years later, after I left home and started my family, that I found the time and the desire to read the entire Bible. I actually read it all, from Genesis to Revelation, twice within a six month period.
Surprisingly, that’s how I finally discovered what “Bible study” was all about and what the so-called “holy book” really had to say.
As an active Jehovah’s Witness, I thought I was pretty smart and knew how to “study” the Bible. I conducted several “studies” with potential converts whom I’d met during my time in field service. In fact, even before I turned twenty, the local overseers thought I was already a “mature brother” and appointed me to be a Tuesday night “book study conductor” for a brief time. That was my first and only “servant’s position.”
I easily learned to use concordances and reference books to locate verses that could be used in field service, during Theocratic Ministry School, and for my public talks. I made a hobby studying the Bible’s history, critical events, and characters. Even though I was still only a teenager, I understood most Watchtower theology and eschatology better than most other JWs, becoming an expert in biblical trivia.
Several years later, after I left the Organization and actually read the entire Bible, I realized that I’d never really understood what was in the “Holy Scriptures.” I even thought I’d experienced an epiphany when I finished reading all the Bible’s 66 books in sequence from cover to cover. Now, as I look back at those days of my youth, I reckon it was just a brief glow from my own feeling of achievement – not an angel touching my shoulder.
Unlike the structured reading of Watchtower publications, I found a certain satisfaction in the straightforward reading of the Bible. Instead of the Watchtower’s approach to Bible study, my method didn’t involve jumping around, looking for specific scriptures to support a particular teaching (“proof-texting”). I simply read the Bible. No rules to follow nor daily assigned texts to look up.
I learned that the Bible is exactly as most scholars described it: It’s a compilation of manuscripts that date from about 700 B.C.E to about 400 C.E. The Old Testament (“Hebrew Scriptures”) includes books describing ancient law, history, song, poetry, allegory, and fiction. The New Testament (“Greek Scriptures”) is quite different from the Old. It’s a group of 27 books combining semi-fictional histories of Jesus of Nazareth (the Gospels), apostolic letters to various ancient churches (the Epistles), some specific history (Acts), and ends with wild apocalyptic visions (Revelation).
When you read it straight through you find that the Bible says what it intends to say. You can understand it if you read it like any other book. Ask questions like, “What does it tell us? What is its purpose?” If you held no preconceived notions about its meaning, could you understand it if you read it from cover to cover for the very first time? I think most readers could.
The Bible tells tales of heroes and villains. Almighty God blesses flawed characters for no discernible reason, while He demands that innocent women and children (and animals) be put to the sword for no particular faults or sins of their own – other than the accident of their birth. “Jehovah,” the main character, described as a “loving and just God,” often demands that genocide would be the fate of entire tribes and nations.
Reading some of the stories would convince you that being a first-born male in ancient times was often perilous – unless your father was a king or a high priest. Even then, your survival or any chance for a normal lifespan, would be questionable.
What you won’t find are specific descriptions of “God, or Heaven” – or even “Hell.” Four books (the so-called “gospels”) report the events of Jesus’ life, but not one description of his physical appearance is given – or even inferred – other than he was a Jew and was between 30 and 34 when he preached his gospel. Was he tall? Dark? Handsome? Did he wear a beard? Or, as the Watchtower used to show him in its books and magazines, always clean-shaven with a nice hair cut? Was he dark and swarthy, or blond and blue-eyed as many Protestants choose to picture him? The Bible does not say, allowing you to see him in your own particular way.
The Gospels offer many quotes attributed to Jesus that outline the Christian ethic. “Loving your neighbor” is definitely a good concept; “turning your cheek” and letting your anger subside before fighting back is probably a healthy concept in certain situations. The four books known as the Gospels do not really agree about the details of Jesus life, so you have to read them and just enjoy the stories they tell.
When I first read the Bible from beginning to end, I realized that very little of what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach would stand up to any level of serious scrutiny.
If you were to ask any Jehovah’s Witness the direct question, “Do you read and study the Bible on your own?” Their answer would likely be, “Yes, daily.” To borrow from an old saying – “the Devil is in the details.”
A few Jehovah’s Witnesses may actually read and even study the Bible on their own time, unaided by Watchtower literature. However, they would be afraid to admit that fact to other Witnesses, especially to elders at the Kingdom Hall. The Watchtower Society provides Witnesses with daily scripture reading assignments, but very few actually follow that regimen.
Jehovah’s Witnesses who think that it would be great fun and educational to put together a group to read and study the Bible, will soon realize that they could face rebuke and possible severe punishment by the local committee of elders.
The Watchtower’s worst kept secret is that very few of their followers even bother to look up the scriptures referenced in its books and magazines. Despite their official encouragement to “Read the Bible daily,” the Organization actually does not want its members to follow that advice.
Many former Jehovah’s Witnesses admit that one reason they left the Organization was because they actually read the Bible on their own. Many started by reading quoted scriptures in context. Rather than reading just the scripture used for reference and support by the Watchtower writers, they would read the entire chapter – or several verses – around the quote to understand the full context. Try that little exercise for yourself a few times – you’ll be shocked at the results.
There are many Watchtower articles that lack specific biblical support. The writers, unable to find any appropriate scriptures to reference, will end a paragraph with a short phrase and then refer to a Bible verse where they borrowed that phrase. Upon closer inspection, you’ll note that other than just those few words, the quoted scripture will often offer no real support for the writer’s assertions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Watchtower Society encourages them to study the Bible. What does the Organization really tell them about personal Bible study? Here are a few quotes from the Watchtower’s own publications about individuals or groups who want to study the Bible on their own:
It’s a waste of time to read it on your own…
“Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using [the Governing Body], we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do.”—The Watchtower, December 1, 1981, p. 27.
Without Russell’s books, you can’t understand the Bible…
“Furthermore, not only do we find that people cannot see the divine plan in studying the Bible by itself, but we see, also, that if anyone lays the SCRIPTURE STUDIES aside, even after he has used them, after he has become familiar with them, after he has read them for ten years—if he then lays them aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone, though he has understood his Bible for ten years, our experience shows that within two years he goes into darkness.” —The Watch Tower, September 15, 1910, p. 298.
The Organization frowns on private Bible study groups…
“Does ‘the faithful and discreet slave’ [Watchtower organization] endorse independent groups of Witnesses who get together to engage in Scriptural research or debate?—Matt. 24:45, 47. No, it does not. And yet, in various parts of the world, a few associates of our organization have formed groups to do independent research on Bible-related subjects. Some have pursued an independent group study of Biblical Hebrew and Greek to analyze the accuracy of the New World Translation… For those who wish to do extra Bible study and research, we recommend that they explore ‘Insight on the Scriptures,’ ‘All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial,’ and our other publications….”—Kingdom Ministry, September 2007, p. 3
God wants the Watchtower Society to study for you…
“We all need help to understand the Bible, and we cannot find the Scriptural guidance we need outside the ‘faithful and discreet slave’ organization.”—The Watchtower, February 15, 1981, p. 19
You’ll stop believing if you read the Bible…
“They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home. But, strangely, through such ‘Bible reading,’ they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom’s clergy were teaching 100 years ago…”—The Watchtower, August 15, 1981, pp. 28-29
If you consider yourself a true Christian, especially if you are a past or present Jehovah’s Witness, be honest about your approach to Bible study. You should know what the Watchtower’s policy is about self-study, either individually or in a group. Can you really say that their current policy is in line with the biblical admonition to “come, let us gather together?”
Ask yourself: If Jesus was on earth today, would he reject the notion that you should read and study the Bible on your own or with your friends? Do you think he would tell you to just put your Bible away and let the Watchtower organization tell you what the Bible says and means?
Did Jesus not urge his followers to search the scriptures and pay attention to the prophets? Are there any writings by the disciples that tell Christians not to try to read and understand the scriptures on their own, but to let the leadership in Jerusalem just tell them what to believe?
I realize that many true believing Jehovah’s Witnesses will claim that I am misrepresenting the facts about their approach to Bible study. If so, I urge any of them to send me direct quotes and references from Watchtower publications within the past five years that encourage or require private study using just the Bible. Show me anything they have published that encourages modern Jehovah’s Witnesses to gather together to research the scriptures in the same way that their founder, Charles T. Russell, urged his followers to do.
If you are not a Jehovah’s Witness, remember this article the next time Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door and offer a “free Bible study.” Even though their studies are advertised as being “free,” if you take them up on their offer you’ll realize that you’re still not getting your money’s worth.
John Hoyle was just 8-years old when he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1951. Baptized in 1953 at age ten, he was a very active Witness during his teen years, vacation pioneering and even giving public talks while still in high school. He got his own “new light” and left the Witnesses when he was in his mid-20s, making his stand well before his children could be totally trapped within the religion. He and his wife are retired, enjoying a quiet and modest life in central Oregon. He’s also been the editor and webmaster for Ex-JW.com since 2005.