NEW LIGHT in the BRITISH MUSEUM

Bob Potter

(Investigator 57, 1997 November)


A visitor to London, entering the world-famous British Museum on any Saturday, morning or afternoon, could be easily misled into believing that the Jehovah's Witnesses now have a mass following in this country. Whether visiting the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek or Roman galleries, or the rooms displaying ancient texts extant from those periods the first Bibles or the Magna Carta - the visitor would be likely to encounter largish groups, numbering up to thirty individuals, clutching copies of and frequently referring to the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures to better understand the significance of the exhibit being viewed.

Usually there are several of these tours in progress; all easy to identify as participants wear large, distinctive badges labeled Bible Tours. The tours last, on average, about 1½ hours, the morning sessions beginning at 10.45am, the afternoons at 2.00pm. Given fine weather, the brothers and sisters 'take over' the large seating area in front of the museum's main entrance or the nearby Russell Square to enjoy picnic lunches and intra-group 'fellowship'.

The tours are organized by a company set up by the Society and called Meander Tours.  They do a range of things including tours of Bible lands like Egypt and Israel. The museum tours are arranged, in advance, by congregations. Those attending pay a nominal charge of about £3 a head to cover the administration, travel, subsistence and training.

The 'tour leaders' are volunteer 'elders' who (based on the several I listened to),  in spite of the 'internal' training they have been given, have no specialist knowledge of the topics/subject matter to be explored/discussed beyond the printed text, on which they rely heavily, issued to them by the Society.

Obviously, Meander Tours is well known, world-wide, in Jehovah's Witness congregations. One of the tours I attached myself to, on 1st August 1997 (and described in the following pages), contained at least a dozen from Australia (Victoria and Tasmania) and the United States (New York and Montana). Fortunately for me, outsiders are not turned away – indeed there is no way that they could be. The two tours I accompanied were The Bible's Struggle to Exist and The Bible: History Written in Advance. It was the first real contact I'd had with the Witnesses for about fifteen years and proved to be an interesting reminder of the pedestrian/immature view of 'scholarship' held by the Watchtower Society.

That the tour is no more than a covert Watchtower 'Bible Study' becomes evident in the first few minutes. The 30-strong group was taken to the King's Gallery which is 'walled' by large filled bookcases, old and large volumes dating from the fifteenth century or before. The guide established who everybody was – what's your name? Where do you come from? It was this initial interchange that identified the Aussies and the Yanks. The theme of the tour was to be 'bread' ... the 'bread of life' ... and all were asked to consider themselves bakers. The Devil has three strategies for keeping 'fresh bread' away from humankind:

1) only serve 'stale' bread
2) assassinate those who attempt to sell 'fresh' bread
3) if the bread is 'fresh',  pollute it.

The group was asked to look around the gallery and guess how many books were on the walls. The answer – 140,000. But these were all examples of 'stale' bread because, hundreds of years old, they were written in Latin (Who reads Latin? Nobody! Who present would look forward to an evening in front of the fire looking at any of these books?  Nobody present!) These are 'stale' books, and that's how Satan kept the Bible away from the people for centuries. And of course, that also suited the Church!

But there were those who wanted the Bible to be written in the vernacular. Who produced the first Bible in English?  There was great commotion and uncertainty in the group. Someone said Wycliffe, someone said Tyndale. Who had it right?  The guide offered an easy way to remember these two chronologically. What always comes first? Answer - Jehovah! that is, Jehovah's Witnesses. J.W. also stands for John Wycliffe. What comes next? Answer – The Watchtower. W.T. also stands for William Tyndale. Note how easy learning becomes for those who are 'in the Truth'!

The group paused and looked briefly at the Wyclif (that's the original spelling!) version (1380-82) which was a word for word rendering of the Latin Vulgate. Tour members were told to be sure and look at the book because it would add to their credibility on the doorstep to be able to tell the listener that they had themselves seen the original of the Wycliffe text. Several were asked by the guide to confirm that they had actually looked at the pages – and were then reminded that such an act was an 'offence' punishable by death a few centuries ago (which wasn't quite the case as indicated in the text on the museum plate affixed to the display box – nobody did read that inscription!). In just a few minutes, the group was led to believe that:

a) John Wycliffe had himself prepared the text of his Bible for publication
b) John Wycliffe escaped death (for this translation) because being, in effect, an 'Oxford don' he had lots of 'friends in high places'
c) John Wycliffe was the founder of the Lollards.

In fact, probably none of these statements is true. He played no direct part in the translation of the Bible, although his lectures undoubtedly inspired the project. He was forced to retire following his condemnation by Gregory XI in 1377, but he continued writing pamphlets, without hindrance. The Lollards, grounded in the poorer elements of society, emulated his beliefs ( after his death), basing their doctrines on personal faith, Divine election and the Bible – they attacked clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, indulgences and pilgrimages, believing the validity of priestly acts was determined by the priests' moral character.  Endowments, the Pope and the church hierarchy were all perceived as unscriptural i.e. the Lollards had much to do with building the climate that was to lead to the Reformation.  It was these ideas, allied to those of Wycliffe, that inspired the peasants revolt of 1381. He was declared an heretic in 1382 – dying, in bed, two years later.

At the other end of the display cabinet, we looked at the much smaller(!) book printed by William Tyndale at Cologne and Worms in 1525-6.  Why was it 'smaller'? asked our guide. Nobody had any suggestions (i.e. nobody read the museum inscription below it, fortunately for the tour guide!) Because it had been printed in Germany and would need to be smuggled into England.  Look at the Wycliffe book – fancy coming through customs with that and saying that you 'had nothing to declare'.   Has any brother present a copy of the 'smaller' edition of the New World Translation?  Somebody had,   the guide borrowed it and demonstrated how much easier it is to sneak a smaller volume into one's pocket. At this point, the audience was reminded that in these current 'final days' we may soon find it advantageous to have 'smaller' copies that are not so conspicuous. It seemed that the guide was unaware that the main reason the Tyndale book was smaller was because it consisted only of the New Testament, while the Wycliffe volume was the whole Bible. No matter; the point had been made.

The 'bread' was difficult to come by in those days because of Satan's second strategy - kill those who would bring 'fresh' bread. William Tyndale had been strangled and burnt at the stake in October 1536.

Leaving Tyndale, the group was led to the nearby Gutenberg Bible, produced in Mainz, in 1453-5, using the first moveable metal type. The majority of group members did not read the text provided by the museum and probably, like the guide, now believe that Gutenberg refers to a place rather than the name of the inventor of printing. Two identically worded 'indulgences', the earliest known, printed by Gutenberg in October 1454 and displayed in the same cabinet, inspired our guide to give us a mini-lecture about the ancient Egyptian  Book of the  Dead  (elsewhere  in  the  museum)  to demonstrate the 'pagan origins' of the selling of indulgences. (Our teacher was well-read in Watchtower publications, which are notably inaccurate when they report the beliefs of other religions. The British Museum regularly presents excellent public lectures on Egyptian history, presented by individuals actively involved in research, excavation and textual analysis. As I listened to the uneducated nonsense being expounded, I don't know what I found most distressing – that these people were happy to absorb al1 that was being said or that any suggestion that they look at the actual research findings so readily available to all, free of charge, would only lead to a hostile allegation that 'proper study' is inspired by Satan.)

We passed by the several 'versions' of the Magna Carta, 1215, and the Bull issued by Innocent III which 'diminished the royal prerogative' over Englishmen and maintained the power of the Pope by 'condemning and annulling' the decree, thus engendering a civil war in England until the death of King John in October 1216. The tutor made no mention of this civil unrest, feeling it much more important to report that one of these manuscripts had been purchased by the Museum for one thousand Marks, which in English currency of the time was £666!!

Finally we came to the final exhibits to be viewed on the tour – the two Greek codices (i. e. 'books' as opposed to 'scrolls'): Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, generally believed to have originated in Egypt, in the 4th and 5th Centuries respectively.   Listeners were urged to look closely at the few pages of codices visible to them, so that when a 'client' told them “the Bible has changed over the years”, they could answer “no!”, authoratively, “that is not the case!”, they had seen some of the earliest texts!

Having said that (and nobody seemed to spot the contradicting  argument that followed immediately!) attention was drawn to the colossal amount of work that has been carried out by scholars of recent years to 'remove the impurities from the bread'; the numbers of 'mistranslations' that have been identified by comparing different texts, including the important codices. The listener was under no misapprehension as to who had carried out the most important work in this field – the Bible Students associated with the Watchtower Society!   That such an inaccurate and absurd claim could be made, so soberly, without eliciting any response, behavioural or verbal, was the best illustration (for me, the best 'reminder') of the naivety/ignorance of the audience.

The summing up followed. We were reminded of the Devil's three strategies – of the 'boring' Latin texts, of the persecution of those who worked for Bibles in common languages and of the 'impurities' in the texts, which the Society was working so hard to remove.
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The afternoon tour, introduced to us as The Bible: History Written in Advance, lasted for nearly two hours and involved much walking; yet, incredibly we looked only at a few statues of historical persons and two rough maps. Nothing we viewed added to what was essentially a Watchtower 'Bible Study' session that could have been better (i.e. more comfortably) carried out in a Kingdom Hall. If this had been the only 'tour' attended on the day, the fare to London could not be justified.

We began at a small statue of Alexander the Great. A large slab of scripture was read to us by the guide, culled from Daniel 7:1-8:27. Of course the point to be asserted, without questioning or consideration, was that the text of Daniel was completed in 536BC – while the events being described (prophesied about), the conquests of Alexander leading up to the break-up of his empire, were not actualized for another two hundred years. Alexander died in 323BC, at the early age of 32 years, before he could fulfill his dream of re-building Babylon as his capital.  (Of course, that's the way it had to happen, we were told, because Jehovah had told us that Babylon would never be rebuilt!)   We moved to the two small sketch-maps on the wall of the gallery, which indicated the re-structuring of the empire that followed the death of Alexander. More verses from Daniel were read and 'discussed' in the question and answer format that is basic to any Watchtower gathering.

I must insert a few words regarding the authenticity of this 'piece of scripture' as it is regarded by the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars, today. Of course these questions were not discussed on the Museum tour!

For those who share my interest and fascination in the Apocalyptic, Daniel is the obvious starting point (and undoubtedly the best introduction to this topic is still The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic by D S Russell: SCM Press (1964). The majority of today's researchers are agreed that the book was written in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163BC) and more particularly after the desecration of the Temple by that ruler in 168BC, but before its reconstruction by the Maccabees in 165BC. There are at least five reasons for this consensus of opinion:

I) Ch 11 shows clear acquaintance with trivial events in the reign of Ant. Epithanes, of no 'prophetic' value and lacking any moral or spiritual importance. The earlier periods of history are dismissed in single sentences, but the description of Antiochus is full and vivid, extending to more than twenty-four verses. Earlier, in Ch 8, is indeed a clear description of the conquests of Alexander and the division of his empire; and of Antiochus Epiphanes with the 'fourth beast' representing Alexander's kingdom and its succession in the Seleucid dynasty, on which the writer is focussed; but his main interest remains the great persecution initiated by Antiochus. When, however, the author touches upon a subsequent period, he writes nothing in need of interpretation, but only symbolizes the general Messianic hope of Israel. He foretells the death of Antiochus, but is quite wrong regarding the place and circumstances. Supernatural foresight enabled the prophet to foresee the future clearly as far as 167BC, but not as far as 164BC!!

2) The writer's specific knowledge of the times when Daniel is alleged to have lived (?606-535BC) is clearly based on oral tradition. Within this period he mentions as kings of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius the Mede and Cyrus. He views them all as reigning sovereigns, not as subordinate rulers. Belshazzar is the son of Nebuchadnezzar and king at the time of its capture by the Medes and Persians. But history knows nothing of Darius the Mede preceding Cyrus. No Darius reigned until a score of years later. The key to an understanding of the book of Daniel is an appreciation that the four kingdoms, which dominate the book, are Babylonia, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks. Daniel was mistaken.There was no Median Empire parallel to the other three!

We now possess a long series of contract tables which are dated virtually day-by-day from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar to that of Xerxes ... Daniel's list shows his general confusion of the order of events. Cyrus, we know from cuneiform inscriptions, took Babylon peaceably.  It was during the reign of Darius that Babylon rebelled and Darius was forced to besiege the city.  Daniel follows tradition (Herodotus) and transfers the siege to Cyrus.  In Daniel, both king and siege have been transferred to an earlier period.  There are many other 'confusions' of this kind, supporting the view that the author lived several centuries later.

3) The languages used in the text likewise are not consistent with the fundamentalist view. The book is written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. The Hebrew is distinguished from that of the exilic Ezekiel and resembles that of the Chronicles, written about 300BC. The Aramaic (chs 2:5 - 7:28) is also of a later date. Persian words appear in both sections, suggesting that a long enough period had elapsed for Persian words to have become part of the Jewish language. Musical instruments, contemporary with Antiochus, are mentioned; instruments that would not have been known in the earlier period.

4) The doctrines of Daniel, angels and demons, fit with the Jewish writings of the first century BC – ideas that had originated in the contemporary Persian religion.  Likewise, Daniel teaches a personal resurrection – none of these views conform to the Old Testament scriptures. The stories of Daniel and 'the three young men' are intended to convey a message of hope to people placed in a similar situation. If the Book is seen in the Maccabean period, it 'makes sense'. Date it in the days of Babylon, its meaning is unintelligible. If we follow the traditionalists, we must explain why Daniel was so uninterested in events of his own time, and so obsessed with things to happen several centuries after his time!

5) There is no evidence in any Old Testament or Apocryphal writing of its earlier existence.  The silence of Ecclesiasticus (190BC) which lists Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets, but says nothing of Daniel, is very significant. The testimony of Josephus, written near the close of the first century AD, claiming that the text of Daniel was shown to Alexander the Great represents only a Jewish legend. Had the text been indeed written during the Exile, it would have been included among the 'Prophets' (instead of among the 'Writings').

I trust the reader will bear with me and my diversion into a discussion of the first major Apocalyptic text. It was my fascination with this ancient literature that led to my research project into the psychology of the Jehovah's Witnesses in the early 1980s; for anyone with an active mind, this topic area remains intriguing, even exciting.  Tragically, all this is lost for those closed-minded individuals, who approach the evidence with filtered spectacles, who reject the suggestion of genuine inquiry and instead await inspired 'enlightenment'  (i.e. 'new light') from the wise old men in Brooklyn.

After half an-hour of Scripture reading and relating the texts to the maps mentioned earlier, the tour group moved to the floor above to view the busts of three ancient Romans – Augustus Caesar (where we paused to read Luke 2:1 to demonstrate that the Scripture was referring to real people who actually lived!), then to busts of Claudius (this was a 'mistake' by our guide; he had thought it was Tiberius - but we never-the-less briefly discussed Claudius and his violent end) and finally, Tiberius.

Again, here was a character from the pages of Holy Scripture (Luke 3:1), whose action had been necessary for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy regarding the birthplace of  “the greatest man who ever lived” – which, at the same time, was yet another example of 'history written in advance'.

There was still thirty minutes of 'tour time' ahead of us, but now, the surroundings were forgotten and instead, with Bible in hand, the tutor/elder reminded us that history was still going on, as predicted. New light had shown that the sheep and the goats were being separated and very soon the final events, Armageddon, would envelop us all.

Because they believe they are 'in the Truth', Witnesses tend to be arrogant in their presentations to those 'outside the Truth'. Ignorant of the nature of true scholarship (and the built-in humility that must, by definition, always accompany it), they are dogmatic in the doctrinal assertions and proud to be so. It is easy to see what a strengthening experience their trip to the British Museum must have been for them. It gave them evidence that they are indeed Bible students – they have examined some early/original texts; they have looked at a few exhibits related to odd paragraphs in the Bible.

Further, the trip helped them convince themselves that they are more than Bible students they are Bible scholars. Their conviction is pure myth, but egos are boosted, confidence is enhanced they become more effective as 'publishers'.


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