If you are reading this in the hope that I will be able to explain the rather confusing “new light” recently revealed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, i.e. the “overlapping generation” doctrine, you may be sorely disappointed. Please judge for yourself however after reading my post, whether or not this new teaching has any Biblical basis. Perhaps the fact that this has been revealed to be “new light” by the Governing Body is sufficient for you to believe, even if you don’t understand. Or perhaps you are just curious about this teaching and whether or not it has any Biblical basis but don’t know where to go to find out. I have attempted in this post to gather together some references that may help you.
Originally, I had no intention of tackling this subject, it just seemed like a bit of a mess and a waste of time when there are much more pressing subjects to tackle. However, recently I purchased a second-hand Watchtower publication from eBay and due to something I saw in this book, my interest was piqued.
Growing up we had a huge Watchtower library but this was discarded by me a few years after my mother died. I never thought I would have the desire to look at these books again. I now regret throwing them out as we owned many publications from as back as far as the 1920s. So now and again I see a bargain on eBay and buy something. I’m not attempting to recreate the library I no longer have; I don’t have the space for it, for one thing. However, I do find it interesting to browse these old publications that I read avidly as a child (due to them being easily available in the family home and my access to non-Watchtower publications being limited).
My latest purchase was a bundle of books that contained, amongst others, the “Things in Which it is Impossible For God to Lie” book which was released at the “Word of Truth” assemblies in 1965. I find it interesting to look back at the various publications to see how their teachings have changed, or not depending on the particular doctrine.
As I was flipping through the unread pages of this book, I came across a particular chart that peaked my interest in the “overlapping generation” doctrine. The chart was this:
Now I do realise that the expression “overlapping generations” here does not refer to the generation of 1914 which is so pivotal to the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. However, it got me thinking because it is clear in this table that the generations referred to, even though they are overlapping are clearly referred to as the plural generations and are not displayed as the same generation singular. It talks about the “overlapping of ages” making “five links” between Adam and Moses, but it is clear that these links are not seen as any sort of single generation and each individual link isn’t referred to as a generation. So this chart got me thinking about the new doctrine as famously explained by Governing Body member, David Splane, on JW Broadcasting in September 2015. I thought I would see if there was any merit or logic to this teaching by using the New World Translation, the Kingdom Interlinear Translation and seeing if I could make sense of the original Greek language text.
What is the overlapping generation teaching?
Prior to this “new light”, one of the basic tenets of the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs is that the “last days” referenced in 2 Tim 3:2 is specifically referring to the time since 1914. That the generation that was alive in 1914, specifically those who are of the anointed class (the 144,000) was the generation that Jesus referred to in Matthew 24:34 that would not “pass away until all these things happen”, i.e. everything spoken by Jesus, including the Great Tribulation. As time progressed and it was apparent that those alive in 1914 were indeed going to “pass away” before the words of Jesus (as interpreted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses) were fulfilled. Therefore it was patently obvious that this teaching could not be correct.
Fortunately, new light became available to the Governing Body to explain this little problem away. It seems that the whole idea of the “generation” referred to by Jesus wasn’t what we had previously understood as a generation. Apparently, Jesus really meant a sequence of overlapping generations (plural), when he was referring to “this generation”. This means that there is extra time available for the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be proven true. Basically, as long as one of the anointed was alive at the same time as a member of the original 1914 generation, even if there is a vast age difference, they still belong to the same “generation of annointed”. So the generation teaching can stretched out for another few years at least! Thank goodness for that!
The problem is that even the most faithful Jehovah’s Witness was probably scratching their head at this point wondering how they could explain this to others in their preaching work if they didn’t understand it themselves. Cue Governing Body member David Splane with his explanation on JW Broadcasting!
Unfortunately, David Splane’s explanation raised more questions that it answered. The main points I shall discuss here are as follows:
- What is the generally accepted use of the word generation?
- Is the word contemporary synonymous with generation?
- What is this generation according to the Bible?
What is the generally accepted use of the word generation?
The word generation is very specifically related to the idea of being born. The root of the word is “gen”:
The dictionary definition is:
Generation – noun
All of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively…
Origin – Middle English: via Old French from Latin generatio(n-), from the verb generare (see generate).
As we can see the word has its root meaning in the idea of giving birth. Therefore, the widely accepted meaning is that a generation is a group of people who were born and living at about the same time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit with the new improved “overlapping generation” teaching.
According to the new teaching, in order to be part of the generation that Jesus referred to in Matthew 24:34, you just needed to be alive at the same time as one of the original 1914 generation. You don’t have to have been born around the same time, which is the very definition of the word generation. To give some credence to the new teaching, David Splane kindly introduced a brand new word to clarify what the word generation meant, because obviously the dictionary had it wrong! That new word was “contemporary”.
Is the word contemporary synonymous with generation?
David Splane attempted to use the word contemporary as if synonymous for generation in an effort to explain this confusing “new light”. The problem with this is that there is nothing to back this up. I shall attempt to explain:
- Nowhere in the Greek Scriptures is the word contemporary found.
- The word contemporary is not a synonym for the word generation in any thesaurus or dictionary that I’ve been able to research.
However there is a problem with this line of reasoning. Even if we use very convoluted reasoning and allow for the idea that they have a partial meaning in common, i.e. “to exist at the same time”, the main part of the “overlapping generation” teaching which is that to be of this generation they don’t need to have been born around the same time. This is totally ignoring the very meaning of the word generation, which cannot be divorced from its root meaning of “birth” and as we shall see next, this is most definitely the meaning of the word used in Matthew 24:34.
What is this generation according to the Bible?
Here I shall briefly discuss the original Greek. The word translated as generation in Matthew 24:34 is γενεά. This can have a couple of meanings depending on context. However, as with the English word generation, all are related to being born.
STRONGS NT 1074: γενεά
γενεά, γενεάς, ἡ (ΓΑΝΩ, γίνομαι (crf. Curtius, p. 610)); the Sept. often for דּור; in Greek writings from Homer down;
“1.a begetting, birth, nativity: Herodotus 3, 33; Xenophon, Cyril 1, 2, 8, etc.; (others make the collective sense the primary significance, see Curtius as above).
2. passively, that which has been begotten, men of the same stock, a family;
a. properly, as early as Homer; equivalent to מִשְׁפָּחַה, Genesis 31:3, etc. σῴζειν Ρ᾽αχαβην καί τήν γενεάν αὐτῆς, Josephus, Antiquities 5, 1, 5. the several ranks in a natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy: Matthew 1:17 (ἑβδόμῃ γενεά οὗτος ἐστιν ἀπό τοῦ, Philo, vit. Moys. i. § 2).”
The first definition as “a begetting, birth, nativity”, is fairly straightforward. We use the word generation in the same way today. When someone has a child it may be said that they have “given birth to the next generation” of a particular family.
The second definition was more interesting for me as I thought that this might be mistaken as proof that the word γενεά can mean something more fluid as is described in the overlapping generation doctrine. I am referring specifically to where it states: “the several ranks in a natural descent, the successive members of a genealogy” and then it uses Matthew 1:17 as an example of where the word γενεά used in this particular sense. Upon reading this the first thing I needed to clarify was if, in this particular context, the word for generation was used in a singular or plural way. This would make a huge difference to the meaning. In English, if we are referring to “several ranks in a natural descent, the successive member of a genealogy” it would be the plural generations. However, I do understand that different languages work in different ways so is γενεά used in the plural or singular when used in this way?
In Matthew 24:34 γενεά is singular. This can be seen by the pronoun used: ἡ as in “ἡ γενεά”. The pronoun ἡ is the feminine nominative singular of ὁ (ho). The translators of the New World Translation agree with both of these conclusions. Matthew 1:17 is translated as the plural generations and Matthew 24:34 is translated as the singular as you can see here:
All the generations, then, from Abraham until David were 14 generations; from David until the deportation to Babylon, 14 generations; from the deportation to Babylon until the Christ, 14 generations. – Matthew 1:17 – New World Translation
Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen. – Matthew 24:34 – New World Translation
Also it is even clearer in the Kingdom Interlinear Translation:
If Matthew 24:34 was talking about successive generations it would have used the plural as is used in Matthew 1:17: αἱ γενεαὶ. However, it is quite clearly referring to a generation in the singular.
Strangely, David Splane uses another Bible verse which he claimed clarified this point about a generation just meaning “to exist at the same time”. I say strangely because this Bible verse actually proves the opposite.
Joseph eventually died, and also all his brothers and all that generation. – Exodus 1:6 New World Translation
This verse refers to Joseph, his brothers “and all that generation”. Firstly, what did Joseph and his brothers have in common? According to David Splane “they were contemporaries, they all lived at the same time”. Although that is true, in this context that isn’t the relevant thing. They were all the same generation because they were all born from the same father and around the same time. Where it says “all that generation”, if we use the dictionary definition of the word generation the logical explanation for this verse is very straight forward: those who were all born around the same time as Joseph and his brothers, i.e. “that generation” all died out. This isn’t a complicated verse that is trying to convey anything other than a piece of the Biblical story of the Israelites. There is no context or way to twist this to mean anything other than what it says in a very straight forward manner – unless you are trying to make the verse mean something that specifically fits your interpretation of Biblical doctrine.
What the Governing Body have done here with these verses is very succinctly explained by Paul Grundy of JWfacts.com:
There are two ways that a religion develops its doctrines – eisegesis and exegesis. Eisegesis is where scriptures are found to support a pre-existing belief, resulting in inaccurate doctrine and the possibility of any number of interpretations.
A more respected approach is to arrive at doctrinal understanding through exegesis. Let a passage explain itself in its literary context, doing so in line with its relationship to other Biblical passages and parallel literature of the period. To understand Scripture, consider what it meant to the person making the statement and what it conveyed to the person spoken to, in line with what they already knew from other Scriptures, the point made at the time and the prevailing culture.
In conclusion, I’d like to make another point to clarify that being a contemporary of someone is not necessarily being the same generation. My grandmother was born in 1896, I was six when she died. I was most certainly not the same generation as her. Currently there are many generations alive – we may be contemporaries but we are most certainly not the same generation.
I hope that this blog post has in some way attempted to explain the overlapping generation teaching currently promoted by the Watchtower organisation. I also hope that I’ve been able to explain why it cannot be explained using the Watchtower’s own translations of the Bible. If you have any interest in this subject or any other that I discuss here in my blog, I encourage you to do your own independent research. Please do not take my word for anything. Research and use your own critical thinking skills to come to your own conclusions.
Thank you for reading my blog.