Russia Declares the Bible “Extremist”
On August 17, 2017, the Vyborg City Court declared “extremist” the Russian version of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a Bible published by Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous languages. * This decision marks the first time that the Bible has been banned in a country where the majority of its citizens claim to be Christian.
In late July 2017, the Vyborg City Court resumed its hearing of the case, which had been adjourned since April 2016 to allow time for an “expert study” of the Bible. The judge had ruled in favor of a claim filed by the Leningrad-Finlyandskiy Transport Prosecutor to appoint an “expert study” of whether to declare the New World Translation to be “extremist.” After numerous delays, the study was completed and was submitted to the court on June 22, 2017. The study concluded that the Bible is “extremist” literature, following the same pattern as previous court-appointed studies of the Witnesses’ publications by so-called experts.
“Expert Study” Based on Theological Beliefs, Not Facts
To justify its conclusion, the study went so far as to claim that the New World Translation is “not a Bible.” By making this claim, the study attempts to circumvent the Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, which forbids declaring extremist sacred texts such as the Bible. Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative for the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, stated: “For as often as Russian authorities have misapplied the law on extremism to our religious worship, now they are trying to bypass it—claiming that the New World Translation is not a Bible so that they can declare it extremist. It’s just another example of how far Russian authorities will go to malign Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“The Bible, Koran, Tanakh and Kangyur—as well as the content of these books and quotations from them—cannot be declared extremist materials.”—Amendment to the Russian Federation Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, Article 3.1: Special considerations when applying to religious texts legislation of the Russian Federation on counteracting extremist activity.
The main pretext that the study used to support its claim that the New World Translation is “not a Bible” is that it renders God’s personal name represented by the Tetragrammaton * as “Jehovah.” Lawyers representing Jehovah’s Witnesses presented evidence to challenge this reasoning. The lawyers introduced to the court ten other Russian Bibles that use the name Jehovah, as well as poetry by Tsvetaeva and Pushkin and books by Kuprin, Goncharov, and Dostoyevsky and excerpts from other classic Russian literature. They also pointed to the 19th-century Russian-language Makarios Bible, produced by Orthodox translators, in which the name Jehovah occurs more than 3,500 times.
Additionally, the court allowed two experts to present testimony that the New World Translation is a version of the Holy Bible. At the trial on August 9, Professor Anatoliy Baranov, * a respected linguist, testified that differences in wording between the New World Translation and the synodal Bible do not mean that the New World Translation is not a Bible. Such differences are expected between different translations. To evaluate the accuracy of a modern Bible translation objectively, it must be compared to the original-language texts (in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) rather than to an older translation in the same language.
During the court session on August 16, Mikhail Odintsov, * a religious scholar, testified that the text of the New World Translation does not differ in substance from other Russian Bibles and that it conforms to the generally accepted Bible canon. Regarding the use of God’s name, Mr. Odintsov confirmed that “Jehovah” has been used by other Russian translators, including the translators of the synodal Bible, where the divine name occurs some ten times.
The study also claimed that the New World Translation is not a Bible because it does not expressly say that it is one. However, Mr. Odintsov explained that the words “Scriptures” and “Holy Scriptures” are quite appropriate to describe the Bible.
New World Translation Hearing—Another Injustice Targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Vyborg City Court’s decision is not yet in force, and the New World Translation has not been added to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The Witnesses will appeal the decision to the Leningrad Regional Court within 30 days.
The decision to ban the Bible that Jehovah’s Witnesses use in worship is just the latest injustice in a more than decade-long, government-orchestrated campaign of persecution against them. This campaign culminated on July 17, when Russia’s Supreme Court confirmed its earlier ruling to criminalize the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. With this latest decision in the Vyborg City Court, Russia continues its unjust persecution of the Witnesses.
Time Line of Russia’s Case Against the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures
August 17, 2017
Vyborg City Court grants the prosecutor’s claim to declare the New World Translation “extremist material”
August 9, 2017
Vyborg City Court resumes hearing on the case examining the New World Translation
June 6, 2017
Report from Center of Sociocultural Expert Studies concludes that the New World Translation “is not a Bible” and is “extremist” literature
December 23, 2016
Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upholds lower court decisions to seize all Bibles confiscated in July 2015
April 26, 2016
Vyborg City Court orders the Center of Sociocultural Expert Studies to examine the New World Translation for signs of “extremism”
March 15, 2016
Based on a claim filed by the prosecutor, hearings begin in the Vyborg City Court to declare the New World Translation “extremist”
December 29, 2015
Arbitration Court of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region denies Witnesses’ claim against illegal seizure of the Bibles
August 13, 2015
Vyborg Customs officials rule to seize all 2,016 Bibles in the July 13 shipment, claiming that they may contain signs of “extremism”
July 14, 2015
Vyborg Customs officials seize three copies of the Bible for an “expert study” to justify the seizure
July 13, 2015
Vyborg Customs officials stop a shipment containing only Russian-language copies of the New World Translation
^ par. 2 The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures has been published in whole or in part in over 120 languages. More than 200 million copies have been distributed.
^ par. 6 The Tetragrammaton is the name of God in Hebrew, יהוה, transliterated as YHWH or JHVH. It appears nearly 7,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament).
^ par. 7 Professor Baranov is a member of the Expert Committee for Certifying Expert Linguists at the Russian Center for Judicial Expert Studies and the head of the Department of Experimental Lexicography of the Institute of the Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
^ par. 8 Professor Odintsov is chief specialist and member of the Academic Council of the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History and the president of the Association of Researchers of Religion.