‘They keep changing the dates,’ is a comment one frequently hears about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ end-time calculations. The popular perception of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they have predicted successive dates for ‘the end of the world’, only to find that their prophecies have failed, and that they have had to revise the dates that feature in their predictions. Numerous web sites now purport to itemise the Witnesses’ alleged ‘prophetic blunders’, generally assuming that the date for the commencement of Armageddon was set successively at 1874, 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975, as well as various intermediate years. This perception of the Watch Tower organization is not confined to popular counter-cult literature, but finds its way into academic writing. For example, Jon R. Stone includes no less than three essays on Jehovah’s Witnesses in his anthology, Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy (2000). Andrew Holden, in his Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (2002), accuses the Witnesses of ‘persistent prophecy failure’, alleging that their date for ‘the Second of Coming of Christ’ has been changed from 1874 to 1914, 1918, 1925 and most recently 1975. (Holden, 2001: 1). (1)
The treatment of ‘failed prophecy’, resultant ‘cognitive dissonance’, and methods of reconciling prophetic failure with events draws largely from Leon Festinger’s study, When Prophecy Fails (1956) — a study that appears to have been accepted almost uncritically by scholars of religion. However, there are reasons to be cautious of Festinger. First, it is doubtful whether the group under investigation should count as a religious group, since the Association of Sananda and Samat Kumara is a group that expected the landing of a flying saucer on a predetermined date that its leader, Dorothy Martin (to whom Festinger gives the pseudonym ‘Mrs Keach’), subsequently revised. Apart from a worldview, eschatological expectations, and loyal commitment from at least some of its members, it does not appear to have other salient features that are usually associated with religion, such as scriptures, ritual, a code of ethics, or sacred space.
Second, the Sananda group alighted on a specified date for a single episodic event: in contrast the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in common with many mainstream Christian fundamentalists, define a timetable of events that are associated with the end-times. Some of these are celestial (and hence unverifiable), while others are terrestrial, and they include the casting out of Satan from heaven, the cleansing of the sanctuary, the gathering of the 144,000, the end of the Gentile Times (generally regarded as 1914), the resurrection of the faithful ones of old (to which Rutherford assigned the date of 1925), the commencement of Armageddon, the binding of Satan, Christ’s millennial rule, the release of Satan from the Abyss, and the cleansing and perfecting of the earth. The different dates mentioned by the Watch Tower Society do not designate one single event, but a series of end-time happenings.
Third, much of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of dates is not predictive, but retrospective. Founder-leader Charles Taze Russell was writing in the late nineteenth century when he mentioned dates like 1799 (Napoleon’s imprisonment of Pope Pius VI), 1829 (reckoned to be the inception of the Adventist movement), 1846 (the founding of the World Evangelical Alliance), 1874 and 1878. His attempts at constructing a chronology is therefore not so much predictive prophecy, but rather a part of what modern biblical scholars have called heilsgeschichte (‘salvation history’). It is an attempt to demonstrate the divine plan in human history — past and present, as well as future — rather than an unsuccessful attempt at clairvoyance. As the second Watch Tower leader, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, once wrote:
Prophecy can be better understood when fulfilled. Often God causes his people to enact the fulfilment of a prophecy without their knowing it at the time, and later he reveals to the interpretation (Rutherford, 1922: 336).
Fourth, the teachings of Sananda and those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a quite different epistemological basis. Mrs Keach of Sananda claimed a ‘special revelation’ — a privileged access to the communications of the extraterrestrials. In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not claim special privileged access to divine messages, but rather base their teachings on the authority of the Bible. Their original name — ‘Bible Students’ — indicates that they were a group who tried to interpret the Christian scriptures, without any kind of privileged access, but who merely sought interpretations that, at least in principle, anyone who conscientiously and prayerfully studied the scriptures could find.
Associated with this observation is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses have used a number of principles in interpreting biblical prophecy. Prophecy and chronology must be derived entirely from the Bible, not from extrinsic sources, which are believed only at best to confirm biblical writings. Prophecy is also reckoned to have ‘multiple fulfilment’: prophecies that immediately applied to the prophet’s audience can also have an application in subsequent periods, including the present day. Allied to this is the notion of different time-periods or ages in human history. Russell divided history into a number of ‘dispensations’ (the antediluvian period, the ‘present evil world’ ‘the fullness of times’, and Jewish history has characteristically been separated into the Jewish Times, the Gentile Times and the Last Days. (Russell, 1886, chart). In interpreting prophecy, account must be also taken of the length and duration of Jewish years: the Jewish year starts in October, and contained 360 — not 365 — days. In common with many nineteenth-century Adventists, the Watch Tower Society adopted a ‘year for a day’ principle: in many places in the Bible’s prophetic writings (but not all), the word ‘day’ — and also the word ‘time’ — means the period of a year (Chryssides, 2008: 40).
Contrary to what their detractors would like to believe, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ designation of key dates is not arbitrary, but starts from a definite chronological scheme derived from scripture. The Bible contains much interlinking of key characters and events by specifying how long the various patriarchs lived, how old they were when their children were born, how long the kings of Israel and Judah were on the throne, and in what year of the lives key events of history took place. If one is patient enough, it is possible to construct a chronology linking Jesus and the early Church to the events in ancient Hebrew history, stretching back to the time of Adam. Neither Russell nor any subsequent Watch Tower leaders have themselves created such schemes, for there were several that were current in Russell’s time. The most famous was that of Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, who is frequently ridiculed for his conclusion that God completed the creation of the world on 22 October 4004 B.C.E. at precisely six o’clock in the evening. (This suggestion is not as ridiculous as it sounds: the date marks the beginning of the Jewish Year, the days of which begin at dusk. The world cannot have started on anything other than the beginning of the first day — sunset — of the first Jewish year.)
Nelson H. Barbour (1824-1905), who was Russell’s confederate in the early years of his ministry, did not favour Ussher’s scheme. In an article in The Midnight Cry and Herald of the Morning (1874) he mentions schemes devised by Joseph Scaliger, James Ussher, William Cuninghame, and William C. Thurman, among others, and favours that of Christophen Bowen, an Anglican clergyman. Bowen’s scheme, Barbour believed, had one important advantage over his rivals: it provided a chronology from Adam to King Cyrus of Persia, derived exclusively from biblical evidence. All the other chronologists used extraneous sources, principally Josephus, to fill in gaps. According to Bowen’s scheme, the world did not begin in 4004 B.C.E., but rather 4129 B.C.E., and Russell, following Barbour, took this date as the starting point for his own chronology. Russell never discussed biblical dates systematically, being more interested in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and in how prophecy was unfolding in the events of his day. However, his Studies in the Scripture yields the following chronology.
4129 Creation of Adam
1813 Death of Jacob, followed by Israel’s captivity in Egypt and their exodus under Moses.
1575 The Israelites enter Canaan, the promised land, after 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert.
1569 The Twelve Tribes of Israel are established. Israel is ruled by judges.
1119 The period of the judges ends with the establishment of a monarchy.
606 King Zedekiah is defeated by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian exile begins. The ‘Gentile Times’ begin.
536 King Cyrus of Persia allows the return of the Jews to the promised land.
1 C.E. Birth of Jesus Christ
Understandably, attempts at defining a detailed chronology by interlinking biblical verses run into problems. One particular problem that the biblical chronologists encountered was how to reconcile 1 Kings 6:1 with Acts 13:20. 1 Kings 6:1 reads:
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.
Acts 13:20 appears to contradict this when Paul says
And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.
The latter verse assigns 450 years to the period of the Judges, which ended with Samuel, as stated, but the former passage asserts that the 450-year period ended with King Solomon, who was the third king of Israel, and who came to throne a century after King Saul’s coronation as Israel’s first monarch. How does one reconcile this contradiction? The Emphatic Diaglott (1864), an edition of the New Testament with parallel text in Greek and English, and which was much favoured by the Watch Tower Society, carried a footnote to the verse in Acts, which read:
A difficulty occurs here which has very much puzzled Biblical chronologists. The date given here is at variance with the statement found in 1 Kings 6:1. There have been many solutions offered, but only one which seems entirely satisfactory, i.e., that the text in 1 Kings 6:1 has been corrupted, by substituting the Hebrew character daleth (4) for hay (5) which is very similar in form. This would make 580 years (instead of 480) from the exode [sic] to the building of the temple, and exactly agree with Paul’s chronology. (Wilson, 1942 : 449.)
Russell accepted this explanation. In The Time Is At Hand, he wrote:
It evidently should read the five-hundred-and-eightieth year, and was possibly an error in transcribing; for if to Solomon’s four years we add David’s forty, and Saul’s space of forty, and the forty-six years from leaving Egypt to the division of the land, we have one hundred and thirty years, which deducted from four hundred and eighty would leave only three hundred and fifty years for the period of the Judges, instead of the four hundred and fifty years mentioned in the Book of Judges, and by Paul, as heretofore shown. The Hebrew character “daleth” (4) very much resembles the character “hay” (5), and it is supposed that in this way the error has occurred, possibly the mistake of a transcriber. I Kings 6:1, then, should read five hundred and eighty, and thus be in perfect harmony with the other statements. (Russell, 1889: 53).
Almost half a century later, however, , an article in The Golden Age called this explanation into question. The anonymous author of a 1935 article wrote:
In the past some thought it expedient, or wise, or necessary to say of this text that the four should be changed to a five to agree with a passage in Acts which they misread and misunderstood. It would be folly to think that Jehovah God would make it necessary for any to resort to such a method for preserving the meaning of one of the most important texts in the Bible. (Watch Tower, 1935: 412).
It should be obvious that this debate involves more than a single Hebrew character. The rescinding the proposed textual amendment to 1 Kings 6:1 entails modifying Bowen’s chronology, reducing the period of the Judges by one hundred years, and truncating human history from the creation by a century. The Watch Tower organisation first used the modified chronology, without comment or explanation, in The Truth Shall Make You Free (1943). Further minor modifications enabled a detailed chronology published in a 1951 edition of The Watchtower, and slightly expanded in the Watch Tower publication New Heavens and a New Earth (1953). Some minor adjustments resulted in another chronological table being published in Life Everlasting (1966), which included the following key events:
4026 Creation of Adam
1473 Entry into Canaan
1467 Period of Judges begins
1077 Saul becomes first king of Israel
607 Zedekiah defeated by Nebuchadnezzar. Babylonian exile begins. Commencement of the ‘Gentile Times’.
537 King Cyrus of Persia allows the return of the Jews to the promised land.
2 B.C.E. Birth of Jesus Christ.
(Jacob’s death is not formally listed in the 1966 list, but the 1953 publication dates it as 1712. The minor adjustments principally involved determining the exact year of creation, which the Society set variously at 4025 and 4026 B.C.E. The dating of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion was revised from 606 to 607 B.C.E., thus causing the date of Jesus’ birth to be brought forward to 2 B.C.E.)
The modified chronology’s subtraction of a hundred years from the period of the Judges entailed that calculated dates based on events after that period remain intact, while dates based on events before the establishment of the monarchy do not. Thus, the date of 1873, which, according to Russell, marked the beginning of Christ’s invisible presence, being 6,000 years after 4129 B.C.E., could no longer stand. The year 1873 thus loses significance as a date, once the new chronology is adopted, since this date was also derived from the earlier date of the world’s creation. By contrast, the prophecy based on Daniel’s ‘seven times’ involves the start date of 606 B.C.E., to which one must add 2,520 years (7 x 360) remains unaffected, giving the famous 1914 date.
It should be remembered, as mentioned above, that some of the dates that were previously calculated from the pre-monarchical period were not predictions but interpretations of events that had already happened, such as the French Revolution and the setting up of the Evangelical Alliance. The introduction of the new chronology was paralleled by a new period of the Watch Tower Society’s history, under Rutherford’s leadership, where there was a progressive distancing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses both from secular politics and from the mainstream churches. Accordingly the Society simply ceased to use these older dates in ancient history as the basis for their end-time calculations. A recent publication, Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy! (1999), discussed a number of biblical prophecies and their significance for present times. The key dates that were used were 607 B.C.E. — the date the Watch Tower Society has fairly consistently given for Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Jerusalem — and 455 B.C.E., the year in which the Persian king Artaxerxes I is presumed to have appointed Nehemiah to be governor of Judah and return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the city’s walls.
What about 1975?
There was one brief exception. The year 1975 is often cited as a recent failed date for Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prophetic speculations. Watch Tower literature in fact published little about the possibility of 1975 heralding Armageddon and the end of the present system of affairs under Satan’s rule. However, numerous speakers at assemblies and conventions led Witnesses to believe that something significant would happen in that year (Cole, 1985: 331-339). Many of the Society’s publishers (their name for their house-to-house evangelists) went about their preaching with renewed vigour, and some even sold up their houses to finance their increased preaching work. What is interesting about 1975, however, is that the significance of the date was inferred by applying the older technique of calculating dates to the new chronology. It was based on the revised date assigned to Adam’s creation — 4026 B.C.E. — the beginning of the new, seventh millennium, being 6,000 years on. Thus the year 1975 effectively replaced the old 1873 date. This was not because of any failure attributed to 1873, but rather because the post-1935 chronology suggested 1975.
My conclusion is not that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have never had false expectations or made predictions. In particular the years 1925 and 1975 were associated with events that did not materialise. The patriarchs did not rise from the dead in 1925, and Armageddon did not commence fifty years later. There also unfulfilled hopes relating to 1914, when early members expected the saints to be transported into heaven. The Watch Tower Society has acknowledged such mistakes, and, although Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that the end of the present system of human affairs is very near its end, they have set no specific dates for end-time events. Where events have not materialised, new dates have not been devised. The year 1914 still remains a crucial date in Watch Tower thinking, although its meaning has undergone some reappraisal. No new date was ever set for the return of the faithful men of old, and no revised date has replaced 1975 for the commencement of Armageddon.
In the main, Watch Tower chronology is best viewed, not as some kind of clairvoyant prediction of ‘the end of the world’, but rather as an attempt to make sense of God’s working throughout history — in the past and the present, as well as the future. Although the Watch Tower organisation is regarded as God’s exclusive, true and faithful organisation on earth, it is nonetheless governed by fallible people, who do not claim special supernatural revelations, but seek to understand God’s word, as it is found in the Bible.
Finally, understanding of the Bible involves employing a number of principles of interpretation, one of which is the use of chronological schemes. As I have attempted to show, the modifications of Bowen’s chronology in 1935 largely explains most of the changes in Watch Tower dates, and in particular those that relate to events in the late 18th and 19th centuries — dates that pertained to acknowledged past events which were in no conflict with historical or contemporary happenings. It is not the case that Jehovah’s Witnesses have typically made predictions, experienced failure, and proceeded to reconcile cognitive dissonance. It is unfortunate that Festinger’s study of failed prophecy has continued to dominate the academic study of religion. What is needed is a properly religious understanding of prophecy that explores the proper epistemological basis of a religious group’s belief, and ascertains how religious believers understand prophecy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ understanding of historical events and dates cannot be illuminated by a sociological study of a flying saucer group over half a century ago. (2).
Dr. George D. Chryssides was a senior lecturer and Head of Religious Studies at the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences of the University of Wolverhampton now working for Birmingham University.
© George D. Chryssides 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author.
Barbour, Nelson H. (1874). ‘The Bible Chronology’. The Midnight Cry and Herald of the Morning. Vol.1(4): 53-54.
Chryssides, George D. (2008) Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Lanham, ML: Scarecrow Press.
Chryssides, George D. (2010). ‘How Prophecy Succeeds: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Prophetic Expectations’. International Journal for the Study of New Religions. Vol.1(1), Spring: 27-48.
Cole, Marley (1985 ) Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Global Kingdom. Aurora Mo.: Stoops Publishing.
Cuninghame, William (1839). The Fullness of Times, Being an Analysis of the Chronology of the Seventy. London: Nisbet.
Elliott, E. B. (1862). Horae Apocalypticae; or, a Commentary on the Apocalypse, Critical and Historical including also an examination of the chief prophecies of Daniel. 4 vols. 5 ed. London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday.
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Holden, Andrew (2002) Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement. London: Routledge.
New World Bible Translation Committee (1961) New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.
Russell, C. T. (1886) The Divine Plan of the Ages. London: International Bible Students Association.
Russell, C. T. (1889) The Time Is at Hand. London: International Bible Students Association.
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Schmalz, Mathew N. (1994) ‘When Festinger Fails: Prophecy and the Watchtower.’ Religion issue 24(4): 293-308. Reprinted in Jon R. Stone (ed.) (2000) Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. New York and London: Routledge: 233-250.
Stone, Jon R. (2000). Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy. New York and London: Routledge.
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Watch Tower (1968). ‘Why Are You Looking Forward to 1975?’ Watchtower, 15 August: 494-501.
Watch Tower (1972). ‘They Shall Know that a Prophet Was Among Them’. Watchtower, 1 April: 197-200.
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Wilson, Benjamin (1864/1942) The Emphatic Diaglott Containing the Original Greek Text of what is commonly styled the New Testament. Brooklyn, NY: International Bible Students Association and Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
(1) It should be noted that, contrary to Holden’s assertion, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the expression ‘second coming’ when referring to their own beliefs. From their very beginning, they have insisted that the Greek word parousia, rendered by others as ‘coming’, is more accurately translated as ‘presence’. They hold that Christ’s return will be as an invisible presence, in contrast to the American fundamentalists’ belief in the ‘Rapture’.
(2) This conference paper was based on my more
detailed discussion of Watch Tower chronology, to be found at Chryssides (2010) above.