In recent decades the Watchtower (hereafter WTS) has ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses may take certain components of blood, such as hemophiliac preparations (Factor VIII and Factor IX), various immune globulins, albumin, etc. Witnesses must refuse other components such as white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets and plasma. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses have justifiably been confused by such a policy, especially in light of the fact that all of the separate components of plasma, red cells, white cells and platelets are on the approved list, and use of blood fractions requires the collection and storage of huge quantities of blood.
Could it be that just as our understanding on the propriety of organ transplants and immunizations have been updated in recent decades, so too our understanding of what constitutes obedience to the command to “abstain…from blood” may need to be examined? Many think so.
What exactly does the Bible say regarding the medical use of blood? Jehovah’s first laws regarding blood were provided to Noah and his family, and they are sometimes referred to as the “eternal or everlasting covenant.” At Genesis 9:3-7, three requirements are outlined:
1. They were prohibited from eating the unbled flesh of animals.
2. They were prohibited from shedding man’s blood; (murdering) Murderers themselves were to be put to death.
3. They were commanded to be fruitful; (have many children).
It is claimed that since all mankind descended from Noah and his sons, these requirements still apply to all humankind. However there are some very basic problems involved with this view. First of all, how can the WTS encourage not only singleness, but childlessness among those Witnesses that are married in view of requirement three? By what authority can we pick and choose out of an “everlasting covenant” what we want to follow?
Secondly; As can be seen from the words used to express the command against murder, (shedding man’s blood) it becomes apparent that it was not the literal blood that was referenced. Murder by poisoning is clearly just as wrong as murder by stabbing even though no blood is shed. Also, since even a thorough bleeding of a slaughtered animal leaves as much as 50% of its blood in the flesh, it becomes apparent that blood was being used as a metaphor – a symbol for life.
Thirdly; there is no direct command against eating blood stated in these verses, although one could probably say that this would logically follow. As it has already been pointed out, “blood” is being used as a symbol for life. Noah was told “Only flesh with its soul –its blood– you must not eat.” A number of Bible commentators have concluded that this was primarily a command against eating live animals. This may sound bizarre, even absurd to us today, but anyone who has traveled abroad, especially in parts of Asia and Africa can attest to the fact that this is still a common (and gruesome) practice.
Jehovah stated requirements concerning blood as part of the Mosaic Law and these are recorded both at Leviticus 17:10-16 and at Deuteronomy 12:15-25 with the additional provision that the blood from a slaughtered animal must be poured out upon the ground. The sacredness of life was a central tenet of the Mosaic Law. Godly respect for life required the blood of a slaughtered animal to be poured out, in effect, giving the life back to Jehovah and anyone deliberately eating the blood of a slaughtered animal was to be cut off.
Please note however, that it was life itself that was sacred. The blood of a slain animal was viewed as sacred because it symbolized the life that had been taken. Respect for the gift of life was the greater principle involved here. The medical use of blood involves the willing donation of blood by a person that continues to live for the purpose of saving life not taking it. Venerating a symbol of life to the point where it could not be used in an entirely different context to save that which it pictures seems to be a case of idolatry.
Lev. 17:15 illustrates that an Israelite could even eat a unbled animal if necessary, and if he had not taken the life. The result was nothing more than ceremonial uncleanness that required bathing.
Another concern of the WTS is the command under the Law that the blood be poured out. A typical statement of this requirement is found at Deuteronomy 12:16:
“Only the blood YOU must not eat. On the earth you should pour it out as water.”
The WTS uses this as the sole basis for forbidding most autologous transfusions. However in order to make a greater application out of this aspect of the Mosaic Law a number of things must be overlooked.
FIRST and foremost, WE ARE NOT UNDER THE MOSAIC LAW TODAY. The Bible tells us this in no uncertain terms (See Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:23-25, Ephesians 2:15) Further, the WTS acknowledges this freely in the publications when the subject matter is something other than blood.
SECOND, the biblical context. Just as with the original statement of Jehovah’s law concerning blood the context is only in reference to butchering an animal for food.
THIRD, the very purpose of the law in the first place was to insure that the blood would not be eaten and that is all as is apparent from even a casual reading.
The blood was removed by being poured out. This was and still is the quickest, most practical solution to the problem involved in eating the animal flesh without eating the blood. That the WTS itself does not truly believe this applies to us today is attested to by the fact that many practices today that involve the storage of blood are permitted as matters of conscience.
The letter from the Apostolic council recorded at Acts 15:23-29 is arguably the single most important passage with regard to the WTS’s view on the medical use of blood because these are the only verses that could possibly be construed as prohibiting blood transfusions. Verses 28 and 29 are of particular interest:
“For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.”
Since the setting in which this statement was made was with regard to a dispute that arose about whether the Gentile Christians should be circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic Law, the eating of blood as forbidden in the Mosaic Law is unquestionably the biblical context of this reference. It is for this reason that the Today’s English Version gives this rendering:
“Eat no food that has been offered to idols; eat no blood; eat no animal that has been strangled; and keep yourselves from immorality.”
Phillips Modern English translation puts it this way:
“Avoid what has been sacrificed to idols; tasting blood; eating the meat of what has been strangled; and sexual immorality.”
Would it be proper to enlarge this context to cover anything having to do with blood, making this verse say in effect “Abstain from blood in any way shape or form”? That the WTS thinks this is the proper way to view Acts 15:29 is apparent in statements like these:
“So too abstaining from blood means not taking it into your body at all.” Live Forever p. 216
However, at Acts 15:29 we are dealing with a single verb infinitive tied to four different clauses. By the very nature of the sentence structure, ‘abstain’ must apply unilaterally to everything on the list. For this reason, the statement quoted from the Live Forever book could be true if and only if the following statement is also true:
“So too abstaining from things sacrificed to idols means not taking them into your body at all.”
This statement is clearly incorrect as it conflicts with 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14. Most telling is the way in which the WTS has attempted to harmonize these chapters with Acts 15:29. In the October 15, 1978 issue of The Watchtower on page 31, the WTS made the claim that what was actually forbidden in the phrase “abstain from things sacrificed to idols” was becoming an active participant in the pagan religious ceremony where the actual sacrificing occurred and not the eating of the meat. In effect watering this phrase down to just “abstain from idolatry.” However, where does this leave us with regard to blood?
If meat sacrificed to idols can be eaten in good conscience, then by the WTS’s own reasoning it can be seen that Acts 15:29 could not possibly have an application beyond the Mosaic Law since it didn’t even have a full application within the Law. It would be extraordinarily disingenuous to selectively and arbitrarily attempt to change the context of a single scripture as a matter of convenience.
Acts 15:29 CANNOT be enlarged beyond its biblical context ONLY when blood is being discussed.
The vast majority of Bible commentators, and even Charles Taze Russell himself, for that matter, have concluded that the letter from the Apostolic council was in essence a temporary measure to smooth out the enormous differences of background between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in the still young Christian congregation. Acts 15:29 was not by any stretch of the imagination a statement of the ‘fundamental ethical norms for Christians’ because there are many more things involved in pleasing Jehovah that are just as important if not more so than these four. (Compare 1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Interestingly, at 1 Cor. 8:4, Paul uses the same Greek word “eudolothutos,” that James used at Acts 15:29 when discussing “things sacrificed to idols.” Unlike most translators, the WTS chooses to translate these expressions differently, thus making it more difficult to appreciate that Paul and James were discussing the same subject. To do otherwise would make it appear, from the WTS’s reasoning, that Paul was an apostate. That he rejected the apostolic decree by giving Christians permission to eat meat sacrificed to idols, instead of abstaining from it. When in truth, he clearly understood that James remarks were a strong recommendation, not Christian law.
In Acts chapter 21 it can be noted that the friction between Jewish and Gentile Christians did not end with the so-called decree from the Apostolic Council of Acts chapter 15. On the contrary, when Paul came back to Jerusalem some time later he found himself in the middle of the same discussion. James told him:
Ac 21:20-22 “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the solemn customs. What, then, is to be done about it?”
Obviously, even though James and the whole congregation in Jerusalem had already ruled that this was indeed correct, it was hard to swallow for many, especially newer Jewish converts. Indeed, it was bad enough that Gentiles weren’t obliged to follow the Torah, but the obvious conclusion that Jewish Christians weren’t required to follow it either was so controversial James did not dare to raise it. On the contrary, James outlined two courses of action to subvert the so-called rumors that Paul was speaking against Moses:
Paul should perform a well-known Jewish ritual, “cleanse yourself ceremonially,” along with four very law obedient Jewish Christian men. This would give the impression to all the Jews that the rumors were wrong and that Paul was “also keeping the Law.”
James and the others had already sent a letter instructing them to take care not to offend the Jewish Christians. (See Acts 15:22-29).
Both of these courses of action were taken to avoid offending the Jewish Christians. The context and message of both of the occurrences of the law against blood in the Greek scriptures (Acts 15 and 21), is that this law was solely to avoid stumbling the Jewish brothers and sisters. This was not a universal law for all men, but solely a question of respect for the conscience of Jewish Christians.
A careful analysis of these verses provides a wealth of understanding regarding the historical context, and appreciation for the circumstances that made the recommendations necessary.
Would it be proper for us to reword the Bible so that it is made to appear to say something that in reality it doesn’t? Certainly not. This would be sheer manipulation, an attempt to force upon the Bible a preconceived meaning that is neither stated nor implied. However, how else can we view statements like these?
“The Law repeatedly stated the Creator’s ban on taking in blood to sustain life.” Blood brochure p. 4
NOWHERE in the Bible can you find Jehovah’s law on blood expressed in these terms. At no place in the Bible is a distinction ever drawn as to the motives one might have in eating blood by itself. It didn’t matter if it sustained your life or not and because of this ‘sustaining life’ was not an issue. In like fashion the substitution of the word ‘eat’ with the phrase ‘taking in’ is completely meaningless and even diversionary because nowhere in the Bible is it even hinted that blood could enter your body in a way other than by eating and because of this the broader aspect of ‘taking in’ is not an issue either. The facts prove that the transfusion of a blood product is not analogous to eating.
It is interesting to note that the transfusion of blood was first condemned in the July 1, 1945 issue of The Watchtower. During the next few years, the WTS was deluged with questions concerning this view. It soon became apparent from the answers that were being given that the WTS was reasoning under a serious misconception of the true function that blood served in the body. This misconception can be traced all the way back to the teachings of Claudius Galen and is apparent in the writings of a number of early researchers in the field of transfusions including Sir William Harvey, Richard Lower, and Jean Babtiste Denys.
It was incorrectly thought that blood itself was the food upon which the body was sustained and it was not until the 20th century that it was realized that the blood is only the vehicle that carries the food and not the food itself. For reasons that can only be speculated upon now, the WTS was still handicapped by this misconception long after it was known to be incorrect. This can be seen from the following quotation from the 1961 volume of The Watchtower on page 559:
“In performing a transfusion it is nothing less than nourishing the body by a shorter road than ordinary – that is to say, placing in the veins blood all made in place of taking food which only turns to blood after several stages.”
The WTS was in turn quoting Jean Babtiste Denys, who had been dead for 257 years in 1961, as proof of their view. That the WTS would use this quotation showed a serious misunderstanding of basic biology. Your blood is living tissue performing a specific set of functions in your body. One of these functions is serving as the vehicle whereby food is carried to the tissues in a manner analogous to the way the hand is the vehicle whereby food is carried to the mouth. A blood transfusion is not the eating, but the transplant of this living tissue, essentially an organ transplant. A blood transfusion does not nourish the body, does not have as its design the nourishing of the body, and is not given because the patient needs nourishment, a point that the WTS has by degrees been forced to silently concede.
More recently, the connection between the transfusion of blood and the eating of blood has been made in more subtle ways. For example in the Reasoning book on page 73 an attempt is made to establish this link by analogy:
“Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from alcohol. Would he be obedient if he quit drinking alcohol but had it put directly into his veins?”
With substances like alcohol and certain drugs it makes no difference how they are administered because the end result, the absorption by the body, is the same. However what if the end result was not the same? Would this man in question also be prohibited from using a mouthwash or cough syrup that contained alcohol? Would he be prohibited from using alcohol as a topical antiseptic or in an after shave? The very idea is ridiculous because the purpose is entirely different. The error of the WTS “alcohol in the veins” analogy can be illustrated with a similar one:
“Consider a man who is told by his doctor that he must abstain from meat. Would he be obedient if he quit eating meat, but accepted a kidney transplant?”
Obviously eating and receiving an organ transplant are completely dissimilar just as the eating of blood and the transfusion of blood are in no way connected.
Today the WTS is reduced to rewording the Bible and using misconceptions about blood as proof of their view. They no longer even attempt to explain why a transfusion would fall under the prohibition against eating blood because it has become impossible to perpetuate the original mistaken premise. Science offers no support for the WTS’s blood doctrine.
In an effort to bolster support for their doctrine, the WTS has grossly exaggerated the dangers associated with transfusions. For example, the probability of getting AIDS from a blood transfusion is approximately 1 in 500,000. Compare this with the probability of dying from complications of anesthesia or taking an antibiotic – somewhere between 1 and 15,000 to 1 in 30,000. A transfusion is essentially an organ transplant. There are real risks involved, but these are minimal when compared to likelihood of bleeding to death from massive blood loss, and doctors are in the best position to evaluate these risks when compared to the possible benefits from a transfusion.
The WTS acknowledges a study indicating that for every 13,000 blood transfusions, there is one death. This is a slightly greater risk than that associated with taking an antibiotic, or having general anesthesia. The WTS also acknowledges a study which indicates the refusal of blood during surgery increases mortality by approximately 1%. This implies that every time a Witness has “bloodless surgery” his chance of dying is 1% greater.
Expressed another way, for every 100 hundred operations, there is one unnecessary death. Multiply this by many years and thousands upon thousands of operations, add to it those who die from massive blood loss before making it to surgery, factor in the victims of leukemia and related disorders, and what you have is the needless deaths of many thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Additionally, remember that Witnesses in less developed countries do not benefit from advanced “no blood” techniques and specialized equipment because it is often not available, so the rate of morbidity is likely much higher in those lands.
Although having no direct bearing on the scriptural and moral aspects of blood transfusions, it is still helpful to consider the atmosphere that existed in the organization in the first part of the 20th century. Today, this is a particularly embarrassing episode in our history and this information is not brought up to belittle WTS writers, but to show the mind-set that produced the blood ban. These are some of the views the WTS espoused over the years:
- Rabies doesn’t exist – G23 1/1 p. 214
- Germs don’t cause disease – G24 1/16 p. 250
- Vaccinations are useless – G31 2/4 p. 294
- Doctors are agents of Satan – G31 8/5 pp.727,728
- Vaccines cause demonism – G31 2/4 p.293
- Aspirin causes heart disease – G35 2/27 pp.343,344
- Vaccines are a cruel hoax – G39 5/31 p.3
- Blood is ‘nutrition’ – W51 7/1 p.415
- Hereditary traits are passed by transfusions – W61 9/15 p.564
The blood ban was a product of this era. It had as its basis a deep distrust of modern medicine and simple ignorance. This fact when coupled with the virtual nonexistence of scriptural support casts a very dark cloud over the blood issue today because it calls into question the organization’s ability to have made an intelligent decision in the first place. However, this doesn’t have to continue indefinitely. The WTS to its credit has changed before. Vaccinations and organ transplants were both condemned for virtually the same reasons as blood transfusions, and these prohibitions are no longer with us today. The WTS can abandon the blood ban as well. Indeed, they have all but gutted the policy already. One can surely hope and pray that the members of the Governing Body will find the courage to finally set matters straight.
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