Home » Deity of Christ » John 1:1c – a Grammatical Examination of the Jehovah’s Witness translation where Jesus is called “a god”

John 1:1c – a Grammatical Examination of the Jehovah’s Witness translation where Jesus is called “a god”

Subjects

John 1:1 is passage that is traditionally used as a proof text of the deity of Christ. It appears in our English translations to make the remarkable claim that Jesus (as the word) is God. Despite this, some see a different claim in the Greek text underlying our English translations – Jesus is a god but not God.

At the root of the controversy is the lack of the word “the” in the Greek text before the word “God”. Without such a word (called the definite article) the noun in question is rendered indefinite rather than specific, a rather than the God, or at least this is what some such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses argue.

Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses correct in their understanding of the Greek grammar here? Arguably not.

As a basic outline of the grammar involved here there are a few concepts that need to be introduced. The first is that of the predicate nominative.

A predicate nominative is where a noun in the nominative case (the case denoting subject in the Greek) is conjoined to another noun in the same case by a verb of existence e.g. “to be”. The predicate nominative states something about the noun to which it is related. An example of this would be the English sentence “the chair is red”. In this sentence the predicate nominative (if English had a case system like the Greek) would be the word red. Red states (predicates) something about the chair, it is red and not e.g. blue. The predicate nominative can precede or follow the noun that it modifies and the word order is in part due to considerations of emphasis or style.

Another set of terminology that needs to be discussed is that of arthrous versus anarthrous (articular versus unarticular) nouns. These terms define whether or not a noun is preceded by a definite article (translated in English in some instances with the word “the”). A noun that is preceded by the definite article is by nature a definite noun, it refers to, among other things, a specific being or class of beings. A noun that is without the article can, in a number of instances be indefinite.

Capital letters in our English texts should not lull us into a false sense of security about the meaning of the text. The original Greek was all in upper case letters and without any spaces between them. Whether we translate the sentence god or God depends on the outcome of grammatical considerations.

 

The Greek text of John 1:1 contains a pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominative. The word order in the Greek is “god/God was the word”. Greek word order is, as mentioned above flexible due to stylistic or emphatic concerns, in this instance the presence of the definite article prior to the word “word” means that this is the subject. The article is therefore merely a function marker here. The subject “word” is modified in John 1:1 by the word god/God. If both words, “god/God” and “word” were marked with the article then there would be confusion introduced into the mind of the reader as to which of the two was the subject. This confusion would be resolved normally by word order and context and therefore the possible conclusion that the reader may be left with is that God was the word.

 

Convertible propositions:

There is a further complication to the grammar here. If the definite article was used before the word “god/God” then it would form a convertible proposition with the word “word”.[1]In other words, the totally of what God is, the word is. Jesus is however not all of who God is according to classical Trinitarian theology. Rather Jesus is just one person of the triune God. Zerwick notes that having an arthrous predicate nominative in John 1:1 would “would signify personal identity of the Word with the Father, since the latter is ὁΘεός”.[2]

There is an 8th century Greek manuscript that does make this kind of convertible proposition.[3] This runs contrary to the overwhelming majority of the Greek New Testament evidence to the extent that it is not even mentioned in some critical commentaries on the textual tradition of the New Testament.[4]

 

Colwell’s rule:

One oft cited grammatical rule that is in play in John 1:1 is Colwell’s rule. According to this rule a definite preverbal predicate nominative is without the definite article.[5] This does not mean that we can look at John 1:1 and infer that because it lacks the definite article it is therefore probably definite, it does however mean that there is grammatical grounds for recognizing that the lack of the article does not necessarily entail an indefinite predicate. Carson emphasizes this point, noting a study by one of his students that showed on average that a preverbal anarthrous predicate noun is definite as often as at is indefinite.[6]

It does need to be recognized that Colwell’s rule is not an absolute rule without exceptions[7]; it relies on the context to determine whether or not the predicate is definite and this is rightly picked up by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.[8] The context of the passage will be reviewed at a later point in this article.

 

 

 

No Definite Article = Indefinite?

Daniel Wallace gives some examples where the New World Translation does not follow their stated principle of translating anarthrous nouns as indefinite:

“Following the “anarthrous = indefinite” principle would mean that ἀρχῇ should be “a beginning” (1:1, 2), ζωὴ should be “a life” (1:4), παρὰθεοῦ should be “from a god” (1:6), Ἰωάννης should be “a John” (1:6), θεόν should be “a god” (1:18), etc. Yet none of these other anarthrous nouns is rendered with an indefinite article”[9] he goes on to note that “The indefinite notion is the most poorly attested for anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives. Thus, grammatically such a meaning is improbable”[10] According to Wallace the most common rendering of an anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominative is that of the qualitative – it refers to a characteristic of the noun that is discussed. As such, the verse does not talk of Jesus as being the person of God, but in nature he was what God was.

 

Zerwick lists the following examples where the pre-verbal predicate nominative is clearly not meant to be taken as indefinite (a something). “Jo 1:49 σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, σὺ βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, or Jo 19:21 «write not ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων but that he said βασιλεύςεἰμιτῶνἸουδαίων. The same title with the article after the verb is found in Mt 27:11. 37; Mk 15:2; Lk 23:3. 37; Jo 18:33. Similarly the title «Son of God» in the predicate: thirteen times with the article, always after the verb, ten times without the article, of which nine cases before the verb. For other good examples see Mt 13:37–39; 23:8–10”[11]

 

A further quote needs to be seen here specifically focusing on the word “god/God. Countess notes:

“Throughout the New Testament the arthrous Θεός far exceeds the anarthrous, and of 282 occurrences of the anarthrous Θεός NWT sixteen times has either “a god, god, gods, or godly.” The translators were, therefore only 6% faithful to their canons enunciated in the appendix to John 1:1—i.e. Θεός = a god and ό Θεός = God. On the other hand they were 94% unfaithful.”[12]

Countess does not give an extensive list of examples, however a search through the 1881 Westcott Hort edition of the Greek text reveals these instances. The revised 1984 New World Translation (translated from the 1881 Westcott Hort) will be cited here, but in each instance the definite article is missing and therefore according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses it should be translated as either an indefinite or qualitative noun. These instances do not necessarily involve predicate nominatives but it is still instructive to note them: Note the capitalization in each of these citations

Matthew 5:9 – Happy are the peaceable, since they will be called ‘sons of God’

Matthew 12:28 – But if it is by means of God’s spirit that I expel the demons…

Matthew 14:33 – Then those in the boat did obeisance to him, saying “You are really God’s son”

Matthew 27:43 – … for he said, ‘I am God’s son’

Matthew 27:54 – … certainly this was God’s son

Mark 11:22 – And in reply Jesus said to them: “Have faith in God…”

Mark 12:26 – … and God of Isaac and God of Jacob

Mark 15:39 – …Certainly this man was God’s son

Luke 1:35 – …for that reason also what is born will be called holy, God’s son.

Luke 1:78 – because of the tender compassion of our God

Luke 2:40 – …being filled with wisdom and God’s favour

Luke 3:2 – In the days of chief priest Annas and of Caiaphas, God’s declaration came to John…

Luke 11:20 – But if it is by means of God’s finger I expel demons…

Luke 12:21 – So it goes with the man that lays up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.

Luke 20:36 – … and they are God’s children by being children of the resurrection.

Luke 20:37 – … and God of Isaac and God of Jacob

John 1:6 – There arose a man that was sent forth as a representative of God…

John 1:12 – … to them he gave authority to become God’s children

John 1:13 – and they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God

John 1:18 – No man has seen God at any time…

John 3:2 – …we know that you as a teacher have come from God…

John 8:54 – …It is my Father that glorifies me, he who YOU say is YOUR God;

John 9:16 – … “This is not a man from God…”

John 9:33 – If this man were not from God

John 13:3 – … and that he came from God and was going to God

John 16:30 – …By this we believe that you came out from God

John 17:3 – This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God…

John 19:7 – The Jews answered him: “We have a law, and according to the law he ought to die, because he made himself God’s son.

John 20:17 – …I am ascending to my Father and YOUR Father and to my God and to YOUR God.

There are many good reasons both contextually and grammatically that these instances have been rendered with a capital G. The point is not that the New World Translation is inaccurate in these renderings, but that its rendering of John 1:1 is also contextually and grammatically unnecessary.

 

If, as argued by Wallace John 1:1 is telling us that the word shared in the divine nature, in other words that he is what God is, it is worth noting a key thing about the divine nature. God’s nature was not created, it is eternal. Arguing against those who would seek to limit this qualitative nature of Jesus to merely “divine” rather than the entire nature of God, Beasley Murray notes that there was a term present in the Greek language to denote this θεῖος, and yet this term was not used.[13]

 

 

In summary, the grammar of John 1:1 can possibly mean that the word was “a god”. This indefinite meaning of the term God is however the least common grammatical option. Grammatically the qualitative meaning “in nature God” has much better support. Ultimately context not Grammar must decide this point.

I would argue that in light of John 20:28 and other Christologically significant passages in John, we are to see the author as indicating that the word was by nature God.

 

 

 

 

The Context of John 1:1

The context of John 1:1 is the determining factor for how this verse should be translated and will be subject to a brief discussion here.

 

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses the interpretive crux of the passage is that the word was with God and therefore cannot be the same God as it was with.

 

The overarching background to the statement of John 1:1 has got to be Jewish monotheism. The Jews were strict believers that there is only one God and that there are no others. Accordingly, to believe that John 1:1 is here referring to Jesus as a god, albeit in a lesser sense, is incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Another way to put this is that for a monotheist the term god/God could only be given to God almighty himself and not to multiple entities.[14]

Pointing towards a qualitative understanding of this passage Wallace points to John 1:14 noting that the word now became flesh. This verse again has a preverbal predicate nominative that is anarthrous (without the definite article). This time the predicate is the term flesh indicating that by nature the word became flesh. John 1:14 therefore provides a parallel to John 1:1 in that whilst in the beginning the word was by nature God, now it has become by nature flesh (human) thereby communing with us.

Colwell also points to the fact that the John 1:1 has to be read in light of the climatic utterance of Thomas in John 20:28 where Jesus is called Thomas’ Lord and God.[15] The fact that Thomas called Jesus his God makes this by definition a definite designation. This has occurred before the Gospel of John was written and therefore the reader can be assumed to have had some knowledge of this in the first century.

 

 

 

 

[1] Robertson, A. T. (1919). A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (p. 794). Logos Bible Software.

[2] Zerwick, M. (1963). Biblical Greek illustrated by examples (English ed., adapted from the fourth Latin ed., Vol. 114, p. 55). Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico.

[3] Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 2). New York: C. Scribner’ Sons.

[4] – Metzger, B. M., United Bible Societies. (1994). A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) London; New York: United Bible Societies.

– Comfort, P.W. (2008). New Testament Text and Translation Commentary. Tyndale House; Carol Stream, Illinois

[5] Colwell, E.C. A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament (1933). Journal of Biblical Literature 52. 13

[6] Carson, D. A. (1996). Exegetical fallacies (2nd ed., pp. 83–84). Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books.

[7] Moulton, J. H., & Turner, N. (1963–). A grammar of New Testament Greek: Syntax. (Vol. 3, p. 184). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

[8] Awake! 1972 5/22 p. 27 Is It Grammar or Interpretation?

[9] Wallace, D. B. (1996). Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (p. 267). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[10] Wallace, D. B. (1996). Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (p. 267). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[11] Zerwick, M. (1963). Biblical Greek illustrated by examples (English ed., adapted from the fourth Latin ed., Vol. 114, p. 56). Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico.

[12] Countess, Robert H. “The Translation ΘΕΟΣ In The New World Translation” (1967). Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 10(3), 160.

[13] Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002).Word Biblical Commentary:  John (Vol. 36, p. 11). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[14] Harris, Murray J. (1992). Jesus as God – The New Testament use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (60). Wipf and Stock

[15] Colwell, E.C. A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament (1933). Journal of Biblical Literature 52. 21

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