- Meaning and Translation
by James R. White
(This information sheet is divided into two sections - the first explores the meaning of John 1:1, and the second addresses the more technical subject of the correct translation of the verse. The second portion will be of interest to those who are faced with the New World Translation of Jehovah's Witnesses and its rendering of the last clause of this verse as "the Word was a god.")
John 1:1-3, 14, 18
The prologue to John's Gospel has long been a center of controversy when discussing the Deity of Christ, and naturally so. One can hardly read the above sentences without catching a glimpse of One Who is far beyond the realm of simply human; even far beyond the realm of the angelic. The logos, the Word, was in the beginning, was with God, and was God. The Word created all things, and there is absolutely nothing in existence that the Word did not create. Remember that the original readers of John's Gospel would not have already read verse 14, and they would not have the preconceived knowledge that the Word is identified as Christ. Try to detach yourself from that knowledge for a moment, and imagine what kind of being you would be imagining while reading about this Word. Certainly one can hardly conceive of a higher Being.
To understand what John is saying, we must delve into the verses themselves and analyze them carefully. We must bear in mind that we are reading only a translation of what John wrote, and hence some mention will have to be made of the Greek language.
John's first assertion is that "In the beginning was the Word." Which beginning? Considering the whole context of the prologue, many have identified this beginning as the same beginning mentioned in Genesis 1:1. But most see that the assertion of the Apostle goes far beyond that.
The key element in understanding this, the first phrase of this magnificent verse, is the form of the word "was," which in the Greek language in which John was writing, is the word en (the "e" pronounced as a long "a" as in "I ate the food"). It is a timeless word - that is, it simply points to existence before the present time without reference to a point of origin. One can push back the "beginning" as far as you can imagine, and, according to John, the Word still is. Hence, the Word is eternal, timeless. The Word is not a creation that came into existence at "the beginning," for He antedates that beginning.
John is very careful in his language at this point. Throughout this section, John carefully contrasts the Word, and all other things. He does so by consistently using en of the Logos, the Word, and by consistently employing a totally different verb in reference to all other things. This other verb is "to become" (egeneto). It is used of John the Baptist in verse 6, of the world in verse 10, and the children of God in verse 12. Only when we come to verse 14 does John use "to become" of the Word, and that is when the Word "became flesh." This refers to a specific point in time, the incarnation, and fully demonstrates John's intentional usage of contrasting verbs.
John is not alone in this. Jesus contrasted Abraham's "becoming" with His own eternal existence in John 8:58 in the same way. The Psalmist contrasted the creation of the world with the eternity of God in Psalm 90:2 (LXX) by using the same verbs found in John 1:1 and 14. Hardly seems coincidental, does it?
We have seen that the Word is eternal. Much has been said about how John got the term "Logos," the Word. Some say he borrowed it from Greek philosophy, a sort of philosophical subterfuge. No one would argue that John just simply left the Logos as he found it among the philosophers. No, he filled the Word with personality and identified the Word not as some fuzzy, ethereal essence that was the guiding principle of all things, (as the Greeks thought), but as the eternal Son of God, the One Who entered into time, and into man's experience as Jesus of Nazareth. The "Word" reveals that Jesus is the mind of God, the thought of God, His full and living revelation. Jesus did not just come to tell us what God is like - He showed us. He is the revelation of God.
John did not stop here, however. He did not leave us to simply know the eternity of the Word. The next phrase says, "and the Word was with God." Again we find the verb "was" cropping up, again pointing to the timelessness of the subject at hand. The Word was with God. The preposition John uses here is quite revealing. It is the Greek word pros. It means "to be in company with someone" (1) or to be "face-to-face." It speaks of communion, interaction, fellowship. Remember that this is an eternal fellowship, a timeless relationship. "Pros with the accusative presents a plane of equality and intimacy, face to face with each other."(2)
This phrase, if taken completely alone, would be very confusing, since John has already asserted the eternality of the Word. Now he clearly distinguishes between the Word and God. He asserts that they are distinguishable. "God" and "Word" are not interchange-able terms. Then, is John talking about two "gods?" Can more than one being be fully eternal? John was a monotheistic Jew. He could never believe in more than one Being Who can rightly be called "God." How then is this to be understood?
This phrase must be taken with the one that follows. We read, "and the Word was God." Again, the eternal en. John avoids confusion by telling us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus, as we know Him as the Word, does not constitute everything that is included in the Godhead. In other words, John is not teaching the ancient heresy known as Sabellianism, which taught that Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are simply three different aspects of one person, i.e., Jesus is the Father, the Father is the Spirit, and so on. Instead, John here asserts the full Deity of Christ, while informing us that He is not the Father, but that they ("God" and the "Word") have eternally co-existed.
This last phrase has come under heavy fire throughout the ages. The correct translation of this passage is here given, and anyone interested in the technical aspects of the argument are referred to Appendix A. Basically, the passage teaches that the Word, as to His essential nature, is God. John does not here call the Word "a divine one," as some polytheistic Greek might say. He did not use the adjective, theios, which would describe a divine nature, or a god-like one. Instead, he used theos, the very word John will use consistently for the Father, the "only true God" (17:3). He uses the term three times of Jesus in the Gospel, here, in 1:18, and in 20:28. It can not be doubted that John would never call a creature theos. His upbringing and Jewish heritage forbad that.
How then are we to understand these two phrases? Benjamin B. Warfield said:
The Beloved Apostle walks a tight line here. By the simple omission of the article ("the", or in Greek, ho) before the word for God in the last phrase, John avoids teaching Sabellianism, while by placing the word where it is in the clause, he defeats another heresy, Arianism, which denies the true Deity of the Lord Jesus. A person who accepts the inspiration of the Scriptures can not help but be thrilled at this passage.
John goes on in verse two to reiterate the eternal fellowship of the Father and Son, making sure that all understand that "this one," the Word, was (there it is again) in the beginning pros ton theon, with God. Their fellowship and relationship precedes all else, and it is timeless.
As icing on the cake, John then precludes anyone from misunderstanding his claim that Jesus is eternally God by writing verse 3. "All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being." One can hardly be more inclusive than that. There is simply nothing that is existent anywhere that was not created by the Word. He created everything. Obviously, therefore, if one can be described as creating everything, one must be the Creator, and certainly not a creation. The Word is the Creator. All people reading John's words would understand that the Creator is God, not some lower being created by God to do the work for Him. By not qualifying his statement, John assured that we could correctly understand his intention and his teaching concerning Christ, the Word. He is eternally God, the Creator.
Almost all the controversy surrounding John 1:1 revolves around the fact that the theos of the last phrase kai theos en ho logos is anarthrous, i.e., it has no article. Some have gone so far as to assert that the correct translation, therefore, is "the Word was a god," basing the argument on the lack of the definite article ho before theos. What does the lack of the article indicate? Is it necessary to what John is saying?
I begin with the most quoted scholar on this subject, Dr. A.T. Robertson:
As Robertson made reference to his voluminous Grammar in the above quotation, I will include it in its entirety:
Note that Robertson translates the phrase, "the Word was God." His argument is summed up well in the following passage:
In light of Dr. Robertson's comments, it is indeed unbelievable that some will quote from the above section and try to intimate that Robertson felt that Jesus was less than the Father because he quoted John 14:28. A quick look at his comments on John 14:28 in Word Pictures in the New Testament, volume 5, page 256 refutes this idea.
To recap, Robertson says that 1) the translation of the phrase theos en ho logos is "the Word was God." 2) That the anarthrous theos is required for the meaning. If the article were present, this would teach Sabellianism, as then theos and logos would be convertible terms. 3) That the article before logos serves to point out the subject of the clause.
H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey utilize John 1:1 to illustrate the usage of the article to determine the subject in a copulative sentence:
Again, these scholars are pointing out the use of the article to show the subject against the predicate in a clause. They, like Robertson, point out that since theos is anarthrous, it shows that it is not convertible with logos and vice versa.
Dr. Kenneth Wuest, long time professor of Greek at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, commented on this verse:
Wuest in his Expanded Translation, renders 1:1:
That Wuest brings in the idea that the anarthrous predicate noun has a characterizing effect, and that it refers more to the nature of the subject of the clause than to an identification of it. This is right in line with what Robertson said - that the Logos is not all of God, and that you cannot say "the God was the Logos." The very context (kai ho logos en pros ton theon) demonstrates this fully. Those who would assert that the Logos is to be identified with all of God (i.e., Jesus is the Father and the Father is Jesus - Sabellianism) find an insuperable problem here.
It is good to note Vincent's comment that here "John is not trying to show who is God, but who is the Word." (10) The Logos is the central character here. Hence, when we see that the Word was, as to His nature God, we can understand exactly how He can be with God and yet be God.
F.F. Bruce's comments on this passage are valuable:
Another scholarly source along this line is found in the Expositor's Greek Testament:
A slightly different tact is taken by another group of scholars. These scholars refer to what is known as Colwell's rule, named after E.C. Colwell, who first enunciated his rule in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1933. (13) The rule says, "The absence of the article does not make the predicate indefinite or qualitative when it precedes the verb; it is indefinite in this position only when the context demands it. The context makes no such demand in the Gospel of John." (14) This is the view taken by Morris, Metzger, Griffith and others. Though Colwell's rule is not exceptionless, it is a valuable guide. At the very least, it is a good guide to translation in this case. Those scholars who see the verse in this light are not necessarily in contradiction with the others already cited. First it should be noted that Robertson and Nicoll had passed away before the work of Colwell, and their comments reflect this. Also, both approaches lead to the same conclusion - the passage teaches the Deity of Jesus Christ. Some scholars see the anarthrous theos as emphasizing the nature of the Word, and all agree that it is not simply an adjectival type of description, saying that Christ is merely a "god-like one." A more recent authors work (March 1973) bears on this issue as well. Philip B. Harner did an extensive study of anarthrous predicate nouns which was published in the Journal of Biblical Literature as well (15). His research led to some realignment in viewing Colwell's rule, it is true. It should also be noted that his article has been used extensively by those who would deny the Deity of Christ and mistranslate this passage. Sufficient at this point is a quotation from Harner's article itself:
The authoritative reference source, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, is quite direct on John 1:1:
To summarize: The phrase kai theos en ho logos is most literally translated as "and the Word was God." (Robertson, Bruce). The reason that theos is anarthrous is both that it is the predicate nominative (Robertson, Dana and Mantey) and that it is demanded by the fact that if it had the article, it would be then interchangeable with logos, which is contextually impossible. (Robertson, Dana and Mantey, Bruce, Nicoll) Colwell's rule also comes into play at this point. We have seen that the majority of scholarship sees the theos as indicating the nature of the Word, that He is God as to His nature. The noun form is here used, not the adjectival theios, which would be required to simply classify the Word as "god-like."
Hence, John 1:1 teaches that the Word is eternal (the imperfect form of eimi, en), that He has always been in communion with God (pros ton theon), and hence is an individual and recognizable as such, and that, as to His essential nature, He is God. Anything less departs from the teaching of John, and is not Biblical.
What about "a god?"
Until 1950, an extra section dealing with a translation of John 1:1 as "the Word was a god" would not have been necessary. No one would dare publish such a "translation." However, in 1950, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society published its own translation of the Bible, The New World Translation of the Greek Scriptures. This version translates John 1:1 in this way. A number of appendices have appeared in the NWT attempting to defend this translation by making reference to many of the same scholars that have already been quoted. Aside from the comment of The Expositor's Greek Testament above, the following from F. F. Bruce sums up the truth pretty well:
A footnote appears after the comment on the article, and it says:
This translation violates the following principles:
Others could be added, but this is sufficient. There is obviously no scholarly support for the rendering of "a god," and there is massive scholarly argument against it. It is not a valid translation in any way.
1. Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd edition edited by F.W. Gingrich and Frederick Danker, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979) p. 719.
2. A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols., (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1932), 5:4
3. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield. The Person and Work of Christ, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1950), p. 53.
4. A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 5, pp. 4-5.
5. A.T. Robertson. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934) p. 767-768.
6. A.T. Robertson. The Minister and His Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977) pp. 67-68.
7. H.E. Dana. Julius Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1950) pp. 148-149.
8. Kenneth Wuest. Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, vol. 3, "Golden Nuggets," p. 52.
9. Wuest, Word Studies, vol. 4, p. 209.
10. M.R. Vincent. Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 384.
11. F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 31.
12. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed.. The Expositor's Greek Testament, 5 vols, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 1:684.
13. E.C. Colwell. "A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament" (Journal of Biblical Literature, 1933) pages 12-21. See also discussion in footnote, Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), p. 77.
14. Morris. The Gospel According to John, p. 77.
15. Philip B. Harner. "Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns Mark 15:39 and John 1:1" (Journal of Biblical Literature, March 1973), 92:75-87.
16. Harner, pg. 87.
17. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964) vol 3:105-106.
18. F.F. Bruce. The Books and the Parchments, (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1963), p. 60-61.
19. This information was made available during a trial in Scotland, Douglas Walsh v. The Right Honorable James Latham Clyde, M.P., P.C., etc., Scotland, 1954. I include this to demonstrate the non-scholarly, non-factual approach utilized in defending this erroneous translation.