When referring to Jesus, should THEOS be translated God or god or divine?

God was the Word
John 1:1c – God was the Word

Summary

The Greek word translated “God” or “god” is THEOS.  The Bible refers to Jesus as THEOS about seven times.  This article discusses the different meanings of THEOS to lay the foundation for a discussion of why Jesus is called THEOS.

Combining Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and the definition in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, THEOS is used:

To identify a being or thing as:
● The only true God;
● A false god; a superhuman being worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc.
● An idol or image that symbolizes a god;
● A thing that opposes God, such as Satan or appetite or wealth; or as
● A person mandated by God to represent Him.

Or to qualitatively describe the characteristics or nature of a being that is not a god as ‘godly’ or ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’.

Difference between God and THEOS

This definition implies an important difference between our word “God” and THEOS:

God: The Greek language did not have the distinction between lower and upper case letters. Today we use “God,” with a capital G, as a name for the only true God; equivalent to His Old Testament name YHVH.
THEOS has a different meaning, for THEOS may also be translated “god” or “godlike.”

Jesus as THEOS

Of the more than 1300 times that the title THEOS is found in the New Testament, it is used for Jesus about seven times.  Thayer’s says, “Whether Christ is called God must be determined … the matter is still in dispute among theologians.”

Considering the uses of THEOS identified above, Jesus is not called THEOS in the sense of a false god or in the sense of a being that oppose God.  The following remaining meanings may be evaluated:

● He is co-equal part of the Trinity, or
● He is mandated by God to represent Him, or
● In a qualitative sense; that He is divine or Godlike, but distinct from God?

It is the purpose of this series of articles to answer this questions.

Purpose of this article

God’s Hebrew name YHVH, which is found all over the Old Testament, does not appear at all in the New, which has been written in Greek.  The Greek word translated “God” is Θεός (Strong number 2315); transliterated THEOS.  This Greek word has survived in English in words such as “theology” and “theism.”  The purpose of this article is to explain the various meanings of THEOS.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

ThayersBiblehub provides the various possible meanings of THEOS according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon.  The following is a summary of this complex but useful definition:

(1) THEOS is a general appellation (title) of deities or divinities (Acts 12:22; 19:37; 28:6; 1 Cor. 8:4; 2 Thess. 2:4).  In other words, it is used for any god; not only for the Creator.  In plural form, it is only used of the gods of the Gentiles (Acts 14:11; 19:26, 1 Corinthians 8:5, Galatians 4:8, Acts 7:43).

(2) Whether Christ is called God is still in dispute among theologians, and must be determined from John 1:1; John 20:28; 1 John 5:20; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8f, etc.

(3) THEOS also refers to the only and true God;

(3.1) Sometimes with the article (Mt. 3:9; Mark 13:19; Luke 2:13; Acts 2:11) – (The ancient Greek language had a definite article (the), but not an indefinite article, equivalent to the English a or an.)

(3.2) Sometimes with both the article and prepositions (e.g. “of God” John 8:47; cf. 8:42; Luke 1:26; Acts 26:6; John 8:40; John 9:16; Romans 2:13; Col. 3:3; Acts 24:15; John 1:2; Acts 24;

(3.3) Sometimes without the article (e.g. “You cannot serve God and wealth” Mt. 6:24; cf. Luke 3:2; Luke 20:38; Rom. 8:8, 33; 2 Cor. 1:21; 5:19; 6:7; 1 Thess. 2:5);

(3.4) Sometimes without the article but with prepositions (e.g. “from God” John 3:2; cf. 16:30; Romans 13:1, John 1:6, Acts 5:39; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:9;, 2 Thess. 1:6; 1 Peter 2:4; Mt. 22:32)

In summary: With Article With Preposition
(3.1) Yes No
(3.2) Yes Yes
(3.3) No No
(3.4) No Yes

THEOS is therefore used for the only true God with and without the article, and with and without prepositions.  In other words, the absence or presence of the article or a preposition does not fully determine whether a particular THEOS refers to the only true God.  Further identifications in the context must also be considered.

(4) THEOS is used of whatever can in any respect be likened to God, or resembles him in any way.  Under this option, Thayer’s mentions three categories:

(4.1) Hebraistically, for God’s representative, of magistrates and judges.  For example, in John 10:34 Jesus quotes Psalm 81:6: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’?

(4.2) The devil, (2 Cor. 4:4);

(4.3) The person or thing to which one is wholly devoted, for which alone he lives, e.g. “whose god is their appetite” (Phil. 3:19).

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance

Strong's concordanceBiblehub also quotes Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance’s definition of THEOS:

The supreme Divinity, God, godly.
Of uncertain affinity; a deity, especially (with ho) the supreme Divinity; figuratively, a magistrate; by Hebraism, very — X exceeding, God, god(-ly, -ward).

Meanings of THEOS

Combining the definitions above, the following possible meanings of THEOS may be identified:

(A) The only true God

Of the 1314 times that theos appears in the New Testament, the NASB translates it 1267 times as “God.”  According to Strong’s, THEOS is used for “the supreme Divinity” and “God,” especially when the article (the) is added.  In other words, when THEOS is used without the article, it may refer to both God and to gods, but when the article is added it most often refers God.  Thayer provides examples where THEOS without the article refers to the only true God.  Oxford’s similarly refers to “God (in Christian and other monotheistic religions) creator and ruler of the universe.”

(B) False gods

OxfordTHEOS is a general title of deities or divinities, including false gods.  THEOS was used to describe even Roman Emperors.  Oxford’s Dictionary refers to a “superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc. b image, idol, etc., symbolizing a god.”

(C) Things that oppose God

This is Thayer’s categories 4.2 and 4.3.  This meaning is not mentioned by Strong’s.  Examples from the New Testament are the devil, appetite and wealth (Mt. 6:24).  Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4).

(D) God’s agents

THEOS is also used for beings who have been granted authority or power by God to represent Him.  This is Thayer’s category 4.1.  Strong’s refer to this category as “figuratively, a magistrate.”  Examples include:

In John 10:35 Jesus, quoting Psalm 82:6, refers to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods.”  (In Psalms 82 “God” says to the “rulers” of “His own congregation,” “you are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.“)

Moses was appointed by God as “god” to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1).

Psalm 8:5 reads “You have made him (man) a little lower than ELOHIM.”  (ELOHIM is the plural Hebrew equivalent of THEOS.)  The LXX translates ELOHIM here as angels.  Hebrews, relying on the LXX, quotes this as “Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:9).  Angels are therefore indirectly called gods, probably for their role as God’s messengers.

(E) Qualitative use

In the previous four uses, THEOS identifies or categorizes a being (as a false god or as a thing that opposes God or as the only true God or as God’s agent).  But THEOS may also be used to describe the characteristics or nature of a being.  This is the qualitative use of the word.  Strong’s gives the examples “god(-ly, -ward).”  Thayer’s does not mention this meaning.  Oxford’s gives one of the meanings of god as an “adored or greatly admired person.”  This person is not really a god, but is godlike.

Adopting this meaning, some translations of John 1:1c read, “the Word was divine.”  To describe a being as divine does not necessarily mean that the being is God, for instance:

“… you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Pe 1:4).

To say that “the Word was divine” therefore implies that the Word is like God, having Godlike qualities, without being God Himself.  As discussed in the article The Word was a god, grammarians who studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c concluded that that phrase uses THEOS in a qualitative sense.   Commentators who prefer the translation “Jesus was God,” in defense against this finding, and to support the view that Jesus is co-equal with the Father, often describe Jesus as “fully divine,” as opposed to merely “divine.”

THEOS is not the same as God.

The definition above implies an important difference between our word “God” and THEOS:

God: Today we have something which the ancient Greek language did not have, namely the distinction between lower and upper case letters.  In a Christian community, when we write “God,” with a capital G, everybody know that we are referring to one specific Being; the Creator.  No further identification is required.  But when we write “god” it is clear that we are not referring to the Creator.  In other words, in the Christian culture, we actually use “God” as a name for the Creator; equivalent to His Old Testament name YHVH.

THEOS, on the other hand, is equivalent to our word “god,” which is a general designation for all deities or divinities.  The ancient Greeks had many gods.  Their deities were essentially just immortal, glorified humans with supernatural powers.  The other ancient nations, when the New Testament was written, also had many gods.  THEOS was used for all those gods.

Further Identification Required

THEOS is therefore only translated “God” when further identification makes it clear that the Creator is intended, for example:

When the context makes this clear.

Sometimes the only true God is identified by adding phrases such as such as “the living” (Mt. 16:16) or the “Most High” (Mark 5:7).

The Old Testament often adds God’s personal name YHVH (Yahweh or Jehovah) to the Hebrew word ELOHIM (GOD).

Very often the Greek New Testament puts the Greek article (the) before THEOS to identify the only true God.  John 1:1b is an example of this.  THE THEOS in Greek is translated into English by omitting the article and by capitalizing the G (“God”).  With G capitalized, we do not need the article.

Tautology

Consequently, our translations are sometimes guilty of tautology.  For example:

A jealous and avenging God is the LORD” (Nahum 1:2).  This is tautology, for “God,” in English, is a synonym for “the LORD,” which translates God’s name YHVH.  Perhaps this would be more accurately translated “A jealous and avenging god is the LORD,”with a lower case “g,” but that seems a bit awkward.

Jesus is called THEOS.

Of the 1314 times that the title THEOS is found in the New Testament, it is used for Jesus about seven times.  Thayer’s says, “Whether Christ is called God must be determined … the matter is still in dispute among theologians.”

Considering the five uses of THEOS identified above, Jesus is not called THEOS in the sense of a false god or in the sense of a being that oppose God.  The following remaining meanings may be evaluated:

Firstly, He may be called THEOS because He is co-equal part of the Godhead, as Trinitarians propose; three Persons in one Being.

Secondly, He may be called THEOS in the sense of being God’s representative, like the Old Testament magistrates and judges, who were mandated by God to speak for Him, and who were called gods for that reason.  Consistent with this concept, God always seems to work through Jesus: He created all things through Jesus.  He saves through Jesus.  We even worship God through Jesus.  See Jesus is worshiped and God created all things through His Son.

Thirdly, Jesus may be called THEOS in a qualitative sense; that He is divine or like God, but not the Original Source of all things.  This is consistent with Philippians 2, where it is stated that He is distinct from God but equal to God.  (See Jesus emptied Himself.)  Or, as stated in Colossians 2:9: “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”

The Word is a god

Another possible meaning which may be considered is the Jehovah Witness New World Translation of John 1:1c; “the Word was a god,” implying that He is one of many created but extremely powerful beings.  For a further discussion of this option, see the Word was a god.

The purpose of this series of articles is to determine which of these possible meanings apply to Jesus.

NEXT:  John 1:1b has the article before GOD, but 1:1c omits it. Does this justify an indefinite translation; The Word was a god?

Is the New Word Translation of John 1:1c as “the Word was a god” appropriate?

Overview

John includes the article (the) before THEOS (GOD) in 1:1b, but omits it before THEOS in John 1:1c.  Jehovah’s Witnesses see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation of this phrase: “the Word was a god.” 

The following objections to this translation are proposed:

1) The ancient Greek language only has definite articles, and how Greek uses these articles is very complex.  It uses them in unexpected places and omits them where we would expect to find them.

2) If John wished to say that “the Word was a god.” then there was another way in which he could have done that.  

3) The article is omitted for grammatical reasons, namely to identify THEOS as the predicate.

4) THEOS appears in other places without the article where it is clear that it must be translated as “God,” for instance, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). 

5) John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct, and in this construct predicate nouns without the article are more likely to be definite. 

6) Grammarians who have studied this special grammatical construct have concluded that predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force.  That implies that 1:1c should not be interpreted as definite (“the god”).  Nor does John 1:1c mean that Jesus is one of a number of gods, and it therefore cannot be translated as “the Word was a god” in an indefinite sense, for a qualitative sense means that 1:1c describes god-like qualities to Him.

It is technically possible to translate 1:1c as “the Word was a god” to reflect a qualitative sense, but not in the context of 1:1c, for the Bible declares that only one God exists.  In general, if only one instance of a predicate exists, it cannot be translated to English by inserting the indefinite article “a.”

7) Lastly, Jesus is unique.  He is “the Only Begotten Son of God.”  “Through him all things were made.”  He is not just one of many such gods.  He is not “a god.”

Introduction

The Word was GodJohn included the article before THEOS in 1:1b (literally, THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD), but omits it before THEOS in John 1:1c, (literally, GOD WAS THE WORD).  Jehovah’s Witnesses see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation of this phrase: “the word was a god.”  This implies that Jesus is one of many similar created beings with divine qualities.  

If a translation was merely a matter of substituting words, 1:1c (THEOS EN HO LOGOS) could certainly be translated “the Word was a god.”  To pagan Greeks this would have been a perfectly sensible statement.  They would understand this as saying that “the Word” is one of the many Greek gods, such as Zeus, Poseidon or Apollo. 

The following objections to the translation “the Word was a god” are proposed:

This is a complex matter.

Firstly, how the ancient Greek language uses the article is a very complex matter.  It is notorious for not using articles where we would expect to find them: 

An example of a noun without the article that must be definite, is John 1:2.  In Greek, there is no definite article before BEGINNING.  It reads, HE WAS IN BEGINNING WITH GOD.  It makes sense to include the definite article “the” and to translate this phrase as, “He was in the beginning with God.”  If we insert “a,” it would imply that there was more than one beginning.

Greek also uses the article in places we never would.  For instance, a literal translation of John 1:12 reads: TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE INTO THE HIS NAME.  

Thomas Middleton has written an entire volume of over 500 pages solely on the uses of the Greek article in the New Testament [The Doctrine of the Greek Article, London: Rivington & Deighton, 1841].  Balz and Schneider concluded that THEOS is used either with or without the article “without any apparent difference in meaning” [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 2. 140]

Thus, if an indefinite article (“a”) is assumed to be implied in every place where the definite article (the) does not appears in Greek, it will often corrupt the meaning of a passage.

Another way to say “the Word was a god.”

BibleIf John wished to say that “the Word was a god.” then there was another way in which he could have done that.  When the predicate without the article follows after the verb, then, as a rule, the predicate would be considered primarily indefinite.  Therefore, if John wrote HO LOGOS ÊN THEOS (THE WORD WAS GOD), that would have indicated an indefinite use.  But he reversed the word order and wrote, GOD WAS THE WORD.

The article is omitted for grammatical reasons.

In English the word order identifies the subject of the sentence, but Greek uses noun cases (word endings) for that purpose.  However, 1:1c is an example of a linking verb (“was”); as opposed to an action verb.  With linking verbs, the subject and predicate are in the same case.  In such instances, wherever the subject has the article and the predicate does not, the word with the article is the subject.  [Robertson, A. T. (2006). A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (pp. 767–769).]

In other words, in 1:1c, where LOGOS has the article, the article was omitted before THEOS not to make it indefinite, but to identify it as the predicate.

THEOS without the article is many times definite.

The Word of God

THEOS appears 1343 times in the Greek New Testament.  In 282 instances it is without the article.  If THEOS without the article must always be translated as “a god,” then one would expect to find “a god” in each of these 282 passages. But in 266 of the 282 instances we find THEOS translated as “God” in the New World Translation; not as “a god.”  “God” is a definite interpretation of THEOS, for “God,” with a capital G, is our English name for the Almighty; it identifies one specific Being.  The question is then, is the NWT inconsistent when it translates THEOS without the article in John 1:1c as “the Word was a god?”

Genitive Form

Jehovah Witnesses correctly respond that in many instances THEOS is in the genitive form, e.g. “from God” (John 1:6) or “of God” (John 1:12).  In this form THEOS changes to THEOU, and does not require the article to be definite.

But there also are many instances where THEOS is (a) without the article and (b) not in a genitive form, and where all agree this must be translated as “God;” not as “a god.” For instance:

No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). 
He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (John 20:38).
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Since non-genitive forms of THEOS without the article in these instances are translated as “God,” the question remains whether the NWT is inconsistent in translating 1:1c as “the Word was a god.” 

Special Grammatical Construct

Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) further respond that John 1:1c is different from these instances because 1:1c has a special grammatical construct, and in this construct unique rules apply.  It is true that 1:1c is a special grammatical construct.  In this construct the predicate (THEOS in 1:1c) precedes the verb “to be” (“was” in 1:1c).  This construct has been researched extensively:

EC Colwell published his study of the use of the Greek article in 1933.  He selected predicates which he identified as definite by virtue of the context and found that 87% of such definite predicates in such special grammatical constructs were without the article.  He formulated the following rule:

“Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article” (Colwell, p. 20).  

He concluded,

“The absence of the article does not make the predicate indefinite or qualitative when it precedes the verb … If the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun in spite of the absence of the article.”   [E.C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” JBL, 52 (1933), 12-21.] 

In another study, Harner found that 20% of the predicates in this special construct are definite. 

In conclusion, the absence of the article in such special constructs does not necessarily mean that such nouns are indefinite.  We cannot assume that John 1:1c must be translated “the Word was a god” simply on the basis of the absence of the article. 

The special rules which apply in the special grammatical construct of 1:1c is actually the opposite of what JWs would like it to be: 

As stated above, when a predicate without the article follows after the verb, the predicate is generally indefinite.  But the research mentioned above shows that THEOS (without the article) is more likely to be definite in this special construct than in the usual constructs.

Qualitative

Noun categories and the articles

Grammarians distinguish between:

Indefinite nouns, which identify any instance of a group or class.
Definite nouns, which identify a specific instance of a group.
Qualitative nouns, which attribute qualities of the noun to the subject of the sentence.

Qualitative nouns signify neither definiteness (a specific instance of a group), nor indefiniteness (any instance of a group).  It is, for example, possible to describe somebody, who is not actually a god, but who is a human being who is admired by many people for his or her god-like superhuman abilities, as “a god.”  In this case “god” is used in a qualitative sense; it does not identify the person as one of the gods.

The articles help to distinguish between definite and indefinite nouns.  For instance, “a god” is an indefinite use of the noun and “the god” is a definite noun.  But the articles do not distinguish between indefinite and qualitative uses.  For example, if “he” is one of the Greek gods, then “he is a god” is indefinite.  But, as explained above, “he is a god” may also be qualitative.

Probably Qualitative

Grammarians who studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c (predicate without the article before the verb “to be”) concluded that the predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force:

Harner categorized such predicates in Mark and John and found [pp. 85, 87]:
     80% are qualitative.
     20% are definite.
     None are exclusively indefinite. 

He concluded: “anarthrous predicate nouns preceding the verb may be primarily qualitative in force.” (p. 75).  (Anarthrous means without the article.)

Dixon’s substantiated Harner’s findings: “When the anarthrous predicate nominative precedes the verb it is qualitative in 50 of 53 occurrences, or 94% probability.” (Predicate nominative is the case in which Greek nouns appear in such special constructs.  To simplify matters, this website uses the more generic term “predicates.”)

Hartley found that, in John’s Gospel, 56% of such predicates are qualitative, 11% are definite, 17% are indefinite and 17% are qualitative-indefinite. 

These findings mean that THEOS in John 1:1c is most probably qualitative.  If that is the case, then 1:1c does not mean that Jesus is one of a number of gods, and it cannot be translated as “the Word was a god” in an indefinite sense.  However, it may still be translated as “the Word was a god” in a qualitative sense.

Jehovah Witness response

To defend their translation of John 1:1c (“the Word is a god”) against the conclusion that this phrase is most probably qualitative in force, Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) point to other phrases in the New Testament with the same special construct as 1:1c, but that are translated by inserting the English indefinite article “a” before the predicate, for example:

The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I perceive that You are a prophet” (John 4:19; cf, 9:17; Mark 11:32).

When a snake bit Paul, but he did not die, the people said, “he was a god” (Acts 28:6).  This example is particularly relevant because the predicate in this phrase is also THEOS (GOD). 

Other examples are:
a liar” (John 8:44);
a Samaritan” (John 8:48);
a thief” (John 10:1; 12:6);
a hired hand” (John 10:13);
a man” (10:33);
a sinner” (John 8:24); and
a king” (John 18:37) 

JWs argue that 1:1c may similarly be translated as “a god” to convey the qualitative sense of THEOS. 

A may only be inserted if more than one exists.

It is only valid to insert “a” before the predicate if more than one instance of the predicate exists.  In other words, it is only valid to insert “a” before “god” if more than one “god” exist.  To illustrate:

The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28), also has the same special grammatical construct, cannot be translated as “a Lord of the Sabbath” because there is only one “Lord of the Sabbath.”

In Acts 28:6 “a god” is a valid translation because these pagan people believed that many gods exist.  When Paul did not die as result of the snake bite, they assumed he must be one of those gods. 

Since there are many prophets, it is also valid to say that somebody is “a prophet” (John 4:19; 9:17; Mark 11:32).

Similarly, because many murderers, ghosts, devils, thieves and robbers are believed to exist, it is also valid to say that somebody is “a murderer” (Acts 28:4) or “a ghost” (Mark 6:49) or “a devil” (John 6:70) or “a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).  The same principle applies to “a liar” (John 8:44), “a Samaritan” (John 8:48), “a thief” (John 10:1; 12:6), “a hired hand” (John 10:13), “a man” (10:33), “a sinner” (John 9:24) and “a king” (John 18:37).

These examples show that an “a” may be inserted in the translation of both indefinite and qualitative predicates:

The Jews said to Jesus “You are a Samaritan” (John 8:48).  This is an example of an indefinite use of the noun. 

Jesus said to the twelve, “one of you is a devil” (John 6:70) is an example of a qualitative sense, for Judas was not really a devil.

But irrespective of whether an indefinite or qualitative force is intended, “a” may only be inserted if more than one instance of the noun exist.

There is only one God.

This principle must be applied to John 1:1c.

If John 1:1c was found in an ancient Greek context, it would have been possible to translate 1:1c, as the New World Translation does, as “ the Word was a god.”  It would mean that the Word is one of the many Greek gods. 

But it is not valid to translate John 1:1c as “the Word was a god” because, in the context of the Bible, there is no group of true gods.  Both the Old and New Testaments teach monotheism; that only one God exists:

Before me there was no God formed; nor shall any be after me” (Is. 43:10).

I am the First, and I am the Last; and there is no God except Me” (Isaiah 44:6).

There is no god besides Me” (Deut. 32:39)

There is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him” (1 Cor. 4:6)

Jesus prayed to the “only true God” (John 17:3). 

Therefore, in the context of the Bible, Jesus cannot be described as “a god,” irrespective of whether “god” is used in an indefinite or qualitative sense. 

In exceptional instances the Bible does refer to people and angels as “gods” (John 10).  But those meanings cannot be applied to John 1:1 because this verse describes THE LOGOS, who existed with God in the beginning (1:1b), when he was WITH THE GOD (1:1b), and when God created all things through Him (1:3).

The Bible essentially is a book that tells about the one true God in contrast to a multitude of false gods.  In that context the translation “the Word is a god” actually implies that Jesus is a false god. 

Count Nouns

JWs have developed a sophisticated defense of their translation of John 1:1c, which argues that the word GOD is a count noun and count nouns must always be either definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  And since “the Word” is distinct from THE GOD in 1:1b, He cannot be “the god,” and must be “a god.” 

This argument is discussed in a separate article which agrees that the word GOD is a count noun, that GOD is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c and that the New Testament presents Jesus as distinct from God.  But that article uses a number of examples, such as, “Jehovah is God,” to show that it is not always possible to insert the indefinite article when translating anarthrous count nouns that are used with a qualitative sense:

Jehovah is God” means that He is the only true God; a statement which only a worshiper of Jehovah would make.  To insert an “a” and to translate this as “Jehovah is a god” completely changes the meaning of the phrase.

Jesus is unique

A last reason why it would not be appropriate to describe Jesus as “a god” is that He is unique. 

Jehovah Witnesses translates the phrase with “a god” because they assume that Jesus is one of many powerful created beings with godlike (divine) qualities.  In their view Jesus may be the divine person with the most power, but He is still only one of many.  But there are no other being like Jesus.  For example: 

He is “the Only Begotten Son of God.

In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). 

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).  Through Him God continues to maintain all things (the universe – John 1:3; Col. 1:15).

The entire creation worships Him (Rev. 5).

UniverseIt is true that John 1:1b shows a distinction between God and the Word: As the Word was “with” God,” the Word could not be that “God.”   On the other hand, to refer to the Word as THEOS (GOD) in this context, which says that God began all things through Jesus, and which refers to the Father as TON THEOS (THE GOD), lifts the Word high above all other beings.  He is not just one of many such gods.  He is not “a god.”

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

  1.    The three views of the Son 
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God. 
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God? 
  5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  6.    Jesus is not God.  
  7.    God is the Head of Christ
  8.    Jesus is called God. 
  9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God. 
 10.  God created all things through His Son. 
 11.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?  
                Worship verses in the New Testament   
 12.  Jesus has equality with God. 
 13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles 
 14.  Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?   
 15.  But THEOS is a count noun.    

Theos (God) is a Count Noun. Does that mean that John 1:1c must be translated “the Word was a god?”

Overview

Jesus is God

In most Bibles John 1:1c reads, “the Word was God.”  But the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ (JWs) New World Translation (NWT) reads, “the Word was a god.”  JWs understand Jesus to be one of many powerful created beings.

JWs have developed a sophisticated defense of their translation of this phrase, which argues that the word GOD is a count noun and count nouns must always be either definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  And since the Word is distinct from THE GOD in 1:1, He cannot be “the god,” and must be “a god.”

This article agrees that the word GOD is a count noun, that GOD is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c and that the New Testament presents Jesus as distinct from God, but does not agree that count nouns, when used with a qualitative sense, must necessarily be translated by inserting the indefinite article.  For this purpose, this article mentions and discusses a number of example:

Jehovah is God.
Jesus is Lord.
He is God.
God is God and man is man.”
The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.

This argument is analyzed and discussed below.  First, some background information:

The word “god”

The Greek word translated “god” is THEOS.  THEOS is equivalent to our word “god,” with a small g, for it is used for all gods.  Since the Bible is a book about the true God, THEOS in the Bible is mostly used for the true God, but additional information is provided to indicate that the true God is referred to, for instance:

● Many times the New Testament adds the Greek definite article HO (the) to indicate that the god referred to is known to the reader.  
● The context could make it clear that the true God is intended.
● Descriptive phrases such as “the living God” identify the true God.

The Hebrew Scriptures similarly did not use the Hebrew word for “god” (ELOHIM) as the semantic equivalent to God’s personal name, Jehovah.  To identify Jehovah, without using His name, “god” was qualified, for instance, “I am the God of Bethel,” “God of Abraham,” “your God,” “the most high God” or “the God of gods.

The word “God”

We have something which the ancient Greeks did not have, namely the distinction between small and capital letters.  THEOS is therefore not equivalent to “God.”  THEOS is a common noun, but our word “God” is actually a proper noun: a name for the true God; perhaps equivalent to Jehovah in the Old Testament.  The word “God,” in a sense, therefore does not appear in the Bible.  The New Testament many times refers to the one true God as HO THEOS (THE GOD).  We translate this phrase by dropping the definite article HO and by capitalizing the G.

YHWH is a name, but ELOHIM is used in the OT is not as a name (a proper noun), as shown by the phrases “the most high God” and “the God of gods.

The Word is distinct from “God.”

The Word

John 1:1b, in most Bibles, read, “the Word was with God.”  Since Jesus was “with God,” “God” refers to the Father and Jesus cannot be “God.”

This conclusion is supported by the articles.  The Koine Greek of the New Testament has a definite article (“the”) but no indefinite articles (“a” or “an” in English).  Thus, a Greek writer could make a noun definite by use of the article, but would omit the article before non-definite nouns.  In 1:1b the article HO precedes THEOS, and is rendered in all translations as “God.”  But THEOS in 1:1c, referring to Jesus, is without the article, which supports a distinction between HO THEOS (God) and Jesus.

This distinction between “God” and Jesus is found all over the New testament.  Perhaps the best known is Paul’s definition in 1 Corinthians 8, where He makes a distinction between God (identified here as “the Father”), Jesus and false gods:

1 Cor. 8:4 … We know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

For a further discussion, see Jesus is not God and God is the Head of Christ.

God is a count noun.

A count noun is anything that can be counted, such as cats.  The opposite is called mass nouns, namely things that cannot be counted, such as courage.  Since gods can be counted, “god” (and THEOS) are count nouns.

The JW “position is that THEOS must always be a count noun.”  Hartley agrees: THEOS is a count noun because it can be both indefinite and plural, regardless of its context or understood “meaning.” 

The important point, for the discussion of the translation of 1:1c, is that “a countable noun always takes either the indefinite (a, an) or definite (the) article when it is singular,” for example “a cat” or “a category.”  Mass nouns, on the other hand, cannot be used with the articles.  One would not say ‘the courage’ or ‘a water’.  (Count and Noncount Nouns 1988, Purdue Online Writing Lab).

The reader will realize where the JW argument is heading, namely:

(1) If THEOS is a count noun, and if count nouns always always takes either the indefinite or definite article, then 1:1c cannot be translated “the Word was God.” 
(2) Since the LOGOS is “with” THE THEOS (1:1b), He cannot himself also be THE THEOS.  John 1:1c, therefore, cannot be translated “the god.”
(3) We need to distinguish between the HO THEOS of 1:1b and the anarthrous (without the article) THEOS of 1:1c.  John 1:1c must therefore read “the Word was a god.”  

There is, however, a complication:

Count nouns may be used with a qualitative sense.

This statement refers to when we use a noun to describe the subject of a sentence, for example, “that animal is a lion.”

Hartley concluded that all mass terms exude a purely qualitative force.  For example, the predicate “flesh” in the phrase “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) is a mass term, for one does not say “the flesh” or “a flesh.”  In this verse “flesh” exudes a purely qualitative force onto “the Word;” the Word (LOGOS) came to possess the qualities or attributes of “flesh.”

Count nouns as predicates generally do not have a qualitative sense, but are usually used to identify the subject, for example, “that animal is a lion” or “Jim is my son.”  But count nouns can also be used in a qualitative sense, for instance, “that rugby player is a tiger,” meaning that he is tough.   Here we use a noun (tiger) with a qualitative sense to describe the qualities of a tiger to the rugby player.

THEOS is used in a qualitative sense in 1:1c.

The JW argument does not state this directly, but implies this.  The background to this is that 1:1c has a special grammatical structure (noun without the article precedes the verb “to be”).  Phillip Harner and several other grammarians have studied phrases with this special grammatical construct.  They concluded that the predicates in such a construct function primarily to express the nature or character of the subject. 

This does not mean that THEOS in 1:1c definitely is used qualitatively, but the probability is high.  If it is a qualitative use, then 1:1c does not identify Jesus as THEOS, but attributes the qualities and characteristics of THEOS to Him. 

Count nouns must always be definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.

JWs admit that count nouns, such as THEOS, are sometimes used with a qualitative sense, but respond to this challenge that count nouns cannot be purely qualitative .  They argue that count nouns retain their “countability” when they emphasize qualities and must therefore still be either definite (e.g. the god) or indefinite (e.g. a god):

“Count nouns denoting persons such as theos and logos, must be either definite or indefinite, and a stress of qualitativeness is an additional characteristic, not an alternative one (Furuli, p. 217; emphasis in original).

“I view [the category Qualitative-Indefinite] as a noun with an indefinite semantic, having a primarily qualitative emphasis (Stafford, p. 344). [Note his distinction between semantic (definite or indefinite) and emphasis (qualitative).  Witness apologists Kidd, Stafford, and Furuli all make this distinction.]

Phillip Harner said something similar.  He said that qualitativeness may coexist with either a definite or indefinite semantic force, but this qualitative significance may be more important that the question whether the predicate noun itself should be regarded as definite or indefinite (p. 75). 

We see an example of how this works in the phrase “that rugby player is a tiger.”  Even though this a qualitative use of the noun “tiger,” an “a” precedes the predicate noun.  Simon and Gurfunkel similarly sang, “I am a rock, I am an island.”

However, it is proposed here that the definite and indefinite article cannot always be inserted when count nouns are used with a qualitative sense, for example:

Jehovah is God.

YHVH, pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh

Jehovah [the LORD] is God” (Joshua 22:34; 1 Kings 8:60, 18:21; Psalm 118:27) is comparable to 1:1c (“the Word was THEOS”).  Both Jehovah and “the Word” identify one specific being, and in both cases the predicate is “God,” which is a count noun. 

Jehovah is God” is a statement which only a worshiper of Jehovah would make.  “God” is here used with a qualitative sense to stress qualities, nature, or character.  It describes Jehovah as the only true God; the Supreme One who has all authority in heaven and on earth. 

To say “Jehovah is a god” would also be a true statement, but has a very different meaning; identifying Jehovah merely as another god; one of many.  Even a Muslim would be willing to say “Jehovah is a god.” 

Jehovah is God.” does have a definite semantic force, but to translate it as “Jehovah is the god” would also corrupt the meaning.  This phrase identifies Jehovah as the god we are currently speaking about, but this statement does not say anything about Him.  A Muslim may also make this statement. 

Other Examples

The following statements are similar to “Jehovah is God,” and also illustrate that, to insert an “a” or a “the” before the count term, would distort the meaning.

Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3).  [“Lord” is a count noun, for lords can be counted.  “Lord” is used in a qualitative sense, attributing the nature or character of true Lordship to Jesus.  To translate this as “Jesus is a lord” or even as “Jesus is the lord” significantly changes the meaning.

He is God” (Deut. 4:35, 39, 7:9; Joshua 2:11; 1 Kings 18:24, 39). 

God is God and man is man.”  Slaten offered a helpful example.  The first “God” is our name for the one true God.  The second “God” is a count noun used as a qualitative predicate; indicating God’s nature.  To say “God is a god” would distort the meaning.  The meaning seems best brought out by adding “by nature:” ” God is (by nature) God and man is (by nature) man.” 

Conclusion

JWs argue that count nouns, such as THEOS, in certain contexts emphasize qualities, but that count nouns cannot be purely qualitative, but retain their countability.  They argue that count nouns therefore always must be definite or indefinite, even when used with a qualitative sense.  According to this logic, THEOS in 1:1c “is a count noun and therefore must be either definite (the god) or indefinite” (a god).

But we have seen that, to insert an article in the translation of a count noun that is used with a qualitative sense, would in some instances distort the meaning of the phrase.  In other words, when count nouns are used in a qualitative sense, it does not necessarily follow that the English indefinite or definite articles must be inserted in the translation from Greek.  Consequently, even though “god” is a count noun, it is perfectly possible to translate 1:1c as “the Word is God.” 

When is “a” added?

We have seen that sometimes the indefinite article “a” must be added and sometimes not.  Linguists are fond of classifying words and phrases, and they need to tell us when “a” is added and when not.

One option is that the indefinite article is not used in phrases such “Jehovah is God” and “the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath” because these phrases stress uniqueness. 

Another option is to distinguish between literal and figurative uses of the predicate:

● When we say ‘Jim is a god’, meaning that he is a human being with near superhuman abilities as a basketball player, then the count noun “god” is used with a qualitative sense.  It also is a figurative statement, for we know that Jim is not a god.  We then add the indefinite article.

● Similarly, if we know that Jim is not a murderer, but say ‘Jim is a murderer’ to predicate the qualities of “murderer” to him, in other words, to say that he destroys people’s lives, then this is a figurative statement, and we insert “a”.  But if Jim actually murdered somebody, then ‘Jim is a murderer’ is an indefinite use of the predicate.

● In contrast, the statement “Jehovah is god” is a literal use of the predicate, for we know that Jehovah is God Almighty.

● Similarly, when we say ‘Jim is man’, the count noun ‘man’ is used with a qualitative sense; John is fully human.  But it is not a figurative statement, but a literal one, and we omit the “a”.

These examples seem to imply that, when a predicate with qualitative force applies literally to the subject, “a” must be omitted, for if we insert “a,” the statement becomes indefinite.  This point is, however, not important for the purpose of this article.  The mere fact that sometimes the articles are omitted when a count noun is used with a qualitative sense, is sufficient to counter the JW argument.

How should 1:1c be translated?

Consider 1:1c literally translated from Greek, using the English word order: THE WORD WAS GOD.

From the majority perspective, where Jesus is viewed as God, THE WORD WAS GOD seems like a literal use of the noun, which means that “a” may not be inserted in the translation.

In the Jehovah Witness tradition, where Jesus is not viewed as God, THE WORD WAS GOD seems like a figurative use of the noun, implying that an “a” should be inserted.

The question is therefore what the Bible’s perspective of Jesus is.  We have to translate the phrase from that perspective.  If the Bible declares Jesus to be God, then it is a literal phrase, and an “a” may not be inserted, and vice versa.  In other words, the classification of predicate nouns as count nouns or mass nouns does not help us at all with the translation of 1:1c.

Articles in the Christology series: Is Jesus God?

   1.    The three views of the Son 
  2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God. 
  3.    Jesus in Colossians
  4.    Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God? 
  5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
  6.    Jesus is not God.  
  7.    God is the Head of Christ
  8.    Jesus is called God. 
  9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God. 
 10.  God created all things through His Son. 
 11.  Jesus is worshiped.  Does that mean that He is God?  
       Worship verses in the New Testament   
 12.  Jesus has equality with God. 
 13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles 
 14.  Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?

For a discussion of the major role which Caesar Constantine played in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325, listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios”  The famous church historian Eusebius tells us that it was the emperor Constantine who suggested using the word homoousios.  Chandler ventures an educated guess as to what Constantine was thinking… and it has something to do with Egypt!

For a discussion of the church fathers, showing that they all believed that Jesus is subordinate to the Father, and that the idea of Christ being equal to the Father only developed during the Middle Ages, see the discussion by Dr. Beau Branson on the Monarchy of the Father (Trinities 240).