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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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).