Thomas said, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Did he address Jesus as “God”?

After Jesus rose from death, He appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was not with them.  When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he refused to believe them.  But a few days later Jesus again appeared to them.  This time Thomas was with them.  When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, the doubting Thomas exclaimed with great joy: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Jesus did not rebuke Thomas.

This event occurred between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as reflected in the gospels, and His disciples would soon start to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts.  We may therefore evaluate Thomas’ words by asking:

1.  Did Jesus teach that He is God?
2.  Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God?
3.  Did the disciples afterwards preach that Jesus is God?
4.  What did Thomas mean with the words ho theos?

Proof of the Deity of our Lord Jesus ChristJohn 20:28

Many people understand the phrase “my Lord and my God” as clear proof of the Deity of Christ.  The Pulpit Commentary describes these words as the climax of the Gospel.  For Spurgeon this is a most plain confession of Jesus’ Deity.  This view is supported by the following:

The words “my Lord” can only refer to Christ (compare with John 20:13).  The natural meaning of the word words “My Lord and my God” is therefore that his Lord was also his God.

David used similar words to describe Jehovah: “My God and my Lord” (Psalm 35:23).  Thomas, as an Israelite, knew this and would never have applied these words to any person whom he did not believe to be God.

If Jesus were not God, the Lord Jesus would have corrected Thomas.  But the Lord said, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed” (John 20:29 KJV).

There is really no significant question as to how the original text reads.

But Thomas did not refer to Jesus as God.

John 20 28If the remainder of the New Testament confirmed that Jesus is God, we would grant Spurgeon his point, but strong circumstantial evidence exists that Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as God:

1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.

2. The events in the immediate context of John 20:28 show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.

3. The events in the book of Acts began a few weeks after Jesus appeared to Thomas.  If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in Acts, but such a statement is never found in Acts.

4. Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic Christ-events and to teach the church through his letters.  He did not teach that Jesus is God.

5. Only about seven verses in the entire New Testament are interpreted by some as saying that Jesus is God, but each and every one of them are disputed; either the original text or the interpretation.  Brian J. Wright—a Trinitarian—after a detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testa­ment that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God.

6. Prominent Trinitarians admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.

These points are discussed below in more detail.

1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.

After Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus responded, “because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.”  What did Thomas not believe before he saw Jesus alive?  Did he not believe that Jesus is God?

Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) was the foundation of Judaism.  It would require some effort to convince him that Jesus is God.

Jesus never taught His disciples that He is God. 

Who do you say I AmJesus never used the term θεός (theos = god) for Himself (Wright p.230), but rather described Himself as the Messiah and as the Son of God.  Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God.   For example:

A little time before He appeared to Thomas, Jesus, in prayer, referred to the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3).  In using the word “only,” Jesus excluded Himself as “true God.”

A few days before He appeared to Thomas, He said to Mary Magdalene “go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’” (20:1, 17).

Why would John report that the Father is “the only true God” and then a little later write that Thomas said that Jesus is God?

Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John summarized his gospel as follows:

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

In other words, Jesus identified Himself as Christ; not as God.

Son of God

Some people, when they read the words, “Son of God,” understand this to mean “God the Son,” but the latter title is never found in the Bible.  An analysis of all the “Son of God” passages in the Bible indicate that this is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one.”  The following verses contain the title “Son of God,” but also a second title, which indicates what “Son of God” means:

Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” (1:49)

She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (11:27).

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).

The high priest said to Him, “Tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63).

The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus is.

None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus.  John 1:1 does use the word θεός to describe Jesus, but this gospel was written much later than the others.  The sublime things which John wrote was revealed to John and Paul through the Holy Spirit decades after the events of John 20:28.  When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out.  The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is.  Thomas had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal to John.  It is unthinkable that Thomas, when He saw the risen Jesus, thought of Him as the same as or equal to the Only True God (John 17:3).

Conclusion

Since Jesus did not teach that He is God, where would Thomas have learned that Jesus is God?  Rather, when Jesus was killed, the disciples doubted “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  When He was raised to life again, they believed; not that He is God, for they were never taught that He is God, but that He is the Christ.

2. The disciples did not believe that Jesus is God. 

The events of that time show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.  If they believed that Jesus was God, they would not have “all fled” just a few days earlier. when Jesus was arrested.

The confession of the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus demonstrated the thoughts of Jesus’ followers at that time.  Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just a traveler, they described Jesus as “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God…and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).

And, as we have seen, just three verses later John summarizes his message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

3. Jesus is not proclaimed as God in the book of Acts.

John 20:28 and the book of Acts are chronologically separated by only the few weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension.

If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message in Acts, but in the book of Acts the apostles never proclaimed Jesus as God.  No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.  Rather, they consistently proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead.  At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes that:

God raised him up” (Acts 2:24),
God raised up this Jesus” (v.32),
You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15), and
God raised up his servant” (v.26).

Thus Acts continues to make a distinction between God and Jesus, for if God raised Jesus up, then the Father only is called God.  If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?

4. Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.

Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic events of the first century and to teach the church through his letters.  And Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.

If Jesus was God, Paul’s letters would have taught this explicitly.  An explicit statement would be something like, “Yes, Thomas, I am your Lord and your God”.  While the New Testament never explicitly says that Jesus is God, the Old Testament explicitly and repeatedly announced Yahweh as God, for instance: “I am Yahweh your God” (Ex. 6:7; 16:12; 20:2).  Yahweh is identified as God about 400 times in the Old Testament (phrases such as “Yahweh God – Yahweh, God of heaven – Yahweh your God – Yahweh, God of Israel – Yahweh our God – Yahweh, God of compassion”), but not once do we find an equivalent explicit statement in the New Testament, saying that Jesus is God.

To the contrary, like the gospels, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus.  For example, similar to what Peter said in Acts, Paul wrote that God raised Jesus from death:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

Other examples of where Paul makes a sharp distinction between God and Christ are 1 Tim. 5:21 (“in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus”) and most strikingly 1 Cor. 11:3 (“the head of Christ is God”).  For many other examples, see The New Testament makes a distinction between God and Jesus.

According to some translation of Romans 9:5 Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9:5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.

5. Only John 20:28 refers to Jesus as God. 

There are about seven verses that are sometimes interpreted as saying that Jesus is God, but in each in every case either the original text or the interpretation is in dispute.  Brian Wright, himself a Trinitarian, after careful and detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testa­ment that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God.  (And then the current article also disputes that this verse proves that Jesus is God.)

Separate articles have been posted discussing John 1:1, John 1:18 and Romans 9:5.  For a general summary article on these seven texts, see Is Jesus called God?

Trinitarians admit.

Some Trinitarians consequently admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.

Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher at Oxford, wrote a book titled, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press).  In it he searches the Bible and church doctrine for evidence that Jesus is God.  Swinburne concludes with cautious uncertainty that “it is very probable that Jesus was God,” but he offers no explicit proof from the Bible.  He finds more evidence for Jesus’ deity in the teachings of the Church Fathers.  He admits that some NT passages “deny this doctrine” of “the divinity of Jesus.”  He says, “It is undisputed that Jesus did not teach this doctrine” of the Trinity.  This is quite a concession from a brilliant Trinitarian.  Swinburne does believe that Jesus is God; not because that is what the Bible teaches, but on the basis of reason only.

The trinit­arian Brian J. Wright, after in depth study, admitted:

No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.

Alternative interpretations

The immediate and wider context therefore prevents us from interpreting theos in John 20:28 as describing Jesus as God.  It forces us to consider alternative interpretations.  Three options are proposed below.  Two are alternative meanings of the word theos, namely:

1.  Mandated by God to represent Him, and
2.  God-like

The third alternative proposes that theos, in this verse, does not refer to Jesus, but to the Father.

Theos

To understand these alternative meanings requires a short explanation of the Greek word Θεός, which is transliterated theos, often translated “God.”  Strong  defines theos to include the following four meanings:

1.  A deity – (a god)
2.  Especially (with ho) the supreme Divinity – (the God)
3.  A magistrate;
4.  Godly

Today we use “God” as a personal name for the supreme Divinity, similar to the names John and Paul.  The Greek of the New Testament has no word exactly equivalent to “God,” for it did not differentiate between lower case and capital letters.  The Greek word theos is therefore actually equivalent to our word “god,” with a small g.   As stated by Strong, depending on the context, theos can be translated “God” or “god” or “Godly.”  Even a person appointed by God as magistrate may be called theos.  In the New Testament theos was, for instance, applied to:

The gods of the nations (1 Cor. 8:5);
The Roman governor (Acts 12:22);
The Devil (2 Cor. 4:4); and
People who received divine authority from God (John 10:35);

See The Meanings of the Word theos for a more detailed discussion.

Option 1: Mandated by God to represent Him

To translate theos as “God” requires additional information in the context to identify the supreme Deity.  The circumstances surrounding John 20:28, as described above, do not justify theos to be translated as “God.”

One of the alternative meanings of theos is a person who is mandated by God to speak and act for Him (Strong’s magistrate).  For instance, Jesus referred to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (John 10:35).  This is a quote from Psalm 82:6 and probably refers to the judges of the Old Testament.  Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as theos in this sense, namely that He has been mandated by God to represent Him.

Option 2: Godlike

Another possible meaning of theos, mentioned by Strong, is “Godlike.”  This is a qualitative use of the word, as opposed to a definite (the god) or indefinite (a god) use.

God was the Word
God was the Word

John, in the prologue, after years of meditation, in the first verses of his gospel declared that “ the Word (Jesus) was theos” and the Creator of all things.  It is possible that John 1:1 uses theos in the same sense as in John 20:28.  In a series of articles on the translation of John 1:1, it was concluded that John 1:1c should not be translated “The Word was God” for the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that verse.  In other words, it should be translated as “the Word was Godlike,” or, using words from Philippians 2, “the Word was in the form of God and had equality with God.”

It is therefore possible that Thomas used theos to describe Jesus as God-like.

Option 3: “My God” refers to the Father.

Since the Greek word theos is used for all gods, the writers of the New Testament generally identified the supreme Deity by adding the definite article “ho” before theos.  (See Strong’s definition above.)  The phrase ho theos is translated “God.”  (Translators drop the definite article and capitalize the G.)  “God,” in the New Testament, except for a handful of disputed instances, always identifies the Father.  (See The NT distinguishes between God and Jesus.)

The God of meIn the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos mou, literally “the god of me.”  This has some problematic implication, and can be understood in at least three different ways:

(A) Only Jesus is God.

In other words, the Father is not God.

To show that this may be the implication, consider the words of CK Barrett, a well-known trinit­arian scholar.  He comments as follows on John 1:1, which lacks the article before theos: “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true; if ὁ θεὸς [ho theos] had been written, it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity.” (The Gospel According to St. John)

In other words, if ho theos is applied to Jesus, it means that only Christ is God and the Father is not God.  This is obviously not true.

(B) Jesus is the Father. 

There are people who believe this, namely that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one Person, appearing in three different modes.  This is called Modalism or Sabellianism.  This view is rejected by most, for there are many indications in the Bible that the Father and Son are different Person.  For instance, Jesus prays to the Father, and at His baptism God speaks from heaven.

(C) John referred to the Father when he wrote ho theos.

The previous two possible explanations link theos to Jesus, but are not acceptable.  The only remaining possibility is that Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, exclaimed “my God” as a praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus.  In other words, that he blurted out something like “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).  Since ho theos always refers to the Father, it should also have that meaning in John 20:28.

Paul wrote:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

Could Thomas’ confession be explained by this verse?  Both words “Lord” and “God” appear in this verse, but “God” is identified as the Father.

Synopsis

After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His disciples.  When Thomas saw Him, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Jesus did not rebuke Thomas.  Many people understand this as clear proof of the Deity of Christ.

The events of John 20:28 occurred in time between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as captured in the gospels, and soon His disciples will start to preach through the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts.  We can evaluate Thomas’ statement by asking four questions:

Did Jesus teach that He is God?  Jesus did not teach that He is God, but always maintained a clear distinction between Himself and God.  None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Him.  John summarized Christ’s message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God?  If they did, they would not have run away a few days earlier when Jesus was arrested.  The two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, lamenting Jesus’ death, said that Jesus “was a prophet.”

Did the disciples afterwards teach that Jesus is God?  If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in the book of Acts, but such a statement is not once even found in Acts.  To the contrary, they consistently taught that God raised Jesus from death, thus making a distinction between God and Jesus.

What did Thomas mean by the words ho theos?  In the New Testament ho theos (the god) always refers to the Father.

Conclusion

The contextual evidence does not allow for the interpretation of John 20:28 as saying that Jesus is God.  Above three alternative interpretations are offered.  Which of them is correct, is not important.  One day soon we will be able to ask Thomas exactly what he meant.  What is more important is that John 20:28 cannot be taken as proof that Jesus is God.

The fact that the New Testament does not refer to Jesus as God is not the full story.  Other articles show that God created all things through His Son, that Jesus is equal to God, that Jesus is “the first and the last” (Rev. 1:17) and that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  It simply was the practice of the New Testament to refer to the Father alone as God.  We should not put too much emphasis on the title “God,” but rather ask who Jesus really is.  Perhaps the reader should next read Does Philippians 2 say that Jesus emptied Himself of equality with God?

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).