John 1:1 is an important verse in the dispute about the deity of Christ (the Word), which is probably the oldest dispute in the Church.
The verse seems to contradict itself, for it says that Jesus was with God, but the traditional translation is “the Word was God,” which identifies Jesus as God. Furthermore, when John referred to the Father, He wrote THE GOD, but when he referred to Jesus as GOD, he omitted the article. Some use this omission as grounds for the alternative translation: “the Word was a god.” This translation implies that Jesus is one of a greater number of powerful but created “gods.”
This article serves as an introduction to the series of articles on the translation of John 1:1. It confirms that Jesus is distinct from God, but not created. This article furthermore proposes that Jesus not only existed in the beginning, but that He Himself was the beginning of all things, and that there therefore was no time that the Son did not exist.
The second phrase of John 1:1 (“the Word was with God”) makes a distinction between Jesus and God, but the third phrase (“the Word was God”) identifies the Word (Jesus) as God. How can the Word be God if He is distinct from God?
This question resulted in much dispute over the past 2000 years. The first church council, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, called by Caesar Constantine, specifically addressed the dispute about the deity of Christ, and resulted in the Nicene Creed of 325.
John 1:1 had a significant impact on the development of church doctrines on the nature of Jesus. The proper translation of this verse is at the center of debate between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians. Some view it as the clearest declaration of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture. John 1:1 is the best known of the about seven verses in the New Testament where Jesus is called THEOS (GOD). The other verses refer to Jesus as THEOS in the context of the time when the New Testament was written, but John 1:1 refers to Him as THEOS in the context of “the beginning;” when “all things” were created (1:3).
The translation dispute centers on the lack of the definite article (the) prior to the word GOD (THEOS) in John 1:1c. John included the article prior to THEOS in 1:1b (literally, AND THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD), but omits it before THEOS in 1:1c. Since ancient Greek did not have an indefinite article, some see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation: “the Word was a god.” The purpose of this article series is to understand what John 1:1 means and how it is best translated.
Purpose of this article
While the majority of Christianity has a one-sided focus on the verses that emphasize the divinity of Christ, Jehovah Witnesses err to the other side, and only focus on the verses that show that Jesus is distinct from and subordinate to God. To find the truth, we need to find an explanation that satisfies all statements about Jesus found in the Bible.
To write this article, the Jehovah’s Witnesses defense of their translation of John 1:1c was read. Various other website resources were studied to identify the key principles. Many experts are quoted in these websites, but this article does not always quote these experts.
This article often refers to the three phrases of John 1:1. Below the majority translation is presented, together with the Greek transliteration.
To understand John 1:1 requires some understanding of some Greek words and grammar, but this article is intended for people that do not understand Greek. Therefore, and since in the original Greek language there was no differentiation between lower case and capital letters, this article presents the Greek literally using CAPITALIZED ENGLISH WORDS:
(a) In the beginning was the Word,
(En arkhêi ên ho logos =
IN BEGINNING WAS THE WORD)
(b) and the Word was with God,
(kaì ho lógos ên pròs tòn theón =
AND THE WORD WAS TOWARD THE GOD)
(c) and the Word was God.
(kaì theòs ên ho logos =
AND GOD WAS THE WORD)
Some Preliminary Observations
In Greek there is no article before BEGINNING, but the translation inserts the article (“the”). In 1:1b the Greek has the article before THEOS, but the translation omits it. There is no article before THEOS in 1:1c, but it is translated the same as 1:1b.
In Greek, the word order in 1:1c is reversed.
The Greek word for GOD in 1:1c is THEOS, but in 1:1b the word appears as THEON. THEON has the same meaning as THEOS. Each Greek noun normally has 8 or 9 forms (cases) in which it can appear. These forms do not change the meaning of the words, but define the roles which the words play in sentences, for example, to differentiate the subject from the object.
The implications of these observations are explained below.
Alternative Translations of John 1:1c
Three alternative translations may be considered:
“The Word was God” is the majority translation. “God,” with the capital G, is the name we give to the Almighty. We do not use “God,” with a capital G, for any other being. “The Word was God” therefore identifies Jesus as the Almighty.
“The Word was a god” is primarily found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation. This implies that Jesus is one of a greater number of powerful but created “gods.”
“The Word was divine” in Moffatt, Goodspeed and some other translations. This may be understood to imply that Jesus has divine attributes, but He is not the Almighty.
“The Word” (Greek LOGOS) is widely understood as referring to Jesus, as indicated in John 1:14-17. In the Book of Revelation, which has been written by the same John, “His name is called The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13).
Matthew Henry proposed that Jesus is “the Word” because He was sent to earth to reveal His Father’s mind. In John 1:18 we similarly read that “no one has seen God at any time,” but Jesus “has explained Him (God).” Jesus therefore said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus, as “the Word,” is God’s Communication to the universe.
The phrase, “the word of the LORD” is found many times in the Old Testament as an expression of divine power and wisdom. By referring to Jesus as “the Word,” “we preach … Christ (as) the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
In the beginning
The “beginning” (1:1a) must be linked to John 1:3, which states that God created all things through Jesus.
The first words in the Bible are: “In the beginning God …” John 1:1 contains the same Greek words for “in the beginning” as are found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) of Genesis 1:1. “The beginning” in John 1:1a therefore refers to the Genesis creation account.
Genesis opens with “in the beginning God …,” but John elaborates on the creation account by saying “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.. Later in Genesis 1 God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (v26). John 1:1 implies that Jesus was included in the “Us” that made man in Their image.
The phrase THE WORD WAS WITH GOD (1:1b) means more than merely that the Son existed with the Father. The term translated “with” may be explained as follows:
The term translated “with” give “the picture of two personal beings facing one another and engaging in intelligent discourse” [W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John [Chicago: Moody, 1979], 49].
The NASB reads in 1:18 that He was “in the bosom of the Father,” but the NIV translation explains that He was “in closest relationship with the Father.”
Jesus prayed about “the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5).
Distinct From God
To say that “the Word was with God” (John 1:1b) makes a distinction between Jesus and God. In other words, the title “God” is used here to refer to the Father alone. Another clear example of this is John 1:18, which reads, “No one has seen God at any time.” “God” here excludes the Son, for the Son has been seen. This is a general principle of the New Testament: Of the about 1300 times that the title THEOS (GOD) is used in the New Testament, it almost always refers to the Father exclusively:
The Nicene Creed starts with the words, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty …”
Paul wrote, “for us there is but one God, the Father …” (1 Cor. 8:6)
Jesus was not created, and always existed.
The opening phrase of John 1:1 reads “in the beginning was the Word.” The thought is repeated in John 1:2a: “He was in the beginning with God.” It does not say that the Word was created or came into existence at the “beginning; He simply “was.” The tense of the Greek word translated “was” expresses continuous action in the past. This implies that the Word (Jesus) had no beginning, but always existed. This seems to be confirmed by the following:
“He is before all things” (Col. 1:17).
“All things came into being through Him” (Jesus), and if “apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). The Word therefore must have already existed prior to creation.
The Only Begotten
John 1:18 refers to Him as “the only begotten,” which seems to imply that Jesus had a beginning. But some argue that the Greek word translated “the only begotten” (monogenēs) means “one and only.” This is how monogenēs is consistently translated in the NIV, and does not imply a beginning.
If monogenēs must be understood as “the only begotten,” which implies that Jesus had a beginning, then it is preferred here to understand this as follows:
He was not created, for God created all things through Him (1:3). Rather, He was born, which implies that He came forth from the being of the Father.
Using the literal translation of Colossians 1:18, He IS THE BEGINNING. In other words; He not only existed in the beginning; He Himself was the beginning of “all things.” By giving gave birth to His Son, God created the universe. When we talk about the creation, we come face to face with eternity, which is a complete mystery.
“The beginning” was also the beginning of time. Therefore, even if He is “the only begotten,” it is still valid to say that there was no time that “the Word” did not exist.
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. Does the book of Revelation present Jesus as God?
5. Jesus in Philippians: Did He empty Himself of equality with God?
6. Who is the Word in John 1:1?
7. Jesus is not God.
8. God is the Head of Christ.
9. Jesus is called God.
10. He is the Only Begotten Son of God.
11. God created all things through His Son.
12. Jesus is worshiped. Does that mean that He is God?
Worship verses in the New Testament
13. Jesus has equality with God.
14. Firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15)
15. Summary of the series of articles
Interpretation of John 1:1
17. The Word was a god.
18. But THEOS is a count noun.
Jesus in the Old Testament
19. Jesus in the Old Testament