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:

Firstly, the ancient Greek language only has definite articles, and how Greek  uses the article is very complex.  It uses them in unexpected places and omits them where we would expect to find them.

Secondly, if John wished to say that “the Word was a god.” then there was another way in which he could have done that.  

Thirdly, the article is omitted for grammatical reasons, namely to identify THEOS as the predicate.

Fourthly, 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). 

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

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.”

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.    

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