Did Thomas, in John 20:28, address Jesus as “God”?

SUMMARY

After God resurrected Jesus, He appeared to His disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he did not believe. But, a few days later, Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, he exclaimed with great joy:

My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Jesus did not correct Thomas.

CLEAREST PROOF

Elsewhere, the New Testament has a very high view of Christ. For example, Jesus always existed (Rev 1:17) in the form of God and with equality with God (Phil 2:6), and God made and maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:2-3). However, in the view of some, John 20:28 is the clearest proof of Christ’s deity.

THOMAS DID NOT SAY,
JESUS IS GOD.

In contrast, the first purpose of this article is to show that ‘Jesus is God’ cannot be the right interpretation of John 20:28.

A STRICT MONOTHEIST

Firstly, Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist (cf. Deut 6:4). It would have required a huge amount of persuasion to convince the disciples otherwise, namely that Jesus is God.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

Secondly, Jesus never attempted to change the views of the disciples in this regard. Jesus never taught that He is God. On the contrary, He always made a clear distinction between Himself and God (e.g., John 17:3).

And when the Jews accused Him: “You … make Yourself out to be God,” Jesus immediately corrected them: “I said, I am the Son of God” (John 10:36). “Son of God” is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one” (cf. John 1:49; 11:27; 20:31; Matt 26:63).

So, if Jesus during the preceding three years never attempted to teach His disciples that He is the Most High, how on earth could Thomas have thought that He is?

THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT

Thirdly, in the immediate context of John 20, we can see that the disciples, at that time, did not understand Jesus to be God. For example:

      • A few days before His death Jesus addressed His Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3).
      • The day after He died, the disciples described Him as “a prophet … the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).
      • A few days before Jesus appeared to Thomas, He referred to the Father as His God (John 20:17).
      • Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John, summarizing his gospel, identified Jesus not as God but as “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

WHAT THE DISCIPLES TAUGHT

Fourthly, we also see what the disciples believed in what they taught afterward. A few weeks after John 20:28, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and preached as recorded in the Book of Acts. If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message. But they not even once proclaimed Jesus as God. On the contrary, they consistently made a clear distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26). 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?

WHAT PAUL TAUGHT

Fifthly, what the disciples believed in this regard is also reflected in Paul’s letters. He is the most important writer of the New Testament and wrote decades after Thomas met Jesus. Paul never taught (at least explicitly) that Jesus is God. On the contrary, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 5:21; 1 Cor 11:3). Paul did describe Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), through whom God made all things (Col 1:16), in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells” (Col 2:9), who “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all these statements make a distinction between Jesus and God, meaning that Jesus is NOT God.

THE HIGH VIEW

Lastly, we must also remember that the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-17, and Hebrews 1:2-3, was revealed by the Holy Spirit, particularly to John and Paul, decades after the events of John 20:28. Consequently, at the time of John 20:28, Thomas and the disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. They had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal.

CONCLUSION

For the three years or more before John 20:28, Jesus taught His disciples but He never taught them that He is God. Neither did the disciples, after Thomas said this, teach that Jesus is God. Therefore, Thomas could not have said that Jesus is God.

Remember, Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive. In other words, he thought of Jesus as a mortal being. It is simply unsound logic to argue that, just by seeing Jesus alive, his view of Christ immediately jumped from being a mortal man to being the immortal God.

WHAT DID THOMAS MEAN?

This second part discusses what Thomas could have meant to say. The following possible meanings are discussed below:

1) The basic meaning of the Greek word theos is an immortal being with supernatural powers – such as the Greek gods. Since Thomas described Jesus as “my theosafter he saw that Jesus is alive, Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

2) Jesus referred to people “to whom the word of God came” as theos (“gods” – John 10:35). Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (e.g., John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

3) The word theos can also be used in a qualitative sense, namely as “Godlike” (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).

The God of me4) When theos is preceded by ho (the), it almost always refers to the supreme Divinity. (There are exceptions. For example, Satan is also referred to as ho theos.) In the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos. Therefore, another possibility is that Thomas used theos to refer to the Father. In other words, Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, cried out something like, “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).” In that way, Thomas exclaimed “my God” as praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus. Since ho theos usually refers to the Father, it probably also has that meaning in John 20:28.

CONCLUSION

As shown in the first part of this article, it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is God. In the second part, a number of alternative possible meanings have been considered. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly what Thomas meant. But two things should be clear:

      • Thomas did not say that Jesus is God.
      • There are several other valid interpretations of the phrase.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

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. But, a few days later, Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, he exclaimed with great joy:

My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

CLEAREST PROOF

Of the 1300 times that the word theos (translated as “god” or “God”) appears in the New Testament, there are about seven verses where theos possibly describes Jesus. However, in each and every case, either the original text or the interpretation is disputed. (Several articles have been posted discussing these verses. For a general summary, see Is Jesus called God?)

Brian J. 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.

John 20:28Therefore, for some people, this verse is the clearest proof of Christ’s deity. The Pulpit Commentary describes these words as the climax of the Gospel. For Spurgeon, this is the plainest confession of Jesus’ deity.

Such writers support their view with arguments such as:

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

2) David, similarly, described Jehovah as: “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.

3) If Jesus were not God, the Lord Jesus would have corrected Thomas. But Jesus responded:

Because you have seen Me, have you believed?
Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed

(John 20:29).

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

THE HIGH VIEW

And, of course, elsewhere, the New Testament has a very high view of Christ. For example:

Through whom (His Son) also He (God) made the world.
And He
(His Son)

 – is the radiance of His (God’s) glory
 – and the exact representation of His (God’s) nature,
 – and upholds all things by the word of His (God’s) power
(Heb 1:2-3).

It is difficult to understand that a being that was able to become a human being is also the One through whom God created and still maintains all things. Elsewhere, we also read that Jesus is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17), which means that He always existed. And that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). According to Philippians 2:6, before He became a human being, He existed in the form of God and had equality with God. In the article on Philippians 2, I attempt to explain who Jesus really is. I prefer to understand Jesus as the church understood Him during the first 300 years, namely before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (See, The Apologists).

THOMAS DID NOT SAY
THAT JESUS IS GOD.

However, the first purpose of this article is to show that ‘Jesus is God’ cannot be the right interpretation of John 20:28. This is justified as follows:

A STRICT MONOTHEIST

Firstly, Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist. In Judaism, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4) was a foundational statement. It would have required a huge amount of persuasion to convince the disciples otherwise and that Jesus is God.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

Who do you say I AmBut secondly, Jesus never attempted to change the views of the disciples in this regard. Jesus never taught that He is God.

For example, Jesus never referred to Himself as θεός (theos). Rather, He described Himself as the Messiah and as the Son of God.

Furthermore, He always made a distinction between Himself and God. For example, at the end of His ministry – probably days before He appeared to Thomas – Jesus, in prayer, described the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). In using the word “only,” Jesus excluded Himself as “true God.”

The one verse where people sometimes say that Jesus claimed to be God is John 10:33, where the Jews accused Him:

You … make Yourself out to be God.

But Jesus immediately corrected them:

I said, I am the Son of God” (John 10:36).

(See here for a discussion of John 10:33-36.)

Some people, when they read the words, “the Son of God,” they subconsciously convert that into “God the Son.” However, the latter title is never found in the Bible. The following verses have been selected because they contain both the title “Son of God” and another (parallel) title, giving us an understanding of what the title “Son of God” means:

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

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

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

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

In other words, the “Son of God” is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one.”

THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT

Thirdly, in the immediate context of John 20, we can see that the disciples, at that time, did not understand Jesus to be God. For example:

1) A few days before His death Jesus prayed and addressed His Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). Why would John record that and then, a little later, write that Thomas said that Jesus is God?

2) If they believed that Jesus was God, they would not have “all fled” just a few days earlier when Jesus was arrested.

3) The confession of the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus demonstrates the views of Jesus’ followers at that time. Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just another traveler, they described Jesus as:

a prophet,
powerful in word and deed before God …
we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel
” (Luke 24:19-21).

4) As recorded in that same chapter, a few days before Jesus appeared to Thomas, He spoke to Mary Magdalene and referred to the Father as His God:

Go to My brethren and say to them,
‘I ascend to My Father and your Father,
and My God and your God
’” (John 20:1, 17).

5) Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John summarized his gospel and identified Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” and not as God:

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

WHAT THE DISCIPLES TAUGHT

We also see what the disciples believed in what they taught afterward:

Thomas made his exclamation after Jesus was resurrected and a few weeks before the Holy Spirit was poured out. Therefore, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples had to preach without Jesus. They no longer had Jesus to do the talking. But they now had the support of the Holy Spirit, guiding them “into all the truth” (John 16:13). If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message. But, in Acts, which records their sermons, the apostles not even once proclaimed Jesus as God. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός (theos) to Jesus. On the contrary, they consistently proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes:

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

In other words, Acts, just like the gospels, maintains 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?

WHAT PAUL TAUGHT

What the disciples believed in this regard is also reflected in Paul’s letters:

Paul was given the task to interpret the dramatic events of the first century and to teach the church through his letters. And Paul never taught that Jesus is God.

EXPLICIT STATEMENTS

If Jesus was God, Paul’s letters would have taught this explicitly. An explicit statement would be something like we find in the Old Testament:

I am Yahweh your God” (Exo 6:7; 16:12; 20:2).

Yahweh is identified as God about 400 times in the Old Testament, using phrases such as:

      • Yahweh God,
      • Yahweh, God of heaven,
      • Yahweh your God,
      • Yahweh, God of Israel
      • Yahweh our God, and
      • Yahweh, God of compassion.

But not once do we find an equivalent explicit statement in the New Testament, saying that Jesus is God.

DISTINCTION

On the contrary, similar to 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 clear distinction between God and Christ are:

    • In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 5:21)
      and, most strikingly,
    • The head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3).

Hundreds of other examples are available. See, for example, The New Testament makes a distinction between God and Jesus.

ROMANS 9 VERSE 5

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

CONCLUSION

Therefore, Paul, the most important writer of the New Testament, and writing decades after Thomas met Jesus after His resurrection, NEVER taught that Jesus is GodHe did describe Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), through whom God made all things (Col 1:16), in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9), who “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all these statements make a distinction between Jesus and God, meaning that Jesus is NOT God.

THE HIGH VIEW

We must also understand that the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-17, and Hebrews 1:2-3 was not something that the disciples knew about at the time that Thomas made his exclamation. Those things were not taught by Christ. As Jesus said to His disciples:

I have many more things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes,
He will guide you into all the truth
” (John 16:12-13).

The very high view that John and Paul had of Jesus was revealed to them by 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. Consequently, the disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. Thomas had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal. It is unthinkable that Thomas, when He saw the risen Jesus, could think of Him as the same as or equal to the Only True God (John 17:3).

CONCLUSION

For the three years or more before John 20:28, Jesus taught His disciples but He never taught them that He is God. Neither did the disciples, after Thomas said this, teach that Jesus is God. Therefore, Thomas could not have said that Jesus is God.

Remember, Thomas doubted. What did he doubt? One could speculate that he doubted that Jesus is the Christ. Trinitarians might speculate that he doubted that Jesus is God. But what he really doubted is that Jesus was alive. In other words, he thought of Jesus as a mortal being. It is not sound logic to argue that, just by seeing Jesus alive, his view of Christ immediately jumped from being a mortal man to being the immortal God.

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

And the trinit­arian Brian J. Wright, after an 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.

WHAT DID THOMAS MEAN?

The first part of this article shows that it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is the Most High God. In this second part, we discuss what Thomas could have intended to say.

(1) IMMORTAL BEING

The ancient Greeks had a pantheon of gods. They did not have one single Supreme Being which is the ultimate reality, as we find in the Bible. They used the word Θεός, transliterated as theos, to refer to their gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent to the modern English word “god.” In Greek thought, it described an immortal being with supernatural powers.

Since Thomas described Jesus as “my theos” after he saw that Jesus is alive, one possible meaning is that Thomas described Jesus as similar to one of the Greek gods; an immortal being with supernatural powers.

(See The Meanings of the Word theos for a further discussion.)

(2) GOD’S REPRESENTATIVE

According to Strong, one of the uses of theos is a person appointed by God as a magistrate. Jesus similarly referred to people “to whom the word of God came” as theos (John 10:35). This is a quote from Psalm 82:6 and probably refers to the judges of the Old Testament.

Therefore, another possible meaning is that Thomas described Jesus as theos to identify Him as the Christ, namely, mandated by God to speak and act for Him. Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (e.g., John 8:16, 26), that is a possible explanation.

(3) LIKE GOD

The word theos can also be used in a qualitative sense, as opposed to a definite (the god) or indefinite (a god) sense. It is unlikely but possible that Thomas used theos in a qualitative sense, namely as “Godlike,” similar to the following statements:

      • He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
      • He (His Son) is … the exact representation of His (God’s) nature” (Heb 1:3).

John, after decades 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 and John 20:28 use theos in the same sense. In a series of articles on the translation of John 1:1, I concluded, because the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that verse, that John 1:1c should NOT be translated as “The Word was God” but as “the Word was Godlike,” or, to use Paul’s words, “the Word was in the form of God and had equality with God” (Phil 2:6).

(4) GOD

According to Strong, in the Bible, especially when it is preceded by ho (the), theos refers to the supreme Divinity. To put it differently, since the New Testament was written in Greek, it used the same word that the Greeks used for their gods (theos) for the god of the Bible. But since the Greek word theos is used for all gods, when the writers of the New Testament wanted to specify the supreme Deity, they added the definite article “ho” before theos. (This is a general rule but there are exceptions. For example, Satan is also referred to as ho theos.)

Modern English has something which ancient Greek did not have, namely differentiation between lower- and upper-case letters. Modern English, therefore, was able to invent the word “God.” While the word “god” refers to a category of beings, the word “God” functions as a personal name for one single being, namely the supreme Divinity, similar to the names John and Paul for human beings. The ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written has no word exactly equivalent to “God.”

For these reasons, generally, ho theos is translated as “God.” (Translators drop the definite article and capitalize the G.)

The point is that in the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos mou, literally “the god of me.” This implies that he used the word theos to refer to the supreme Divinity. This can be understood in at least the following ways:

One option is to understand that Thomas intended to describe Jesus as the Most High God; the supreme Divinity. However, as discussed, the immediate and wider context does not allow that interpretation.

An alternative possibility is that John referred to the Father when he wrote ho theos. In other words, Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, cried out something like, “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).” In that way, Thomas exclaimed “my God” as praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus.

Paul similarly 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 this verse explain Thomas’ confession?  It contains both the words “Lord” and “God” but “God” is identified as the Father.

CONCLUSION

As shown in the first part of this article, it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is God. In the second part, a number of alternative possible meanings have been considered, namely that Jesus:

      • Is similar to one of the Greek gods; an immortal being with supernatural powers.
      • Has been mandated by God to speak and act for Him.
      • Is like God in a qualitative sense; “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

The fourth alternative was that theos in John 20:28 does not refer to Jesus at all but to the Father.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly what Thomas meant. But two things should be clear:

      • Thomas did not say that Jesus is God.
      • There are several other valid interpretations of the phrase.

OTHER AVAILABLE ARTICLES

John 1:1c usually reads, “The Word was God.” Is this translation correct?

Summary

John 1:1This article argues against the translation, “the Word was God.

God and THEOS

For some people, “God” is the Trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one.  For others the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons, but three modes of the same one Person.  Still others believe that the Father alone is God.

The word translated “God” is THEOS. While “God” refers to one specific Being, THEOS is a common noun for all gods.  To identify the only true God, the Bible provides additional identification; often by adding the definite article HO before THEOS.

In John 1:1b the Father alone is God.  This is the consistent pattern in the New Testament.  In sentences that refer to both the Father and the Son, translations refer to the Father alone as God.  This implies that Jesus is not God.

The term THEOS appears more than 1300 times in the Bible. In only seven instances does THEOS possibly refer to Jesus.  Furthermore, the original text or the translations of these seven instances are all disputed.  And even if Jesus is called THEOS, that does not mean that He is God, for THEOS also has other meanings.  The New Testament therefore does not present Jesus as God.

The Missing Article

The wording “the Word was God” assumes a definite THEOS, but THEOS in 1:1c lacks the definite article, and therefore seems to be indefinite:

One might argue that THEOS lacks the article to identify this as the predicate in the phrase, and that THEOS in 1:1c should be understood as definite.

Some people use Colwell’s rule to argue that THEOS in 1:1c is definite, but Colwell’s rule cannot be applied to John 1:1c, for his sample was limited to predicates that were identified beforehand as definite.

Research has shown that predicates in the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c, are primarily qualitative in force.  Qualitative predicates attribute the nature or qualities of the noun to the subject, e.g. “that man is a real tiger.”  This does not mean that that man is literally a tiger, but that he has tiger-like qualities. In John 1:1c it would mean that Jesus has God-like qualities, but that does not justify the translation “the Word was God,” for that identifies Jesus as God.

Some propose that Jesus is fully divine and has the same substance and nature as the Father, but that means that Jesus is God, and is not consistent with the finding that Jesus is called God is a qualitative sense.

Conclusion

The following objections to the translation “the Word was God” are therefore raised:

1. It interprets THEOS as a definite noun, while THEOS in 1:1c lacks the definite article.
2. Research has shown that THEOS in John 1:1c carries a qualitative force, and therefore describes Christ’s nature or qualities; not his person.
3. Since the Word “was with God,” a distinction is required between the THEOS in 1:1b and the THEOS in 1:1c.
4. The New Testament uses “God” for the Father alone.

It is highly significant that Jesus is described as THEOS in the first verse of John, which may be seen as a summary of the entire book, but the translation “the Word was God” goes beyond the grammar or the context, and is based on the Trinity theory.

Introduction

This is an article in the series on the translation of John 1:1c.  The previous articles are:

1. Introduction;
2. Who is “the Word?”
3. Meanings of the word THEOS
4. The translation: “the Word was a god;” and
5. The argument that THEOS is a count noun;

The purpose of the current article is to argue against the translation “the Word was God.

God

Firstly, what is does the phrase “the Word was God” mean?  It has different meanings for different people:

Merriam-Webster defines Trinity as “the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead.”  In this view Jesus is God just as the Father is God.

Modalism is the doctrine that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three modes or aspects of one single “God;” not three distinct and coexisting Persons of the divine Being.

Unitarianism “is a Christian theological movement named for its belief that the God in Christianity is one person, as opposed to the Trinity.”  “Unitarian Christians, therefore, believe that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings, and he is a savior, but he was not a deity or God incarnate.” In this view, “God” refers to the Father alone, and does not include the Son.

The translation “the Word was God” is consistent with the Trinity theory and with Modalism.  In a previous article “the Word” was identified as Jesus, but Unitarianism identifies “the Word” as God’s plan and wisdom, which also brought forth His Son.

THEOS and God

John 1:1Consider, now, the Greek text.  The original Greek text did not contain spaces between words.  Neither did it have periods, commas, semi-colons, etc.  Converted literally to English, the second and third parts of John 1:1 could be presented as:

THEWORDWASWITHTHEGODANDGODWASTHEWORD

The translator has to parse the text; after which it might read:

THE WORD WAS WITH THE THEOS
AND THEOS WAS THE WORD.

From this we note the following:

THEOS is not the same as “God.”

We use the English word “God,” with a capital G, for only one specific Being.  The word “God” functions as the name of the only true God, just like Peter and Paul are names for humans.  The word “God,” in other words, is a proper noun, and is a synonym for the Old Testament name of the Creator: YHVH (pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh).

The word translated “God” or “god.” in the New Testament, is THEOS.  The Greek word THEOS does not have the same meaning as “God,” for THEOS is a common noun that is used for all gods, including false gods and idols, for instance:

1 Corinthians 8:5 … indeed there are many gods (THEOI) and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God (THEOS), the Father …

THEOS is therefore similar to our word “god.”  To refer to one specific deity, or even to the only true God, requires additional identification.

HO THEOS is “God.”

John 1:1In the New Testament, for example in John 1:1b, that additional identification is often provided in the form of the definite article preceding THEOS.  HO THEOS identifies this as one specific god.  Which god that is must be determined from the context, but given the context of the Bible, unless contrary identification is provided, HO THEOS refers to the only true God.

To translate “HO THEOS” from Greek, we drop the article and capitalize the G.   This applies to John 1:1b as well.  (For a more detailed discussion, see the article THEOS.)

Only the Father is “God.”

But HO THEOS (God) refers to the Father only.  This is seen in John 1:1b, where we read that “the Word was with THE GOD.”  THE GOD therefore refers to the Father and 1:1b means that Jesus was (in the beginning) with the Father.  By translating this phrase as “the Word was with God,” the translators imply that Jesus is not God.

This translation is consistent with the pattern in the New Testament.  The New Testament consistently makes a distinction between THEOS and Jesus.  This is discussed in the article Jesus is not God.  For example:

Jesus prayed, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Paul wrote, “There is no God but one. … there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1. Cor. 8:4-6).

John saw, “no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22).

The following verse explicitly describes Jesus as a “man,” in contrast to the “God:”

I Tim. 2:5 “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

The word THEOS appears more than 1300 times in the New Testament.  In many instances similar to those quoted above, HO THEOS is contrasted with Jesus, indicating that the Father alone is called God, and that Jesus therefore is not called God.

Jesus is called God.

Dr. Murray Harris, in his authoritative book “Jesus as God – The New Testament use of Theos in Reference to Jesus,” was only able to identify seven New Testament passages where Jesus might be called THEOS.  (He allocated different levels of certainty to different texts.)

The best known is John 1:1, which is discussed in the current series of articles, and where the current article argues that Jesus should not be called “God.”

Another example is Romans 9:5, where 50% of the 28 translations of this verse, as listed by BibleHub, translates this verse in such a way that it makes a distinction between God and Jesus.

Still another example is Thomas.  He refused to believe that Jesus rose from death (John 20:25), but when He saw Jesus, exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (v28).  It is a bit ridiculous to propose that Thomas, in two seconds, changed from not believing that Jesus rose from death to believing that Jesus is God.

These and others are discussed in the article, Jesus is called God.  It is not possible to prove that the Church, when the New Testament was written, thought of Jesus as God.  Just think of the absurdity of it: More than 1300 times “God” refers to the Father alone and only in seven disputed instances is Jesus perhaps called God.  The first Christians worshiped Jesus, but not independent of God.  It was only in the later centuries that the Church had to deal with the apparent contradiction between the pervasive monotheism of the Bible and Christ’s extremely elevated position.

Conclusion: Since the Bible consistently uses the title “God” for the Father alone, it is not appropriate to apply the same title to Jesus in John 1:1c.

THEOS in 1:1c lacks the article.

This is the crux of the dispute about the translation of John 1:1.  Since “God” is a proper noun, a possible objection to the wording, “the Word was God” is that this is a definite translation of an indefinite noun (THEOS).  In this section we attempt to explain the lack of the article before THEOS in this phrase.

English articles

English has both definite (“the”) and indefinite articles (“a” and “an”):

A definite noun identifies a particular instance.  For instance, when we say, “the rock” or “the man” or “the god,” we have a particular rock or man or god in mind.

An indefinite noun identifies any instance of a group or class.  For instance, “a man,” means any one instance of mankind.  Similarly, “a god” would identify any one instance of the gods.

Greek Articles

The Koine Greek of the New Testament has definite articles, often translated as “the,” but no indefinite articles.  Thus, a Greek writer could use of the article to make a noun definite.  The absence of the article usually signifies indefiniteness.  Therefore, whenever we come across the indefinite “a” or “an” in an English translation, these words were inserted by the translator.

Articles in John 1:1

This distinction between definite and indefinite nouns is relevant to John 1:1c, for THEOS in 1:1b has the article.  This phrase literally reads, “THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD.” It therefore refers to one specific god.  THEOS in 1:1c, on the other hand, lacks the article.  In the absence of other information, one would assume that that is an indefinite THEOS, which would mean:

That it must be distinguished from the articulated THEOS in 1:1b.
> That it cannot be translated “God,” for “God” is a definite noun.
> That it could be translated as “the Word was a god.”

But before we propose conclusions, let us consider further why THEOS in 1:1c lacks the article.

Word Order is Reversed.

John 1:1c reads: THEOS ÊN HO LOGOS.
Literally translated, it means: GOD WAS THE WORD.

The first task of the translator is to identify the subject of the clause.  In English, word order identifies the subject and object.  ‘Dog bites boy’ is not the same as ‘boy bites dog’.  Greek does not use word order to differentiate between types of nouns.  It uses other techniques:

In phrases with action verbs, Greek uses different word endings (word cases) to identify the subject and the object of the sentence, both of which are nouns.  John 1:1 gives us an example of word endings.  It reads, “The Word was with God (TON THEON), and the Word was God (THEOS).”  THEOS and THEON have the exact same meaning.  The different word endings do not change the meaning of the base word.

In phrases with linking verbs (such as ‘is’ or ‘was’) the subject and object nouns are in the same case.  In such phrases, if one noun has the article and the other does not, the noun with the article is the subject (Dana and Mantey, p. 148; McGaughy, p. 50; etc.).

Greek can consequently switch the word order around and it would still mean the same thing.

John 1:1c is an example of a phrase with a linking verb (“was”).  THEOS and LOGOS are therefore in the same case.  But since “the Word” (HO LOGOS) has the article, and THEOS does not, LOGOS is the subject and THEOS is the object.  To translate this phrase to English, where we like to put the subject first, the phrase is reversed and it becomes, THE WORD WAS THEOS.

The question then is, does THEOS in 1:1c lack the article to indicate that THEOS is the predicate in this sentence?  Should THEOS in 1:1c therefore be understood as definite?

Collwell

Supporters of the translation “the Word was God” attempt to use Colwell’s rule to show that THEOS in 1:1c is definite, but this is not a valid conclusion.

Special Grammatical Construct

John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct to which special rules apply.  This construct is called a preverbal anarthrous predicate nominative:

Preverbal: The predicate precedes the verb.
Anarthrous: The predicate lacks the article.
Predicate: A predicate is a noun that says something about the subject.  In John 1:1c (“The Word was THEOS”), “the Word” is the subject, “was” is a linking verb and THEOS says something about the subject.  THEOS is therefore the predicate.
Nominative: this is the case in which the predicate appears in such Greek structures.  This is not important for our discussion.

Colwell’s method

Colwell selected a number of predicates which he beforehand identified as definite on the basis of the context.  Analyzing them, he found, in this special grammatical construct, as in John 1:1c, that such definite predicates usually lack the article.  He therefore concluded that such predicates may be definite, depending on the context.

Some supporters of the translation “the Word was God” read Colwell as conforming that all predicates in such grammatical constructs are definite or usually definite.  But this is an invalid assumption, for Colwell’s sample was limited to predicates that were identified to be definite.  His sample was not representative of all predicates in such constructs.  He was therefore only able to make a statement about definite predicates (see Dixon, pp. 11-12).  His rule does not say anything about other predicates.  It is not valid to reverse his rule to read that predicates without the article (in such constructs) are definite.

Conclusion: Colwell’s rule does not apply to John 1:1c because his sample was limited to predicates that were beforehand identified as definite.

THEOS in John 1:1c is used qualitatively.

Qualitative nouns

Grammarians distinguish between definite, indefinite and qualitative nouns.  Definite and indefinite nouns have been defined above.  They identify or classify the subject of the sentence.  Qualitative nouns signify neither definiteness (a specific instance of a group), nor indefiniteness (any instance of a group). Rather, they attribute the nature or qualities of the noun to the subject of the sentence, e.g. “that man is a real tiger.”  In this way it is possible to describe a person, who is not actually a god, but a human being who is admired by many people for his or her 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.

Research

Harner and Dixon found that 80% of the predicates in the special grammatical construct, of which John 1:1c is an example, are qualitative.  Harner wrote:

“We have seen that anarthrous predicate nouns preceding the verb may be primarily qualitative in force … In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite.”

This finding means that 1:1c does not classify Jesus as “a god” (indefinite).  Neither does it identify Jesus as “the god” (definite).  However, the translation “the Word was God” interprets THEOS as definite, for “God” is a name.

Fully Divine

In the first centuries, after the New Testament was written, the Church had to deal with the fact that the Bible dictates monotheism, but that Jesus is sometimes described with divine attributes.  Different views developed in the Church.  After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, it took control over the Church.  However, the Arian controversy (about the deity of Christ) caused disagreement in the Church, and that the Empire would not tolerate.  Caesar Constantine therefore called a Church Council in the year 325 in which the dominant view was adopted and the minority was slandered, excommunicated and banned.  The Nicene Creed, formulated for the year 325 Church Council, stated that Jesus was of the same substance and nature as God.  The Nicene Creed thus declared Jesus to be be God.

Since THEOS is most probably used with a qualitative force in John 1:1c, it ascribes god-like qualities to Jesus.  Trinitarians often takes this one step further and claim that the Son possesses all the attributes of God, with the emphasis on “all.”  They sometimes use the words of the Nicene Creed (same substance and nature) to describe the relationship between God and Jesus.  In other words, they argue that the Word fully shares the essence of the Father, though they differ in person.

But to say that Jesus possess the same substance and nature as God goes beyond a qualitative force.  It is to say that He is God.  Then it is not longer a qualitative statement, but a definite one.  For example, when we say “that man is a tiger,” we cannot argue that he has the same substance and nature as a tiger, for then he is a real tiger.  Rather, what we are saying is that he is as tough as a tiger.

Conclusion

The following objections to the translation “the Word was God” are therefore raised:

The English word “God” is a name for one specific being.  In other words, “the Word was God” interprets THEOS as a definite noun.  But in the Greek of 1:1c THEOS lacks the definite article.

John 1:1c has a special grammatical construct.  Grammarians have concluded that predicates in such constructs are primarily qualitative in force. This implies that THEOS in 1:1c denotes Christ’s nature or qualities; not his person.  The translation “the Word was God,” in contrast, interprets THEOS as definite, for “God” is a name and not a quality.

Considering the immediate context, the Word “was with God” (1:1b). This requires a distinction between the THEOS in 1:1b and the THEOS in 1:1c.

An analysis of the word THEOS (God) in the New Testament shows that this is consistently used for the Father only.  To apply this as a title to Jesus as well, is contrary to how the Bible uses the title “God.”

Trinitarian Interpretation

If “God” refers to the Father alone, the statement that “the Word was God” (1:1c) is Modalism, for then it means that Jesus just is the Father.  But since the Trinity theory has been the dominant theory since the fourth century, it is fair to assume that this is what the translation is based on.  However, to translate THEOS in both 1:1b and 1:1c as “God” contradicts the grammar and the context.

It is, nevertheless, highly significant that Jesus is called THEOS right in the first verse of John; in the context of “the Beginning,” when all things were created (v3).  John 1:1 serves as the introduction to and summary of the entire fourth gospel.

People may find it hard to accept, but John and Paul and Hebrews declared that Jesus existed before He became a human being, and that God created all things through His Son.  He is before all things (Col. 1:17).  Nevertheless, the New Testament maintains a clear distinction between Him and God.  In the centuries after Christ the Church struggled to reconcile these concepts and formulate the Nicene Creed that describes the Son as “true God from true God.”

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