John 1:1 is an important verse in the controversy over the deity of Christ. Some regard this verse as the clearest declaration of His deity.
This article serves as an introduction to the mini-series on the translation of John 1:1. The dispute over the translation of John 1:1 centers on the lack of the definite article (the) before the word theos (god) in John 1:1c. Some see this omission as grounds for an indefinite translation: “the Word was a god.” This article discusses the following:
● Alternative translations of John 1:1c;
● Why is Jesus called “the Word?”
● What is “the beginning?”
● The word “with” in the phrase “with God;”
● The phrase – “the Word was with God” – seems to make a distinction between Jesus and God.
● The verse does not say that Jesus was created in the beginning.
The second phrase in John 1:1 is “the Word was with God.” This phrase makes a distinction between Jesus and God, which means that Jesus is not God. But the third phrase reads, “the Word was God.” This contradicts the second phrase. How can the Word be God if He is distinct from God?
This question resulted in much dispute over the past 2000 years. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the emperor, effectively, became the leader of the church. At the time, a dispute raged in the church over the deity of Christ. This dispute threatened the unity of the empire. Consequently, Emperor Constantine called a church council specifically to address the dispute. That council, under Constantine’s influence, resulted in the Nicene Creed of 325. For a discussion of the significant influence which Emperor Constantine had in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325, listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios.”
John 1:1 has had a significant impact on the development of church doctrines on the nature of Christ. 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 in which Jesus is called theos (god). The other verses refer to Jesus as theos in the time when the New Testament was written, but John 1:1 refers to Him as theos in “the beginning;” when “all things” were created (John 1:3).
The dispute over the translation centers on the lack of a definite article (the) before the word theos in John 1:1c. John included the article before theos in 1:1b (literally, AND THE WORD WAS WITH THE GOD), but omited 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 the current series of articles is to discuss what John 1:1 means and how it is best translated.
Purpose of this article
The majority of Christianity has a one-sided focus on the verses that emphasize the divinity of Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses perhaps err to the other side and focus only on 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 Biblical statements about Jesus.
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 main principles. Many experts are quoted on these websites, but the current article does not always quote such experts.
The current article often refers to the three phrases of John 1:1. Below the majority translation is given, together with the Greek transliteration.
To understand John 1:1 requires some understanding of some Greek words and grammar. However, 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 and upper case 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)
Article: In the 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 the 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 exact 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 between the subject and 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 Ultimate Reality. We do not use “God,” with a capital G, for any other being. “The Word was God” therefore identifies “the Word” as the Ultimate Reality.
“The Word was a god” is primarily found only in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation. This translation seems to imply that Jesus is one of a greater number of powerful but created “gods,” which does not seem consistent with the Bible. See – Objections to the translation: The Word was a god.
Moffatt, Goodspeed and some other translations render the phrase as “the Word was divine.” This may be understood to imply that the Word has divine attributes, but that He is not the Ultimate Reality.
“The Word” (Greek LOGOS) in John 1:1 is widely understood as referring to Jesus, as indicated in John 1:14-17. In the Book of Revelation, which was written by the same John, we read, “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” (Gen 1:26). 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 as “with” gives “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].
In John 1:18, according to the NASB, He was “in the bosom of the Father.” The NIV translation renders this as that He was “in closest relationship with the Father.”
In His prayer, Jesus spoke 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” here refers to the Father alone. Another clear example of “God” referring to the Father alone 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 more than 1300 times that the title theos is used in the New Testament, it almost always refers to the Father exclusively:
The Nicene Creed similarly 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).
For a discussion of this important principle, see articles:
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 “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 “the 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 (John 1:3). Rather, He was “begotten,” 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 birth to His Son, God created the universe. This sounds mysterious, but when we talk about the creation, then we come face to face with eternity, which is a complete mystery.
“The beginning” was also the beginning of time. Therefore, if He was “begotten” in “the beginning,” then there was no time that “the Word” did not exist.
Other Available Articles
- Is Jesus God? – List of all articles
- The historical development of the Trinity doctrine – List of Articles
- All articles – List of all article series on this website