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

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.”

When referring to Jesus, how theos be translated?

Overview

Purpose

The Greek word that is translated as “God” or as “god” is theos (Θεός Strong number 2315). This Greek word has survived in English words such as “theology” and “theism.”

Of the 1314 times that theos is found in the New Testament, there are about seven instances where Jesus is referred to as theos. There are instances where even the more pronounced title “ho theos” (the god) is clearly applied to Jesus (John 20:28; Heb 1:8).

The purpose of this article is to discuss the word theos to determine how it should be translated when describing Jesus.

Senses of the word God

Two of the possible seven passages, namely Hebrews 1 and John 20, refer to Jesus as theos but to the Father as His theos (His God) (John 20:17; Heb 1:9). The question, therefore, is whether theos has different senses.

Based on dictionary definitions, the English title “God” is defined as the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence. With such a definition of God, there can only be one God.

Senses of the word theos

To understand the different senses of the title “God” in Bible translations, we need to analyze the meanings of the word theos. Based on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, this article identifies the following possible meanings:

(1) The gods in general

(2) The true God, sometimes with and sometimes without the article.

(3) A person granted authority or power by God to represent Him and to speak for Him, such as those to whom the word of God came” (John 10:34-35) or Moses (Exo 7:1).

(4) A supernatural, immortal being, such as the gods of the ancient Greeks, who were worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes.

(5) An idol or image that symbolizes a god (e.g., Acts 7:43);

(6) A thing that opposes God, for example, “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4).

(7) Qualitatively, a being that is ‘godlike’.

Which sense applies to Jesus?

This article then discusses specifically John 20, Hebrews 1 and John 1:1, but also briefly all verses that refer to Jesus as theos, and compare these texts to the alternative meanings of theos listed above to determine in what sense Jesus is described as theos.

The article concludes with comments on how theos should be translated; both when theos refers to the Father and to the Son.

END OF OVERVIEW

The nature of Christ was revealed later.

Jesus always referred to God as somebody else. For example, in Mark 13:19, Jesus refers to “the beginning of the creation which God created.” In other words, He made a distinction; not only between Himself and the Father, but also between Himself and God, implying that He Himself is not God. (The article – God is three Persons but one Being – mentions many other examples.)

Consequently, even after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, even after Thomas’ acclamation, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), Peter continued to make a distinction between Jesus and God:

A man attested to you by God
with miracles and wonders
” (Acts 2:22).

Furthermore, Jesus never claimed to be “God.” He consistently claimed to be “the Son of God” (John 20:30-31). When the Jews accused Him, “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God,” He corrected them, saying, “I said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (John 10:33, 36).

But, while He was on earth, Jesus told 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).

Perhaps decades later, Paul and John received wonderful revelations about the nature of Christ as reflected, for example, in John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. Therefore, when we discuss the meaning of the statements that identify Jesus as theos, we need to consider these later revelations as well.

The Father is Jesus’ God.

Two of the possible seven passages, that refer to Jesus as theos, namely Hebrews 1 and John 20, explicitly also describe the Father as His God:

According to John 20, while Thomas described Jesus as ho theos (John 20:28), Jesus referred to the Father as His theos (John 20:17).

Hebrews 1 applies the title theos to Jesus (Heb 1:8). But the very next verse describes the Father as Jesus’ theos (Heb 1:9).

The Bible describes the Father also elsewhere as Jesus’ God (2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12).

Different senses of “God?”

Since Jesus is “God” but the Father is His “God,” the title “God” is used in different senses. However, the definitions of the word “God” do not allow for such different senses:

The definitions in secular dictionaries have to cater for all categories of people; not only for Christians. Nevertheless, Bible translations attempt to give the ancient sense of the Hebrew and Greek texts as best as possible in modern languages, and these secular dictionaries reflect how modern people understand the modern word “God.” Such dictionaries define the term “God” as “the supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster) and as the “originator and ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary).

GotQuestions – a Christian source, similarly defines God as:

“The Supreme Being;
the Creator and Ruler of all that is;
the Self-existent One.”

I would like to summarize these definitions by a single attribute, namely that God is the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence. With such a definition of God, there cannot be different senses of the word “God.” There can only be one Almighty Being.

True versus false gods

In both the above-mentioned secular dictionaries, “God” is one of the subcategories of the definition of “god.” In these dictionaries, the title “god,” therefore, is a name for a category of beings with “God” referring to a single instance of the “gods.”

But, in the Christian context, we use “God” and “god” are opposites to distinguish between true and false gods.

The Senses of the title theos

Since the title “God” has only one meaning, to understand the different senses of the title “God” in Bible translations, for example in Hebrews 1:8-9, we need to analyze the meanings of the word theos in the original Greek text:

Strong's concordanceBiblehub provides Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance’s definition of theos. In brief, theos can mean:

      • The supreme Divinity, God, Especially with ho (the)
      • A deity – god;
      • Figuratively, a magistrate;
      • Godly of Godward.

Combining this definition with Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the following possible meanings may be identified:

(1) The gods in general

Theos is a general title of deities or divinities (Acts 12:22; 19:37; 28:6; 1 Cor 8:4; 2 Thess 2:4), including all the categories of “gods” listed below. In plural form, it is only used of the gods of the Gentiles (Acts 14:11; 19:26, 1 Cor 8:5, Gal 4:8, Acts 7:43).

(2) The true God

According to Strong’s Greek: 2316. θεός (theos), theos “especially” means “the supreme Divinity” when the article precedes theos (ho theos). (The ancient Greek language had a definite article (equivalent to “the”), but not an indefinite article; equivalent to “a.”)

Of the seven instances of theos that possibly refer to Jesus, in both Hebrews 1:8 and John 20:28, Jesus is “ho theos” (Hebrews 1:8 Interlinear) (John 20:28 Interlinear). On that basis, we might want to argue that Jesus is God Almighty. However, the absence or presence of the article is not conclusive:

ThayersAs Thayer’s states, the title theos sometimes refers to the true God without the article (e.g., Matt 6:24; Luke 3:2; Luke 20:38; Rom 8:8, 33; 2 Cor 1:21; 5:19; 6:7; 1 Thess 2:5). Further identifications in the context must also be considered.

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. 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]. For example, Satan is also described as ho theos (2 Cor 4:4).

(3) Christ

Thayer’s says that, whether Christ is called God is still in dispute among theologians, and must be determined from John 1:1; John 20:28; 1 John 5:20; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8f, etc.

(4) God’s representative

The title theos is also used for a person granted authority or power by God to represent Him and to speak for Him, such as magistrates and judges. For example, in John 10:34-35, Jesus refers to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods.”  This is a quote from Psalm 82:6, where “God” says to the “rulers” of “His own congregation:” “You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.“)

In this sense, God appointed Moses as “god” (Elohim) to Pharaoh (Exo 7:1). (Elohim is the plural Hebrew equivalent of theos.)

Psalm 8:5 reads “You have made him (man) a little lower than elohim.” The letter to the Hebrews, following the LXX, quotes this as “Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels” (Heb 2:9). In this way, angels are indirectly called gods, probably due to their role as God’s messengers.

(5) A supernatural, immortal being

The ancient Greeks used theos for their many gods. Their deities were essentially just immortal superhuman beings, worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc. (e.g., Acts 12:22; 28:6).

The other ancient nations worshiped many other similar gods. Anciently, the Greek term theos was used to refer to all such gods. Theos was even used to describe Roman Emperors.  

To the Christian mind, these are false gods. However, for the ancient Greeks and other pagan nations, these gods were real (1 Cor 8:5-6).

(6) An idol

An idol or image that symbolizes a god (e.g., Acts 7:43; 1 Cor 8:6);

(7) A thing that opposes God

Examples from the New Testament are the devil – “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4), appetite (Phil 3:19), and wealth (Matt 6:24).

(8) Godlike

Theos may also be used to qualitatively to describe a being as ‘godly’, ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’.

What sense of theos applies to Jesus?

Since John 20 and Hebrews 1 indicate that the Father is Jesus’ theos, the Father is theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality.

But, given that theos has a wide range of meanings, and given that the title or name “God” refers to the Ultimate Reality alone, in what sense do these same chapters refer to Jesus as theos?

Considering the uses of theos identified above, Jesus is not called theos in the sense of a false god or in the sense of a being that opposes God. The following remaining meanings may be considered:

(1) A superhuman being

Thomas referred to Jesus as ho theos after he realized, contrary to his earlier doubts, that Jesus has indeed risen from death (John 20:28). That seems to align well with one of the meanings listed above, namely theos as an immortal superhuman being, having power over nature and human fortunes; similar to the immortal Greek gods. For this reason, it is not impossible that Thomas described Jesus as such.

Support for this interpretation is that:

(a) Jesus, while He was on earth, did not claim to be God, as is discussed above.

(b) Thomas made this acclamation soon after Jesus’ resurrection and, therefore, decades before the revelations that were later received through the Holy Spirit about the nature of Christ.

(c) Even after Thomas said this, Peter described Jesus as “A man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders” (Acts 2:22).

(2) A person mandated by God to represent Him

Hebrews 1 refers to Jesus as theos because that letter applies the description of the king of Israel in Psalm 45 to Jesus and because that psalm refers to the king as god (elohim – see Psalm 45:6 Interlinear), which is the Hebrew equivalent of theos (Psa 45:1, 2, 6).

This seems to align well with one of the other meanings of theos, namely a person mandated by God to represent Him. As stated by Psalm 45, “your God, has anointed You” “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psa 45:4, 7).

Consistent with this concept, God always seems to work through Jesus: He created all things through Jesus (Heb 1:2), He saves through Jesus (John 3:16), and we even worship God through Jesus (Phil 2:10-11). See Jesus is worshiped and God created all things through His Son.

(3) Like God

We find a third meaning of theos, when describing Jesus, in John 1:1, which reads:

(a) In the beginning was the Word,
(b) and the Word was with God,
(c) and the Word was God.

John 1:1(b) makes a distinction between God and “the Word,” which is the Word of God, identified in Revelation 19:13 as Jesus Christ. But then John 1:1(c) seems to contradict phrase (b) by saying that “the Word was God.” As discussed in the article The Word was God, Greek specialists, who have studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c, concluded that that phrase describes Jesus as theos in a qualitative sense. In other words, the meaning of John 1:1c is: “The Word was like God.” Similar statements are:

He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

He is the radiance of His glory
and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3).

He existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). (See Jesus emptied Himself.)

If the Word “was like God,” He is distinct from God – similar to John 1:1(b) – and not God Himself.

(4) Co-equal Person of the Trinity

We have now discussed that the Bible could refer to Jesus as theos in three different senses:

      • John 20:28 – An immortal superhuman being, having power over nature and human fortunes;
      • Hebrews 1:8 – A person mandated by God to represent Him; and
      • John 1:1 – That He is like God.

We will now consider a fourth option, namely as proposed by the Trinity doctrine, in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three Persons (three minds and wills) but one Being (one substance). Consequently, in this doctrine, the Son ‘is’ the Ultimate Reality. In that case, theos, when referring to Jesus, must be translated as “God.” However, this interpretation faces at least the following difficulties:

(a) Two Gods

To translate theos, when referring to Jesus, as “God” would imply two “Gods,” for the New Testament consistently refers to the Father and the Son as two different Persons. The Trinity doctrine proposes to solve this anomaly with the “three Persons, one Being”- formula. 

(b) Jesus is distinct from God.

The New Testament not only makes a distinction between the Son and the Father; it also makes a consistent distinction between Jesus Christ and God. See, for example, the opening of any New Testament letter, e.g.:

Paul … set apart for the gospel of God
concerning His Son
” (Rom 1:1-3).

We give thanks to God,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
” (Col 1:3; etc.).

For a discussion, see Jesus and God.

(c) The Bible never refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality.

In almost every instance that Christ is allegedly described as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, probable alternative interpretations exist. John 1:1 has been discussed above briefly.

John 20:28 and Hebrews 1:8

In the Trinity doctrine, the Father and Son are co-equal. In contrast, in John 20 and in Hebrews 1, the Father is Jesus’ God, implying that the Father is superior over the Son (cf. John 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3). These verses, consequently, apply the title theos to Jesus in a subordinate sense, which implies that He is not the Ultimate Reality.

Romans 9:5

In many translations of Romans 9:5, Jesus is not theos but blessed by theos. See, Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

John 1:18

Many of the ancient manuscripts of John 1:18 describe Jesus as huios (son) and not as theos (god). See, Did John refer to Jesus as theos or as huios?

1 John 5:20

In 1 John 5:20, the title “true theos” is sometimes understood as referring to the Son. However, the entire purpose of that verse is to say that the Father is the “true” God, in contrast to the idols mentioned in the next verse (1 John 5:21). Consistent with this, verse 20 refers twice to the Father as “Him who is true.” Therefore, when that verse concludes by saying, “this is the true God,” this should be understood as referring to the Father.

The conclusion is supported by the fact that the phrase “true God” elsewhere always refers to the Father (John 17:3; 1 Thess 1:9-10). The same applies to the related phrases one God” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6), one and only God” (John 5:44), and only God” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17);

Titus 2:13

Titus 2:13 is often translated as “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” implying that Jesus Christ is “our great God.” However, this translation is easily challenged. In many other reliable translations, such as the King James Bible, the New King James Version, and the American Standard Version, this verse reads: “The great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” This translation makes a distinction between God and Jesus Christ – consistent with the distinction which Paul always and everywhere in his letters makes between God and Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

If the New Testament refers to Jesus Christ as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, then such instances of theos must be translated as “God.”

We have now briefly addressed all the verses that refer to Christ as theos, as listed by Thayer’s. The conclusion is that there is not a single reference in the New Testament that unequivocally describes Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality. Coupled with the unambiguous and consistent distinction which the Bible makes between God and Jesus, we need to conclude that theos, when describing Jesus, should not be translated as “God.”

How should theos be translated?

Consider the following:

(a) “God” is a name.

The original Greek text of the New Testament was written only in capital letters. Consequently, it was unable to distinguish between “god” and “God.” When that differentiation developed, centuries later, people began to capitalize the G as an indication that one specific being is in mind, namely the Ultimate Reality. That means that, while the titles theos and “god” both identify a category of beings, in a Christian community, the title “God,” with a capital G, functions like a proper noun (a name) for one single Being. 

(b) The New Testament makes theos specific.

Since theos has such a wide range of meanings, the New Testament Greek uses various techniques to make theos specific when it wants to identify the God of the Bible. The main technique is simply context. But sometimes the only true God is identified by adding phrases such as “the living” (Matt 16:16) or the “Most High” (Mark 5:7). Other identifying phrases include the words “one,” “only,” or “true,” for example:

      • Theos is one” (Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19);
      • One theos” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6);
      • The one and only theos” (John 5:44);
      • Only theos” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17);
      • True theos” (1 Thess 1:9; 1 John 5:20); or
      • Only true theos” (John 17:3).

These phrases refer to the Self-existent One and must be translated using the title “God.”

Since the Greek text finds it necessary to add explanatory words to theos to identify the Self-existent One, I conclude that the title theos is equivalent to the English title “god;” a general designation for all deities or divinities. Again, the conclusion is that God must be understood rather like a name for one specific Being.

Translation of theos when referring to the Father

Consequently, because there is only one true God, to translate the phrase “only true theos” (John 17:3) as “only true God” is tautology (saying the same thing twice). To translate theos as “God” is not really a translation but a replacement of a word with a different word. It is similar to, in a translation, replacing the phrase “Son of God” with “Jesus” because the context indicates that the “Son of God” refers to Jesus. “Only true theos” should rather be translated as “only true god” or simply as “God.” The same applies to the other phrases in the list above.

Translation of theos when referring to Christ

In secular language, “God” is one instance of the category “gods.” But the meaning in a Christian context has a different nuance, namely that “God” and “god” have opposite meanings. “God” refers to the only true God while “god” refers to false gods – everything that opposes God. And since Jesus always existed (Col 1:16), has “all the fullness of Deity” in Him (Col 2:9), has “life in Himself“ (1 Tim 1:26), “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3), and is often mentioned together with the Father and the Holy Spirit (etc.), it is impossible to describe Him as “god.”

In other words, the ‘modern’ capitalization of words, coupled with nuances with which these words are used in Christian circles, have created a translation dilemma. I am not sure how we could solve it.

But consider the following: When we translate theos, when it refers to the Father, we replace the category name theos with a name, namely “God.” Could we consider doing the same when we translate theos, when it refers to Jesus? For example, could we replace theos with another descriptive that has also become a name for one specific Being: “the Son of God?”

Summary of Conclusions

This word theos, translated as “God” or as “god,” appears 1314 times in the New Testament. It is claimed that, in about seven instances, theos refers to Jesus.

God and god

The English title “God,” with a capital G, only has one meaning. It functions as a proper noun (a name) for the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence.

In secular dictionaries, “God” is one of the subcategories of the definition of “god.” But in Christian circles, the term “god” is associated with false gods.

Theos

The word theos has a range of possible meanings, including:

      • The gods of the nations;
      • The true God;
      • A person granted authority or power by God to represent Him;
      • An idol or image that symbolizes a god; or
      • Something that opposes God.

Theos is also used qualitatively; to say that a being is ‘godlike’.

Since theos has such a wide range of meanings, the New Testament Greek uses various techniques to make theos specific when it wants to identify the Supreme Being. Consequently, the title theos is equivalent to the English title “god.”

Jesus described as theos

In most of the seven instances of theos that refer to Jesus, either the original manuscripts or the interpretation of the verse are in dispute. The three undisputed passages are interpreted as follows:

Thomas described Jesus as theos in the sense of an immortal, superhuman being (John 20:28). When Christ ascended to heaven, the disciples did not yet understand the true nature of Christ, as reflected, for example, in John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6.

Hebrews 1:8 refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of a person mandated by God to represent Him.

John 1:1(c) uses theos to describe Jesus as “like God.”

Two of these three passages explicitly describe the Father as Jesus’ God (John 20:17; Heb 1:9; cf. 2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12). All three passages (John 20:28, Hebrews 1:8 and John 1:1) describe Jesus as subordinate to the Father.

Consequently, there is not a single undisputed instance where the Bible refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, which would require theos to be translated as “God.”

This is confirmed by the consistent distinction made by the New Testament; not only between the Son and the Father but also between Jesus Christ and God.

Most translations assume the Trinity doctrine, namely that the Son ‘is’ the Ultimate Reality. Consequently, the fact that theos, when referring to Jesus, is translated as “God,” rather than as “god” is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof there-of.