This 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.
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.
This is an article in the series on the translation of John 1:1c. The previous articles are:
The purpose of the current article is to argue against the translation “the Word was 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
Consider, 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:
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.”
In 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 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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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