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John 1:1 (NWT):

In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.

This translation, the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation is, I think, unique in using the phrase "a god". All other translations use, "God", e.g., the text in the NASB, the NIV and the KJV is identical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

So, is there any justification in the original text for making Jesus merely, "a god"?

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In New World Translation John 1:1 is not talking about Jesus. See John 20:17 (WE). –  Jeremiah G Aug 12 '13 at 21:07
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According to this wikipedia page‌​, controversy regarding the translation of John 1:1 is not unique to the NWT; translations with a similar rendering include Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott (interlinear reading) and Goodspeed's An American Translation. –  Jeremiah G Aug 12 '13 at 21:13

8 Answers 8

up vote 40 down vote accepted

Short answer: no.

Long answer: While the Greek lacks the definite article on theos in the clause under discussion, that doesn't mean the English should be translated with an indefinite article. Greek and English do not enjoy a one-to-one relationship between their words. There are times in Greek when the article is present but not translated into English. Likewise, there are places where the article is not present in the Greek but the English requires it, or in this case, requires something to show the definiteness of the word.

Example 1: John 18:16 in Greek literally says: "...the disciple, the other, the one known to the high priest..." That's horrible English. So it gets translated (rightly) as "the other disciple, who was known to the high priest." As you can see the word order changed coming into English as well as two definite articles dropping out.

Example 2: John 1:1 contains another example of a time without an article in Greek but needed in English. It says, "en arche 'en o logos..." that is (literally) "In beginning was the Word." Notice that there is no definite article before arche. However, even the New World Translation puts the article there. That is how it should be. To leave it out would cause confusion in the English "In a beginning was the Word..." That implies that there were multiple beginnings to the universe, but that isn't what the Bible teaches. It's a difference in Greek and English. Likewise, the Septuagint of Genesis starts with en arche.

The reason the clause at the end of John 1:1 lacks the article deals with rules of Greek grammar. English uses word order to drive the meaning of a sentence. We almost always have subjects first, then verbs, then the objects (excepted Yoda speech is). Greek doesn't use word order to differentiate between types of nouns. They use word order for emphasis (Hebrew does the same thing). To tell the difference in the subject and the object (both of which are nouns), Greek uses case endings. They can then put the object of the verb at the beginning of the clause with the subject after the verb and still know what the sentence means. In English, "dog bites man" and "man bites dog" mean entirely different things.

However, in Greek, they would put case endings on the nouns and comprehend the same meaning even with the word order switched around. In the following example, I am using case endings here as an illustration. [s] means subject, and [o] means object. In Greek there is no difference between "dog[s] bites man[o]" and "man[o] bites dog[s]." They mean the exact same thing. This works with action verbs, linking verbs are different, but the action verbs show how the Greek usually works.

The clause in question (which uses a linking verb) literally reads kai theos 'en 'o logos (literally "and God was the Word" but you won't find it translated that way for good reason). Notice that the word order is switched around with "God" at the front of the clause. Because the verb is a linking verb, the subject and object use the same case ending, the nominative. With a linking verb, the part of the clause that would be the object often drops the article (even though it would use it otherwise), especially when it is in front of the verb (as here). When the object of a clause is a noun like this, it is called the "predicate nominative" and Colwell's Rule allows the translation to indicate the definiteness of the word even when the Greek lacks the article.

In English, we don't put "the" in front of God to show definiteness. We capitalize it. That's what Greek scholars recognize in this verse.

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Wow! We need more people, such as yourself, who really know Greek grammar. I'd like to encourage you to keep up the good work. –  Jon Ericson Feb 14 '12 at 19:01
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Thanks! My Greek is rusty, and I did a lot more Hebrew than Greek in seminary. Though in one of my favorite classes (Studies in Numbers), we each had to pick a translation to compare to the Hebrew and our translation. I chose the LXX. My wife mostly saw the back of my head that semester as I had to translate both the BHS and LXX into modern English. –  Frank Luke Feb 14 '12 at 19:23
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Good answer. For more info, I'd pick up a copy of Dan Wallace's "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics". He has a really good discussion of this issue on pages 266-269 (in my edition, anyway). You might find that useful. The reader will have to know a little Greek, but apparently you do. –  Mallioch Feb 15 '12 at 5:37
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@Yasky The NT was originally written in Koine Greek. Much of the Aramaic primacy argument relies on the unfounded thesis that Mishnaic Hebrew was not a language of the common people in the time of Jesus. –  Frank Luke Sep 3 '13 at 17:05
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@Yasky, Links made the first comment long. If nothing else, the Dead Sea Scrolls showed that Mishnaic Hebrew was alive and well. However, there were good reasons to write the NT in Greek. –  Frank Luke Sep 3 '13 at 17:09

This answer is supplementary to Frank Luke's, and supports it.

When someone makes a claim about an ancient language's grammar, it always helps me to believe it and internalize it when I can see parallel usages that illustrate the truth of the claim. Thus, I am glad that Frank Luke offered several examples.

I have another which is perhaps even more to the point that came up in my reading of the Greek New Testament: Mark 2:28. My interlinear:

ὥστε κύριός ἐστιν ὁ   υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ  τοῦ σαββάτου
so   lord   is    the son  the man      even the sabbath

For those of you who don't know Greek, "the man" and "the Sabbath" are in the genitive, which is often rendered by adding an "of" in English. Now the one confusing thing about this verse is that the τοῦ σαββάτου goes with κύριός and not υἱὸς (to claim otherwise would turn the sentence into mumbo-jumbo, especially in context). Therefore, what is happening is that "Lord" has been moved forward in the sentence for emphasis, but the article has been placed only on "son" because that is the subject of the sentence. Thus, something to the effect of: "Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath!" To claim that the Son of Man is "a lord" of the Sabbath would be very odd, obscure the meaning of the wider passage, and raise other strange questions (who are the other lords? etc.).

Compare this verse now to my interlinear of the relevant portion of John 1:1:

...καὶ θεὸς ἦν  ὁ   λόγος
...and god  was the word

Notice the grammar of this sentence, though, slightly simpler than the above verse, is fundamentally that same: it is a predicative nominative construction (both major nouns in the sentence are in the nominative case and are joined by the standard copulative verb).

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Thanks, the answers I've received here make me really hope BH keeps going! –  Wikis May 26 '12 at 21:03

In addition to the points already provided, may I offer a more obvious point based on simple logic?

So, the question is, should the latter θεός in John 1:1 be translated into English as "God" or "a god"?

In John 1:3, it is written that «πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν», that is, "All things were made by him, and not one thing that was made was made without him."

Now, folks, all things were made by the Word (ὁ λόγος, which is the antecedent of the pronoun αὐτοῦ in John 1:3).

If the Word is "a god" but not "God," how then did the Word "make all things"?

"A god" is created (a creature), for only God is uncreate and eternal. Only God is the creator of all things.

So, how did a god create all things when he himself had to be created?

It's illogical. No, it's not a "mystery" that we can simply brush off. It's illogical. It's a contradiction. The Bible is not a book of contradiction. It's a book of truth. The Word must be God because it created all things.

Simple as that.

If the Word is the creator of all things,

And the creator of all things is God,

Then the Word is God.

Again, simple logic.


If θεὸς was definite (arthrous), then it would mean that the Word was the Father.

If θεὸς was indefinite (anarthrous), it would mean that the Word was "a god" --- essentially promoting polytheism. Add that to the fact that we are said to honor the Son as we honor the Father (John 5:23), and you'd be committing idolatry by worshipping "a god" rather than the only true God, YHVH.

Rather, θεὸς is neither definite, not indefinite, but qualitative.

Let me provide examples using the word ἄνθρωπος.

Suppose I wanted to translate the following English phrases into Greek:

"He is the man." αὐτός ἐστίν ὁ ἄνθρωπος.

"He is a man." αὐτός ἐστίν ἄνθρωπος.

Both of these phrases tell me who the man is. The former tells me that he is a certain man, as noted by the definite article ὁ preceding ἄνθρωπος. The latter tells me that he is a man, but it does not designate a particular man.

But, suppose I wanted to tell you what he (αὐτός) is? Not who, but what.

In his Categories (1.5), Aristotle writes, "For instance, the individual man is included in the species 'man', and the genus to which the species belongs is 'animal'; these, therefore that is to say, the species 'man' and the genus 'animal, are termed secondary substances."

οὐσία describes what something is (without getting into a lengthy philosophical discourse), not who it is. And, Aristotle states that ἄνθρωπος qualifies as a "secondary οὐσία."

Now, some people may think, "Aristotle, really?" Well, some people may think that John was an ignorant fishermen, but at the least, he had an exceptional grasp of the Greek language. In fact, I believe he was remarkably learned and intelligent --- especially in philosophy. This is, after all, the same man that begins his Gospel with the mention of one of the richest philosophical terms in history, λόγος. John also wrote to Greeks, and isn't it obvious that Greece was the epicenter of philosophical thought?

In summary, when John writes, «καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος», he is telling us what the Word is --- its nature --- not who the Word is (i.e., the Father). Like ἄνθρωπος, θεός can also refer to an οὐσία.

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wow (: — good good! keep 'em coming –  Yasky Sep 3 '13 at 16:42

The meaning of the English article

In English the article ("the") is used to make a word definite.

This is how you would demand an indefinite pizza:

  Bring me a pizza

This is how you would demand a definite pizza:

  Bring me the pizza

The meaning of the Greek article

The meaning of the Greek article is slightly different, which can make it difficult for English speakers to grasp.

"The primary function of the [Greek] article is not to make a word definite.

  • When the article is present, it is emphasizing identity

  • When the article is not present, it is generally emphasizing the quality of the substantive."

-Mounce, BBG, p. 334

This is how you would speak with reference to an identified love:

  τὴν ἀγάπην τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἐδέξαντο

"they did not receive the love of the truth" -2 Thessalonians 2:10, NASB

This is how you would speak with reference to a "love essence":

  ὁ Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν.

"God is love." -1 John 4:8, NASB

You would not translate that verse "God is a love" because that is not what the Greek is saying.

John 1:1

Likewise, John 1:1 is not saying "the Word was a god," but is rather saying something somewhat like, "the Word was God in essence*"... which is weird English, so we translate it "the word was God" and that conveys the meaning well for English readers.


For a very thorough treatment of this issue, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, pp.256-269

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The translation of 'THEOS' as 'a god' is not a good choice. On the other side, however, the widely accepted decision not to make any distinction between articulated 'HO THEOS' and unarticulated 'THEOS' apparent in this context is not very good either because it seems not to represent the gospel writer's intention adequately. The Word, HO LOGOS, has everything that belongs to God. He shares the very essence of the One with whom all originates. The Word was with the God, in the beginning. HO LOGOS ÊN PROS TON THEON.

In English or German it cannot be said as in the Greek. To translate God was the Word is not what John intended to say. Otherwise he would have said it thus. HO THEOS ÊN HO LOGOS would have been perfectly possible to say if that was what he wanted to say. To translate 'A god was the word' is a foolish attack. Quite senseless and contradictory. No reason to boast.

Any translation must fall short in this case. Maybe this is what we should come to appreciate.

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Privately I would translate –  hannes May 8 '13 at 4:50
    
Of God was the Word and all God was He. –  hannes May 8 '13 at 4:52
    
Regarding the Witnesses here and where they come from I would write god uncapitalized. (Or vice versa: capitalized for them and not for others. For myself I almost dare not to. He is too great to speak as if I knew him.) –  hannes May 8 '13 at 13:25

Short Answer: Yes.

I am sure that this is not the answer that most of us want to hear. From a purely grammatical perspective, before claiming that Jehovah’s Witnesses added “a God”, see why many Trinitarian Bible translations have translated John 1:1 as “a God”. The NWT was published in 1951 and I am quoting from the appendix of the New World Translation for their decision. Similar rendering can be found in nearly 60 different translations. I can’t explain it better.

1808 “and the word was a god”
— The New Testament, in An Improved Version, Upon the Basis of Archbishop Newcome’s New Translation: With a Corrected Text, London.

1864 “and a god was the Word”
— The Emphatic Diaglott (J21, interlinear reading), by Benjamin Wilson, New York and London.

1935 “and the Word was divine”
— The Bible—An American Translation, by J. M. P. Smith and E. J. Goodspeed, Chicago.

1975 “and a god (or, of a divine kind) was the Word”
— Das Evangelium nach Johannes, by Siegfried Schulz, Göttingen, Germany.

1978 “and godlike sort was the Logos”
— Das Evangelium nach Johannes, by Johannes Schneider, Berlin.

1979 “and a god was the Logos”
— Das Evangelium nach Johannes, by Jürgen Becker, Würzburg, Germany.

These translations use such words as “a god,” “divine” or “godlike” because the Greek word θεός (the·os′) is a singular predicate noun occurring before the verb and is not preceded by the definite article. This is an anarthrous the·os′. The God with whom the Word, or Logos, was originally is designated here by the Greek expression ὁ θεός, that is, the·os′ preceded by the definite article ho. This is an articular the·os′. Careful translators recognize that the articular construction of the noun points to an identity, a personality, whereas a singular anarthrous predicate noun preceding the verb points to a quality about someone. Therefore, John’s statement that the Word or Logos was “a god” or “divine” or “godlike” does not mean that he was the God with whom he was. It merely expresses a certain quality about the Word, or Logos, but it does not identify him as one and the same as God himself.

In the Greek text there are many cases of a singular anarthrous predicate noun preceding the verb, such as in Mr 6:49; 11:32; Joh 4:19; 6:70; 8:44; 9:17; 10:1, 13, 33; 12:6. In these places translators insert the indefinite article “a” before the predicate noun in order to bring out the quality or characteristic of the subject. Since the indefinite article is inserted before the predicate noun in such texts, with equal justification the indefinite article “a” is inserted before the anarthrous θεός in the predicate of John 1:1 to make it read “a god.” The Sacred Scriptures confirm the correctness of this rendering.

In his article “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” published in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92, Philadelphia, 1973, p. 85, Philip B. Harner said that such clauses as the one in Joh 1:1, “with an anarthrous predicate preceding the verb, are primarily qualitative in meaning. They indicate that the logos has the nature of theos. There is no basis for regarding the predicate theos as definite.” On p. 87 of his article, Harner concluded: “In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite.”

Following is a list of instances in the gospels of Mark and John where various translators have rendered singular anarthrous predicate nouns occurring before the verb with an indefinite article to denote the indefinite and qualitative status of the subject nouns.

Abbreviations used in the following table:

  • KJV: King James Version
  • AAT: An American Translation
  • NIV: New International Version
  • RSV: Revised Standard Version
  • TEV: Today’s English Version

                    KJV          AAT          NIV           RSV              TEV
        Mark 6:49   a spirit     a ghost      a ghost       a ghost          a ghost
        Mark 11:32  a prophet    a prophet    a prophet     a real prophet   a prophet
        John 4:19   a prophet    a prophet    a prophet     a prophet        a prophet
        John 6:70   a devil      an informer  a devil       a devil          a devil
        John 8:44   a murderer   a murderer   a murderer    a murderer       a murderer
        John 8:44   a liar       a liar       a liar        a liar           a liar
        John 9:17   a prophet    a prophet    a prophet     a prophet        a prophet
        John 10:1   a thief      a thief      a thief       a thief          a thief
        John 10:13  an hireling  a hired man  a hired hand  a hireling       a hired man
        John 10:33  a man        a mere man   a mere man    a man            a man
        John 12:6   a thief      a thief      a thief       a thief          a thief
    

For those needing more explanation, you might find the book Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in the English Translation of New Testament by Professor Jason Beduhn of Arizona University to be helpful. He is not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but he defends the NWT on John 1:1. Dr. Beduhn says,

The Jehovah’s Witness editors, in explaining this verse, say that they are trying to convey that the word has qualitative sense — that is, that the word belongs to the class of divine beings. This is correct. In fact, it seems clear to me that the word theos is in this verse a predicate adjective. I would translate as Moffatt and Goodspeed (two excellent scholars of Greek) have: “And the Word was divine.”

However, the NWT Translation Committee chose to use the indefinite article “a” (“divine” in footnote) to so render as it did and not like Moffatt and Goodspeed, because of two factors. One, its avowed principle of being as “literal as possible” and second, the context, as the Greek shows a contrast between two that are “theos” but only one is “ho theos”, “the God”. For more scholars who endorse John 1:1 as “a God” or “divine” see the article JOHN 1:1c: “God,” “divine” or “a god”?

Another interesting fact is that one of the earliest languages into which the Greek New Testament was translated was Coptic in the 3rd Century, prior to the adoption of Trinity by Egyptian churches. Coptic has the definite article, and existing 3rd/4th century manuscript read “a God”! Trinitarians try to use a weak defense, saying that the Coptic text could also be translated into English as “God”. See more details in the article Coptic John 1:1c: What Conclusions Can Be Drawn?

One user has answered that John 1:3 would contradict with 1:1 if the translation is “a God”. Again, the translation submitted by him is the problem. Many translations, including NWT, translate it as “through him” not “by him”. For example, the NIV translates it as, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” That is why Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is “a God”, or a powerful person with Godlike qualities, a mighty God himself, but not Almighty God Jehovah. Note that the Bible uses the word “God” for Satan and for human beings, denoting a powerful person. These are in harmony with Colossians 1:15, where it states that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creations” and all other things were made “through him and for him”.

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Very nice answer, welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! –  Wikis Nov 9 '13 at 7:42
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This is mostly good content, but it isn't the full story. The other translations not covered here have various reasons for doing so that are not arbitrary (and not even all theological). Only if you were to review the rest of the picture with the same rigor as you do here would a whole picture emerge. –  Caleb Dec 11 '13 at 13:03
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No much Bible would be sold and make money if it read "a God". –  Titanium Dec 11 '13 at 21:05
    
@FrankLuke Wallace believes Jesus is God and part of a Trinity. If John's intention was to confirm Trinity won't we expect a clear scripture at-least the word "Trinity" in Bible? I am no scholar in Greek, but I see that NWT rendering is not unique as shown above, and have Grammatical basis. While I have full respect for Jesus, a mere reading of the Bible says me Jehovah (Yahweh or YHWH) is the God that Jesus as a Jew worshiped and Jesus paid ransom to God. How can God pay ransom to himself? No God when Jesus died? Trinity is a pagan teaching and a messy topic. –  Titanium May 27 at 19:44
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I would like to hear from those so called scholars who claim that "a God" is not a valid translation how should be the Greek version of John 1:1 if the writer wanted to render "a God". Although I am no Greek expert, not even newbie, I would argue that the sentence would be rendered the same way. I'd like to hear some thoughts on that. Cheers. –  Marcelo Aug 5 at 19:48

The definite article is left off to highlight a difference. Many times the definite article is left off of the predicate of a sentence.

John 4:24 (ESV)
24  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus is a god. Apart from god Jesus created all things.

Colossians 1:15 (ESV)
15  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

He is image of god -- he looks like him but He was created. Almighty god was the creator Jehovah.

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In order to judge what you were saying here, I had to sort through your post and fill in articles -- both definite and indefinite as appropriate. How are we supposed to buy an unsubstantiated claim about the usage of articles out of a post that doesn't use them correctly? Beyond that, the verses you pick are terribly out of context. Colossians goes on to describe how all the fullness of God was made visible in the person of Jesus. I'm voting this down because I don't see how the argument holds water. Perhaps you can edit to fill in the gaps and make a full argument for us? –  Caleb May 8 '13 at 7:30
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@lang. I did not think your citation from Colossians was out of context. It is speaking of the same One, who is all of God, having all from God, received (firstborn) and begotten (son). I noticed your translation wrong in this other instance (John 4:24 which you quoted from ESV). God is (in Jesus' words) not a spirit (out of many). He is spirit (meaning not to be perceived physically but by his force). The indefinite article means one out of many. That is why it is unsuitable in either instance (John 1:1 and 4:24). Can you see that? –  hannes May 10 '13 at 2:57

No, it is clear in the original greek text that it is "God", not "god". See my answer in: What is the original Greek translation of John 1:1?:

It is "God", not "god":

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.

The Greek word for "God" is "Θεός" and has survived in English in words like "Theology", "Theism" etc. "Θεόν" in the text above is third person inflection.

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As the comments on your other answer point out, your reasoning there is fatally flawed. –  Jack Douglas Sep 3 '13 at 6:06
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Even as somebody who strongly agrees with the conclusion that the text refers to one God in specific, I must point out that this argument is invalid for coming to that conclusion. Not only is there not a definitive case for a definite article from this sentence alone (one must look at the context of the passage and John's writing) but Greek at the wasn't even written with the capitalization and punctuation you are looking at in the bit of text you quote. Any deductions from such are bogus. Even if you happened to get to the right conclusion, this way of "proving" is invalid. –  Caleb Sep 3 '13 at 9:07
    
Not to mention, this noun doesn't have the linguistic feature of 'person'. Θεόν is an accusative, singular, masculine noun, but is also somewhat irrelevant since it occurs in the phrase "...and the word was with (to/toward) God...," not in the main phrase of contention (which uses the noun in the nominative case, or arguably the 'predicate nominative'). –  maj nem ɪz dæn Dec 11 '13 at 0:45

protected by maj nem ɪz dæn Dec 11 '13 at 1:01

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