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Is there any particular reason why "kai Theós ēn ho Lógos" is translated "and the Word was God" and not "and God was the Word"?

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Yes. This is a predicate nominative construction. That is, both θεὸς (God) and ὁ λόγος (the word) are in the nominative case, and they are joined by an equative verb (here, a form of "to be").

John 1:1 (NA28):

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

In English, we generally distinguish the subject (S) from the predicate nominative (PN) in such constructions based on word order. Greek is characteristically loose about word order but shows other patterns for making this distinction. In this case, the subject can be identified if one of the two nominatives falls into any of the following categories:1

  • a pronoun
  • an articular noun (i.e. preceded by the article)
  • a proper name

If both nominatives have such a tag, the analysis is more complex. However, in the case of John 1:1, only ὁ λόγος (the word) — an articular noun — fits.2 Thus, it is correctly translated as in the ESV (and nearly every English translation):

…and the Word was God.

You may (or may not) be interested in considering the semantic distinction between the S and its corresponding PN. Given that they are joined by what I have called an "equative" verb, you may wonder if they should be interchangeable. We know that in English they are not, or you would not have asked the question. Greek is similar in this regard. The most common relationship is what Wallace calls a subset proposition.3 The S is a narrower group within the broader PN. In John 1:1, "the Word" (S) comprises a subset of a larger category called "God" (PN).4

(See also this related question for a defense of the translation “God” rather than “a god.”)


1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996), pp 42-46.
2. Note that θεὸς (God) is not a proper name in Greek.
3. The less common relationship is that of a convertible proposition in which the equative verb essentially becomes an = sign. This construction can be identified when both nominatives carry one of the grammatical tags marking the subject. This is not the case in John 1:1 (see note 2).
4. If you would like to try this out elsewhere, skip down 13 verses: "the word became flesh." Here this subset relationship is more obvious. "Flesh" is the broader term; it would make no sense to say, "flesh became the word."

  • Susan, (A.) If I am not mistaken, to identify "Word" as the (S)ubject, and "God" as the (P)redicate (N)ominative, you had to make a choice--to apply the "Subset Proposition" rule, or the "Convertible Proposition" rule -- (B.) What brought you to conclude that "God" is a broader "set" than "Word" in Genesis 1:1? (C.) From the text, I can understand how the articular "Word" would narrow it down, and from extant-literature, I could understand how "God, interpreted as 'divine'" would be a broader category-- (D.) but what ruled out "Convertible Proposition" for you? – elika kohen May 27 '15 at 17:43
  • @e.s.kohen Updated answer. Note that I’m basically summarizing Wallace’s argument here. I think most would agree that he has some legitimacy as an expert on syntax, but I don’t doubt that there are those who would disagree with him. – Susan May 28 '15 at 0:54
  • Your final comments about a "subset" relationship was of great interest to me as people generally take the phrase as indicating "identity" which is incorrect. Should I understand this to be a more modern way of expressing the idea of "qualitativeness"? My own reading is "and the utterance was divine utterance" (quality). Does that work with subset? IE: that the feature of the LOGOS being discussed is that it is divinely uttered and therefore irresistable? – Ruminator Sep 18 '18 at 14:10
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To understand the implications of the last clause, you need to understand Greek syntax. First, Greek distinguishes the role a noun plays in a sentence by changing the case. In general, if the noun is the subject, it is in the nominative case. If it is the direct object, it is in the accusative case. However, there is a strange class of verbs that do not take a direct object, instead, they take a predicate. There are three verbs that do this in Koine Greek. This means that you have two nouns that are the same case (nominative), where one is the subject, and one is the predicate. So, if both are in the same case, how do you know which is the subject, and which is the predicate?

Here are the rules: Notice, I said these are rules. You can't ignore them, you can't change them, you can't remove them, and you can't add to them!

  1. If both nouns have the article attached, then the first is the subject, the second is the predicate.

  2. If NEITHER noun has the article attached, then the first is the subject, the second is the predicate.

  3. If one has an article, but the other does not, then the one WITH the article is the subject, and the one without the article is the predicate.

So in the phrase "και θεος ην ο λογος", we see that λογος has an article (o) and θεος does not. Thus, o λογος is the subject, while θεος is the predicate.

When translated into English, because λογος is the subject, we have to put it first. English has syntactical rules that must be followed as well. So, this is properly translated "And the word was God."

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