This question is inspired by a question about the proper translation of John 1:1.1 There are lengthy debates on how to translate the Johanine prologue properly.2 This is not about that debate. Based on Johanine corpus existing variants3 we have various ways4 on how to read the prologue. What are possible historical interpretations of John 1:1?

1 Steven L. Anderson made a concise introduction to the Greek New Testament of John 1:1
2 Bobby Conway from One Minute Apologist. Anthony Buzzard from 21st Century Reformation.
3 Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford 2011.
4 Ibid, Forgery and Counterforgery, Oxford 2013.

  • 1
    I don’t have the book referenced in Footnote 3, but I wasn’t aware of text variants here. It looks to me like the TR is identical to modern critical texts for 1:1, and Metzger’s text commentary says nothing about this verse. Maybe you mean somewhere other than 1:1? Can you elaborate on Johanine corpus existing variants? Thanks!
    – Susan
    Mar 16, 2015 at 1:03
  • You're right that the TR is identical to NA28 for 1:1. Ehrman was referring to another part. Currently I'm writing a brief answer to my own question. Mar 16, 2015 at 1:16
  • @Susan I have a quick question, are Acts 28:6c and John 1:1c have the same anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives? Thanks. Mar 16, 2015 at 3:11
  • You’re talking about in Acts “...that he was a god”? That actually uses an infinitive and therefore no nominatives are involved, and the noun translated as predicate is after the verb anyway. So Colwell’s rule (I assume that’s where you’re going) wouldn’t apply as far as I know. (Although I think you’re right about the semantic similarity to a PN construction....) But this is better for chat if you want to discuss further.
    – Susan
    Mar 16, 2015 at 3:24

3 Answers 3


I'll answer this question without discussing variants Johanine prologue. Historically there are four distinctive readings of the prologue,

  1. Sabellius who distinguish the three divine persons functionally.
  2. Samosata who distinguish the impersonal Logos from the personal Son.
  3. Arius who distinguish the unbegotten God from the begotten God.
  4. St. Athanasius who identify the three divine persons substantially.

Prior to the Council of Alexandria in 362 where Athanasius formally consolidate his alliance with Nicene sympathizer semi-Arians,1

The term ύπόστάσις had been used in the past to distinguish the three in the Holy Trinity, especially by St. Hippolytus of Rome and Novatian. For them, however, υπόστασις designated almost the same as ουσία, and they considered that as a synonym of the unity of essence. The term ύπόστάσις remained indistinct from the concept of essence and this is precisely why the terminology of Dionysius of Alexandria’s theology was so disturbing to the Latins. In general, until the middle of the fourth century ουσία and ύπόστάσις were interchangeable both as ideas and terms. St. Jerome in his letter to Pope St. Damasus bluntly writes that "the school of worldly science knew of no other meaning for the word ύπόστάσις than substance."2 In the anathemas pronounced by the Council of Nicaea ουσία and ύπόστάση are identical.3

What is the difference between pre-Nicene Trinitarianism and Arianism in terms of their Christology?

Using the Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament of the Gospel of St. John,

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

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

Where Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical alike mostly familiar with. It's not too difficult to construct four possible historical interpretations of the prologue. Especially because the important part rest on the third clause,

We know that “the Word” is the subject because it has the definite article, and we translate it accordingly: “and the Word was God.” Two questions, both of them of theological import, should come to mind: 1) Why was θεὸς (Theos) thrown forward? And 2) why does it lack the article? In brief, its emphatic position stresses its essence or quality: “What God was, the Word was” is how one translation brings out this force. Its lack of a definite article keeps us from identifying the person of the Word (Jesus Christ) with the person of “God” (the Father). That is to say, the word order tells us that Jesus Christ has all the divine attributes that the Father has; lack of the article tells us that Jesus Christ is not the Father. John’s wording here is beautifully compact! It is, in fact, one of the most elegantly terse theological statements one could ever find. As Martin Luther said, the lack of an article is against Sabellianism; the word order is against Arianism.

To state it another way, look at how the different Greek constructions would be rendered:

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν ὁ θεὸς “and the Word was the God” (ie, the Father, Sabellianism)

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν θεὸς “and the Word was a god” (Arianism)

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος “and the Word was God” (Orthodoxy)

Jesus Christ is God and has all the attributes that the Father has. But He is not the first person of the Trinity. All this is concisely affirmed in καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Daniel Wallace quoted in William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, Zondervan, 1993, p. 28-9.

To conform to standard Greek grammar. E.C. Colwell demonstrated in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1933 that it was normal practice to omit a definite article “the” in John 1:1c.4 St. John the Apostle was simply using good grammar making it clear that he intended to say, “The Logos was God” which defended by Athanasius instead of the three possibilities explained by Wallace. Following Wallace's explanation we can also construct a hypothetical text which identify the same divinity between the Father and the Son explicitly such as,

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ υἱός,

καὶ ὁ υἱός ἦν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα,

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ υἱός.

In the beginning was the Son,

and the Son was with the Father,

and the Son was God.

Sabellius distinguish the three divine persons functionally for the purpose of history of redemption. If written in this way we would explicitly with v. 1b deny Sabellian because the Son is explicitly distinguished with the Father eternally. Samosata distinguish the impersonal Logos who becomes personified as the personal Son when God created the world. This way we would explicitly with v. 1a deny Samostan because the Son exists personally since eternity. Arius distinguish the divinity of the unbegotten God and the begotten God.5 With v. 1c we would explicitly deny Arian because the Son's divinity is identical in nature with His Father.6 Historically this text never existed. I made up this hypothetical text. This is actually how Trinitarians understand John 1:1 while the Greek text itself isn't that explicit. This is why Sabellius, Samosata, and Arius were capable to use John 1:1 to defend their beliefs:

  1. The Father and the Son are distinguished functionally because John 1:1 didn't call the Logos as Son and God as the Father. This distinction began when God function as the Creator of the world, as the Redeemer of the world, and as the Spirit who comfort the believers.
  2. The Logos and the Son are distinguished because John 1:1 didn't call the Logos as Son. The impersonal Logos who exists eternally with God became the personal Son personified in the man Christ Jesus. It's worth to note that v. 1a says, "In the beginning was the Logos." It doesn't say that the Son was in the beginning. It also says in v. 1b, "and the Logos was with God." It doesn't say that the Son was with the Father. It says that the impersonal Logos was in the beginning with God, not the personified Son.
  3. The Son and the Father are distinguished because John 1:1 didn't call the Logos unbegotten. The impersonal Logos became the begotten Son for the purpose of creation. The begotten Son is the Father's first emanation. Just as a man posses his thought and after being conceived the thought is spoken. Similarly God posses His impersonal Logos and for the purpose of creation conceived Him as His begotten Son.

The text in and of itself can't be used to justify one of the four possible readings. Ss. Athanasius and Basil confessed this. They defended Nicene faith with liturgical testimony. Both Christ and the Holy Spirit are worshiped in the divine liturgy. Scripture with liturgy become the basis to defend Nicene faith. For more detail, What is the difference between pre-Nicene Trinitarianism and Arianism in terms of their Christology?

1 Apparently ecumenism predated the Second Council of Vatican.
2 Jerome, Letter 15 to Pope Damasus.
3 At the Council of Nicaea in 325 there was a pronouncement of anathema declared at the end of the Creed to those who distinguish the substance or subsistent which later was revised at Council of Alexandria in 362. This is why Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed omitted the anathemas in 381.
4 This is one of the most debated passage in the whole New Testament. "Colwell assumed definiteness in certain passages (e.g., John 1:1) which were highly debatable." Daniel B. Wallace, The semantics and exegetical significance of the object-complement construction in the New Testament, Grace Theological Journal 6.1 (Spring 1985): 106, footnote 70.
5 Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian writer informs us that John 1:1c reads "the Word was a [second] god." Origen, Commentary on John, 1:42-2:3.
6 MacArthur rightly notes, if John had wanted “to say that the Word was merely in some sense divine, he could have used the adjective theios (cf. 2 Peter 1:4)." John MacArthur, John 1-11, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 2006), 18-9.


John 1:1 - Athanasius

Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse1, chapter 4, section 11 (page 312 of the Eerdmans Nicene and Post-Nicene volume 4), note I, we read in explanation of what Athanasius wrote (see link below):

"Athan. observes that this formula of the Arian is a mere evasion to escape using the word 'time' vid. also Cyril, Thesaur. iv. 19,20. Else let them explain 'There was what when the Son was not' or what was before the Son? since He Himself was before all times and ages, which he created, de Decr 18, "note 5. Thus if 'when' be a word of time, He it is who was 'when' He was not which is absurd. Did they mean, however, that it was the Father who 'was' before the Son? This is true, if 'before' was taken, not to imply time, but origination or beginning. And in this sense the first verse of S. Jon's Gospel may be interpreted 'In the beginning,' or Origin, i.e. in the Father 'was the word.' Thus Athan. himself understands that text, Orat iv. I vid. also Orat iii.9; Nyssen. contr. Eumon. iii. p 106; Cyril Thesaur. 32. p 312"

Athanasius believed that "In the beginning" of John 1:1 referred to the origin of the Son in the Father.

This tells us that the Greek grammar in this verse may be taken inceptively. The Father was before the Son and in the beginning the Word was in the Father. Then the Word came to be. The caveat is that this was before time began.



An interpretation common with some early Protestants (Socinians; & Unitarians) is that "the beginning" refers to the new creation, not the old. So the Logos was Jesus Christ, not a pre-existent person before Jesus. In this view, verse 3 ("all things") might refer to all spiritual things instead of literally all things.

Another interpretation is that the Logos is an attribute of God, not a person or entity of any kind. The Logos then metaphorically became flesh.

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