I have some questions about the translation and interpretation of John 1:5. I'll start by first reproducing the Greek and then a variety of translations.

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν. (NA28)

Here are translations from Douay-Rheims, KJV, NIV and ESV.

And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (Douay-Rheims)

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (KJV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (NIV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (ESV)

You can see that the main difference is the translation of the verb κατέλαβεν. The NIV and ESV choose to translate this word as "overcome", but the Douay-Rheims and KJV (both from the late Renaissance) choose a different word, "comprehend".

I'm not sure what meaning of "comprehend" is intended here. From its Latin roots, it could mean "to seize", or even possibly "to overcome". But it could also have a more figurative meaning: "to understand". Which meaning is intended here? And how do we know?

I feel that the meaning of "comprehend" determines the meaning of the verse. If it means "to overcome", then the verse is quite simply saying that the light of God has persisted since the beginning of time.

But if the word means "understand", then it means something else: that the light of God is somewhat at odds with or alien to the darkness. This harkens back to the previous verse—"the life was the light of men"—emphasizing the human capacity for comprehension.

I would be interested to learn what κατέλαβεν is intended to mean—"comprehend" in the literal sense or the figurative—and how this affects the meaning of the verse. Any general comments on the verse would also be welcome, especially if they help tease out its meaning.

  • 1
    Another Q&A about this verse which may be helpful.
    – Susan
    Aug 19, 2017 at 12:23
  • 1
    Is this a duplicate?
    – Susan
    Aug 22, 2017 at 20:54
  • @Susan Thank you so much for linking me to your question. I think it is a duplicate, and feel free to mark it so - I would not be offended. Rather, I am glad to know that I was not the only one stumped by the difference in translation ("overcome" vs. "comprehend"). It does seem to be a matter of choosing between two valid meanings: one, more literal, and the other, more figurative, the way words like "head" end up with two meanings ("head of an army" vs. "head of a body"). I will read through the answers on your question and try to glean the answer.
    – ktm5124
    Aug 23, 2017 at 21:48

1 Answer 1


I searched several bible versions and here are the words used:

Comprehend, Perceive, Overcome, Extinguish, never put it out, did not overtake it, apprehend, and overpower the light.

If you refer to John 3:19 Light came into the world, but men rejected it.

I tend to believe that John 1:5 has a double meaning:

  1. Light came, and as hard as it tried darkness could not overcome it. Satan has been trying for years.
  2. Light came, and the people in darkness didn't understand it. They must experience the light before they can comprehend it.
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