Is “and the Word was God” the correct translation of John 1:1?

Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is well known that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Bible translates the opening words of John’s Gospel as, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” In this post we consider whether that translation is correct, or the translation of mainstream Christian Bibles, “and the Word was God.”

Contents

  1. The differences
  2. Is there any basis for the translation, “and the Word was a God”?
  3. However…
  4. Why “the Word was with God” is the correct translation

 

The differences

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

John 1:1, English Standard Version (ESV), New International Version (NIV), King James Version

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”

John 1:1, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation (2013 Revision)

Let’s begin by examining the differences between the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version and the mainstream Christian versions of John 1:1.

You can see the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of this verse here in both the 1984 version and the updated 2013 version of their New World Translation. The word ordering differs somewhat in these two versions, but crucially both end with the identical phrase, “and the Word was a god.”

Compare this with the verse in three mainstream Christian Bible versions, the English Standard Version (2001), the New International Version (2011), and the King James Version (1611, updated 1769). In each of them the translation is exactly identical (fairly unusual across these three versions!) and reads,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John 1:1, English Standard Version (ESV), New International Version (NIV), King James Version

“And the Word was God.”

The difference that’s made by the addition of that little indefinite article, ‘a god,’ reflects the difference in belief between Jehovah’s Witness and mainstream Christians about Jesus Christ, here referred to by John as “the Word.”

Mainstream Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both fully and completely Man, and, at the same time, fully and completely God. You could not be more God than Jesus is; you could not be more Man than Jesus is.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, believe that although Jesus Christ is a very exalted being born as a human — their 2013 translation even gives in a footnote the alternative, “was divine” — he was not fully and truly God (see, e.g., here). In their view only the Father is properly termed ‘God.’ Hence the translation, “and the Word was a god.”

Is there any basis for the translation, “and the Word was a God”?

“Unlike in English where we never refer to the Christian God as ‘the God,’ New Testament Greek frequently does. It even frequently refers to Jesus as ‘the Jesus’!”

The problem in translating this verse is that New Testament Greek has a definite article (“the”), but it does not have an indefinite article (“a”).

Also, unlike in English where we never refer to the Christian God as “the God,” New Testament Greek frequently does. It even frequently refers to Jesus as “the Jesus”!

Matthew 19:6
ὃ οὖν ὁ θεὸς συνέζευξεν ἄνθρωπος μὴ χωριζέτω.
ho oun ho theos sunezeuxen anthrōpos mē chōrizetō
what therefore the God has joined together man let not separate!

Matthew 17:18
καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ δαιμόνιον
kai epetimēsen autō ho Iēsous, kai exēlthen ap’ autou to daimonion
and rebuked it the Jesus, and came out from him the demon

Now the standard way to translate a noun in New Testament Greek which isn’t preceded by the definite article, is with an indefinite article in English. Thus:

Matthew 19:5
ἕνεκα τούτου καταλείψει ἄνθρωπος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὴν μητέρα καὶ κολληθήσεται τῇ γυναικὶ αὐτοῦ
heneka toutou kataleipsei anthrōpos ton patera kai tēn mētera kai kollēthēsetai tē gunaiki autou
for this reason shall leave [a] man the father and the mother and be joined to the wife of him

In this sentence the word anthrōpos, ‘man’, is not preceded by the Greek definite article, hence ‘a man.’

But the words for ‘father’ (patera), ‘mother’ (mētera) and ‘wife’ (gunaiki) are all preceded by the Greek definite article — ton patera, tēn mētera, tē gunaiki — hence ‘the father,’ ‘the mother,’ ‘the wife.’

With that in mind, let us turn to John 1:1.

John 1:1
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
En archē ēn ho logos, kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos.
In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and [a?] God was the Word.

Two things immediately jump out at us in the last clause:—

  1. The order of the nouns is reversed compared to all our English translations: not “the Word was God,” but “God was the Word.”
  1. The definite article is missing from the final occurrence of “God” (theos) — as in, “God was the Word” — whereas the definite article is present in the earlier occurrence of God (ton theon, “and the Word was with the God”).

The lack of a definite article on the final occurrence of “God” is what invites the Jehovah’s Witness’ translation, “and the Word was a god.”

However…

“Although the absence of the definite article from a Greek noun often means we should translate with the English indefinite article — ‘a god,’ and so on — this is by no means always the case.”

Although the absence of the definite article from a Greek noun often means we should translate with the English indefinite article — “a god,” and so on — this is by no means always the case.

In the New Testament Greek, the definite article is often omitted even though a specific instance of some noun is meant (which would often call for the definite article in English).

So with reference to the noun ‘God’ and the proper name ‘Jesus’, take the following examples also from John’s Gospel:

John 9:3
ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ
apekrithē Iēsous, oute houtos hēmarten oute hoi goneis autou
answered Jesus, neither this [man] sinned nor the parents of him

John 3:2
οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος·
houtos ēlthen pros auton nuktos kai eipen autō, Rhabbi, oidamen hoti apo theou elēluthas didaskalos.
this [man] came to him by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that from God you have come a teacher.”

In the first example, the word ‘Jesus’ (Iēsous) is not preceded by the definite article; yet clearly only one particular Jesus is meant. To translate this as, “A Jesus answered,” is impossible.

In the second example, the word ‘God’ (theou) is not preceded by the definite article; again, clearly it would be incorrect to translate this as, “we know that you have come from a god.”

So just because the definite article is absent from a noun, it doesn’t necessarily imply we should translate as “a god,” etc.

We see this going on even in John 1:1 itself, at the beginning of the verse:

John 1:1
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος …
En archē ēn ho logos …
In [the] beginning was the Word …

Here the word ‘beginning’ (archē) has no definite article preceding it; yet we would never translate this as “In a beginning”!

Why “the Word was with God” is the correct translation

Let us consider now some possibilities as to what John could have written, and what those alternatives would imply.

Suppose we had the word order as in our English versions. Also suppose John had used the definite article. Thus:

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν ὁ θεός.
kai ho logos ēn ho theos.
and the Word was the God

What would this be implying? Since ‘God’ (theos) here is referring to the Father, and ‘Word’ (logos) is referring to the Son, the implication surely would be that the Word was the Father. In other words, it would imply that the Father and the Son were the same Person!

This is obviously wrong, because John has just written in the preceding clause, “and the Word was with God,” implying distinct Persons.

So that explains why John has not used the definite article in front of theos.

What if the word order was as in our English versions, but John didn’t use the definite article? Thus:

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν θεός.
kai ho logos ēn theos.
and the Word was God

“One of the distinctive and absolutely non-negotiable beliefs of Judaism was the oneness of God. It is unthinkable that John should mean us to understand John 1:1 as, ‘the Word was a god,’ as though there were many gods!”

Having the word order this way without the article does invite the interpretation, “and the Word was a god” — even though contextual considerations rule this out:

  • John was a Jew. One of the distinctive and absolutely non-negotiable beliefs of Judaism was the oneness of God. “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It is unthinkable that John should mean us to understand this as, “the Word was a god,” as though there were many gods!
  • A little farther down, in John 1:18, John makes clear that the one referred to here as “the Word,” is himself God:

    “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (italics mine)

So although contextually the translation “a god” is inadmissible, John, it seems to me, still avoids the word order we find in English in order not to give the suggestion of many gods.

“By careful wording, John shows that the Word (that’s the Son) has the nature of God, but is not the same Person as God the Father.”

Given the limitations of New Testament Greek, therefore — the lack of an indefinite article — and also given the fact that John writes in extremely simple Greek and has not recourse to later theological terms such as ‘Trinity’ (τριάς, trias in Greek), how can John convey the idea that the Son is truly God, without conveying the idea that the Son is the same Person as the Father, nor suggesting the idea that there are many gods?

By leaving out the definite article and reversing the word order to, “God was the Word” (theos ēn ho logos).

Thus, by careful wording, John shows that the Word (that’s the Son) has the nature of God, but is not the same Person as God (the Father).

This is why the translation, “and the Word was God,” is the correct one.

 

I would like to leave us, then, with a few words taken from the so-called Athanasian Creed, a universal statement of faith formulated in the fifth century A.D. and one which encapsulates this truth very well:

“So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
So are we forbidden by the catholic[1] religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.”

 

 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Greek texts of the New Testament are taken from the Nestle-Aland 27th edition New Testament text, a widely-respected and modern critical text (available here). The renderings into the Latin alphabet and the literal translations underneath are my own.


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[1] Meaning ‘universal’

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