God or a god? That Is the Question (John 1:1)

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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
-John 1:1

 This is a very familiar verse from the Bible.  I am sure all of us who have attended church whether regularly or even sparsely over our lifetime have heard this verse many times.  What if, all of a sudden you are discussing the Bible with someone and they read this verse to you but it is just slightly different:

“Originally the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”
-John 1:1, New World Translation

The New World Translation is of course the translation of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, also more commonly known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What I want to do in this article is to help us see how the Jehovah’s Witnesses really try and take advantage of people who do not know, nor plan on learning New Testament Greek.  Part of my task will be teaching you aspects of Greek that you can easily digest if you attentively follow along so that you can see just how deceptive and false their teachings concerning this particular passage are.  Again, for those of you who are not currently, nor are you ever planning on, learning New Testament Greek (although I strongly encourage you all to do so if possible!), I have you in mind as the target audience of this article although you will need to put on your thinking caps on as you work through this with me.  This article is geared for those who are serious about working through this material and trying to understand it so they can use it to help others on this important topic with truth as the primary goal.  You may not be able to read it through just once and get it all down, it may take several readings and working through the material to get it down, BUT you can if you stick with it!

The Allegation

What the Jehovah’s Witnesses (from here on represented as JW’s) try to argue for is that in the original language text of the New Testament (Greek) in the latter part of the verse (“…and the Word was God/a god”) the word translated “Word” has the definite article1 and the word translated “God” does not.  In Greek the indefinite article does not exist so when you are translating it into English you have to add the indefinite articles in English to make it make sense where appropriate.  So since the Greek word translated here as “Word” is preceded by the definite article and the word “God” is not, then (according to the JW’s) we should add the indefinite article and translate it as “a god” instead of “God.”

Three Short Grammar Lessons

We need to get our terminology down before we move on, as well as sorting through a few issues of Greek grammar.  Again, I want to make this as simple and easy to follow as I can so that even those of you who have zero familiarity with the Greek language will be able to follow what I am saying and can spot the deception in the claims of the JW’s.

Lesson 1:  Articles:  Definite vs. Indefinite

There are two types of articles in the English language, the definite article and the indefinite article.  We use these all the time.  The definite article is simply the word “the.”  So if I say, “The car is going fast,” the word “car” is preceded by the definite article which is simply the word “the.”  If I say “I really need a car,” or “I really need an automobile,” the words “a” and “an” which precede “car” are examples of the indefinite article.  So the word “the” is called the definite article, and the words “a” or “an” are indefinite articles.  What this means in reference to our example in John 1:1 is that instead of Jesus being referred to as “God,” they insist He is just “a god,” which can be the difference between salvation and blasphemy!

In the Greek of the New Testament there are no indefinite articles (“a” or “an”) at all, only the definite article (the word “the”).  When translating Greek into English one needs to add definite or indefinite articles based on context to make it make sense in English even if they are not present in the Greek text.  What the JW’s do is tell you that since certain words do not have the word “the” preceding it in the Greek text, then it is to be indefinite and one needs to add the appropriate article, such as “a” or “an,” and especially in regard to John 1:1, “…and the Word was a god.”  They may even show you in the Greek text that there is no definite article preceding the Greek word for “God,” but there is an article preceding the word “Word.”  Are they correct though?  Yes…and no!  Yes, no definite article precedes the word “God” and there is a definite article that precedes “Word,” but what they fail to tell you is that there is also another Greek grammar rule that comes into play here known as the “predicate nominative,” as well as the issue of identity statements and that is why we should never translate the phrase as “…and the Word was a god.”

Lesson 2:  Case Forms and the Predicate Nominative

Let me briefly explain case forms in the Greek language before we examine the predicate nominative.  In English consider the following sentences,

1.  “The cat ran down the street.”
2.  “The street ran down the cat.”

Notice I switched the words around in example number 2.  The second sentence in English makes no sense due to the word ordering.  In Greek, word ordering is not as important as it is in English.  Greek words have different endings (called case endings) which determine how they function/work in the sentence.  In Greek you could say the same two sentences as above and not change the word ordering at all, and both would be saying the same thing unlike our English examples.  What I mean is, the word “cat” if it was the subject of the sentence (as in our first example above) would have the Greek nominative case ending which means if it is spelled that way/has that case ending then it will always function as the subject of the sentence no matter where it is found in the sentence.  Same goes for the word “street” in our first example above.  If “street” has the Greek accusative case ending then it will always function as the direct object of the sentence, regardless of word ordering.  Remember that the subject performs the action of the verb, and the direct object receives the action of the verb.  So the subject performs the action, the direct object receives the action/is the object of the action.  Here is an example from our verse in question.  It will be helpful here to divide our sentence into three parts (with the Greek text out next to it and color coded for those who don’t know Greek): parts A, B and C.

A.  In the beginning was the Word (Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,)

B.  and the Word was with God (καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν,)

C.  and the Word was God (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.)

Notice the colors in the above text.  I have color coded it so you can follow without having to know Greek and still see how deceptive the JW’s actually are in their translation work.  In part A the word “In” in English is green.  The Greek word translated as “In” is “Ἐν” that way you can see which word is being translated and where it occurs in the sentence in the Greek.

Now that we have this format established let us press on to the grammar of the predicate nominative.  As I stated above, in the Greek language the subject of the sentence will have the nominative case ending, and the direct object will have the accusative case ending.  Notice how this works in part B above.  Notice the red words in Greek and the Purple words in Greek.  See how the red word ends in what looks like the letters “os” (which in Greek are actually omicron and sigma) and the purple words end in what looks like “ov” (In Greek are actually omicron and nu).  The subject is the one that ends in “os” and the direct object ends in “ov,” no matter where they occur in the sentence.

Now notice part C.  The purple AND the red words end in “os.”  This is the predicate nominative.  In other words, not only is the subject in the nominative case (in other words it ends in “os”), but so is the “predicate” (it also ends in “os” when normally it would end in “ov”)  Notice also the word ordering in the English translation of part C.  When we translate it into English “The Word” comes first and “God” is last.  In the Greek notice the ordering is different, “God” (θεὸς) comes first and “the Word” (ὁ λόγος) is last (reads literally “God was the Word”).  In Greek however when there are two nouns in the nominative case that stand in relation to a form of the verb “is,” (such as “is,” “was,” etc.) the noun that is preceded by the definite article (the word “the”) is the subject of the sentence so it should be translated as the first word in English, hence we translate it as “the Word was God.”

Lesson 3:  Identity Statements and the Word “Is”

This brings us to an interesting question that occurs when we have the predicate nominate situation, namely does the predicate reflect a quality/describe something about the subject? or is it making a statement of identity, which is the same as using the word “is” as an equal sign?  Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

Here is a qualitative use of the predicate, which means that the predicate is describing the subject rather than the subject and the predicate being identical to one another: “The car is orange.”  Orange is a QUALITY of the subject, which is “the car.”  What the statement is NOT saying is that “the car” is identical to the concept of the color orange, which would make it an identity statement.  As an example of an identity statement take for instance the fact that I go by the name “Chan.”  My full real name is Jack Chandler Arnett III.  If someone said “Chan Arnett IS Jack Chandler Arnett III” that would be a true statement and would be an example of an identity statement and would be like using “is” as an equals sign (Chan = Jack Chandler Arnett III).  So, back to our statement from John 1:1, “…and the Word was God.”  Is this an identity statement, which would mean that the Word and the Father are identical as in my example above in which I used my name, OR is the word “God” a qualitative use, which would denote that the Word and God are not IDENTICALLY the same person but that the Word is divine is His essential nature?

Surveying the Issue

What we find after examination is that this is not an identity statement but that the word “God” is being used here by the author to denote a quality/give a description of “the Word.”  One of the reasons we can give in support of this is that in John 1:1, statement B as we called it above, reads, “…and the Word was with God.”  Now, in that phrase the Greek contains the definite article (the word “the”) with the subject (“Word”) and the direct object (God) so the Greek text literally reads “…and the Word was with THE God.”  I put the word “the” in all capital letters because it is actually in the Greek text but we don’t translate it that way into English because it sounds funny.  What this is showing us however is that the Word and God are two separate persons.  Back to my example of identity:  If I say Chan IS Jack Chandler Arnett III (in other words, they are one and the same person) and it is a statement of identity, would I in the previous sentence say that Chan is with Jack Chandler Arnett III?  Of course not!  If that is the case, then it makes sense that John is using the predicate nominative in a qualitative sense in statement C of John 1:1 (…and the Word was God) because he already in statement B above declares them to be separate persons.  So, John seems to be using statement C to teach us about the nature of the Word.  So we can see that there is no definite article associated with the word “God” in statement C, because if there was then it would be teaching that the Word and God are the same person.  John however in statement B has declared them to be separate persons.

Concerning the manuscript evidence that we have of this verse it is always found as denoting a Trinitarian expression with the exception of two 18th century manuscripts.2  As the previous footnote demonstrates, the two manuscripts still do not support the notion of translating the passage as “…a god,” (which is Arianism) but rather as an expression of Modalism “…the Word was THE God.” 3  So we can see that the preservation of the text has God revealing Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who deserves to be worshipped and to fail to do so leads to blasphemy based upon the text.  While there are many other ways to show Jesus as divine to combat the JW’s false doctrine, I take this approach here because it is important for the discussion of “Just What Is the Doctrine of the Trinity?,” which you can find here (Part I, Part II).  So as we press on in our discussion on the Doctrine of the Trinity, we can conclude that John 1:1 does indeed support the deity of Jesus and can therefore use it as part of our case for the Trinity being taught in Scripture.

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