“Your Word Is Truth”
Is It Grammar or Interpretation?
WHEN translating the “New Testament” from its original Greek into any modern tongue there are terms that can be rendered in more than one way. How shall the right translation be determined? In such cases obviously something other than Greek grammar determines what wording the modern scholar will use in translating the original.
For instance, considerable controversy has centered around John 1:1. It reads, according to the Authorized Version of 1611: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” However, the New World Translation (1971) says in the latter part of this verse “the Word was a god.” This rendering is strongly criticized by some, since it appears to make the Word (Jesus in his prehuman existence) a lesser god and not God Almighty himself. These critics appeal to Greek grammar to try to dislodge this latter rendering.
Thus one theologian says regarding the New World Translation handling of this verse: “It overlooks entirely an established rule of Greek grammar which necessitates the rendering, ‘. . . and the Word was God.’” Another comments that the translation “a god” is “erroneous and unsupported by any good Greek scholarship . . . rejected by all recognized scholars of the Greek language.” And yet another notes that it shows “ignorance of Greek grammar.”—Italics ours.
To back up such strong language, reference is sometimes made to a rule of Greek grammar formulated by E. C. Colwell. Does his rule really prove their point? Consider what Colwell himself has actually said.
In 1933 he published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature entitled: “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament.” Toward the close of his article he discusses John 1:1. The latter part of this verse reads literally in the Greek: “AND GOD WAS THE WORD.” Notice that a definite article “THE” appears before “WORD,” while no “THE” appears before “GOD.” Colwell’s rule regarding translation of the Greek says: “A definite predicate nominative [for example, “GOD” at John 1:1] has the article [“THE”] when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.” In other words, if always true, the rule says that at John 1:1 a “THE” before “GOD” is implied in the original language and should therefore appear in modern translations.
His rule appears to be true in some places in the Greek Bible. However, Colwell himself admitted that there are exceptions to the rule, that it is not absolute. (See, for instance, an interlinear rendering of Luke 20:33; 1 Corinthians 9:1, 2.) In fact, there appear to be so many exceptions that thirty years after his rule was formed, one Greek grammar book says that the rule may only reflect a “general tendency.” Well, then, what about John 1:1? Would the rule apply there?
Colwell himself answers: “The predicate [“GOD”] . . . is indefinite in this position only when the context demands it.” Notice, not any inviolable “rule,” but context is the crucial factor.
So in spite of the strong, assertive language on the part of some, Colwell’s “rule” of itself does not ‘necessitate’ one rendering over another at John 1:1. Rather, how the translator interprets the surrounding verses and, indeed, the rest of the Bible—this is what would determine how he translates John 1:1.
That is why those above-quoted writers are so dogmatic in their statements. To them Jesus is God himself. One of them refers to “Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly man.” Another observes that “Christ claimed equality with Jehovah.” Obviously, given a choice, would they not want John 1:1 translated to give apparent support to their own views?
On the other hand, a person who accepts Jesus’ plain statement that “the Father is greater than I am” will realize that Jesus is not equal to the Almighty Jehovah. (John 14:28) Yet this does not mean that Jesus cannot be referred to as “god” in some sense of the word. Recall Exodus 4:16; does not Jehovah there say to Moses, “And thou shalt be to [Aaron] instead of God”? (AV) But this did not make Moses God Almighty, did it? The term “god” is applied even to the Devil, since he is a mighty creature controlling the existing system of things. (2 Cor. 4:4) Certainly, then, Jesus, who has been exalted over all other creation and granted the exercise of great power in heaven and earth by his Father, can be referred to as “a god.” Such a rendering conveys the dignity and respect Jesus is due while at the same time it avoids giving any reader the impression that Jesus is God Almighty himself.
The assumed grammatical “rule” in connection with John 1:1 is only one of many that is appealed to for apparent support of certain religious ideas. But it serves to illustrate the point: the real issue involves more than grammar.
Grammatical rules are necessary to understand a language. But they have limitations. As the Encyclopedia Americana states: “Everywhere we find grammar working upon a language already made . . . the office of grammar has been, not to fix what a language should be, or must be, but to explain what an already existing language is. Grammar is explanatory and not creative.”
Accordingly, even with regard to living languages it should be remembered that, in the last analysis, their ‘grammar’ does not come from ‘grammar books.’ As a professor of English at the University of Chicago notes: “In the usage of native speakers, whatever is, is right.” Those who speak a language, especially the ‘better educated’ people—not arbitrary rule makers—ultimately determine what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect.’
This same principle holds true with regard to the grammar of Biblical Greek. Its purpose is to explain how things are said and not to try to impose on the original language what the modern grammarian thinks should be said. Such ‘grammar’ must be drawn from what the Biblical Greek text itself actually says. Even other writings in the Greek language, but of a different age or from another part of the world, are of only limited value in arriving at an understanding of the Scriptures. As prominent Greek grammarian A. T. Robertson once put it: “What we wish to know is not what was good Greek at Athens in the days of Pericles, but what was good Greek in Syria and Palestine in the first century A.D.” Yes, the Bible’s text itself in particular must reveal what is acceptable in the matter of its grammar.
Thus the person unschooled in the original Bible languages need not be overawed by those who cite grammatical rules. No rule of grammar will contradict the overall message of the Bible. Similarly, the honest Biblical teacher knows that it is the text of the Bible that is inspired. Grammatical rule books are not, though they are helpful.