Questions From Readers
● Does the rendering of John 1:1 in the New World Translation violate rules of Greek grammar or conflict with worship of only one God?
The New World Translation renders John 1:1 as follows: “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Some have objected to the translation “a god,” which appears in the final clause of this verse. They claim that the translators were wrong in putting an “a” in there before “god.” Is this really a mistranslation?
While the Greek language has no indefinite article corresponding to the English “a,” it does have a definite article ho, often rendered into English as “the.” For example, ho Khristosʹ, “the Christ,” ho Kyʹri·os, “the Lord,” ho The·osʹ, literally, “the God.”
Frequently, though, nouns occur in Greek without the article. Grammarians refer to these nouns as “anarthrous,” meaning “used without the article.” Interestingly, in the final part of John 1:1, the Greek word for “god,” the·osʹ, does not have the definite article ho before it. How do translators render such anarthrous Greek nouns into English?
Often they add the English indefinite article “a” to give proper sense to the passage. For example, in the concluding portion of John 9:17 the Greek text literally states, according to the interlinear literal translation by clergyman Alfred Marshall, D.Litt: “And he said[,] — A prophet he is.” There is no definite article before the Greek word for “prophet” here. The translator, therefore, rendered the word as “a prophet,” as do many other English translations.—Authorized Version, New American Standard Bible, also translations by Charles B. Williams and William F. Beck.
This does not mean, however, that every time an anarthrous noun occurs in the Greek text it should appear in English with the indefinite article. Translators render these nouns variously, at times even with a “the,” understanding them as definite, though the definite article is missing. At Matthew 27:40, for instance, several English Bible versions have the phrase “the Son of God,” though the Greek word for “son” is without the definite article.
What about John 1:1? Marshall’s interlinear translation of it reads: “In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with — God, and God was the Word.” As noted above, no “the” appears before “God” in the final clause of this verse. The New World Bible Translation Committee chose to insert the indefinite article “a” there. This helps to distinguish “the Word,” Jesus Christ, as a god, or divine person with vast power, from the God whom he was “with,” Jehovah, the Almighty. Some persons familiar with Greek claim that in doing so the translators violated an important rule of Greek grammar. Why so?
The problem, they say, is word order. Back in 1933 Greek scholar E. C. Colwell published an article entitled “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament.” In it he wrote: “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb. . . . A predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or a ‘qualitative’ noun solely because of the absence of the article; if the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun in spite of the absence of the article.”
At John 1:1 the anarthrous predicate noun the·osʹ does precede the verb, the Greek word order being literally: “God [predicate] was [verb] the Word [subject].” Concerning this verse Colwell concluded: “The opening verse of John’s Gospel contains one of the many passages where this rule suggests the translation of a predicate as a definite noun.” Thus some scholars claim that the only really correct way to translate this clause is: “And the Word was God.”
Do these statements of Colwell prove that “a god” is a mistranslation at John 1:1? Perhaps you noticed this scholar’s wording that an anarthrous predicate noun that precedes the verb should be understood as definite “if the context suggests” that. Further along in his argument Colwell stressed that the predicate is indefinite in this position “only when the context demands it.” Nowhere did he state that all anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb in Greek are definite nouns. Not any inviolable rule of grammar, but context must guide the translator in such cases.
The Greek text of the Christian Scriptures has many examples of this type of predicate noun where other translators into English have added the indefinite article “a.” Consider, for example, Marshall’s interlinear translation of the following verses: “Says to him the woman: Sir, I perceive that a prophet [predicate] art [verb] thou [subject].” (John 4:19) “Said therefore to him—Pilate: Not really a king [predicate] art [verb] thou [subject]? Answered—Jesus: Thou sayest that a king [predicate] I am [verb, with subject included].”—John 18:37.
Did you notice the expressions “a prophet,” “a king” (twice)? These are anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb in Greek. But the translator rendered them with the indefinite article “a.” There are numerous examples of this in English versions of the Bible. For further illustration consider the following from the Gospel of John in The New English Bible: “A devil” (Joh 6:70); “a slave” (Joh 8:34); “a murderer . . . a liar” (Joh 8:44); “a thief” (Joh 10:1); “a hireling” (Joh 10:13); “a relation” (Joh 18:26).
Alfred Marshall explains why he used the indefinite article in his interlinear translation of all the verses mentioned in the two previous paragraphs, and in many more: “The use of it in translation is a matter of individual judgement. . . . We have inserted ‘a’ or ‘an’ as a matter of course where it seems called for.” Of course, neither Colwell (as noted above) nor Marshall felt that an “a” before “god” at John 1:1 was called for. But this was not because of any inflexible rule of grammar. It was “individual judgement,” which scholars and translators have a right to express. The New World Bible Translation Committee expressed a different judgment in this place by the translation “a god.”*
Certain scholars have pointed out that anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb in Greek may have a qualitative significance. That is, they may describe the nature or status of the subject. Thus some translators render John 1:1: “The Logos was divine,” (Moffatt); “the Word was divine,” (Goodspeed); “the nature of the Word was the same as the nature of God,” (Barclay); “the Word was with God and shared his nature,” (The Translator’s New Testament).
Does being “divine” or godlike mean that Jesus Christ is himself almighty and coeternal with God the Father?
It is true that trinitarians attach special significance to the divine status of Jesus. They even employ a special non-Biblical Greek term, homoousios (“of one substance,” or “of one essence”), in this regard. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains under the heading “Consubstantiality,” which is an English rendering of homoousios: “The consubstantiality defined by [the Council] Nicaea I [325 C.E.], then, . . . affirms essentially that the Son is equal to the Father, as divine as the Father, being from His substance and of the same substance with Him; it follows necessarily that the Son cannot belong to the created . . . Because of the absolute unicity, unity, and simplicity of God, the identity of the substance is not merely specific [as in the case of humans having human nature in common] but absolute, or numerical.”
Where, though, in the Scriptures does one encounter such reasoning? The answer is simple: Nowhere. The written Word of God neither contains the word homoousios nor the idea that trinitarians attach to it. That is mere philosophizing.
Does the idea that Jesus Christ is “a god” conflict with the Scriptural teaching that there is only one God? (1 Cor. 8:5, 6) Not at all. At times the Hebrew Scriptures employ the term for God, ’elo·himʹ, with reference to mighty creatures. At Psalm 8:5, for example, we read: “You also proceeded to make him [man] a little less than godlike ones.” (Hebrew, ’elohimʹ; “a god,” New English Bible, Jerusalem Bible) The Greek Septuagint Version renders ’elo·himʹ here as “angels.” The Jewish translators of this version saw no conflict with monotheism in applying the term for God to created spirit persons. (Compare Hebrews 2:7, 9.) Similarly, Jews of the first century C.E. found no conflict with their belief in one God at Psalm 82, though Ps 82 verses 1 and 6 of this psalm utilize the word ’elo·himʹ (the·oiʹ, plural of the·osʹ, Septuagint) with reference to human judges.—Compare John 10:34-36.
Jesus Christ, according to the Scriptures, is “the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15) Yet Christians with a heavenly calling expect to bear Christ’s image in its fullness, becoming partakers of “divine nature,” when they get to heaven. (2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21) They have already gotten a start toward this by the spiritual “new birth” while yet on earth. (1 Pet. 1:3, 4) This, however, does not mean that they will be coequal with God. Nor does Jesus’ then having “divine nature” with them mean that for him.
The translation “a god” at John 1:1 does no injustice to Greek grammar. Nor does it conflict with the worship of the One whom the resurrected Jesus Christ called “my God” and to whom Jesus himself is subject.—John 20:17 Rev. 3:2, 12; 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28.