Questions From Readers
● In John 1:1 the term “god” is applied to both the Father and the Son, the Word. But in the Greek text the word for “god” (theos) is written differently in these two instances. Why? What does it mean?
To a person unfamiliar with the Greek language it might seem that there is a significance indicated by the fact that first the word is spelled theon and next theos. But the difference is simply a matter of complying with the Greek grammatical case used.
John 1:1 reads: “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God [τὸν θεὸν, literally, the god], and the Word was a god [θεὸς].”
Greek has five cases—nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative. How a word is spelled can vary depending on the case in which it is used. Take, as an example, the definite article “the.” In the masculine gender “the” is respectively written in the first four of these cases: ὁ, τοῦ, τῷ, τὸν, in the singular number.
Similarly, in John 1:1 the word theos is spelled in accord with the particular case being employed. In the first instance (“the Word was with God”) it is in the accusative case and thus is spelled θεὸν But in the second occurrence it is in the nominative case, and so it is spelled θεὸς. The spelling of theos does not of itself indicate the person or position of the one designated, as 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6 illustrates. In 2 Co 4 verse four Satan is identified as θεὸς, “the god of this system of things,” and in 2 Co 4 verse six the Creator is designated θεὸς. The spelling is theos in both verses, for the nominative case is used in each. So the fact that theos is spelled differently in its two occurrences in John 1:1 does not show any difference in meaning; “god” is the meaning in both instances.
What is interesting is that in John 1:1 the definite article ὁ [ho] is not used in front of theos when applied to the Son, the Word. Regarding this point the noted Bible translator William Barclay writes:
“Now normally, except for special reasons, Greek nouns always have the definite article in front of them, . . . When a Greek noun has not got the article in front of it, it becomes rather a description than an identification, and has the character of an adjective rather than of a noun. We can see exactly the same in English. If I say: ‘James is the man’, then I identify James with some definite man whom I have in mind; but, if I say: ‘James is man’, then I am simply describing James as human, and the word man has become a description and not an identification. If John had said ho theos ēn ho logos, using a definite article in front of both nouns, then he would definitely have identified the logos [the Word] with God, but because he has no definite article in front of theos it becomes a description, and more of an adjective than a noun. The translation then becomes, to put it rather clumsily, ‘The Word was in the same class as God, belonged to the same order of being as God ‘. . . . John is not here identifying the Word with God. To put it very simply, he does not say that Jesus was God.”—Many Witnesses, One Lord (1963), pages 23, 24.
Hence, in both their translations Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed and Dr. James Moffatt render the phrase as, “the Word [or Logos] was divine.” This reflects the fine distinction in wording that the apostle John used, a distinction that accords with the fact that Jesus was not equal in power and eternity with the Father but was the created Son of the Father. (1 Cor. 11:3) The New World Translation accurately renders the Joh 1 verse 1: “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”