The Gospel According to Jon
Posted On April 4, 2011
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.
Whoever translated The New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses either do not know or are not telling) was not incorrect. The phrase can be translated “the word was a god.” Aside from causing huge theological problems, there are basic Greek grammar difficulties created by rendering it this way.
John leaves out a one-letter word (ὁ) that usually comes before the Greek word for god (θεὸς). Now think back to your elementary school days. Other than learning that girls were better targets for spit balls because they had more surface area with their crazy 80s big hair, you might have learned something slightly more useful for today. Remember the term “definite article” in English class? In English, “the” is used as a definite article to indicate a specific noun and is distinguished from an indefinite article, such as “a” or “an”, which is used for general nouns. For example, if I say I am going to the store, I am referring to one particular store like the Walmart on the corner. If I say I am going to a store, then it could be any store in general.
In Greek, the definite article has more purposes than English. For example, a definite article prior to a noun makes it a proper noun in Greek. So if the definite article ὁ is placed before θεὸς, it means “God”; if the definite article is left out, it can be translated “a god.”
There is yet another purpose for definite articles, however. In English, the word order is always subject-verb-direct object; not so in Greek! The most important word in the sentence is usually first in Greek, regardless of whether it is a noun, adjective, adverb, or even a verb. The phrase in question is θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος so “God” is the most important word in this phrase. When a sentence has two potential subjects, the definite article goes before the subject noun but not the predicate noun. In the above phrase, the definite article ὁ precedes λόγος, indicating that the “Word” is the subject and “God” is the predicate.
Why is this important? Because if we switch the nouns, a very different meaning emerges. In The Gospel According to St. John, C.K. Barrett explains, “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true.” If there was a definite article before God instead of the Word, “it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity” (Barrett 156). In other words, if John said “God was the Word” instead of “the Word was God,” then it leaves no room for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; only the Word would be God. So it is crucial to determine which of the nouns (God or Word) is the subject; luckily the definite article makes this clear.
Since Greek grammar rules prohibit the use of the definite article before θεὸς, the only other way to determine whether θεὸς should be translated “God” or “a god” is context. “God” is preceded by a definite article in the preceding phrase “the Word was with God” in the verse one and in the following phrase “He was with God in the beginning” in verse two. Did John switch from God to a god and then back to God? Of course not. So the proper translation is “the Word was God.”
This is not intended to be a thorough discussion of John 1:1. There are many commentaries that devote substantial space to this verse, but this blog is intended to help whet your appetite concerning the book of John. Once you see that Jesus is the Word and the Word is God and that John wrote his gospel to help us understand these two concepts, then the Word comes alive in our minds and in our hearts. We will never be gods, but when God sent His Word into this world, He made the first move to beginning a new relationship with us. The next move is yours.