John 1:1 — “God” or “a god”?

At the beginning of his classic work on Jesus Christ, John opens with the significant phrase “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was ____.” John 1:1 Throughout the history of the church, the end of this opening classic has been translated “God.” Opposing this translation, the New World Translation, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the publishing arm of the Jehovah Witnesses) translates the ending “a god.” Which is correct?


Absence of the Definite Article

The first point Jehovah Witnesses often make on this verse is that in the Greek there is no definite article before the word “theos.” (“Theos” is the Greek word that we translate as “God” or “god” in English.) This is a particularly weak argument that takes little study to address. John uses the word “Theos” some 252 times in his writings. Twenty-two of these times it occurs without a definite article. In every place outside of John 1:1 and John 1:18 where the singular form of the word is used (whether it is with or without the article), John uses it to reference the one true God. There are no exceptions, even in the New World Translation.

Twenty times, the New World Translation translates “Theos” without the definite article as “God,” referencing the one true God. (Jn. 1:6, 12, 13, 18; 3:2, 21; 6:45; 8:54; 9:16, 33; 13:3; 16:30; 19:7; 20:17(2); 1 Jn. 3:2; 4:12; 2 Jn. 3, 9; Rev. 21:7). The only places it is not translated as “God” is in John 1:1 and John 1:18. Thus, overwhelming, in the Jehovah Witnesses’ own translation, the word “Theos” without a definite article is believed to be a reference to the one true God. If “Theos” without the article is always translated as God by the New World Translators themselves (except for John 1:1, 18), then the argument that “Theos” should be translated as “a god” because it lacks a definite article fails. Interestingly, in the textual line followed by the New World Translation, John 1:18 has two occurrences of the word “Theos,” both without an article. The New World Translators translated the first usage as “God” and the second as “god.” The inconsistency in the New World Translation cannot be based on the lack of a definite article. The absence of the article does not indicate that John is not referencing the one true God.

Further, even as the absence of the article does not warrant the translation of “Theos” as “a god”, so the presence of the article does not mean that “Theos” must be translated as “God.” Though never by John, the word “Theos” with the article sometimes means another “god” in Scripture, though never by John (Luke in Acts 7:43 and 14:11; Paul in 2 Cor. 4:4). The presence or absence of a definite article does not provide a basis for choosing between “God” and “a god” in translating “Theos.” Rather, as with any word, the most common usage by the author should be used unless the context compels a different usage. Out of some 250 times the singular form of the word “Theos” is used by John, as stated above, every time the word is used to reference the true God. Not once does the word reference a lower deity, unless John 1:1 and John 1:18 are found to be proper exceptions. The remarkably consistent usage by John of the term “Theos” should drive one’s interpretation of his meaning when he used the term in John 1:1 and in John 1:18. Choosing to translate “Theos” as “god” in John 1:1 and John 1:18 goes contrary to John’s consistent usage of the term in all other places of his writings. There is no valid basis for arguing that the lack of an article means that John was referencing someone other than the one true God.


The Predicate Nominative Usage

Apparently understanding that their translation of John 1:1 could not be supported by the lack of an article, the New World Translators present a different argument, one more technical in nature. According to Appendix 2A of the Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scripture, the translators claim the word “Theos” is “a singular predicate noun occurring before the verb and is not preceded by the definite article.” As such, the word “points to a quality about someone.” The translators go on to state: “Therefore John’s statement that the Word, or Logos, was ‘a god’ or ‘divine’ or ‘godlike’ does not mean that he was the God with whom he was. It merely expresses a certain quality about the Word, or Logos, but it does not identify him as one and the same as God himself.” Then the translators give 14 examples from Mark and John where “a” is inserted in front of a variety of nouns, where the same Greek grammatical structure is in place. Sound convincing?

Hardly. It is true that a noun without an article can sometimes be seen as emphasizing the quality about someone or something. This, however, is not a hard and fast rule. Further, the question is not whether a grammatical structure may be translated in a certain way. Rather, the question is whether the grammar employed by John is sufficiently clear to overcome the remarkable consistency of his meaning of the word “Theos” to mean the one true God. In other words, is there a grammatical reason why one would translate the word “Theos” to mean something different from the meaning John gives the word in some 250 other places in his writings? The answer is again no.

What the New World Translators fail to tell you is that the same grammatical structure, a singular predicate noun occurring before the verb and not preceded by the definite article, occurs several places in Scripture where it is given a definite (as opposed to an indefinite) meaning.

In John 8:54, a singular predicate noun occurs before the verb and is not proceeded by a definite article. The New World Translators do not translate the phrase as “He is your god.” Rather, they make “God” definite by properly translating the phrase like other standard translations, “He is your God.” Such a translation is compelled by the context, as it should be, because the referent noun for the word “He” is “Father.” Jesus is saying that his listeners claimed that the Father was their God. The term “God” is not used to describe a quality about the Father, but rather the identity of their Father. They claimed Him to be their God. Why do the New World Translators translate this usage as “God” but John 1:1 as “a god” when the same grammatical construction exists in both places?

Another example is found right in John 1. At John 1:49, there is a singular predicate nominative “king” that precedes the verb and lacks an article. Yet, the New World Translators do not translate this verse as “a king,” but as “King” giving the word a definite meaning. The grammatical structure is identical to John 1:1. One wonders why the translators translate these two passages in the same chapter so differently.

Let us look at another example of a singular predicate nominative preceding the verb that is without the article. James 2:19 states: “You believe there is one God.” The New World Translators make “God” definite by capitalizing the word even though it lacks an article and is a predicate nominative preceding the verb. But yet, in John 1:1 they fail to follow this same pattern and choose rather to translate it as “a god.”

In John 5:27, the New World Translation renders the Greek “because Son of man he is.” Why do they capitalize “Son” when it too is a singular predicate nominative preceding the verb that lacks an article? If the rule postulated for John 1:1 was to be followed, this should be translated “because a son of man he is.” Yet, that statement is meaningless because we all are sons of men. Jesus was special as the Son of man, as the New World Translators properly point out.

Another example is found in Matthew 27:54. Again, the same grammatical structure is found. Yet, the New World Translation gives this reading: “Certainly this was God’s Son.” Why does the New World Translation capitalize God and Son in this passage, giving those words a definite meaning, and yet translate John 1:1 as “a god”? In Matthew 14:30, the New World translators again render this same grammatical construction as a reference to a definite noun, even though there is no definite article.

Another example? How about Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28 and Luke 6:5? In each of these passages Jesus is quoted as saying: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” The predicate nominative “Lord” precedes the verb and is without a definite article, and yet in none of these passages does the New World Translation render the meaning “The Son of Man is a lord of the Sabbath.” The point of the passage is not that Jesus has the quality of having oversight, or that Jesus is a lord. Rather, as even the New World Translation acknowledges, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. It is His identity, not his quality that is in view, a point the New World Translators do not miss. But again, the question arises, why do the translators give the grammatical construction here a definite meaning and in John 1:1 an indefinite meaning?

The same grammatical construction exists in 1 Corinthians 6:19. Here, interestingly and in total contrast to the way they handle John 1:1, the New World Translators in handling the same grammatical structure insert a “the” before the singular predicate nominative. The New World Translation renders the passage “Your body is [the] temple,” as do all widely accepted translations of the passage. One wonders why the translators do not mention this passage when they seek to explain why they translated John 1:1 as they did. Why is “temple” definite in this passage but “Theos” is indefinite in John 1:1, when the precise same grammatical structure – a singular predicate nominative preceding the verb and without an article–exists?

Let’s look at a few more examples, these again from John’s own writings. In 1 John 1:5, the New World Translation renders the passage as “God is light.” This again is a singular predicate nominative preceding the verb and without an article. In light of the argument raised by the translators relating to John 1:1, one would have expected this passage to read “God is a light” or “God is illuminating,” trying to express the quality. The same situation exists in 1 John 4:8, 16. Why is the translation not “God is lovely,” trying to capture the quality rather than “God is love,” capturing the identity?

These are only a few of the many examples where the same grammatical structure is translated by the New World Translators as being definite, where “a” is neither supplied nor appropriate. That the same grammatical structure may be and often is translated (even by the New World Translators) with a definite meaning is a fact you would not know from reading their explanation for why they translate John 1:1 as they do.

The bottom line is that in other places where the New World Translators translate “Theos” in the same grammatical structure, they always translate the word as “God,” referencing the one true God. (John 8:54; James 2:19). Consistently, as shown above, they translate words that relate to the titles or names of people as definite (they capitalize them) when they appear in this grammatical structure. The rule they postulate to explain John 1:1 is ignored by them in every other place that the word “Theos” or a proper name or title exists. Why should John 1:1 be the lone exception. It should not be. There is no sound grammatical reason for rendering the word “Theos” as anything other than “God,” the meaning John uniformly gives to the term. The consistent rendering of this grammatical structure elsewhere in Scripture argues strongly for translating John 1:1 with the definite meaning “God” and against the “a god” rendering.

Let me draw an analogy. Suppose you and I corresponded with each other. Suppose in my correspondence I mentioned “Paul” my friend. Suppose I wrote a great deal about Paul. Maybe I mentioned his name to you some 200 times. Suppose also that I never used the word “Paul” to reference anyone else in any of my writings to you. Every time I spoke with you, I kept talking about this same Paul. Now, suppose I also spoke a lot about my friend Butch. Butch and Paul, you note as you read my writings, seemed to be in a lot of the same places at many of the same times. One day you ask me: “Does Butch know Paul?” I answer you: “Butch is Paul.” Would you not understand that “Butch” is my nickname for Paul and that they are one and the same person? It would never enter your mind that Butch is some other person named Paul whom I have never mentioned.

John’s consistent usage of the term “Theos” to reference the one true God provides a compelling reason to translate the word as “God.” Neither the absence of the article nor the predicate nominative arguments compels a different translation.

One final question people may have is why John uses a definite article with the first reference to God in John 1:1 and does not include a definite article in the second. Sometimes, one simply does not know why a definite article is not supplied. Here, however, there is a simple grammatical explanation. When there are two substantives (nouns or pronouns) in the nominative case, somehow the grammar must be able to differentiate between which one is the subject and which one is the predicate. In English, we do it by word order. In the sentence “He is God,” “He” is the subject because it comes before the verb. “God” is the predicate because it comes after the verb.

In Greek, however, word order does not carry the same significance. In Greek, the subject may come first, second, third, or any other place in the sentence. Often, the verb comes first. Sometimes the verb comes last. The word order is used to show emphasis. It does not determine the subject.

In the sentence in question, the sentence structure in the Greek is “God . was . the . Word.” In Greek, the subject of the sentence can be determined by the presence and absence of the article. If only one of the nominatives has an article, it becomes the subject. (See Moulton and Turner, Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. III, pg. 183, nt. b (the noun without the article is simply a matter of word-order); Blass and DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, pg. 143; Goetchius, The Language of the New Testament, pg. 46) Thus, in this sentence “God” becomes the predicate because it lacks the article. In fact, predicate nouns in Greek regularly lack the article. (See Muolton and Turner, Vol. III, pg. 183; Goetchius, pg. 143) Such does not make them definite or indefinite. The presence of the article before “Word” coupled with the absence of the article before God gives us the sentence structure — “the Word was God.” The position of the word “Theos” at the beginning of the sentence provides the emphasis of the sentence. Thus, John is stating “The Word was GOD,” with the emphasis on God.

One final note: John fully supports the deity of Christ throughout His writings. He gives us Thomas’ affirmation that Jesus was “His God,” a passage even the New World Translation renders as a reference to God (John 20:28). Jesus not only did not rebuke Thomas for this statement (which would be blasphemy if it were not true), but Jesus blessed him for the statement. John repeatedly uses names for Jesus that the Old Testament writers used for only God, such as the I Am, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty, and the Lord of Lords. Thus, John’s reference to the Word being God is fully consistent with John’s theology. The fact that he calls Jesus “God” in John 1:1 and John 1:18 should not come as a surprise to any who are students of John.

Click here for an eye-opening article. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to deny the deity of Jesus. But their own translation says otherwise. Read and see for yourself.

Related Articles:
Lack of the Definite Article in John 1:1
Jesus – Is He God or God’s Son?
Jesus is God

One thought on “John 1:1 — “God” or “a god”?

  1. Jesse

    Tim, have you ever considered the possibility that the ‘word’ or Logos mentioned in this verse isn’t a separate person to God but an attribute of God that he used to create the world. Genesis 1 seems to back up the idea that God spoke (used his words) to create everything. In fact Logos has a whole host of translations/meanings in old Greek. It means expressed wisdom, plan, reasoning besides word. The closest english match to it in my opinion is ‘Logic’. Also, the modern translators refer to it as a ‘he’, but the translators before the KJV referred to it as an ‘it’, so they didn’t see the logos as the Messiah. Look up Tyndale’s translation for an example. Verse 14 tells us when Jesus was created, this logic was manifested in him…

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