Lack of the Definite Article in John 1:1

Question from a Site Viewer
What actually is the correct logical way to interrupt John 1:1? You say it is correctly translated as “The Word was God” (see our article John 1:1 – “God” or “a god”?). Other sources state that lack of the definite article changes the noun to be more like an adjective. The word-for-word translation of “theos en ho logos” is “God was the Word” (which would seem to be perfect in English for proving Jesus is God), but adhering to the grammar rule that lack of the definite article makes God an adjective, it becomes “Godly was the Word.” Your discussion implies that this may not be the case because the one true God is referred to elsewhere 22 times without the definite article (see our article John 1:1 – “God” or “a god”?). I’m wondering if in the other 20 instances there may have not been anything for “theos” to modify, like how “Word” exists in John 1:1, so consequently lack of the definite article did not change Theos to an adjective in those cases. It would seem that if John were really trying to proclaim the Word to be God, then he would have preceded Theos with “ho” to avoid “Theos” sounding like an adjective. Ultimately, the most important point to make is what John 1:1 really means, and I’m left without really being certain.

Tim’s Answer
You ask the question of how the clause should be translated. You state that other sources state that the lack of a definite article changes the noun to be more like an adjective.

Since you do not cite the sources, I cannot interact with them. However, I know that some have stated that the lack of the Greek article makes the noun more like an adjective. This is part of the argument advanced by the Jehovah Witnesses that I have attempted to address in the John 1:1 article. As I point out, there are numerous passages where this “rule” simply makes no sense and even the New World Translation does not follow this “rule” very often. Each of the passages listed under the heading “Predicate Nominative Use” (in the John 1:1 article) is a noun without the Greek article. And, yet, it would make no sense to translate these passages as being adjectival, and the New World Translation does not even try.

If the rule was as your “other sources” state, then we would have a grammatical rule that John seems to ignore in his writings. For instance, in John 1:6, both “anthropos” and “Theos” lack the article. Yet, it would be difficult to translate this as “There was a humanly sent by a godly.” No, the context demands that we translate this as “a man” who was sent by “God.” Again, in John 1:12, we are not children of the godly, or even godly children (although we should be). Rather, the idea is that we are children of God. It is the substantive idea, not an adjectival idea, that is required. Again, in John 1:13, none of the nouns have an article, including again the noun “Theou” (reflecting the genitive case ending). Birth is by a substantive, not an adjective. Again, in John 1:18, “Theon” (reflecting the accusative case ending) lacks the article. Yet, the context does not allow us to read this as “No one has seen godly at any time; the only existing godly, who is in the bosom of the Father has made Him known.” One does not see adjectives. One sees persons, places, and things (nouns). Further, the pronoun “who” simply does not work well in referencing back to an adjectival idea. “Who” references back to people. There are numerous other examples where applying an adjectival idea to an anarthrous noun (a noun without an article) simply does not work in Greek. If there were such a rule as your other sources state, there would be so many exceptions to such a rule that the exceptions would swallow the rule.

Also, the standard Greek grammars do not support the assertion that the lack of an article makes the noun function as an adjective. In Greek, all nouns are definite by nature. In this, Greek is not at all like English. The article does not serve to make the noun more definite, but the Greek article is very important and serves numerous other functions. It can act as a substantive all by itself. It can tie together an entire phrase or clause. It often is used as a reference back. Thus, a noun that is first mentioned without an article thereafter is accompanied by the article, as a point to reference the subsequent uses as having the same meaning as the first use. It would be like the following two sentences. “A man read the book. That man fell asleep.” The English “that” functions much the same in the sentence as the Greek article.

Another usage of the Greek article, and one that is particularly useful in the clause in question, is its use to distinguish between subjects and predicates in intransitive clauses. As in English, both the subject and the predicate of an intransitive clause is in the nominative case. So, the question arises; how do we know which noun is the subject and which is the predicate? In English, it is easy. The subject comes first. In Greek, there is no such pattern. Greek word order is used for emphasis, but not to determine the subject and predicate. Thus, the subject may be first (but rarely so), it may be second, it may be last, or it may be anywhere in between. Often, the verb begins the sentence. We know what is the subject because the word is in the nominative form of the word. The ending of Greek words change with each case (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative).

Note: there are actually eight cases recognized by most grammars, but the ablative has the same endings as the genitive and the locative and instrumental cases have the same endings as the dative case. Accordingly, some will only teach the five cases.

However, when the sentence or clause is intransitive, both the subject and the predicate nouns are nominative in their forms. Accordingly, we cannot use endings to determine which is which. To distinguish the subject from the predicate, the article is often used. The word with the article becomes the subject and the word without the article becomes the predicate. In my penultimate paragraph of the John 1:1 article, I address this situation and cite some of the grammars that explain this usage. By including an article with “logos” (Word) and omitting the article with “Theos,” John is letting us know that “The Word” is the subject and “God” is the predicate.

But John is doing more than this. By choosing his word order as he does, John is also letting us know that we should read the clause as putting the emphasis on the word “God.” As stated in Blass and DeBrunner, “Any emphasis on an element in the sentence causes that element to be moved forward” (pg. 248). John moves “Theos” to the first of this intransitive independent clause, placing emphasis on this word. Thus, we should read the clause as “The Word was GOD.”

You raise the question as to why John could not have inserted the article to make it clear that “God” is not adjectival. If John had used the Greek article before the word “Theos,” we would have a different clause structure. Under the rules of Greek grammar, if both substantives in an intransitive clause possess the article, then the one that is more definite becomes the subject. Thus, if both “God” and “Word” had definite articles, we would be led to read the clause as “the God was the Word” or “God was the Word.” This is because the word “God” approaches being a proper name in Greek and therefore would be seen as being the more definite word. “God was the Word” is a different sentence than “The Word was God.” The flow of John’s thought is that the Word was in the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The central idea all of the way through is the Word. He is introducing us to the Word, and who the Word is. There is no basis to conclude that John intends to break this central thought by making the statement “God was the Word,” where “God” suddenly would become the central idea, and then immediately reverts in verse 2 back to making the Word the central idea. John would not have wanted to include the article before “Theos” in order to preserve the flow of his writing.

You ask about my reference to the singular form of “Theos.” John, twice, uses the plural form of “Theos” (See John 10:34 and 10:35). His reference to “gods” is not a reference to the true God. However, every time he uses the singular form of the word, He is referencing the true God. This was the point I made in the John 1:1 article.

May the Lord Jesus guide you as you seek to live out your life in a manner pleasing to Him.

Related Articles:
John 1:1 – “God” or “a god”?
Jesus – Is He God or God’s Son?
Verses that Prove the Deity of Jesus
Jesus Is God

4 thoughts on “Lack of the Definite Article in John 1:1

  1. Pete

    Since the first “theos” has a definite article, it must be pointing to our only God (YHWH). Right? But the second “theos” in the same verse has not a article, which means that it can be understood as an adjective or adjectival word. It doesn’t have to be as I said, but IT IS possible.

    “Theos” has not always been a noun in the Bible, even if we think so. The meaning of “theos” is exactly the same as the hebrew words “el” and “elohim”. “El” means literally “mighty” or “powerful” according to the etymology. It is very possible that the meaning of Joh.1:1c is, that the word (Jesus), who was with God in the beginning, was “mighty” and “powerful” rather than the only God which he was with in the beginning.

    There are at least a few examples in the bible where “theos”, “el” and “elohim” is NOT a indication of our only God, but rather to angels, judges, satan and mighty persons. Here are some examples:

    Joh.10:35, 2.Kor.4:4, Joh.1:1, Exo.4:16, Exo.7:1, Psa.82:6, Gen.32:30, Hes.32:21.

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  2. Getu

    let me describe the two Thoes in John 1:1.

    The word was with God.Here both The word and God are as persons.That is to say,Who(The word) was with who(God).So two persons God and the Word.

    The next text.The Word was God.
    The word is person. God (in this case) an essence,a being,uncreated nature.Here one person (The word) and one essence or being (God).The word (who) was God(what).So this text answers What the word is,not who the word is.So it means ‘The Word was (what)God (was).

    In human analogy,it is like

    Peter was with man.Here two persons(who’s).But we don’t know what peter is from this sentence.

    Peter was man.Here one person (who)(peter) and one being,nature (what)(man).So this answers what peter is.

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  3. Getu

    So peter is no more than or less than the man (a person of man) with whom he was in nature.Similarly The word was not less or more than the God(a person of God(being)) with whom the Word was in being(essence).

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  4. Getu

    So the God (a person of God with whom the word ) was God(in essence,in being,in ‘what’).Similarly The word (a person who was with a person of God) was God(in essence,in being,in ‘what’).So John 1:1 is not so hard to understand.

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