You hear a knock on your door. Opening it, you find two well-dressed men holding Bibles, eager to talk to you about God. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses. During your conversation, you discover that they do not believe that Jesus is God. In fact, they turn to John 1:1 to “prove” it. Your Bible reads: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (ESV). But the Bible they have has the last line reading, “and the Word was a god” (New World Translation).
Which translation is correct?
Below are half a dozen reasons why the traditional conservative evangelical translations have it right and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have mistranslated the last clause of John 1:1. Some of the conversation here will get a bit technical, but I’ll attempt to keep it understandable even for those who don’t read Greek.
But first, a brief look at the translation itself. The first row in the chart below is the Greek. The second row is an English transliteration of the Greek (what it sounds like when spoken out loud). The third row is an ultra-literal translation of the Greek.
If we read this straight through, we seem to get, “And God was the Word.” But no translations read it this way, because Greek grammar does not work like English grammar. Greek grammar is not as dependent on word order as English. “The word” is actually the nominative, or the subject, of the phrase. So even though “God” comes before “word” in the order, the Greek grammar demands that “word” is the subject. On this point, all agree.
Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s go on to Six Reasons Why the Word was God:
Reason #1: The article isn’t required.
No, I’m not talking about this blog article. I mean article as in “the,” a word that makes something definite. The word “a” in English would make it indefinite. It’s the difference between “a dog” (indefinite) and “the dog” (definite). In Greek, there is no word for “a.” You can make a word indefinite by simply leaving out the article.
However, this does not mean that a word without the article is necessarily indefinite. This is where the JW’s get it wrong. They argue that because “God” does not have an article, the word should be translated “a god” instead of “God.”
But according to E. C. Colwell, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon to see an anarthrous (word without an article) definite noun. He writes, “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article… 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” (quoted in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 257; cf. Jn 1:49 for another example).
Colwell’s Rule doesn’t prove our translation of John 1:1, but merely permits it. Context is the greatest determining factor in how to translate the last phrase of John 1:1. As we will see, context rules decisively in favor of “God,” not “a god.”
Reason #2: The JW translation isn’t consistent
If every time the word “God” lacks an article it should be translated “a god,” then the Jehovah’s Witnesses have some serious translational issues. John 1:6, 12-13 all lack an article before “God,” yet the New World Translation (NWT) renders these words “God,” not “a god.”
In addition, their translation of John 1:18 demonstrates just how inconsistent and theologically-driven their translation truly is. They translate the passage, “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him.” Notice how the first “God” is capitalized, but not the second. Neither are articular in Greek. They have made the decision to render one “God” and the other “god” in keeping with their theology, not with what the text actually says.
Reason #3: There’s another word for “divine”
The Greek language is not hurting for words. There is a perfectly good word for “divine” in Greek (qeioj). If John wanted to communicate that the Word was simply “divine” and not “God,” he could have been a lot more specific and clear by using the word for “divine” (cf Acts 17:29, 2 Pt 1:3-4).
Reason #4: Adding an article would say something different
Why didn’t John add the article before “God”? Many scholars have pointed out that this would have equated the Word and God in such a way that no divine being could exist apart from the Word, making the previous phrase (“the Word was with God”) senseless (Carson, John, 117). An article would have equated God and the Word without any differentiation that we see in the Trinity. In other words, there would be no room for any other member of the Trinity outside the Word (Jesus) (Kruse, John, 63). So John’s construction actually demonstrates Christian theology, not a Jehovah’s Witness theology.
The same can be said of switching the word order. If John wrote καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν θεὸς instead of καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, would it have made a difference?
Yes. Again, it would have limited God to the second person of the Trinity. But the way John words it, it puts emphasis on the word “God” and points to the deity of Jesus.
Reason #5: Would a Jew really imply there were multiple gods?
Admittedly, this argument assumes that the author of the Gospel was in fact the disciple John, a point that many scholars debate. However, it is reasonably safe to assume that the author was Jewish, even if not John. If so, could a Jew who grew up reciting the Shema each day (Deut 6:4ff – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one…”) be so quick to write in such a way as to imply there are multiple gods? If the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, Jesus is a god, the Father is a god, there are multiple gods, which directly goes against the clear statement of Deut 6:4.
On the other hand, Christian theology affirms that there is but one God, in three persons. This accords with both John 1:1 and the rest of OT/NT theology.
Reason #6: Jesus has the attributes of God in John 1
If we must rely on context for the proper translation of John 1:1, is there any other evidence in the immediate context that the Word was God Himself?
I answer with a resounding, “Yes!” From the very beginning (pun intended) of John 1:1, we see that Jesus has been around since the Creation of the world (and even before that, as the verb “was” demonstrates). A Jehovah’s Witness will attempt to argue that Jesus was the first being created by God. However, John 1 flatly contradicts this warped theology.
In fact, the prophet Isaiah is quite clear: Isaiah 44:24 Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, (ESV). Isaiah doesn’t mix his words here: God alone created the universe, by Himself. He did not hand over the job to some inferior being. The only way this statement can jive with statements in John 1 that describe the Word (Jesus) as creating the entire universe (1:3) would be to understand that Jesus is indeed God!
There is much more that can be said (and has been said) on this topic. The main point to keep in mind is that the Jehovah’s Witness’s translation of John 1:1 is purposefully twisted in order to fit their own theology. It is not an accurate reflection of what the Greek says, nor an accurate reflection of the context and theology of John’s Gospel. Jesus is God. He always has been, and always will be, and a poor translation will not change that fact.