Tuesday, May 27, 2008

John 1:1

I figured I'd start out by reviewing a translation issue that often seems to cause confusion. The text of John 1:1 reads thus:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος, καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος
It has traditionally been translated:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.
Obviously this translation provides a powerful foundation for a Trinitarian reading of the Gospels. Some translations, however, have advocated a far different reading. Most famous (or infamous) among these is the New World Translation, which reads thus:
In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god .
The controversy revolves around the translation of θεὸς ἦν λόγος in 1:1c and the definiteness of θεὸς. Is Jesus the God, or is he divine. The clause is a simple predicate nominative, with the predicate preceding the verb. The verb (ἦν) is a 3rd singular, imperfect, active, indicative.

Normally in a predicate nominative a definite predicate is anarthrous (lacking the article), but there are a few instance where the article is required. Smyth's Greek Grammar lists three such instances (§ 1152):
Even in the predicate the article is used with a noun referring to a definite object that is well known, previously mentioned or hinted at, or identical with the subject.
Smyth deals with Classical Greek, though, and while John employs a sophisticated Greek, it is Koine, and thus somewhat distinct from Classical Greek. Blass, Debrunner, and Funk, however, describe a similar situation in their book A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (
§ 273):
The article is inserted if the predicate noun is presented as something well known or as that which along merits the designation (the only thing to be considered).
Both grammars seem to indicate the article is necessary should
θεὸς be definite. Notwithstanding the grammatical requirements, the style of the New Testament can sometimes be anomalous. E. C. Colwell published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1933 that argued the word order of predicate nominatives in the New Testament also influenced the use of the article. The relevant portion of the article argues that the New Testament authors more often than not omitted the articles from definite predicate nouns when the predicate preceded the verb.

"Colwell's Rule" has become popular in discussing John 1:1, but scholars warn that Colwell's investigation was exclusively concerned with word order, and does not address all aspects of definiteness with predicate nominatives. There are also numerous exceptions to this rule. In John 1:21, for instance, John employs the article in a definite predicate noun that precedes the verb.


Murray Harris tempered Colwell's ambition in an article entitled "The Definite Article in the Greek New Testament" (301–13 in Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus). He writes that an anarthrous noun in the predicate may be definite or indefinite, but should be presumed indefinite unless the context demands otherwise. According to Harris, the construction may also be interpreted qualitatively, irrespective of the definiteness of the noun.

In the end neither conclusion answers all our concerns, but John 1:1c can surely be translated with an indefinite
θεὸς with no impediments. Many accept it as the stronger perspective, although mainstream Christian scholars have been reticent to allow the reading the circulation it deserves. Any attempt to promulgate the theory is often bemoaned as tacit approval of the New World Translation, whether that translation influenced the research or not (and it usually does not). For many, however, the baby is more easily thrown out if it is shackled to the bathwater of the NWT.

For additional reading see Rodney J. Decker, "Colwell's Rule," and William Arnold III, "Colwell's Rule and John 1:1."

3 comments:

Chris said...

Mak, thanks for the info. Does it change anything if Theos is taken as a proper name?

maklelan said...

It would be pretty difficult to insist on that reading. There is no theos in the Greek pantheon, and as far as I know it is not used as a personal name. It is incorporated into personal names, but I don't think I've ever seen it on its own.

Mad said...

FASCINATING!
Tradition always seems to
clog the mind!
When seeing God call MOSES
"God" in Hebrew (Ex 7:1),
no one I know thinks of
Moses being part of Godhood
- but with John 1:1,
Tradition takes over!
Thank you for an honest
breakdown of the Greek:
you are not only HONEST,
but have great COURAGE!

Mike the Mad JW
themadjw@gmail.com