“The Word Was God” — Guarding Against False Translation

John 1:1 (ESV) – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

You probably know that there are some who have translated John 1:1 differently than what you see in most bibles. The most common group doing this is the Jehovah’s Witness. I want to take a moment here to help you avoid being persuaded by the argument that a Jehovah’s Witness would make to you regarding this verse if you should ever encounter it.

In the last clause of verse 1, the ESV says, “and the word was God.” But the Jehovah’s Witness translation says, “and the word was a god.”

While I don’t do Greek with you often, this time it is necessary. The transliterated Greek of that clause is kai theos en ho logos. “Kai” is the word for “and.” “En” is the word “was.” “Ho logos” is “the word.” And “theos” is the Greek word for “God.” As in English with God (capital G) and god (little G), the word “theos” can mean either God in the sense of the true God or god in the sense of a god, one of many idols, false gods, etc.

How do we know if the Greek is trying to say God [capital G] or a god [little g]? Often, the way to distinguish in Greek whether the author means God (big G), or god (little g) is to see if the article, the word “the,” is included. “Ho Theos,” “the God,” is the usual form for the God of the Bible. “Theos” alone is usually god (little g). This is how the Jehovah’s Witnesses have convinced others that they have a point, because this passage only says theos and not ho theos.

If one does not know any better, and if one only knows the rule that to speak of the God of the Bible requires the use of ho theos and not merely theos, this would be an open and shut case. But the moment a person knows just a little bit more about grammar in Greek translation, that person will see that the Jehovah’s Witness argument is faulty.

First, let’s do a little English grammar. A linking verb is a “to be” word like “is,” “are,” “was,” etc. Unlike an action verb (runs, sings, swims, beholds, etc.), a linking verb can sometimes take two nouns and tie them together to show a relationship. “Tom is my dad,” is a sentence that equates “Tom” and “dad.” And, in fact, those words are interchangeable. The sentence, “My dad is Tom,” is equally true.

In a sentence like the examples I just gave, we see a subject, the linking verb, and the predicate nominative. Does it matter which word is subject and which is predicate? Take this sentence as an example: An apple is a fruit. In that sentence, apple has to be the subject and fruit has to be the predicate. If you reverse the order and say, “a fruit is an apple,” you have misleadingly given the indication that all fruits are apples. In that instance, one must know which is which to communicate clearly.

The clause at the end of john 1:1 is a sentence with a linking verb, a “to be” verb. John has constructed this clause quite intentionally to show us which word is the subject, which is the predicate, and to prevent us from thinking they are interchangeable.

In English this would be easier. We distinguish the subject from the predicate simply with word order. The subject comes first in the sentence and the predicate comes after the linking verb. This does not work in biblical Greek, as word order does not offer us the same sort of signal as to which word is subject and which is predicate in a sentence. In Greek, in a sentence with action verbs, it is easy to distinguish subject from object by the case of the words; their endings are spelled differently. But the case of subject and object in a sentence with a linking verb is the same.

The trick that a biblical author might use to distinguish subject from predicate in a sentence with a linking verb has to do with the use of articles. In English, articles are words like “the,” “a,” or “an.” Often in Greek, both nouns in a sentence with a linking verb will have an article before them. But, if the author wants to distinguish for you between subject and predicate, he will omit the article before the predicate so that it is absolutely clear which word is subject and which is predicate. This technique allows an author to put the word he considers more important first, even if that word is supposed to be the predicate and not the subject.

John did not put “ho theos” in John 1:1 so that he could show that the “logos” (word) is the subject and “theos” (God) is the predicate. Otherwise, you might confusedly translate this verse, “And God was the word.” But John only wanted to say, “The word was God.”

A. T Robertson writes:

“The subject is made plain by the article (ho logos) and the predicate without it (theos) just as in John 4:24 pneuma ho Theos can only mean `God is spirit,’ not `spirit is God.’ So, in 1 John 4:16 ho theoß agape estin can only mean `God is love,’ not `love is God’ as a so-called Christian scientist would confusedly say. So, in John 1:14, ho Logos sarx egeneto, `the Word became flesh,’ not `the flesh became Word.’”

This type of construction as in John 1:1 is normal in Greek, and, it is necessary to show us which word is the subject of the sentence. This is not merely important for grammar in general. There is a significant theological reason that the article could not be included before Theos in John 1:1. D.A. Carson in his John commentary writes:

In fact, if John had included the article, he would have been saying something quite untrue. He would have been so identifying the word with God, that no divine being could exist apart from the word. In that case, it would be nonsense to say, in the words of the second clause of this verse, that the word was with God. The word does not by himself make up the entire Godhead. Nevertheless, the divinity that belongs to the rest of the Godhead, belongs also to Him.

A.T. Robertson agrees, pointing out, “By exact and careful language John denied Sabellianism by not saying ho theoß En ho logos. That would mean, that all of God was expressed in ho logos, and the terms would be interchangeable, each having the article.”

While the word is God, He is not all that God is. Jesus is not the Father. Jesus is not the Holy Spirit. And so, Theos, in verse 1, cannot have the article. But the lack of the article does not mean that John is trying to say that the word was “a god.”

So, what we see from Greek is this: John could not have used an article before theos in this verse, and still been faithful to Biblical Trinitarian theology. John’s construction here is not at all uncommon in Greek. The construction does not signify that John is meaning anything other than the One true God here in verse 1. We must reject the Jehovah’s witness translation of verse 1. It does not come from solid Greek scholarship, nor does it faithfully express the clear intention of the author as we find throughout the rest of the Gospel.

John intended to tell us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John wanted to preach trinitarian theology. He wanted us to see that Jesus is truly God, not allowing for the Arian heresy of denying his deity. John wanted us to see that Jesus, while god, is not all that God is, thus denying the Sabellian heresy or modalism, the false belief that the Father became the Son who became the Spirit and conflating the persons of the godhead. There was only one grammatical method John could use to do this. Had John wanted to call Jesus merely divine, he had other words available for that. But John wanted to say that Jesus exists forever, is with God, and is God., and he did so perfectly.