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Jehovah's Witnesses and John 1:1
By Gary F. Zeolla
the beginning the Word was,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was a god."
Above is the controversial rendering of John 1:1 in the New World Translation (NWT), the Bible of Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs). The NWT is published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WT). Meanwhile, the KJV, NKJV and other major, modern-day versions render the last phrase, "the Word was God." But which translation is best?
This article will look at the WT's rendering of the last phrase of this important verse. Plus, it will consider the import of the first two phrases as well.
Articular vs. Anarthrous
The WT book, Reasoning from the Scriptures, explains the JWs' position, "The definitive article (the) appears before the first occurrence of theos (God) but not before the second. The ARTICULAR (when the article appears) construction of the noun points to an identity, a PERSONALITY, whereas a singular ANARTHROUS (without the article) predicate noun before the verb (as the sentence is constructed in the Greek) points to a QUALITY about someone" (p.212; Note: There is no indefinite article ["a"] in Greek).
In other words, the WT is saying the first occurrence of theos has the article and thus refers to the "personality" of God. The second theos is without the article and describes the "quality" of the Word.
The WT is basically correct here. H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey, in their A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, write, "... without the article theos signifies divine essence, while with the article divine personality is in view" (p.140).
However, the conclusion the WT reaches in light of this information is where the problem comes in, "So the text is not saying that the Word (Jesus) was the same as the God WITH WHOM he was, but, rather that the Word was godlike, divine, a god" (Reasoning, p.212; emphasis in original). But it must be asked, the same in what?
The WT is ignoring the distinction between "Person" and "essence." The Word is not the same PERSON as God the Father; but it does not then follow He is not of the same ESSENCE as Him.
Dana and Mantey state:
pros ton theos (with God) points to Christ's fellowship with the PERSON of the Father; theos en ton logos (the Word was God) emphasizes Christ's participation in the ESSENCE of the divine nature The former clearly applies to personality, while the latter applies to character. This distinction is in line with the general force of the article. It may be seen even in the papyri .
The articular construction emphasizes identity; the anarthrous construction emphasizes character (p. 140; italics in original).
Fritz Rienecker, in his A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, writes similarly, "theos, God. The word is without the article and in the predicate emphasizing quality, the Word had the same nature as God" (p.217).
Merrill C. Tenney, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, adds, "To say the absence of the article bespeaks of the non-absolute deity of the Word is sheer folly. There are many places in this Gospel where the anarthrous theos appears (e.g. 1:6,12,13,18), and not once is the implication that this is referring to just 'a god'" (p.30).
The NWT renders the first three anarthrous appearances of theos Tenney mentions as "God," and the last as "god" (no "a"). But if the WT were consistent in the application of its own Greek "rules" each of these should read, "a god."
So rather than "and the Word was a god" as the WT would have it, the grammar actually demonstrates this phrase could be translated, "and the Word was as to His essence God."
In the debate about the last phrase of John 1:1, the importance of the first phrase is often overlooked.
Tenney comments about this phrase:
Literally, it could and should be rendered, 'WHEN THE BEGINNING BEGAN, THE WORD WAS ALREADY THERE.' This is the sense of en (was), which is in the imperfect tense and implies continuing existence in the past. So before the beginning began, the Word was already in existence. This is tantamount to saying THE WORD PREDATES TIME OR CREATION (p.30).
Rienecker writes similarly, "en imperfect. eimi. The imperfect expresses continuous timeless existence and is contrasted with egeneto ["came into being" - aorist] of verse 3" (p.217).
A.T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament, adds, "Was (en). Three times in this sentence John uses this imperfect of eimi to be which conveys no idea of origin for God or for the Logos, simply continuous existence (copied from BibleWorks).
So given the context, the word "was" indicates at the time creation began, the Word was already existing. His existence prior to creation is in contrast to the things that "came into being" in verse three through Him. Thus, the Word was not created but is the Creator!
Communion with God
For the sake of completeness, the first phrase in John 1:1 will also be looked at.
Marvin Vincent writes about this phrase:
With (pros) does not convey the full meaning, but there is no single English word that will give it better. The preposition pros, which, with the accusative case, denotes motion towards or direction, is also often used in the New Testament with the sense of with; but that not merely as being near or besides, but as a living union and communion; implying the active notion of intercourse... [examples given: Matt 13:56; 26:55; Mark 6:3; 9:19; 1Cor 16:6; 2Cor 5:8; 1John 1:2].
Thus Johns statement that the divine Word not only abode with the Father from all eternity, but was in the living, active relation of communion with Him (pp.33, 34; italics in original).
So the context indicates the Word was "with" God in the sense of being "in communion with" Him.
Kenneth Wuest's Expanded Translation brings out the meaning of the text in all three phrases of John 1:1:
beginning the Word was existing.
And the Word was in fellowship with God the Father.
And the Word was as to His essence absolute deity.
>I have a quick question for you and hope you have the time to answer it. I have sent this question to several people over the Internet including Jay Green [translator of the MKJV and LITV] but have yet to receive an answer. I thought that since you are working on your own translation that maybe you could answer this question.
It deals with John 1:1. Most Bibles translate it "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with GOD, and the Word was GOD."
When I read the English transliteration of the Greek it reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with GOD, and GOD was the Word."
My question is, why don't Bible translators translate it this way? I think it speaks directly and to the point and erases any doubt about who the word is (of course most Christians understand that this passage is speaking of JESUS). It would however take care of arguments by groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses. To me it is simple and to the point and the most accurate way to express this passage of Scripture.
If you have a few minutes of time one day I would enjoy your take on this subject. I thank you for your website and for your ministry and pray that GOD would continue to bless you.
IN JESUS’ NAME
The reason for the translation being different from the word order in the interlinear is due to differences between English and Greek grammar. In English, when there is more than one noun in a sentence, the subject is the noun before the verb while the predicate noun is the noun after the verb.
In Greek, however, word order does not determine subject vs. predicate. When one noun has the article ("the") and one does not, as here, the noun with the article is the subject and the noun without the article is the predicate. To indicate this in English requires changing the order of the words.
The reason "God" is first in the Greek even though it is the predicate is to emphasize it. In this case, the emphasis is on the nature of "the Word" rather than His Person, hence why I give the alternative translation of "as to His essence deity" to show this emphasis.
Unless otherwise indicated, all emphases in quotes are added.
Dana, H.E. and Julius Mantey. Manual Grammar of the Greek NT. New York: Macmillian, 1955.
KJV - NKJV Parallel Reference Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989.
Reasoning from the Scriptures. Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989.
Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Broadman Press, 1934. As found on BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Copyright © 1992-1997 Michael S. Bushell. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika.
Rienecker, Fritz. New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. Trans. and ed. by Cleon Rogers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980.
Tenney, Merrill. "The Gospel of John" in Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Regency, 1981.
Vincent, Marvin. Vincents Word Studies of the New Testament. Vol. II. McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co., na.
Wuest, Kenneth. The New Testament: An Expanded Translation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961.
Jehovah's Witnesses and John 1:1. Copyright © 1999 By Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1994.
It was posted on this website in July 1996 and expanded December 31, 1998.
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