I recently sat down via Zoom with Greg Thornberg, pastor of Redemption Bible Church in Casa Grande, Arizona, to talk about the translation of John 1.1. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) famously translate the passage this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.

Most Bible translations opt to not say “a god,” rather something like “the Word was God.” Is there anything which justifies how the JWs handle the text?

In the discussion, I try to hit the following main points with regard to understanding the Greek of the text:

  • the presence or lack of an article (often somewhat misleadingly called “the definite article”) in Greek does not directly correspond to the presence or lack of an English definite or indefinite article.
    • the JWs recognize this, consistently rendering the non-articular noun θεός with “God” elsewhere in their translation, including in the immediate context.
  • both “God” and “the Word” are active as distinctly identifiable entities in the immediate context. While it is possible for John to introduce another entity “a god” in this passage which refers to something different than ὁ θεός, if that were his aim, he would likely need to specify that θεός in the last third of the verse is different from ὁ θεός in the earlier parts of the verse. Since the lack of article can be explained in other ways than introducing a not yet referred to entity, taking non-articular θεός here as different from the articular θεός earlier in the passage is weak.
  • An anarthrous (non-articular) noun referring to an entity which has already been introduced (and hence usually articular in the subsequent discourse), tends to be focal/emphatic.
    • there is no article on the final θεός in the passage to indicate that it is the predicate nominative, rather than the subject, as otherwise it would be natural to take it as the subject, rather than ὁ θεός
      • this is because a common pattern in Greek is for the object, or in this case predicate nominative “was with God“, of the prior clause to become the subject of the following clause
    • not putting the article with θεός portrays it as new information, which singles it out as even more emphatic than it would be otherwise. New information does not require it to be a new entity; it is emphatic.
  • While the famous Colwell’s Rule is not irrelevant here, it is not actually helpful in the point under discussion.
    • Colwell’s Rule: “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 ‘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…”[1]
      • the reason this is not that helpful is that it applies to nouns which are definite from context: whether θεός should be understood from context as definite is the point under debate in this passage.

Finally, while I did not mention it in the video, I would also add that if the JWs really intend a qualitative reading of John 1.1 (which is their claimed motive), the translation “a god” is not the best way to do that. I will admit that the English indefinite article can function this way. Consider this example from Quirk et al. Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language:

Paganini was a great violinist.

Here the indefinite article indicates the noun phrase “great violinist” has a descriptive role, similar to a predicate adjective. However, this usage runs into problems with ‘God’ in that in the biblical worldview ‘God/god’ is primarily a Who not a What. Since God/god/gods refer to personal beings, to use “God/god” without any qualification within the context of the Bible most naturally leads to a polytheistic sort of view of things, which JWs reject.

There are contexts where you can use an indefinite article with a named entity, such as:

George is being a real John right now.

In certain, limited contexts, it is imaginable that this could be reduced to “George is a John,” though this is highly unusual and would require very strong syntactic pushing to make it clear what is meant.

These expressions with the indefinite article work in specific contexts where the point is that George is sharing in properties/actions which are associated with John. However, to do this with ‘God/god’ is problematic in a biblical context, because the Judeo-Christian God normally never takes an article. So the translation “a god” within the context of the Bible is that “a god” should be read as indefinite, referring to a new, not yet identified deific entity.

On a qualitative reading (which, by the way, has a long pedigree among Trinitarian orthodoxy as well and is certainly not unique to the JWs), a better translation would be something like the following (personally, I like the last one, but it probably wouldn’t fly in any actual translation):

  • and what God was, the Word was
  • and the Word was like God
  • and the Word was divine/god-like
  • and the Word shared in God’s god-ness

When it comes down to it, the difference between JWs and mainstream (aka, Orthodox/Trinitarian) Christianity is not so much over how this verse is translated, but rather how all the pieces are put together in understanding how this verse, and many others, hang together in a bigger picture. Is the JWs translation good? Not really. Because of the way English functions, it is misleading. But the real difference between JWs and trinitarian understanding is not over a qualitative vs. definite reading of John 1.1, but over so much more.

[1] E. C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 52 (1933): 20.