Does John 1.1 mean ‘The Word was a god’?

This is a question I quite often get asked in relation to conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the New World Translation (NWT). The NWT translates the end of John 1.1 as ‘the Word as a god’ in order to avoid the identification of Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, and avoid seeing Jesus as God incarnate, part of the Trinity, as does orthodox Christian belief.

As we will see, this is an incorrect translation of the Greek text. It is quite straightforward, though sounds a little technical to explain. Here goes.

The Greek of John 1.1 is as follows, transliterated into English letters:

En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos.

If you don’t read Greek, you need to know a couple of things. The first is that the word ho is called the ‘definite article’ which in English would be translated ‘the.’ The second is that Greek does not have an ‘indefinite article’ (English ‘a’), but instead simply omits the article. The term for this is ‘anarthrous’. The third is that, whereas in English we show what words are doing in a sentence by word order, in Greek this is shown by what case a word is in. Each word can be in one of four (or five) cases—the subject of a verb (often the thing doing an action) is always in the nominative case.

You can see near the end of John 1.1 that we have theos without an article, and logos throughout with the article.  The reason is that, in any phrase where the main verb is ‘to be’, there will not be a subject and an object (as in ‘I pat my dog’ where ‘I’ am the subject and ‘my dog’ is the object of the action), but only subjects in ‘apposition’, that is, agreeing with one another.  So when I say ‘My pet is a dog’ both ‘pet’ and ‘dog’ are subjects, and in Greek would be in the nominative case.

The question is: how can I tell the difference in Greek between the sentences ‘My pet is a dog’ and ‘My dog is a pet’ which have quite different senses. (The first is telling you which animal I have as a pet, the second is telling what kind of relationship my dog has to me.) In English, we do it by word order, but you cannot do this in Greek since, as an inflected language (ie one with different cases), it is flexible in word order. And you cannot do it by the usual trick of different cases, since both are in the nominative as subjects of the verb ‘to be’.

So Greek does it by making the word in apposition (the ‘dog’ in the first example) anarthrous, that is, without the definite article. In other words, theos en ho logos means ‘the word was God’, which tells us something about the nature of the word, whereas ho theos en logos would mean ‘God was the word’ which is telling us something about the nature of God.

In neither case does being anarthrous correspond to the English sense ‘a’, the indefinite article. So to translate this as ‘The Word was a god’ misunderstands the significance of omitting the article.

As this sounds rather technical, I always find it more fruitful to read with Jehovah’s Witness Romans 10.13, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ The Greek here uses the word kurios; in the Greek Old Testament that Paul is citing here, this refers to Yahweh, the god of Israel. But Paul here clearly means ‘The Lord Jesus.’ The NWT appears to be embarrassed by this, and substitutes the word ‘Jehovah’. But it is very clear that in doing so the NWT is changing the text of Scripture.

Something similar happens in 1 Cor 10.9, where the word Christos in Greek is also substituted in the NWT by ‘Jehovah’.


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12 thoughts on “Does John 1.1 mean ‘The Word was a god’?”

  1. It is my belief that, the main reason the NWT changed John 1:1 is because they don’t believe
    in the Deity of Jesus. They are entitled to believe anything they want; but NOBODY is entitled
    to change the Bible to suit their chosen beliefs! There is another change they made that disturbs
    me almost as much, In John 14:10, Jesus speaks of being “IN” the Father. JWs must have thought
    that simple word “IN” sounds too suggestive of the Deity of Jesus; so the changed it to say
    “IN UNION WITH” (meaning they merely agree).

    Reply
  2. @Michael W. Gephart, I’m sorry but your belief/opinion, is false as Jehovah’s Witnesses do believe in Jesus and believe he was the man who set the example or path so to speak on how to properly worship Jehovah. Jesus told his Apostiles not to worship him. Jesus name means Jah/Jehovah is salvation. If God wanted to come in human form then he would not have done so through human birth. He came and spoke to Abraham in the form of a man before the Angels destroyed Soddom and Gomorrah.
    We believe Jesus is our Lord and Saviour and is GIVEN (as in it was given to him by someone else) the Kingdom of Earth. John saw him coming out of the Heavens with a commanding voice of an ARCHANGEL. Strange for John to think that God would have a voice of an Angel and not of…oh you know GOD?! In the book of Hebrews, it says Jesus what God’s 1st creation, so Jesus was Jehovah God’s 1st Angel. Trinity is 4th century Christianity, Coptic texts predate the Greek text and they do have a Definite article, which matches more closely to the 1st Century Christian teachings which would be more accurate.

    Reply
    • Thanks for responding Juan. As a matter of interesting, how do Witnesses read verses like Matt 28.9 ‘they worshipped him’ (using language Jews would only use of God himself), and Thomas’ words ‘My lord and my God!’ in John 20.28?

      Even more significant is Paul’s central statement of faith in Rom 10.13 ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’. Here, the ‘lord’ (kurios in Greek) clearly refers to the Lord Jesus (from the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ in Rom 10.9). Yet Paul is quoting Joel 2.23, which says ‘Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved’. So Jesus is now both the one that we call on when we call on God, and he is the one who saves us with God’s salvation. Paul is here directly identifying the person and work of Jesus with the person and work of the God of Israel.

      How do Witnesses read this verse?

      Reply
    • Well the Bible disagrees with you and Jehovah witnesses. In the end brother you and all your false doctrine will be judged by God, Jesus. If you actually studied the Greek language outside if your false religion, you would discover that Christ is the God of the Bible. But see you can’t because your false religion won’t allow you to do this. John 1:1 states the fact that Jesus is God. I challenge you to go and tell your fake church that you would like to study Greek, koine. See what they say. Good luck and we’ll be seeing you bring judged by Christ.

      Reply
  3. Very well, Paul!

    The erroneous translations and contradictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses exposed!

    Another verses with worship and adoration to Lord Jesus Christ:

    Mathew, 2, 8.
    Luke 24, 52
    John 9, 38
    Hb, 1, 6.

    Javier López Ureña.

    Reply
  4. It would probably look like this, Kai ho Theo’s en logos. Putting the definite article on God and and thus changing the object of the sentence to God and not the Word, Logos. After that you would have to change the whole Bible, like Jehovah witnesses did!!

    Reply
  5. And if the word order had been, kai ho logos en theos, that would have meant the word was a god (not God). That is word was a subordinate, demigod, or created one as taught by Arianism. But the biblical word order destroys Arianism. Lack of an article with theos destroys Jehovah’s witness and Jesus only cult. John produced an incredible theologically terse statement to destroy heresies.

    Reply
  6. I would question this conclusion about Matthew 28:9. The word translated ‘worship’ is proskuneo and it is well established that this word does not just refer to worship of God / gods, it can also refer to honour given to human beings of superior rank. For example in 1 Samuel 25:23, the Greek Septuagint uses the same word ‘proskuneo’ for Abigail bowing down before King David. This is one of many examples in the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Bible used by Jews in Jesus’ day. I think it’s wrong to say that Jews would only use this word to speak of the worship due to God.

    On John 1:1 (The Word was God) – how do you tell when the word ‘is / was’ means literal identity and when it has a more symbolic meaning? When Jesus said ‘This is my body’ I know Roman Catholics take this to mean literal identity but many other Christians don’t. Most take it to mean ‘this represents my body’ – so perhaps John 1:1 means ‘The Word was an exact representation of God’ (cf Hebrews 1:3)?

    I know the word ‘Lord’ is a title very often used of Jesus, but again this is a word which is very often used of human superiors, and I find it significant that the New Testament most often refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ rather than ‘God’. I’m not really convinced that it must carry the same sense as it did it the Old Testament quotations, there are countless examples where New Testament quotations of the Old give the verse a different sense to what it had in the Old Testament. (e.g. Matt 2:15 quotes ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ – in the Old Testament this refers to Israel but in Matthew it means the child Jesus – again there are many other examples of this sort of thing).

    Reply
    • Thanks Matthew. These things all need to be read in their context. For example, this Sunday we are about to read Matt 25.31; in this passage Jesus depicts himself as the king on the heavenly throne, the true shepherd, and the one who judges the nations. These are all roles which, in the OT and first-century Jewish eschatological thinking, were ascribed to God. I think Matt 28.9 needs to be read in this context.

      Reply
      • Hi Ian, thanks for your reply. Absolutely I would agree that these roles would have been ascribed to God, and they are now ascribed to Jesus. However, to me this makes sense in terms of ‘delegated authority’ rather than ‘literal identification’. So Jesus exercises this authority in God’s name, and as God’s appointed representative – in accordance with his status as the Son of God. So I would say ‘Jesus acts for/as God’ rather than ‘Jesus is God’.

        Reply
  7. Matthew,

    brilliant comments!
    It is so refreshing to see that there are still people who do not uncritically accept what is served to them. Moreover, your comments are very well reasoned.

    Ian,

    not saying your aim is wrong but your reasoning has quite a few faux pas.

    1/ to prove your point, in your explanation of Greek sentence structure you do not hesitate to mark two words in nominative as subjects. You state: “when I say ‘My pet is a dog’ both ‘pet’ and ‘dog’ are subjects”, analogically later on you repeat: “both are in the nominative as subjects of the verb ‘to be’ “ , etc. In fact, this is not correct as the one and only subject in the sentence is ‘pet’. “Dog’ is a predicate nominative, a ‘complementum’ (lat.), if you wish, but not a subject.

    2/ you explain that the Greeks differentiate the subject from ‘the word in apposition’ by leaving out the definite article of ‘the word in apposition’. Yet, if I wished to state eg. that ‘Hades and Dionysos are the same’, that is ‘Ho aytos Haides kai Dionysos’, the complementum (or the ‘word in apposition’, should I use your vocab) is the only word with the definite article here. Neither must the subject in the Greek sentence retain the definite article, eg. nomos edone (leaving out both the definite article and the verb ‘to be’ which becomes tacit).

    3/ you further state that “(…) whereas ho theos en logos would mean ‘God was the word’” In fact, it would not, since you have omitted the ‘ho’ article in logos. Now, should the verse read as you’ve suggested, ie.: ‘En arche en ho logos kai ho logos (…) kai ho theos en logos’ then you clearly cannot translate last logos as THE word but A word, since HO logos is the word.

    Now, Ian, I understand the point you’re trying to make, it may even be correct, but the thing is, that you cannot justify your translation of the Greek text on Greek grammar, since from the grammar perspective, it is perfectly alright to translate the text as ‘the word was a god’. The anarthrous construction itself you’re using cannot be used to draw any conclusions about the translation whatsoever.

    Now there was a perfect question in the comments from Kamal, asking how the Greeks would then translate ‘the Word was a god” to which you gave no answer. The Greek text wouldn’t be any different, would it? It is the context not the grammar that makes the difference here. In my perspective, to conclude, you were close, when you wrote “In other words, theos en ho logos (…) which tells us something about the NATURE of the word.”, ie. the same nature, exactly like God, but distinct from God. The best translation in my view would be adjectival without using the adjective ‘theios’ / divine. It doesn’t belittle Jesus in any way.

    Now this brings me to the point that Matthew had regarding your conclusions drawn from the word ‘kyrios’. Now, the word ‘kyrios’ can surely be used without any connotation to God – see Festus calling Caesar his ‘kyrios’ in Acts 25,26 etc. What I find interesting is Matthew’s thought on Jesus being a representation of God, rather than his literal identification. Now, such idea could be substantiated not only from John 1.1 – you can see the Word is distinct, it is ‘pros ton theon’ and it is not ‘ho theos’, but see also Hebrews 1.3 “He [Jesus] is the radiance of His [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His [God’s] nature.” Furthermore, such idea is very close to Greek philosophy that was present in Galilee and Judea in the times of Jesus – see Filon: in his works that predate the written gospels, he describes logos as god’s representative on earth, a first-born son. It is a shame it remained without your comment.
    I might only add that also Aristoteles, Plato, Parmenides worked with the notion of logos. Logos becoming man vs. Aristoteles’ notion of ‘ho anthropos esti zoon logon echon’; his understanding of logos as a mean of revelation, etc.

    Similar happened to your interpretation of the word “proskyneo”, where you reference to Matt 28.9 “they (…) worshiped him” and conclude that it is the “language Jews only use of God himself”. To Matthew’s comment, that the Greek word “proskyneo” can be interpreted in a different way, you’ve replied that “these things need to be read in their context”. Now, tell me, if the language can be used in one way only, as you’ve formerly stated, why would you then need a context to understand?

    Now, to conclude, Ian, I believe your article should be more like an invitation to comment and not a lecture to prove others are wrong, since it is often ignorance that makes people confident of their truth. Nevertheless, I believe your intentions were right. Bona fide, RH

    Reply

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