Q: Jehovah's Witnesses (Watchtower Society) claim all translations of the Bible but their own New World Translation incorrectly translate John 1:1. They say "... the Word was God" should be rendered "... the Word was a god." What does the Greek actually say?
A: Insertion of the article "a" in John 1:1 is significant because it casts doubt upon the deity (Godhood) of Jesus Christ. (The Watchtower, like many cults, denies the fundamental doctrine of the deity of Jesus.) In fact, even their own New World Translation (both text and footnote for John 1:1) has been altered a few times to fit their agenda -- though Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18 clearly warn against altering the Written Word of God. ...-- D.Dew
Tim Elston, a doctoral candidate of the New Testament at Denver Seminary with a BA in Linguistics from the University of Oregon, explains it thus:
The absence of the article before "God" in John 1:1 is meant to indicate that "God" is the predicate nominative rather than the subject of the phrase. Because Greek does not use word order to indicate subject/object/predicate distinctions, one of its optional features is, where there is ambiguity in a subject-predicate nominative construction, to indicate the subject by preceding it with a definite article and to indicate the predicate nominative by the absence of a definite article. This is called "Colwell's Rule."
This rule is evident at 1 John 4:8, "God is love." The Greek reads: ho [the] Theos [God] agape [love] estin [is]. If agape had the definite article, instead of Theos, then the correct translation would be "Love is God." But the definite article on Theos indicates "God" as the subject, and the absence of the article on agape indicates agape as the predicate nominative; thus, "God is love." This amounts to a qualification of God rather than a deification of love.
In the case of John 1:1, the writer leaves the article off of Theos in order to mark it unambiguously as the predicate nominative. The absence of the article does not indicate that theos is an indefinite noun, as Jehovah's Witnesses have incorrectly led many to believe, but that it is not the subject of the phrase. The absence of the article on Theos assures the reader that "the Word" is the subject and that "God" is the predicate nominative.
In Greek, the article is much less a marking of definiteness than it is an article facilitating syntactic clarity. Indicating definiteness is only one of eleven functions of the article in Koine Greek. Moreover, definiteness does not require the article for its indication. Many, many definite nouns in Greek are not indicated as definite by the use of the article or by any other morphological tag. These anarthrous nouns (nouns which do not have the definite article) are definite simply by virtue of their semantic function. The absence of the article with these nouns in no way indicates them as indefinite. The second occurrence of Theos in John 1:1 is one of these anarthrous nouns which are nonetheless definite.
For further reading see Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 103-114.
Tim Elston, Englewood, Colo., B.A., Linguistics, University of Oregon; a master's degree student in New Testament at Denver Seminary
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