I have written on the books written by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, specifically their rendering of John 1:1c, “the word was a god” when all English translations have “the Word was God” or similar. One hundred percent of the Greek scholars who publish grammar texts disagree with the Watchtower.
In a response, one commenter on this blog said the following:
I shared your point with Rolf Furuli, who has exams in Greek and Latin and has taught University courses in Akkadian, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Syriac, and Ugaritic. He had this to say:
“I think the writer has missed something here. As a scholar who has taught Semitic languages for many years, and who has University exams in Greek and Latin as well, I would say that the translation “a god” in John 1:1c is the most natural one. The reason why “God” is chosen, is theology and not linguistics. Where is the Greek scholar who, on the basis of Greek lexicon, grammar, and syntax, has shown that “a god” in John 1:1c is a WRONG translation? I would think that almost all Greek scholars would agree that on the basis of linguistics “a god” is a perfectly legitimate rendering.
Such a statement is amazing in that it is so incorrect. However, when one becomes familiar with how the Watchtower has misused quotes in the past, it becomes not so surprising.
If you are not interested in the details, now would be the time to skip down to the Conclusion.
In this post I will quote several Greek grammar texts specifically. Before I do, I must repeat the following relevant points to the Greek translation issue:
- I do not claim any scholarship in languages. I know the rudiments of the language, enough to know how to read the grammar texts and lexicons. Therefore I never make statements of my own authority, but merely quote those who are the scholars. We would have less confusion if everyone did this.
- To make solid points of language, the scholarly sources are those who have published a Greek grammar book, a Greek lexicon, or Greek text that is used in an accredited school to teach Greek. The reason we can only accept these authors is because anyone can publish a book, use big words, and sound authoritative. Merely publishing a book or teaching in a college somewhere does not make one authoritative. In this particular issue, many people have published comments on each side of the question. One person publishes one thing, another publishes another, and since the average reader does not normally deal in the technical grammar terms, they get confused. So since the Greek grammars, lexicons, and texts are the definition of the language, anyone who disagrees is disagreeing with the language itself and is not on firm ground. (For an example of how a high-level university professor can be factually incorrect, see here)
Here are the quotes from the authors of Greek grammar texts that I own or have found in local libraries:
A New Short Grammar of the Greek Testament, Robertson, A. T., and Davis, W. Hershey (New York: Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931):
As a rule the article is not used with the predicate noun even if the subject is definite. The article with one and not with the other means that the articular noun is the subject. Thus ό θεός άγάπε έστιν can only mean God is love, not love is God. So in Jo. 1:1 θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος the meaning has to be the Logos was God, not God was the Logos. If the article occurs with both predicate and subject they are interchangeable as in 1 Jo. 3:4, ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία sin is lawlessness and also lawlessness is sin (a needed lesson for our day). (279)
The Minister and His Greek New Testament, Robertson, A. T. (Grand Rapids: Baker):
A word should be said concerning the use and non-use of the article in John 1:1, where a narrow path is safely followed by the author. “The Word was God.” If both God and Word were articular, they would be coextensive and equally distributed and so interchangeable. But the separate personality of the Logos is affirmed by the construction used and Sabelianism is denied. If God were articular and Logos non-articular, the affirmation would be that God was Logos, but not that the Logos was God. As it is, John asserts that in the Pre-incarnate state the Logos was God, though the father was greater than the Son (John 14:28). (67-68)
The Watchtower insists that if Jesus were to be God Almighty, the text would have to have said, in effect, “the word was the God.” Here, Robertson is saying that if the Greek were to say “the word was the God”, then it would say that the Father and Jesus are one and the same person with no distinction in any way whatsoever, a heresy taught by Sabelius and continued today by Oneness Pentecostals.
A Handbook to the Grammar of the Greek Testament, rev. & improved ed., Religious Tract Society (Piccadilly: n.p.):
206. Hence arises the general rule, that in the simple sentence Subject takes the article, the Predicate omits it. . . John i:1: θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, the Word was God.
Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament by Daniel B. Wallace (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1996):
If θεός were indefinite, we would translate it “a god” (as is done in the New World Translation [NWT]). If so, the theological implication would be some form of polytheism, perhaps suggesting that the Word was merely a secondary god in a pantheon of deities.
The grammatical argument that the PN here is indefinite is weak. Often, those who argue for such a view (in particular, the translators of the NWT) do so on the sole basis that the term is anarthrous. Yet they are inconsistent, as R. H. Countess pointed out:
“In the New Testament there are 282 occurrences of the anarthrous θεός. At sixteen places NWT has either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time. …”
The first section of John-1:1–18-furnishes a lucid example of NWT arbitrary dogmatism. Θεός occurs eight times-verses 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, 18-and has the article only twice-verses 1, 2. Yet NWT six times translated “God,” once “a god,” and once “the god.”
If we expand the discussion to other anarthrous terms in the Johannine Prologue, we notice other inconsistencies in the NWT: It is interesting that the New World Translation renders θεός as “a god” on the simplistic grounds that it lacks the article. This is surely an insufficient basis. Following the “anarthrous = indefinite” principle would mean that ἀρχῇ should be “a beginning” (1:1, 2), ζωὴ should be “a life” (1:4), παρὰ θεοῦ should be “from a god” (1:6), Ἰωάννης should be “a John” (1:6), θεόν should be “a god” (1:18), etc. Yet none of these other anarthrous nouns is rendered with an indefinite article. One can only suspect strong theological bias in such a translation.
According to Dixon’s study, if θεός were indefinite in John 1:1, it would be the only anarthrous pre-verbal PN in John’s Gospel to be so. Although we have argued that this is somewhat overstated, the general point is valid: The indefinite notion is the most poorly attested for anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives. Thus, grammatically such a meaning is improbable. Also, the context suggests that such is not likely, for the Word already existed in the beginning. Thus, contextually and grammatically, it is highly improbable that the Logos could be “a god” according to John (266-267)
A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Dana, H. E., and Mantey, Julius R., (New York: Macmillan):
“The use of the articular and anarthrous construction of θεὸς is highly instructive. A study of the uses of the term is given in Moulton and Geden’s Concordance convinces one that without the article θεὸς signifies divine essence, while with the article divine personality is chiefly in view.” (139-140)
* * *
“The use of θεὸς in Jn. 1:1 is a good example. πρὸς τὸν θεόν points to Christ’s fellowship with the person of the Father; θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος 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. (140)
* * *
(3) With the Subject in a Copulative Sentence. The article sometimes distinguishes the subject from the predicate in a copulative sentence. In Xenophon’s Anabasis, 1:4:6, έμπόριον δ ην τό χωρίον, and the place was a market, we have a parallel case to what we have in John 1:1, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, and the word was deity. The article points out the subject in these examples. Neither was the place the only market, nor was the word all of God, as it would mean if the article were also used with θεὸς. As it stands, the other persons of the Trinity may be implied in θεὸς. In a convertible proposition, where the subject and predicate are regarded as interchangeable, both have the article (cf. 1 Cor. 15:56). If the subject is a proper name, or a personal demonstrative pronoun, it may be anarthrous while the predicate has the article (cf. Jn. 6:51; Ac. 4:11; 1 Jn. 4:15). (148-149)
* * *
It is instructive to observe that the anarthrous noun occurs in many prepositional phrases. This is no mere accident, for there are no accidents in the growth of a language: each idiom has its reason. Nor is it because the noun is sufficiently definite without the article, which is true, as Greek nouns have an intrinsic definiteness. But that is not the reason for not using the article. A prepositional phrase usually implies some idea of quality or kind. Ἐν ἀρχῇ in Jn. 1:1 characterizes Christ as preexistent, thus defining the nature of his person. (150)
This grammar by Dana and Mantey is especially noteworthy, because the passage abover from their p.148 was cited years ago in a Watchtower publication in support of their “the word was a god” rendering. The commenter on this blog even used the same passage in Mantey’s grammar to try to support the “a god” rendering. Therefore a bit of explanation is in order.
The citation in question is the sentence on p.148 where Dana and Mantey rend a sentence from Xenophon as “the place was a market” calling it “a parallel case.” The Watchtower is wrong for the following reasons.
First, note that the paragraph is talking about “the subject in a copulative sentence.” The subject in the passage in question is the Word, while God is the predicate. So Mantey is making a point about logos, not theos. Second, saying “the place was market” is not typically meaningful in English, while “the word was God” is a meaningful sentence. Third, the paragraph is making a point about “the other persons of the Trinity is implied in theos” which is in direct disagreement to the Watchtower. Fourth, the rest of the quotes from Mantey’s grammar show that the book disagrees with the Watchtower.
Fifth, Mantey clarified exactly what he meant in his letter to the Watchtower:
Your quotation from p.148 (3) was in a paragraph under the heading: “With the Subject in a Copulative sentence.” Two examples occur there to illustrate that “the article points out the subject in these examples.” But we made no statement in the paragraph about the predicate except that , “as it stands the other persons of the trinity may be implied in theos.” And isn’t that the opposite of what your translation “a god” infers? You quoted me out of context. On pages 139 and 140 (VI) in our grammar we stated: “without the article theos signifies divine essence . . . theos en ho logos emphasizes Christ’s participation in the essence of the divine nature.” Our interpretation is in agreement with that in NEB and the TEV: “What God was, the Word was”; and with that of Barclay: “The nature of the Word was the same as the nature of God.
For the complete letter, see here.
Sixth, lest there be any doubt about what Julius Mantey meant about the Greek grammar of John 1:1, he was interviewed by Walter Martin and said this:
MARTIN: In John 1:1, the New World Translation (NWT) says that “the Word was a god,” referring to Jesus Christ. How would you respond to that?
MANTEY: The Jehovah’s Witnesses have forgotten entirely what the order of the sentence indicates – that the “Logos” has the same substance, nature, or essence as the Father. To indicate that Jesus was just “a god,” the JWs would have to use a completely different construction in the Greek.
MARTIN: You once had a little difference of opinion with the Watchtower about this and wrote them a letter. What was their response to your letter?
MANTEY: Well, as a backdrop, I was disturbed because they had misquoted me in support of their translation. I called their attention to the fact that the whole body of the New Testament was against their view. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is glorified and magnified – yet here they were denigrating Him and making Him into a little god of a pagan concept.
MARTIN: What was their response to what you said?
MANTEY: They said I could have my opinion and they would retain theirs. What I wrote didn’t faze them a bit.
MARTIN: I don’t know whether you’re aware of it, but there is not a single Greek scholar in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. I did everything I could to find out the names of the translating committee of the NWT, and the Watchtower wouldn’t tell me a thing. Finally, an ex-JW who knew the committee members personally told me who they were, and the men on that committee could not read New Testament Greek; nor could they read Hebrew; nor did they have any knowledge of systematic theology – except what they had learned from the Watchtower. Only one of them had been to college, and he had dropped out after a year. He briefly studied the biblical languages while there.
MANTEY: He was born in Greece, wasn’t he?
MARTIN: Yes, he read modern Greek, and I met him when I visited the Watchtower. I asked him to read John 1:1 in the Greek and then said, “How would you translate it?” He said: “Well, ‘the word was a god.”‘ I said: “What is the subject of the sentence?” He just looked at me. So I repeated, “What is the subject of the sentence?” He didn’t know. This was the only person in the Watchtower to read Greek and he didn’t know the subject of the sentence in John 1:1. And these were the people who wrote back to you and said their opinion was as good as yours.
MANTEY: That’s right.
Therefore it is quite clear what Dana and Mantey’s Grammar meant about definite and indefinite articles in Greek, and it disagrees with the Watchtower.
Walter Martin claimed he met former members of the Watchtower who give him five known members of the Watchtower committee that wrote the New World Translation. They were Nathan H. Knorr, F. W. Franz, George D. Gangas, Milton G. Herschell, and A. D. Schroeder (Jehovah of the Watchtower, Martin and Klann (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1974), 176.
The following are all the English translations I currently have, excepting loose paraphrase versions.
NET Bible: “the Word was fully God.”
Darby Bible: “the Word was God.”
Lexham: “the Word was God.”
NCV: “the Word was God.”
KJV: “the Word was God.”
NKJV: “the Word was God.”
ISV: “the Word was God”
Douay-Rheims: “the Word was God.”
Young’s: “the Word was God.”
TNIV: “the Word was God.”
NIV (1984): “the Word was God.”
NIrV: “the Word was God.”
HCSB: “the Word was God.”
NRSV: “the Word was God.”
NASB: “the Word was God.”
ASV: “the Word was God.”
ESV: “the Word was God”
NJB: “the Word was God.”
WUESTNT: “the Word was as to His essence absolute deity”
CEV: “The Word was with God and was truly God.”
This shows twenty versions, most translated by many language scholars on a committee, which all agree. I have found no English versions outside of Watchtower publications that hold to their rendering of John 1:1. Even if we toss out the few that are not common, the remaining represent the bulk of language scholarship for the modern era.
We can solidly make the following conclusions:
- No Greek grammar supports the Watchtower.
- The community of language scholars is against the Watchtower. Quote their obscure sources as they may, the scholarship is against them.
- The Watchtower has quoted no Greek grammar text that supports their view of John 1:1 because there are none.
- The quote used by the Watchtower from p.148 of Dana and Mantey’s grammar was in a paragraph talking about the subject of John 1:1c, which is the Word. It was not talking about the predicate, God. Mantey clarified his meaning elsewhere in the book and in later published statements.
- Again, my commenter quoted one professor who made the following statement: “Where is the Greek scholar who, on the basis of Greek lexicon, grammar, and syntax, has shown that “a god” in John 1:1c is a WRONG translation? I would think that almost all Greek scholars would agree that on the basis of linguistics “a god” is a perfectly legitimate rendering.”
- That anyone in the language community would even ask such a question, or make such a statement, shows a level of bias so strong as to allow us to dismiss their statements. They are clearly and broadly wrong, and have no sources to support their view. All of the Greek grammar texts disagree, every last one.
Since the Watchtower tends to play games with quotations, there is a good summary of statements by various authors that they sometimes quote. You can find it here.
The discerning Bible student will do well to steer clear of Watchtower teachings and publications.