Sunday Morning Greek Blog

May 15, 2011

John 1: The Word Was God

Filed under: John Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 8:47 am

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I have sensed the anticipation of the masses (in my mind, the 15–20 of you who read this blog each week are the masses; humor me pleaseJ): “The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been beating down my door. I’m tired of debating John 1:1 with them. I never get anywhere. When will I get some help from the Sunday Morning Greek Blog?” (Again, humor me please.) Well help has finally arrived!

Before I begin, I want to give credit where credit is due. Daniel Wallace is the “go-to guy” for us Greek scholars when it comes to issues of Greek grammar. Some of what I will write today comes from his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, published by Zondervan and also available for the Logos Bible Software suite. Where I need to give him credit, I will either lead into the information with his name or simply use “(DW, pg #)” for a citation.

For those of you without immediate access to the Greek text, here is John 1:1 in Koine Greek (UBS 4th edition), transliterated, and in my English translation:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

En archē ēn ho logos, kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos.

The Word was in the beginning, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.

Now I know I have some out there who are keying in on that last phrase. Be patient, I’ll get there in a minute. The first thing to note here is that ὁ λόγος is the subject of all three clauses. I did not follow the literal word order in my own translation because I wanted to emphasize this point. I also used this in the last two phrases to translate the definite article (ὁ ho ‘the’, but see below for exegetical significance; a legitimate use of it if the context allows) to emphasize that the same Word that was in the beginning was and was with God. (The past tense is used here not to suggest that the Word was but is no longer God, but that even “in the [past event we call the] beginning,” the Word was considered to be God. The phrase Ἐν ἀρχῇ stands at the beginning to give the whole sentence this context.)

I can see your mental wheels turning out there. Some of you are asking: “How can the Word be both ‘with God’ and ‘God’?” Others are saying, “Wait, I recognize those Greek words, and the word order in that last phrase is ‘And God was the Word’! What’s up with that?” And of course, my Jehovah’s Witness fans (of whom I have none that I’m aware) are furious because I didn’t say “a god” for the anarthrous (= without the definite article) θεός. Let me begin with a primer on the definite article in Greek, because that is an important concept to understand for this passage and throughout Scripture.

The Definite Article in Koine Greek

The English definite article is the. In English, we often use the definite article when what it modifies has already been specified or defined (get it, define/definite) in some way. Consider the following sentences and see which ones sound more natural to your ears:

  1. We have love in our hearts.
  2. We have the love in our hearts
  3. We have love of God in our hearts
  4. We have the love of God in our hearts.

If you are like me and didn’t grow up in the hippie generation, sentences 1 and 4 sound the most natural. Sentence 1 does not seem to have any particular manifestation of love in mind, so it does not need the definite article. Additionally, sentence 1 could be interpreted as making a statement about a quality of our hearts: “We have loving hearts.” Sentence 4, however, specifies the kind of love we have, so it takes the definite article. In English, we could play around with the word order a bit and get rid of the definite article by using a possessive form of God, but use of the possessive by default usually eliminates the need for the definite article: “We have God’s love (or love for God) in our hearts.” Sentence 2 might make sense if you grew up in the hippie generation, but you would still have some definite manifestation of love in mind if you said it. Sentence 3 could be reworded in a qualitative manner: “We have hearts that love as God loves”; or “We have hearts loved by God.”

In Greek, the definite article usage is somewhat backwards from English and much more diverse. The definite article is used 19,870 times in the NT, which represents 14.4 percent of the total word count in the NT (that is approximately 3 out of every 20 words for the math-challenged out there). In Greek, if you have the phrase “love of God”, it is by default definite, and the definite article is not needed, although sometimes the author supplies it anyway. But if the author wants to send a message to his reader that he has some specific manifestation of a noun in mind, he will use the definite article. In other words, the definite article, when used with a noun, makes the noun “definite” or specific. That is why translators can justify translating it as “this [one]” or “that [one]” sometimes, as I did above.

Theology of John 1:1

Now that you’ve had your primer on the definite article, it is time to get into the meat of this passage. I mentioned in the previous section about the qualitative interpretation of sentences 1 and 3. This is a critical concept for the proper understanding of John 1:1. Although the Greek word order makes it look like we should translate the last phrase “And God was the Word,” you should know that Greek word order is much more fluid than English word order. First, notice that in the final phrase, λόγος has the definite article and θεός does not. This is the first clue that λόγος is the subject of the phrase, even though both nouns are in the nominative (= subject) case. Second, according to Daniel Wallace’s grammar (pp. 266ff), if John would have used the definite article with θεός, he would have been saying that the person of the Word was exactly the same thing as the person of God the Father. This is Sabellianism, a heresy of the early church that said God the Father himself (the first person of the trinity) left the throne and came to earth. But we know Jesus spoke often about his Father (who was always) in heaven.

Wallace continues (see also his “Exegetical Insight” in William Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, 2nd edition, pp. 26–27): If the word order had been switched around, καί ὁ λόγος ἦν θεός, then the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Arianists would be correct in translating the phrase “And the Word was a God.” This would emphasize θεός as a noun. You might also want to point out to your Jehovah’s Witness callers that θεός appears in John 1:6, 12, 13, and 18 without the definite article, but they still translate it God (capital G) in those places.

But moving θεός to the beginning of the phrase gives it a qualitative force. In other words, John is not saying that the Word is God the Father, but that the Word has exact same divine qualities as God the Father. “The Word is divine” as Moffatt translates it, or “What God was, the Word was” is how the New English Bible renders it. So John used the only word order he could to indicate that Jesus was indeed the second person of the Trinity, distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Application to John 1:18

There is a curious phrase in John 1:18 that has scholars baffled, but I think the discussion above can help clarify. The phrase is μονογενής θεός (monogenēs theos /mȯ-nȯ-geh-NAYSS theh-OSS/ ‘only begotten God’). Copyists had problems with this over the years, trying to change it to “only begotten Son“, because that made more sense to some. But if we understand the phrase as an appositive construction, the θεός functions the same way as it does in the last phrase of John 1:1. Here’s how I might render it, although I’m sure translation committees would question me closely on this: “No one has ever seen God; the Only Begotten (μονογενής), that One who was divine (θεός) in the bosom of the Father, has made [him] known.”

Final Musings

Three times in chapter 1, John transitions with the phrase τῇ ἐπαύριον (tē epaurion dative case “on the next day”): vv. 29, 35, and 43 (he uses it only twice after that in 6:22 and 12:12). But John begins 2:1 “on the third day.” I don’t know that there’s any exegetical significance to this, but I just thought it something worth noting.

One more thing: many scholars have made the connection between John 1:51 and Genesis 28:12, Jacob’s ladder. I don’t have time to go into that connection here, but perhaps that could be grist for your mill.

Peace!

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2 Comments »

  1. Thank you, Charles. Did you see what happened today? I posted an entry entitled “It Comes in Threes,” and for some reason it posted three times.

    Scott

    Comment by Scott Stocking — May 16, 2011 @ 10:13 pm | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Sunday Morning Greek Blog and commented:

    Reposting this because I’m teaching a class on Jehovah’s Witnesses Sunday, January 22, at church.

    Comment by Scott Stocking — January 21, 2012 @ 1:50 pm | Reply


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