Jehovah’s Witnesses and John 1:1
|By: John Ankerberg and John Weldon; ©2005|
|In John 1:1, the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inserts the word “a” in an attempt to deny Christ’s deity. What do the experts say about whether or not this is a valid translation?|
Jehovah’s Witnesses and John 1:1
In John 1:1, the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inserts the word “a” in an attempt to deny Christ’s deity. What do the experts say about whether or not this is a valid translation?
In John 1:1, the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses inserts the word “a” in an attempt to deny Christ’s deity: “In (the) beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” (New World Translation [NWT])
The same verse in the New American Standard Version reads this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The transliterated Greek of this verse looks like this:
- En arche en ho logos kai ho logos
- In beginning was the Word and the word
- en pros ton theon kai theos en ho logos
- was toward the God and God was the Word
In essence, the Watchtower Society claims it can translate theos as “a god” because there is no definite article before this usage of theos (God) in the last clause of John 1:1. Note that the first use of the term God (pros ton theon) has the article (ton—the). The second use simply states kai theos (“and God,” not “and the God”). Because it does not say “and the God” Jehovah’s Witnesses argue they are free to interpret this second usage of God as figuratively meaning a lesser deity, “a god”—signifying Christ’s exalted status, even though he is still only a creature. Their main concern here is to escape the clear meaning of this passage. Christ is here called theos, God.
The difficulty is that, had the apostle John used the article, he would have declared that “the God was the Word.” Had he done so, he would have confused the persons of the Trinity and supported modalism (in the early church known as the heresy of Sabellianism). In other words, to declare that “the God was the word [Jesus]” would have stated that all of God—i.e., the whole trinity—was Jesus. This would have supported modalistic belief that there is only one Person in the Godhead (i.e., Jesus) and that the terms Father, Son and Spirit in Scripture only refer to modes or offices of the one God who exists as one person.
The apostle John had to make a finer distinction and, on the one hand, clearly declare that the person of Jesus was deity, but, on the other, not make it seem as if all three persons in the Godhead were to be considered the same as the person of Jesus. To make this fine distinction he had to use the exact wording he used.
We should also note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Interlinear (p. 1158-1159) utilizes both Julius Mantey’s Manual Grammer and A. T. Robertson’s Grammar in defense of their John 1:1 translation. However, Mantey observes:
- Since my name is used and our Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament is quoted on page 744 to seek to justify their translation, I am making this statement… of all the scholars in the world, as far as we know none have translated this verse as Jehovah’s Witnesses have done. If the Greek article occurred with both Word and God in John 1:1, the implication would be that they are one and the same person, absolutely identical. But John affirmed that “the Word was with (the) God” (the definite article preceding each noun), and in so writing, he indicated his belief that they are distinct and separate personalities. Then John next stated that the Word was God, i.e., of the same family or essence that characterizes the Creator. Or, in other words, that both are of the same nature, and that nature is the highest in existence, namely divine…. The apostle John, in the context of the introduction to his Gospel, is pulling all the stops out of language to portray not only the deity of Christ, but also his equality with the Father. He states that the Word was in the beginning, that He was with God, that He was God and that all creation came into existence through him and that not even one thing exists that was not created by Christ. What else could be said that John did not say?
As for Dr. Robertson, they misstate his own position by selectively quoting him. As they observe, Robertson does say that, “the absence of the article here is on purpose.” But Jehovah’s Witnesses do not explain why he says this. He does so to indicate that to include the article “would have been Sabellianism.” In his Word Pictures, Robertson provides a succinct analysis:
- By exact and careful language John denied Sabellianism by not saying ho theos enho logos (The God was the Word). That would mean that all of God was expressed in ho logos (the Word) and the terms would be interchangeable, each having the article. The subject is made plain by the article (ho logos) and the predicate without it (theos) just as in John 4:24 pneuma ho theos can only mean “God is spirit,” not “spirit is God.” So in I John 4:16 ho theos agape estin can only mean “God is love,” not “love is God” as a so-called Christian scientist would confusedly say. For the article with the predicate see Robertson, Grammar, pp. 767f. So in John 1:14 ho Logos sarx egeneto, “the Word became flesh,” not “the flesh became Word.”
The Watchtower Society appendix defending the “a god” rendering (Kingdom Interlinear, p. 1158-1160) again appears scholarly, but is not. For example, they misquote Dana and Mantey’s Grammar. In a letter to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society dated July 11, 1974, Mantey even demanded a public apology for these repeated misquotings—as well as requested their discontinuance of the use of his grammar: After citing numerous examples of mistranslations, Mantey writes:
- In view of the preceding facts, especially because you have been quoting me out of context, I herewith request you not to quote the Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament again, which you have been doing for 24 years. Also that you not quote it or me in any of your publications from this time on.
- Also that you publicly and immediately apologize in the Watchtower magazine, since my words had no relevance to the absence of the article before theos in John 1:1…. On the page before the Preface in the grammar are these words: “All rights reserved—no part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher.” If you have such permission, please send me a photocopy of it. If you do not heed these requests you will suffer the consequences.
- Regretfully yours,
- Julius R. Mantey 
Michael Van Buskirk has also documented Watchtower deception in detail in his Scholastic Dishonesty of the Watchtower noting they also misquote A. T. Robertson’s Grammar and other sources as well. They further claim, “At Acts 28:6 we have a case paralleling that of John 1:1 with exactly the same predicate construction, namely, with an anarthrous [i.e., no definite article] OEOS [theos]” (The Kingdom Interlinear, p. 1160). This at first seems to be true for there is no definite article in Acts 28:6. What the Witnesses fail to mention is that in John 1:1 the predicate nominative (theos) precedes the verb; here in Acts it follows the verb and thus is not applicable. Colwell’s Rule (which is at issue here) states that a definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb and lacks the article when it precedes it:
- It must be stated quite frankly that, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses take this translation seriously, they are polytheists. In view of the additional light which is available during this age of Grace, such a representation is even more reprehensible than were the heathenish, polytheistic errors into which ancient Israel was so prone to fall. As a matter of solid fact, however, such a rendering is a frightful mistranslation. It overlooks entirely an established rule of Greek grammar which necessitates the rendering, “…and the Word was God.” Some years ago Dr. Ernest Cadman Colwell of the University of Chicago pointed out in a study of the Greek definite article that, “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.” …In a lengthy Appendix in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation, which was added to support the mistranslation of John 1:1, there are quoted thirty-five other passages in John where the predicate noun has the definite article in Greek. These are intended to prove that the absence of the article in John 1:1 requires that OEOS [theos] must be translated “a god.” None of the thirty-five instances is parallel, however, for in every case the predicate noun stands after the verb, and so, according to Colwell’s rule, properly has the article. So far, therefore, from being evidence against the usual translation of John 1:1, these instances add confirmation to the full enunciation of the rule of the Greek definite article. Furthermore, the additional references quoted in the New World Translation from the Greek of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, in order to give further support to the erroneous rendering in the opening verse of John, are exactly in conformity with Colwell’s rule, and therefore are added proof of the accuracy of the rule. The other passages adduced in the Appendix are, for one reason or another, not applicable to the question at issue. (Particularly inappropriate is the reference to Acts 28:6, for no one has ever maintained that the pagan natives of Malta regarded Paul as anything other than “a god.”)
Van Buskirk points out that the Witnesses have attempted to deny Colwell’s Rule by quoting Phillip B. Harner’s article in Journal of Biblical Literature, “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1” (Vol. 92, 1973, p. 87). However, a full year earlier Dr. Mantey’s own letter to the Watchtower Society demanding they stop misquoting him pointed out that not only had they misquoted Colwell’s Rule but that it is impossible to quote Harner in denial of Colwell since Harner himself supports the rule and denies the possibility of an “a god” translation. Van Buskirk observes:
- One’s mind staggers at the depths to which someone will sink to prove his point. In the Watchtower’s case both Colwell and Harner show that in John 1:1 “a god” is not a permissible translation. Yet without blinking an eye they will quote, out of context, the man who refutes them. Harner’s article in no way concludes what the Watchtower makes it conclude in their letter.
Van Buskirk goes on to discuss exactly what Harner concluded and how his research is complementary to Colwell’s; it simply brings out new information.
Nevertheless, even if we were to assume the truth of what the Watchtower Society claims in their appendix, they have violated their own “rule” in John 1:1 94% of the time. Robert H. Countess, writing in The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament, documents this in detail. In John 1 alone they violate their principle at least five times. Checking their interlinear (pp. 417-419) we see the following:
- John 1:6 para theou—no definite article
- John 1:12 tekna theou—no definite article
- John 1:13 ek theou—no definite article
- John 1:18 Theon—no definite article
- John 1:23 odon Kuriou—no definite article
If the absence of the article demands the “a god” rendering, why is it not so rendered here? In fact, where is it in 94% of the instances of such construction in the NWT? Clearly translating John 1:1 “a god” is not only a violation of Greek grammar, it is unjustified even in light of the vast majority of their own translation. Obviously then, in John 1:1 (NWT), the translation should be “God,” not “a god.”
(As an aside, the NWT at John 1:23 translates the Greek kurios (Lord) as “Jehovah,” since it is a clear reference to Jehovah God from Isaiah. Yet, according to their John 1:1 rendering, with no definite article it should be “a Jehovah.” If “a god” must be different from God, “a Jehovah” must then be different from Jehovah. At this point we would have three Gods: “Jehovah,” “a god” and “a Jehovah.”)
- Sabellianism: “A version of Monarchianism holding that the Godhead was differentiated only into a succession of modes or operations…” The American Heritage Dictionary.
- Julius Mantey, Depth Exploration in the New Testament (NY: Vantage Press, 1980), pp. 138-39.
- A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 767-68.
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 5 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1930), pp. 4-5.
- Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto, Canada: MacMillian, 1957).
- Quoted in our The Facts On Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 48.
7 Bruce Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ,” rpt. of April 1953, Theology Today (Princeton, NJ: Theological Book Agency, 1953), pp. 75-76.
- Michael Van Buskirk, The Scholastic Dishonesty of the Watchtower (Santa Ana, CA: Christian Apologetics and Research Information Service, 1976), p. 16.
- Robert Countess, The Jehovah’s Witness New Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1983), Chapter 4, pp. 54-55; Appendix Table 5.