Your Gospel of John Says “the Word Was God,” But that Translation Is Really Quite Odd

Throughout church history, almost all New Testament (NT) scholars have insisted there are two primary NT passages that identify Jesus as “God.” These are John 1.1c (“and the Word was God”) and John 20.28 (“my Lord and my God”).*

In this article we will consider only John 1.1c. This brief phrase has caused Christians to believe Jesus is God more than any Bible text. But that’s because most of them don’t know biblical Greek and thus are unaware of the grammatical issues involved.

The Gospel of John begins with a prologue consisting of eighteen verses. It serves as an outline for this gospel’s subsequent text, so that many of the prologue’s clauses link to portions in the text.

Most modern English Bible versions translate John 1.1 as it appears in the King James Version (KJV), which reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The first problem that surfaces from this reading is that the Word being with God seems incongruous with the Word actually being God.

Traditionalists (those who believe Jesus is God) assert that this prologue calls Jesus “God” by comparing John 1.1c with v. 14. This verse reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” referring to the man Jesus Christ. So, traditionalists reason as follows: (1) the Word was God, (2) the Word became Jesus Christ, (3) so Jesus Christ is God. But there are complex grammatical issues involved with this traditional translation, “and the Word was God.”

First, the Greek text of John 1.1c reads kai theos en ho logos. It literally translates, “and god was the word.” It’s because theos (god) appears before logos (word). Because of this word order, and prior to KJV of 1611, several important translators—including Wycliffe, Coverdale, Bishop, and Luther—translated John 1.1c, “and God was the w/Word(e).”

But the main grammatical problem in John 1.1c is that theos is anarthrous (without the article; Gr. ho and Eng. “the”) whereas theos is articular (ton theon, with the article) in the previous clause, that is, John 1.1b. A noun with an article usually makes it definite, such as “the god/God,” whereas an anarthrous noun usually makes it indefinite, as “a god.” That’s why Jehovah Witnesses insist that John 1.1c should be translated, “and the Word was a god.”

Due to this grammatical difficulty in John 1.1c, a few scholastic authorities treat its anarthrous theos as qualitative and thus render the phrase adjectively, “and the Word was divine.” But this translation seems unwarranted since, if the author wished to so describe the logos, he likely would have used the Greek word for divine, which is theios.

In the 20th century, a sharp debate arose among NT scholars about anarthrous nouns in the Greek NT, especially in John 1.1c. This debate centered on two articles published in the same prestigious theological journal, but a generation apart.

In 1933, Ernest C. Colwell tried to establish a Greek rule of grammar. He claimed 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 saying this, he was attempting to support the traditional translation of John 1.1c, and traditionalists ever since have cited this proposition as the “Colwell Rule.” Yet Colwell himself admitted that the exception to his rule was that the context could demand otherwise.

In 1973, Philip B. Harner wrote, “Colwell was almost entirely concerned with the question whether anarthrous predicate nouns were definite or indefinite, and he did not discuss at any length the problem of their qualitative significance.” Harner shows that when an anarthrous predicate noun precedes the verb, as in John 1.1c, it has a distinctly qualitative force that is more prominent than its definiteness or indefiniteness. Harner concludes, “In John 1.1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite.” Thus, he renders theos qualitative in John 1.1c.

So, according to Harner’s analysis the traditional translation of John 1.1c (“and the Word was God”) is incorrect. To date, despite Greek grammarian Daniel B. Wallace’s objections, Harner’s determinations have not been thwarted. Rather, an increasing number of scholars have endorsed his compelling argument and therefore have abandoned the traditional translation of John 1.1c.

Harner ends his article by endorsing the New English Bible (NEB) translation of John 1.1c. It reads, “and what God was, the Word was.” This means that the Word, which later became Jesus of Nazareth, was exactly like God without being God. This translation treats the anarthrous theos as adjectival, thus qualitative, without translating it “divine.” This rendering corresponds well with the last clause in Hebrews 1.3 which reads, “He [Jesus] is the radiance of His [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His [God’s] nature.”

Finally, this NEB translation of John 1.1c—“and what God was, the Word was”—links with the following sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John:

  •  “the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10.38, cf. 30).
  • “And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me” (John 12.45).
  • “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14.9).
  • “I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me” (John 14.11, cf. v. 20).
  • “Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God’” (John 20.28).

Finally, Jesus’ words in John 14.9, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” thoroughly explain John 1.1c.

What say New Testament scholars? Marinus de Jonge explains, “The author of this Prologue clearly wants to identify ‘the Word’ and God as closely as possible without infringing the belief in the One God.” And William Barclay characteristically sums it up so well, “When John said the word was God he was not saying that Jesus was identical with God; he was saying that Jesus was so perfectly the same as God in mind, in heart, in being that in him we perfectly see what God is like.”

In my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008), I devote twelve pages to an examination of John 1.1c. In doing so, I cite twenty-six distinguished, biblical scholars and their works.

* All scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible unless otherwise indicated.

(To see a titled list of over fifty, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)