Can Biblical Languages Unlock the Secrets of the Universe?

Editor's Note: This discussion of original languages marks the beginning of our Greek series dealing with the New Testament, with more to follow by John Welch and others.

Photo: Ben SpackmanI really enjoy reading biblical texts in their original languages. I find this to be tremendously enlightening and just plain fun. Sometimes I worry that people will think I value a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek only because I happen to possess such a knowledge. But of course, I didn't come out of the womb knowing Hebrew and Greek; rather, I came to the conclusion that knowing the languages was important, and I made the effort to learn them.

I should make it clear that I do not believe a knowledge of Hebrew and/or Greek is essential for one to be a good student of the scriptures. For most purposes, reading the scriptures in a good translation is adequate. Where particular questions or problems arise, one can usually get a handle on the issues by reading several different translations and/or several different commentaries (preferably from a variety of theological viewpoints). The Bible is so important that various tools have been devised to allow one who does not know the original languages nevertheless to gain access to those languages for limited purposes. (These tools tend to be more successful for individual word studies than for nuances based on grammar or syntax.)

But I've noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

Just as beginning students of Latin traditionally begin their studies with Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (Gallia est omnis divisa in partis tres . . . [All of Gaul is divided into three parts . . .]), beginning students of New Testament Greek traditionally begin their studies with the Gospel of John. Therefore, to anyone who has ever studied even a little Greek, the beginning of John's prologue in John 1:1 is quite familiar:

a. En arche en ho logos,
b. kai ho logos en pros ton theon,
c. kai theos en ho logos.

a. In the beginning was the Word,
b. and the Word was with God,
c. and the Word was God.

We know from John 1:14 that the "Word" refers to the preexistent Christ. The "God" of clause b is generally understood to be God the Father. There, the word "God" [ton theon] is articular; that is, it has the definite article [ton]. This is difficult to see in English, because here we do not translate the Greek article with the English article ("the"). That is, we do not say "the Word was with the God." Greek and English vary somewhat in their use of the definite article. For instance, Greek often uses the article with proper names, where we would not in English (we do not say "the Jesus," but simply "Jesus"). English handles definiteness in this sense with capitalization rather than the article. Nevertheless, the word "God" in clause b is definitely definite and refers to a particular God, namely God the Father.

The problem arises because the word "God" in clause c is anarthrous (which is just a fancy way of saying that it lacks the article). Instead of ho theos, that clause simply has theos. (Note that ton and ho are simply different inflections of the same word.) So when we say "and the Word was God," do we mean something different or something less by the anarthrous "God" of clause c than we meant by the articular "God" of clause b?

There are three main approaches to this issue. The first is to understand the theos of clause c as indefinite: "and the Word was a god." This is the rendering favored by Jehovah's Witnesses; see the lengthy note on John 1:1 in the Appendix to The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures (affectionately known as the "purple dragon"). The second is to understand the theos of clause c as implicitly definite: "and the Word was God." This is supported by a grammatical rule to the effect that an anarthrous noun in a predicate nominative preceding the verb generally lacks the article, even where the noun is definite. (I know that last sentence is probably incomprehensible to most people; just take it on faith that there is a grammatical argument for understanding the word theos as being definite here.) Unfortunately, this is more an argument than a definitive resolution, because that rule is by no means absolute, and even if it were to be applied, it simply provides that the noun may be definite, not that it must. (For a description of Colwell's Rule, see here.) Some have stated that the indefinite translation is impossible, while others have stated that the definite translation is impossible. In fact, either translation is a possible understanding of the Greek, which is simply ambiguous.