Picking up from where we left of in the first part of this response to the second part of the unnamed author’s (UA) post over at One God Worship titled, “John 1:1 The Jewish Mind vs The Translator’s Bias”, we dig into the issue of the use of the descriptive noun.

What’s in a “God”

Turning his attention to the last phrase of John 1:1, which is rendered in the vast majority of English translations as, “…and the Word was God,” UA writes,

“The word “God” or “god” in Greek is theos. It appears 1,300 plus times in the New Testament, and it almost always refers to Yahweh. (An exception would be in 2 Corinthians 4:4 where it refers to Satan as the “god of this world.”) Since theos can be used of the one true God, as well as false gods and even men who are called gods, the question becomes how to differentiate between these “gods” when writing about them. 

Nothing debatable there. Continuing,

“In English, we differentiate between God and other so called gods by capitalizing the “G” when it refers to Yahweh. But since New Testament Greek manuscripts were written using all capitalized letters, another way was needed to differentiate between God and gods. Therefore, in order to signal to the reader that theos is referring to God (Yahweh), the New Testament writers add the definite article “thewhich is “ho” in Greek.

Um…not so fast. 

As I noted way back in an earlier post,

“…the use of the article in Greek is often used to denote a proper name.(emphasis original) [1]

This use of the article ὁ (ho) and ignoring or misunderstanding the use of the article in the original language necessarily fails here due to the fact that it appears in use in 2 Corinthians 4:4, ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος (ho theos tou aiōnos). Now that may seem like a bit of nit picking, but it’s important because of what UA says next,

“So in John 1:1 when we read, “the Word was with God,” “God” in this phrase is identified as ho theos (or more precisely ho theon), designating for the Greek reader that John is referring to “the God” or Yahweh. 

As one can see in the parallel below, the article isn’t used with θεὸς in phrase 3, and this exposes an important grammatical and theological fact. Now this is important, because the article is used in phrase 2 to say that the Word was in the presence of God.

Noun with article highlighted in red

UA writes,

“Consequently, when we read in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (ho theos), and the Word was God (theos)” we now understand that the first “God” (ho theos) refers to Yahweh, but that the second “God” (theos), which does not have the definite article (ho), serves as a descriptive noun and functions like an adjective. The “word of God (theos)” is like God in some way, but not identical to God. In other words, instead of saying, “the Word was with God and the Word was God,” it should be translated “the Word was with God and the Word was god-like.”

The problem with this interpretation of the phrase 3 with the “the Word was god-like”, breaks the fundamentals of language.

If John had desired to say that the Word was “god-like”, that is in an adjectival sense, he had just such a word available to him that would communicate that fact: the word θεῖος (theios).[2] But John is deliberate in his choice of words, he doesn’t use an adjective preferring to use the predicate nominative to communicate the essence that is shared with the God that he has just spoken of.[3] Moreover, such an understanding is inconsistent with similar anarthrous uses that occur in the same chapter.[4] What is clear is that John, in choosing the words that he would use, want’s his readers to see the Word distinguished from God—who is later identified as “the Father”—but not separated from God in any qualitative sense.

UA quotes from F.F. Bruce’s commentary on the Gospel of John,

“Had theos as well as logos been preceded by the article [the or ho] the meaning would have been that the Word was completely identical with God,… [5]

I think that he blends some of his own commentary in with the quote because he adds after the footnote, “But that is not how John structured the sentence.” The entire quote, which UA seems to cut short, reads,

“Had theos as well as logos been preceded by the article the meaning would have been that the Word was completely identical with God, which is impossible if the Word was also “with God.” What is meant is that the Word shared the nature and being of God, or (to use a piece of modern jargon) was an extension of the personality of God.[6] (emphasis added)

This brings us to UA’s summary of his argument related to phrase 3, where he writes,

“To translate John 1:3 as “the Word was God” represents yet another translation bias aimed to mislead the reader into thinking that the Word was God Himself, instead of what John and his first century readers would have understood it to mean…

Well, uh, not so fast.

F.F. Bruce writes,

“The structure of the third clause in verse 1, theos ēn ho logos, demands the translation “The Word was God.” Since logos has the article preceding it, it is marked out as the subject. The fact that theos is the first word after the conjunction kai (“and”) shows that the main emphasis of the clause lies on it.[7]

Bruce’s point is that the only way to understand the text, and for it to be consistent with similar subsequent instances, is for the phrase to be translated as directly as possible, thereby sustaining the understanding that, “the Word shared the nature and being of God.” Or, as James White writes,

“…[T]he question we have to ask is this: how does John intend us to take the word θεός in the last clause? Does he wish us to understand it as indefinite, so that no particular “god” is in mind, but instead, that Jesus is a god, one of at least two, or even more? Or is θεός definite, so that the God is in view? Or does the position of the word (before the verb, adding emphasis), coupled with the lack of the article, indicate that John is directing us to a quality when he says the Word is θεός? That is, is John describing the nature of the Word, saying the Word is deity? (emphasis original)[8]

Going on, White sums up the question of translation as,

“[I]f you are going to insist on a translation, you must be prepared to defend it in such a way so as to provide a way for the author to have expressed the alternate translation.[9]

But then, the issue of how first century Jewish readers would have understood what John was saying comes into question. The fact is that historic trinitarian theology, that sees the essence of God shared between a visible, earthly body, a heavenly form, and a Holy Spirit are completely coherent with such classical sources.[10] This coherence is seen when the distinction between divine characters are blurred, so that while some functional distinctions remain clearly exposed, the ambiguity remains to show that there is continuity in place.[11]

Conclusion

UA insists that in saying that “the Word was God” means that those in the first century would have thought that meant, “the thoughts, ideas, plan, purpose of God are expressive of who God is.” The problem is that beyond the fallacy of definition, such has not been shown to be the case. 

On the contrary, in translating the final phrase as “the Word was God,” it serves to distinguish the Word from God in a personal sense while demonstrating that the Word (who will later be identified as Jesus) possesses all of the same attributes of God (later identified as the Father).[12

UA demonstrates an inconsistent and wooden understanding of the text that breaks down and must be abandoned once one leaves the passage under consideration. 

In the next part in this series, we will begin looking at the third and final installment in the series and respond to it. 

Image source


Notes

  1. See “Unitarian Fallacies, Part 1B: What’s in “the Word”, footnote 3
  2. Robert H. Mounce. “John”. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10. Zondervan Publishing. 2007. p.715-6/2222 (Scribd)
  3. Benjamin L. Merkel. Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek. Baker Academic Publishing. 2019. p.44/278 (Scribd)
  4. Ibid, 43 (Scribd)
  5. F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. F.F. Bruce Copyright International. 2018. p.67/723 (Scribd)
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. James R. White. The Forgotten Trinity. Bethany House Publishing. p.55 (Kindle)
  9. Ibid, 56
  10. Benjamin Sommer. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press. 2009. p.135
  11. For a full discussion see chapters 16-18 in Michael S. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.
  12. William D. Mounce. Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Second Edition. Zondervan Publishing. 2003. p.27-8