It is difficult to imagine making it through any conversation with one of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the subject of the Deity of Christ without having to tackle John 1.1, and the infamous “translation” (I use the term very lightly) found in their New World Translation, “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” At the same time, the average Christian is ill-prepared to counter the information provided to the zealous Witness by the Society, which includes numerous Watchtower articles (at least one a year presents the translation as “accurate”), as well as appendices in the back of the 1971 and 1984 editions of the NWT. Here, impressive citations of various “scholars” are presented, and the Witness feels comfortable that the truth is on their side – Jesus is “a god.”
Before looking at exactly what the Witnesses put forward as support for such a rendering, lets take a look at the verse itself and see what is being said.
1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was Deity. (personal translation)
This verse provides the framework not only for the prologue that encompasses verses one through eighteen, but for the entire Gospel itself. The prologue functions, I believe, as an “interpretive window” for the entire Gospel. John means us to read the rest of his work with the foundational under-standing of the nature of Jesus Christ, as presented in these verses, clearly in mind. It is just the rejection of the lofty teaching of these verses that has caused the myriad of inconsistent and illogical interpretations of the words of Jesus later in the Gospel.
1.1 takes us back beyond creation itself. Some refer the “beginning” here to that of Genesis 1.1, and this may be so, but the verb “was” (Gr: en, imperfect of eimi) takes us before whatever “beginning” we may wish to choose. The continuous action in the past of the imperfect tense of the verb indicates to us that whenever the “beginning” was, the Word was already in existence. In other words, the Word is eternal – timeless – without a “beginning.”
Note also the fact that John will very carefully differentiate between the verbs “was” and “became” (Gr: egeneto, the aorist form of ginomai). The reason for this, I believe, is that he wishes to emphasize the eternal, non-created nature of the Logos over against the finite, temporal, created nature of all other things. This will come sharply into view in 1.14.
Just why John chose to use the Greek term Logos is a matter of quite some debate. The term had great meaning in Greek philosophy as the impersonal but rational ordering principle of the universe. The Logos is what made sense out of the universe. But John does not use Logos in just this way – in fact, he radically alters the use of the word while still maintaining some of the inherent meaning it would have for his readers. The Logos of John is personal – the Logos is not just an ordering principle but rather a personal being. As John’s explanation of the Logos unfolds, we shall see that the Logos makes God known and is, in fact, incarnated in Jesus Christ. For John, then, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God in the flesh (1.14) but He did not start revealing God at that time – instead, His relationship to God the Father (1.18) has always been one of revelation – the Logos always makes God known for it is the Father’s gracious choice to be revealed by the Word. This will be important as well in seeing that John clearly identifies Jesus Christ as YHWH in different ways – sometimes through the usage of the phrase “I Am” (Gr: ego eimi) and sometimes by direct ascription, as in John 12.39- 41/Isaiah 6.1.
“…and the Word was with God…” The Apostle John walks an exceptionally fine line in this verse. In the first clause he asserts the eternality of the Logos. Now he states that the Logos is personally eternal – that is, that the Logos has been in communion and communication with God for eternity as well. The verb is the same as the first clause, and the preposition pros (“with”) pictures for us face-to-face communication. John does not yet identify these persons for us – we must wait till verses 14 through 18 to see that John is speaking of Jesus Christ the Son and God the Father. What he wishes to emphasize here is the personal existence of the Logos in some sense of distinction from “God” (i.e., the Father). The Logos is not the Father nor vice-versa – there are two persons under discussion here.
The third clause of this verse has occasioned great debate and controversy, mainly due to the fact that the Greek word for God, theos, does not have the definite article (“the”) before it. Some pseudo-Christian or Arian groups have said that this means that the Word was a “god” or a god-like being like an angel (Jehovah’s Witnesses). But is this the case?
Actually, the answer to the whole question seems fairly obvious, even to a first-year Greek student. The third clause of 1.1 is a copulative sentence – that is, it follows the form “The (noun) is (predicate nominative)”. In Greek, one distinguishes the subject of a copulative sentence by which noun has an article in front of it. For example, in 1 John 4:8 we have the last clause reading “God is love.” Now, in Greek this is ho theos agape estin. There are two nominative nouns in this sentence – God (theos) and love (agape). However, the first noun, God, has the article ho before it. This indicates that “God” is the subject of the sentence, and love is the predicate nominative. It would be wrong, then, to translate 1 John 4:8 as “Love is God.” The only way to make the two nouns interchangeable is to either put the article with both nouns, or to not put the article there at all. As long as one has the article and the other does not, one is definitely the subject and the other the predicate. Hence, 1 John 4:8 does not teach that all love is God, nor that God and love are interchangeable things. Rather, the term “love” tells us something about God – it functions almost as an adjective, describing the noun (God) that it modifies.
We have the same situation in 1.1c. The Greek reads, kai theos en ho logos. Notice that the term Logos has the article ho while the term theos does not. This tells us that the subject of the clause is the Logos. Hence, we could not translate the phrase “and God was the Word” for that would make the wrong term the subject of the clause. Hence, the term “God” is the predicate nominative, and it functions just as “love” did in 1 John 4:8 – it tells us something about the Logos – and that is, that the nature of the Logos is the nature of God, just as the nature of God in 1 John 4:8 was that of love. Now, John does emphasize the term “God” by placing it first in the clause – this is not just a “divine nature” as in something like the angels have – rather, it is truly the nature of Deity that is in view here (hence my translation as “Deity”). Dr. Kenneth Wuest, long time professor of Greek at Moody Bible Institute rendered the phrase, “And the Word was as to His essence absolute Deity.”
Before summing up the verse, then, let the reader note that when groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses quote from Dr. Philip Harner’s article on the nature of anarthrous (=without the article) predicate nominatives, they don’t understand what they are talking about. Harner accurately pointed out that the anarthrous predicate nominative functions as a descriptive term rather than a specific or definite term. Problem is, the Jehovah’s Witnesses make “God” in John 1.1 just as definite as the translations they attack! Rendering it “a god” misses the whole point – the word “God” is functioning to describe the Logos – translating it as “a god” means a definite god is in mind, rather than following the actual sense of Harner’s article and making the term describe the being of the Logos. The point Harner is making is that it is not the definite “God” that is in view, far less the JW translation of “a god” (both are definite) but rather the nature of the Logos that is important.
Hence, 1.1 tells us some immensely important things. First, we see that the Logos is eternal, uncreated. Secondly, we see that there are two Divine Persons in view in John’s mind – the Father and the Logos. Thirdly, there is eternal communication and relationship between the Father and the Logos. Finally, we see that the Logos shares the nature of God. These items will be important for a proper understanding of many of the statements made by our Lord in this book. It seems to me that John felt it was vitally important that we understand the majesty of the Person of Jesus Christ right from the start. We can see these concepts played out through the rest of the Gospel of John.
The Watchtower Society has put forward a number of “translations” that supposedly support their rendering of John 1.1. The 1984 Reference edition cited two from 1808 and 1864, the first being The New Testament, in an Improved Version, Upon the Basis of Archbishop Newcome’s New Translation: With a Corrected Text. The Second is The Emphatic Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson, “interlinear reading.” The Society used to quote Johannes Greber’s translation, which also read “a god”, that is until it was discovered that the Society was knowingly quoting from a translation which Greber acknowledges he got from “spirit guides”. Of course, the Watchtower tried their best to cover their tracks on that one, but they got caught anyway.
We might first note that we don’t know who is responsible for the first of the above two quoted sources – what we have here is a version that was originally done by Archbishop Newcome, but was then “corrected” by a group of Unitarians whose scholarly abilities are unknown. We certainly can’t blame Archbishop Newcome for the Unitarians’ mistranslation.
The second source, that of Benjamin Wilson, only reads “a god” in the interlinear portion – Wilson’s actual translation reads, “and the Logos was God.” One gets the sense that the WTBTS is desperately trying to find some kind of scholarly support when it will go to the hyper-literal interlinear rendering of a rather obscure translator of the past century! But, this is the same group of folks who relied on Johannes Greber and his spirit guides as well…
In 1985, the Society published a new edition of their Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures. In Appendix 2A they added another “translation” to their list – that of John S. Thompson of Baltimore, entitled The Monotessaron; or, the Gospel History, According to the Four Evangelists. This rendition, dated at 1829, is quoted as, “and the Logos was a god.”
In their new book entitled Witnesses of Jehovah, Leonard and Marjorie Chretien give us new information on just who John Thompson was. They quote The American Quarterly Review of September, 1830. Here we read Thompson saying, “I shall rejoice in having been the happy instrument, in the hand of God, of having done fourfold as much for mankind, as all the professed commentators of the last fifteen centuries!” Aside from a lack of humility, it seems Thompson was “moved about by every wind of doctrine” as well, moving from being a Calvinist to an Arminian Methodist preacher, to being a Restorationist, then on to an Arian Restorationist, until finally being a Unitarian Universalist (should sound familiar by now!) The Chretiens also record that Thompson admits to having exper-iences with – yup, you guessed it – spirit beings who instruct him to “be careful to represent Jesus as only the instrument of God in all he does.” The reader is directed to the Chretiens’ book for further details.
With the exposure of the nature of Greber’s work, the Society was left with a dwindling list of translations to help bolster their rendering of the last clause of John 1.1. So, they looked to the Germans to help them out, and came up with three translations dated 1975, 1978, and 1979.
The first is that of Siegfried Schulz, entitled Das Evangelium nach Johannes (all three translations have the same title). The Society translates Schulz’s version into English thus: “and a god (or, of a divine kind) was the Word.” The second is that of Johannes Schneider. They render Schneider, “and godlike sort was the Logos.” Finally they cite the translation of Jurgen Becker, which they give as “and a god was the Logos.”
These new translations were included in the 1984 Reference Edition of the NWT, in Appendix 6A. They have since been cited in various Watchtower articles.
When I first saw these citations, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Here, to attempt to bolster an obviously flawed translation, the Society has to go to another language to come up with some support! The next thing into my mind was, “does the Society know much about the philosophy and world-view of modern German biblical scholars?” That was immediately followed by the thought, “if they did, would they care that these men probably approach the Bible from a completely different perspective than they themselves proclaim to be the absolute truth?” I knew then that someone would have to track these translations down and get information on them. One must always check out the Society’s quotations of scholars – the writers of the Watchtower are experts at making scholars say the opposite of what they meant.
As time went by I saw nothing being published regarding these men or their translations. So, I finally decided to try to get some information myself. I wrote to Dr. Keith Parks, who heads up the missions work for the Southern Baptist Convention in Europe. Dr. Parks kindly referred my letter to Dr. Wiard Popkes of Theologisches Seminar des Bundes Evanglisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden in Deutschland. Dr. Popkes responded very quickly to my request for information. He copied the actual translations for me, as well as the accompanying commentary.
In a letter dated April 6, 1988, Dr. Popkes wrote, “My impression is that all of the scholars want to work out the same points, i.e., that the Word is of divine quality, although John has to state in this context the non-identity of father and son. The commentary says more about the ideas of the authors than the bare translation does.” (Personal letter from Dr. Wiard Popkes to James White)
Dr. Popkes also gave me information on the authors themselves: “Johannes Schneider was a Baptist, teaching at the University in Berlin. He died around 1970. Siegfried Schulz and Jurgen Becker are both professors of New Testament, now in their later fifties, Schulz at the University of Zurich, Becker at the University of Kiel. Both of them belong to what can be called the main stream of German NT research, and certainly both of them owe much to Rudolf Bultmann. This does not mean, however, that their interpretations of John’s prologue simply follow that of Bultmann. Rather, in the years after Bultmann much new research has been devoted to this very passage of Scripture.”
Before looking at the specific renderings given by these authors, a few things should be pointed out. First, Jehovah’s Witnesses are experts at quoting individuals that come from completely different perspectives and world-views in such as way as to make it sound as if they (the person being quoted) support or lend credence to the Watchtower’s teachings. This is clearly seen here. None of these scholars are classically Arian in their theology. Dr. Schneider was a Baptist. The other two men, as Dr. Popkes indicates, would come from a stream of biblical studies that is far removed from the Witnesses’ own views on inspiration and the nature of Scripture. Anyone familiar with Rudolf Bultmann and his ideas knows what I am talking about. As far as their view of the Bible goes, the Witnesses would be to the extreme right of these men. Bultmann emphasized the need to “de-mythologize” the Bible; that is, take out all that supernatural silliness and you might have a chance to get back to the real historical Jesus. The German schools are still stuck in the rut of naturalistic biblical criticism, and two of the translations the Witnesses cite come straight from that perspective.
Secondly, these men are trying to emphasize a very different point than the Witnesses are making. These men are differ-entiating between the Father and the Son in John 1.1, as well they should. But the average Witness would not be aware of this, for they have been given false information as to just what the doctrine of the Trinity is. They feel that the Trinity presents the Father and Son as being one person. This is not Trinitarianism, but rather modalism, an ancient heresy that was sometimes called Sabellianism. These German scholars are trying to emphasize the separate existence of the Logos as a personal entity. While we understand this, it does seem that they have gone too far in trying to accomplish their goal.
The material that Dr. Popkes sent me was, naturally, in German. Though I studied German for three years long ago, I did not feel qualified to attempt a good translation. So, I contacted a friend of mine, Mr. John Cecchini, who has a Master’s degree in German. John kindly agreed to translate the relevant portions of the photocopied material.
As it might be of help for other ministries to have the actual German renderings of the last clause of John 1.1 from these men, we provide it below:
- (Schulz) und ein Gott (oder: Gott von Art) war das Wort.
- (Schneider) Und Gottlicher Art war der Logos.
- (Becker) Und ein Gott war der Logos.
A thought that immediately struck me upon reading these in German when they first arrived was that each of these translations seems to miss the fact that in Greek the subject of the copulative sentence is made known by the article – these translations seem to make the Logos the predicate nominative, rather than the subject of the clause. However, one of the authors (Schulz) clearly addresses this issue in his commentary on the passage.
Mr. Cecchini’s translation of the last clause of John 1:1 is as follows:
- (Schulz) “…and one [a] God (or type of God) was the Word.”
- (Schneider) “And a form of divinity was the Logos.”
- (Becker) “…and one [a] God was [the] Logos.”
The comments of the men bear out the fact that they are trying to emphasize the differ-ence between Logos and God in 1.1c to avoid any intermixing of the two. Both Becker and Schneider, however, go beyond the border of orthodoxy in their comments (which, given the effect of Bultmann upon German liberalism is hardly to be a surprise – we need to remember that Bultmann didn’t think it was important whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not). Schulz comments:
“The third phrase sets forth the basic premise concerning the pre-existent “Word”: “and God was the Word”. In verse 1c “God” stands in contrast to the clearly articulated divine concept in verse 1b emphasized at the beginning by lack of the article…In so much as the last work of verse 1b was dealt with, the whole imparts a divine being to the “Word”. The obvious “and God” is the predicate and in no way identifies the Word with the latter “with the God.” Thereby “the Word” is identified as “God” just as the other one is, with which this “Word” stands in close association. The divinity/being [German: Gott-Sein] denotes the essence of the “Word” as it does God himself. The word “God” in the predicate of verse 1c is not the subject – as in Luther’s translation “God was the Word,” on the contrary it is the predicate. The “Word” is not “the God” (verse 1b) or God the Father. Likewise, Logos is a kind of God, divine essence, essentially equal to God, so that one has to translate them inter- relatedly: “and the Word was a kind of God.” The religious traditions of monotheism in the Old Testament and the late Jewish period are supported and honored by this pre-Johannine, Hellenistic eulogy. In no way, however, as we have already stressed, is a simple interidentification to be had.”
The stress is clearly placed upon the differ-entiation of Father and Son, not, as the Watchtower would like to say, upon the denial of the deity of the Son. It is quite true that these men are willing to engage in sub-ordinationism to maintain unity of the Godhead – and it is equally true that they are capable of doing so only at the expense of Scriptural teaching as well as strict monotheism. But we must remember that, given the liberal German view of Scripture, the idea of inconsistency in Scriptural teaching is easily accepted. It is just here that the Biblical Christian – and, ironically enough, the Jehovah’s Witness – reject the German concept that the Bible is self- contradictory. If most Witnesses knew that the scholars the Watchtower is forced to quote viewed the Bible in the way that they do, they would be quite surprised. For example, another German scholar, Dr. Otto Weber, has written in his two volume Foundation of Dogmatics (which I had the unfortunate responsibility of having to read for a Systematic Theology class):
“It appears that the Word of Scripture is not just one word, but rather the word of numerous witnesses. These are so different among themselves that the search for “contradictions” in the Bible, particularly since the Enlightenment, could become such a customary as well as comfortable endeavor…But we must remember that the contradictions in Scripture are not restricted to questions of expression…Newer exegesis, which does not presuppose the agreement of all biblical writings [i.e., which is based upon the rejection of inerrancy and inspiration]…has found within the canonical Scriptures many more gaps, leaps, and contradictions than someone like Luther could have suspected.” (1:236,261)
Note that Weber would be considered more “conservative” than those who would follow the Bultmannian tradition, from which the Watchtower Society is drawing its quotations.
So what does all of this mean? It seems to be important that we cannot find any scholar who actually believes that the Bible is the Word of God and is inspired and consistent with itself that renders John 1.1 as “a god.” We have found spirit mediums that do so, and Unitarians who have to use someone else’s translation as a basis upon which they make “corrections”. We’ve also found German scholars who try to differentiate between the Father and the Son by coming up with unusual translations of John 1.1, though none of these would identify Jesus as some kind of created being like Michael the Archangel – they would just engage in a form of subordinationism that would identify the Logos as a secondary “emanation” from the being of God. What we have seen, however, is what John 1.1 actually says, and what it actually teaches. We have seen the eternal existence of the Word, His eternal personal relationship with the Father, and His absolute being as Deity. Hopefully you will be able to share these life- changing truths with the next follower of the Watchtower Society who knocks at your door.