14 January 2010

What exactly does John 1:1 mean, anyway?

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be a Greek scholar. But I do know how to pay attention to men who are. For this post, I have been very careful to only speak on matters that I have properly researched, investigated, and which I properly understand. Any technical aspects of biblical Greek included in this post are taken from reputable, (small 'o') orthodox sources who have spent years studying biblical Greek.


Of all the biblical passages that get debated by orthodox and heretic, John 1:1 ranks within the top 3--if not holding the #1 spot. It is one of the clearest declarations of the Deity of Christ, written by one who received revelations from God concerning the end of all things--many of which could not be expressed in the vocabulary of the day. He was the apostle that Jesus loved (John 13:23, John 19:26, John 20:2, John 21:7, John 21:20). He wrote more about the heart of Jesus than any of the other gospel writers.

And to begin his reckoning of the person of Christ, he begins in, of all places, the beginning. He shows us that not only was Jesus there; he shows us that Jesus was with God--and he shows us that Jesus was, indeed, God. However, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (hereafter referred to as 'WTBTS') decided some time back to mistranslate this verse in accordance with their theology, and render it quite wrongly. And so, whenever you get a knock on the door, and the person tells you they are with the Jehovah's Witnesses (hereafter referred to as JW or JW's), they will very confidently whip out their little pamphlet entitled "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" and they will tell you why they think that you believe in a pagan God. Therefore, the aim of this post is to give you a biblical basis, founded upon the Greek, for believing in the deity of Christ.

So, what exactly does this verse say? How should it read? Let's find out. Following is the Greek of this verse:

εν αρχη ην ό λóγος και ό λóγος ην πρoς τoν θεoν και θεος ην ό λóγος
en archē ēn o logos kai o logos ēn pros ton theon kai theos ēn o logos

Let's take this one phrase at a time and understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through the apostle. And before we begin, I would like to make this statement: do not try to take the rules of English grammar and apply them to biblical Greek (hereafter referred to simply as "Greek"). It won't work. There are some rules that the two have in common, but there were many rules, grammatical structures, verb tenses, noun cases, and other technical aspects of Greek that do not translate exactly into modern (or any other type of) English. We will see this shortly.

1) εν αρχη (en archē). In the beginning. There is another passage of Scripture that begins with the words In the beginning. Of course, that would be Genesis 1:1--the very beginning of the Scriptures. Do you think it was by accident that John was moved to commence with these words? To take us all the way back to before the foundation of the world by using a phrase his Jewish readers would be well familiar with? No, with God, there is no such thing as "coincidence." In fact, it is with these same Greek words (εν αρχη, en archē) that the Septuagint--the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures--begins the first book of Moses.

2) εν αρχη ην ό λóγος (en archē ēn o logos). In the beginning was the Word. Not only do we see in this brief opening clause a glimpse of the eternality of Christ, but also a deliberate statement to show that Jesus did not come into existence owing to natural relations between Mary and Joseph (or, as the skeptics like to tell us today, a Roman soldier). Yes, His body was conceived in her womb, but Jesus Himself has existed from before the foundation of the world. Matthew and Luke carry out this picture in longer narratives (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-2:14). Here John shows the reader that, even before He covered Himself in flesh and walked the earth in human form, The Word of God--was.

Now, in the hubris surrounding the third clause of this first verse, there are some other key words that often get overlooked. Was is one of them. It would not be incorrect to read this phrase thus: In the beginning, the Word was. This is one of those places where English tends to fail the intended meaning. The word ην (ēn, was) is in what is known as the "imperfect tense." In the English it is usually rendered as a simple "past tense." However, in Greek it carries with it the implication of a previous, continuing action. The imperfect of the verb "to be" denotes the act of existing. One may ask, "OK, the Word was. The Word was what?" Simple: The Word was. Much like Decartes' famous quote, "cogito, ergo sum"--"I think, therefore I am." Did anyone question Descartes about what he was? No. By this statement, Descartes was stating that because he can think, he exists--he is. (Or, rather, was.) So, in short, what the apostle is telling us is, In the beginning, the Word was being. "Was being what?" He was being! He was existing. He was.

Paul uses this form of ειμι (eimi) to communicate an essential characteristic, not to simply describe a person's temporary condition or location. For some examples of this verb in the past tense:

Romans 5:13--(For until the law, sin was in the world...)
Galatians 2:6--But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me...

And when John uses ην (ēn, was) to say the Word was, he was not simply stating that Jesus was existing--he was describing Jesus as being existent.

Before we leave this phrase, I would be remiss if I didn't bring up a couple more points. Namely:
  1. The phrase In the beginning is to be differentiated from the phrase From the beginning (see John 8:44; 1st John 2:7; 1st John 3:8). John uses the phrase "from the beginning" to denote things that were true from the earliest days of the world--but things that happened after creation. By using the phrase In the beginning, with the imperfect ην (ēn), John intimates that Jesus had been existing before the time written of by Moses at the beginning of Genesis. "In the beginning, the word had been existent."
  2. If John had meant to say that In the beginning the Word came to be, there was a simple tool at his disposal. He could have simply used the word αρχομαι (archomai), as Luke did in Luke 3:23--And Jesus himself began to be (αρχομαι ην, archomai ēn) about thirty years of age... He "began to be about 30 years old," but Jesus did not "begin to be." He was. Period. Which is why John uses the word εγενετο (egeneto) in verse 14--And the Word became (εγενετο [egeneto]) flesh... The Word was God...the Word became flesh. As a parallel, Paul says of Christ, in Philippians 2:6-7 that Christ, being in the form of God...took upon him the form of a slave...

3) και ό λóγος ην προς τον θεον (kai o logos ēn pros ton theon). ...and the Word was with God... The JW points to this and asks, "OK, if Jesus is God, then how could He be 'with God?'" Again, the deficiency of English. The word προς (pros) means, "at, near, by; to, towards, with, with regard to." Most times in the NT it means "to," as in Mark 10:49-50--Then they called the blind man, saying to him, “Be of good cheer. Rise, He is calling you.” And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to (προς [pros]) Jesus.
It is also rendered, at times, "toward":

2nd Corinthians 1:12--For our boasting is this: the testimony of our conscience that we conducted ourselves...by the grace of God, and more abundantly toward [προς (pros)] you.
1st Thessalonians 5:14 (KJV)--Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward [προς (pros)] all men.

In short, when the word προς (pros) is used to say that one person was "with" another person or group of people, it denotes more than simply being in close proximity to that other person or group of people. It means more than just being in the general area. It almost implies a sense of action by being "toward" and even being united with that person or persons. Take, for example, Mark 10:7--"‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to [προς (pros)] his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’"

John is being very careful with his words, as προς (pros) is a strengthened form of the preposition προ (pro), which means "before"--not in terms of location ("I see before me...") but of time ("He got here before I did"). Also, τον θεον (ton theon, God) is in the accusative case, being the direct object of the action "was with." According to A.T Robertson,
"Pros with the accusative presents a plane of equality and intimacy, face to face with each other."

Vincent's Word Studies:
With does not convey the full meaning, there is no single English word which will give it better. The preposition πρός, which, with the accusative case, denotes motion towards, or direction, is also often used in the New Testament in the sense of with; and that not merely as being near or beside, but as a living union and communion; implying the active notion of intercourse.

In other words, it is not simply a matter of being in the same geographical area as someone else. It carries with it the sense of being constantly with that other person. Some other uses of προς (pros) with the accusative:

Mark 6:3 (KJV)--"Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with [προς (pros)] us?"
Matthew 17:17--"O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with [προς (pros)] you?"
1st John 1:2--...we...declare to you that eternal life which was with [προς (pros)] the Father and was manifested to us...

These uses are not simply expressing the idea of being in the same place or even simply being in someone's company. They are conveying the idea of being in constant communion and being amongst and within. If John had meant to simply demonstrate that the Word was in the general vicinity of God, he could have very easily used the Greek μετα (meta, with) as these verses do:

Matthew 4:21--Going on from there, He saw...James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with (μετα [meta]) Zebedee their father...
Mark 5:24--So Jesus went with (μετα [meta]) him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.
John 4:27--And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with (μετα [meta]) a woman.

Also keep in mind that John uses the same verb "was" (ην , ēn) to denote that this constant communion and perfect company Jesus had with the Father was not simply something that began at a certain point in time but had been going on since before the beginning. So, to summarize this section, John is not saying that Jesus was simply existing at the same time as God. We could read it like this, God possessed the Word within Himself. John is telling us that, as James White says,
Their fellowship and relationship precedes all else, and it is timeless.

4) και θεος ην ό λóγος (kai theos ēn o logos). And the Word was God.

And here.....we.....go!

Five little Greek words that have caused such conflict for so many years. But if we examine it in light of truth, I believe we shall see that the traditional rendering ("and the Word was God") is the true one. Before we head down this road, let me make one thing abundantly clear: We who believe in the orthodox Trinity DO NOT BELIEVE that the Father is the Son, or that the Son is the Father, or that the Spirit is the Father, etc. That thinking is a doctrine known as "Sabellianism" (which, along with Arianism, was also refuted as a heresy by the early church). Today we call it "Oneness Pentecostalism" or "Modalism." This is NOT a true belief either. Jesus was NOT "praying to Himself" in Gethsemane. He was praying to His Father, who is a separate and distinct Person from the Son.

Clement of Alexandria (writing more than 100 years before the Council of Nicea):
"There was, then, a Word importing an unbeginning eternity; as also the Word itself, that is, the Son of God, who being, by equality of substance, one with the Father, is eternal and uncreate." (Clement, Fragments, Part I, section 3, 190 AD).
“When [John] says: 'What was from the beginning [1 John 1:1],' he touches upon the generation without beginning of the Son, who is co-equal with the Father. 'Was,' therefore, is indicative of an eternity without a beginning, just as the Word Himself, that is the Son, being one with the Father in regard to equality of substance, is eternal and uncreated. That the word always existed is signified by the saying: 'In the beginning was the Word' [John 1:1].” (fragment in Eusebius History, Book 6 Ch 14; Jurgens, p. 188)

Melito of Sardis, writing in 177 AD (nearly 150 years before Nicea):
Being God and likewise perfect man, he gave positive indications of his two natures: of his deity, by the miracles during the three years following after his baptism… he concealed the signs of his deity, although he was the true God existing before the ages" (Anastasius of Sinai's, The Guide 13).

So, let's go ahead and dive into the text. Laying aside the English grammar we have known since we were children, we need to notice the arrangement of the words. And we have to understand some things about biblical Greek. One thing is the use of "articles." There is a difference between "definite articles" and "indefinite articles." In Greek, when you see a lone "o" before a word, that is a "definite article" and is translated "the." (There are variations of "o", depending on person, case, and number.)

And, occasionally, we will run across words that do not have a "definite article" in the Greek, and which do not get an indefinite article (such as "a" or "an") when translated into English. The way John structures this part of the verse is very deliberate. He has two nouns joined by a copulative verb. A copulative verb is a verb that joins a subject noun with a predicate noun with no action either way (e.g., "The teacher is a coach"), requiring the nominative case for both nouns. An example of a similar type of structure to that found in John 1:1 is found in John 6:63--

τα ρηματα α εγω λελω υμιν πνευμα εστιν και ζωη εστιν
ta rēmata a ego lelo umin pneuma estin kai zoē estin
the words
which I speak to you spirit are and life are

If you take out the phrase "which I speak to you" it would read "The words...are spirit and are life." Notice in this verse that the word ρηματα (rēmata, words) has the definite article τα (ta, the), while the words πνευμα (pneuma, spirit) and ζωη (zoē, life) do not. Also, πνευμα (pneuma, spirit) and ζωη (zoē, life) come before the verb εστιν (estin, are) in this verse. And all three nouns are in the nominative case. So when you bring πνευμα (pneuma, spirit) and ζωη (zoē, life) into English, they do not get a definite article. Not only that, but neither would they get an indefinite article, since it would not make sense to say that the words Jesus spoke were A spirit and A life.

This is important. Because in John 1:1, after the word και (kai, and), we see the word θεος (theos, God), followed by the verb ην (ēn, was) and then, last, the subject noun ό λóγος (o logos, the Word). And because of this construction, ό λóγος (o logos) is the subject noun, θεος (theos) is the predicate noun, ην (ēn) is the copulative verb linking the two. And John constructs this clause the way he did--putting the anarthrous predicate before the verb--not to say that the Word was A "god" but to show that the Word was GOD. We see the same principle, with slightly different constructions in the following writings of this same apostle:

1st John 1:5--God is light (ο θεος φος εστιν [o theos phos estin])
1st John 4:8--God is love (ο θεος αγαπη εστιν [o theos agapē estin])

In these verses, an anarthrous predicate noun precedes the verb, and is translated without the indefinite article. That said.........

  • Would it make sense to translate 1st John 1:5 as "God is A light?" NO.
  • Would it make sense to translate 1st John 4:8 as "God is A love?" NO.
But the WT will say that it makes sense to translate John 1:1c as "the Word was A god." So the WT breaks its own rules of translation in order to cling to its theology. But in John 1:1c, John is showing that everything about the Word was Deity.

Just like in 1st John 4:8, where John is telling us that everything about God is love. In fact, if you were to take 1st Corinthians 13:4-14:1, and substitute "God" everywhere it says "Love" you would find that when dealing with those He loves:
  • God is patient
  • God is kind
  • God does not envy (for what does He have to envy?)
  • God is not prideful
  • God does not behave impetuously
  • God does not impute our sins to our account (if we confess Christ as Lord and Savior)
  • God does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth
  • God is slow to wrath
  • God never fails
  • Pursue God
You see, if John had wanted to say that the Word was A "god" he could have put the word θεος (theos) at the end of the clause, after the verb. If he had done that, there would be no question that John was saying that the Word was A "god." He could have constructed it like this:

και ό λóγος ην θεος
kai o logos ēn theos

But John was not saying that the Word was A "god." He was saying that the Word was GOD.

Now, this is not to say that every predicate noun preceding a verb does not get an indefinite article. A JW over at my blog once challenged me with the following verses (key Greek words in bold italics and rendered in Greek)--

Mark 6:49--...they supposed He was a ghost (εδοξαν φάντασμα ειναι, edoxan phantasma einai [they believed that a ghost He was]).
Mark 11:32--...all believed John to have been a prophet indeed (απαντες εικον τον Ιωαννην οτι οντως προφητης ην, apantes eikon ton Ioannen oti ontos prophētēs ēn [literally, all held to this John because truly a prophet he was]).
John 6:70--"Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" (και εξ υμας εις διαβολος εστιν, kai ex umas eis diabolos estin [and of you, one is a devil]).
John 10:13--"The hireling flees because he is a hireling..." (οτι μισθωτος εστιν, oti misthotos estin [because he is a hireling]).
John 10:33--"...and because You, being a Man..." (οτι συ ανθρωπος ων, oti su anthropos on [because you, being a man {literally, "a man you are being"}]).
John 12:6--...but because he was a thief... (αλλα οτι κλεπτης ην, alla oti kleptēs ēn [but because he was a thief]).

In all these verses, the predicate nominatives come before the verbs, but they all get the indefinite article "a"--why? Why do these get the indefinite article and θεος (theos) in John 1:1 doesn't?

I'm glad you asked.

Notice one thing. None of these verbs are copulative. In other words, the verb is not joining two nouns--the subjects in these sentences and clauses are provided by the verb itself. That being the case, the indefinite predicate nominative gets the indefinite article in English. In John 1:1, the verb ην (ēn, was) is copulative, joining ό λóγος (o logos) with θεος (theos). That is the difference.

Also, John could NOT have used the definite article with θεος (theos) because if he did, that would make θεος (theos) and λóγος (logos) interchangeable as subject and predicate. If θεος (theos) and λóγος (logos) were interchangeable, either one of them could be the subject noun, and it could have been interpreted to say, "and God was the Word." This reading would mean that all that is θεος (theos) would be the λóγος (logos) and John would have thus been teaching Sabellianism--that God was FIRST the Father, THEN He was the Son, THEN He was the Spirit (I have no idea who they think He is now).

That is not to say that the Word did not possess everything that it means to be God. For, as Paul wrote, in Him dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:9). The word translated "Godhead" is the Greek θεοτης (theotēs). Even a Unitarian like Joseph Henry Thayer defines θεοτης (theotēs) thus:
“deity, i.e. the state of being God, Godhead: Col. ii. 9. [SYN. theotēs, theiotēs. Theotēs (deity) differs from theiotēs (divinity), as essence differs from quality or attribute.”

What he is saying is that not only did Jesus share the same attributes as God, but He possessed in Himself everything that it means to be God. It is for this reason that Paul used the word μορφή (morphē) in Philippians 2:6--who, being in the form (μορφή, morphē) of God... The word μορφή (morphē) denotes the totality of the one being referred to--essence, nature. He was not the form of God, He was IN the form of God. That is to say, God was not confined to being the Word. But everything about Jesus was Deity. John was NOT saying that Jesus ALONE was God--that is Sabellianism-Modalism-Oneness, and that is nowhere near what John was teaching.

By the same token, John was not teaching that Jesus was a created being, separate from God. While Jesus is "separate and distinct" from the Father, Jesus is still "God." On that note, the WTBTS tries to use a quote by Phillip Harner in The Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL), and they try to say that Mr. Harner was giving credence to their claim that Jesus was "A God." Their claim [WT words in blue, Harner's words in red, all emphases mine]:
The Journal of Biblical Literature says that expressions ‘with an anarthrous [no article] predicate preceding the verb, are primarily qualitative in meaning.’ As the Journal notes, this indicates that the logos can be likened to a god.” (Should You Believe in the Trinity?, 1989, p. 27; cited at Witness 4 Jesus)

But is that what Harner is really saying? Listen to what the JBL says directly before this (all words are from Mr. Harner, all emphases are mine):
[A clause] with the verb preceding an anarthrous predicate, would probably mean that the logos [Word] was ‘a god’ or a divine being of some kind, belonging to the general category of theos [God] but as a distinct being from ho theos [the God]. (Philip B. Harner, "Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1," The Journal of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 84-85, 87; cited at Witness 4 Jesus)

If you notice, the anarthrous noun θεος (theos) precedes the verb ην (ēn, was) in this clause. Then, immediately after, Harner says (emphases mine),
[The construction John uses] means that the logos [Word] has the nature of theos [God]. In this clause, the form that John actually uses, the word theos [God] is placed at the beginning for emphasis...This would be one way of representing John’s thought, which is, as I understand it, that ho logos, [the Word] no less than ho theos, [the God] had the nature of theos [God].” (Philip B. Harner, "Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1," The Journal of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 84-85, 87; cited at Witness 4 Jesus)

So now you see how disingenuous the WTBTS can be when they cite a source to back up their claims. What, you thought the ellipses they put in those quotes were simply for brevity? No. The reason they leave out huge chunks from their quotes is so you don't see what the person actually said.

One final note about the grammar of this clause. Remember, again, what is the verb? Yes, ην (ēn). What tense is it in? Imperfect. What does that mean again? It implies a continuation of action from a previous point. So John is saying, basically, that "In the beginning...the Word had been being God." From before the foundation of the world, the Word was being God.

Here is a quote from B.F. Westcott, of Westcott & Hort (W&H). Why would I quote this man? Because it is the W&H Greek text that the WTBTS uses as the basis for their Kingdom Interlinear Translation (KIT). I mean, if you are a JW, who can you trust if you can't trust one of the men who built the Greek text of one of your Scriptures? Anyway, this is what Westcott said of John 1:1c (emphases mine)--
"The predicate [God] stands emphatically first, as in [John] 4:24. It is necessarily without the article...No idea of inferiority of nature is suggested by the form of expression, which simply affirms the true Deity of the Word...in the third clause 'The Word' is declared to be 'God' and so included in the unity of the Godhead." (The Gospel According to St. John, Eerdmans, 1953- reprint. p. 3; The Bible Collector, July-December, 1971, p. 12; cited at Let Us Reason.)

How tragic that this group would lead so many down a road to destruction just to hold on to a failed theology and flawed interpretation. And it is no wonder they mangle the Scriptures--Not a one of them EVER studied biblical Greek. How sad that they will not allow the Holy Scriptures to do their perfect work. Instead, they hide inside their bunkers in Brooklyn, churning out lies and deceit and clothing them in the guise of "biblical scholarship" and declaring that they alone are the ones "announcing God's Kingdom." Their destruction does not slumber.

Please pray for those who are being deceived, that they may see the light of truth--
That Jesus IS YHVH.
That the Word was God.

Jesus Christ is Lord.

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