(Back to page of Answers to Questions)

Verse in Question: John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

My name is Bethany, and recently I have been trying to learn Greek.  One reason is to be able to (hopefully) better understand the bible.  But also because of what it says at John 1:1.  There it says that the Word was with God and the word was God.  But a friend of mine, who is a devote Christian, pointed out the Greek there.  The spelling for God, in the sentence 'and the word was God' is different than the spelling of God else where.  I looked at this and saw it too.  This same spelling is seen when referring to 'other' gods.  My friend and I are wondering if maybe the translation wasn't done correctly.  Maybe it should say 'and the word was a god' or something of the sort.  Please look into this, with an open mind.
Thank you for your help. May God guide you and protect you.

    In answering your question, let me first note that understanding the Greek text of the New Testament is extremely important and necessary for a clear apprehension of what the writers of the New Testament meant as they wrote the letters and accounts that we now enjoy.  One note of caution is needful because Greek, like every language, has its own nuances and ways of saying things that can lead to confusion or misunderstanding when looking at it from the perspective of an English (or foreign) reader.  An excellent example of this is the phrase you asked about in John 1:1.

The Apparent Difference in Spelling

    First of all, the same Greek word is used in both occurrences of the word "God" in John 1:1.  This same word is used in many contexts, whether it refers to the Only True God or whether it is referring to a false god - such as a man-made god (1 Cor. 8:5) or Satan as the ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor. 4:4).  The apparent differences in spelling between the word ‘God’ in the phrase ‘and the Word was God’ (‘theos’) and in other places, (even in the previous phrase, ‘and the Word was with God’ (‘theon’)) is due to inflection in the Greek language.  Each Greek noun normally has 8 or 9 forms (cases & number) in which it can appear. (See my page on ‘Inflection’ and ‘Cases’ on the Web site). In the first instance in John 1:1 it is the object of preposition and thus is in the accusative case. In the phrase in question, it is in the nominative case (indicating the subject or predicate nominative - equal to the subject).  But it is the same word for ‘God’, and in both phrases here indicates the One and Only True God.  So the apparent difference is spelling is not because ‘theos’ is a different word than ‘theon’, but is a different form of the identical word.

The Lack of a Greek Definite Article

    Another common confusion in John 1:1 comes from the fact that in Greek there is no definite article in front of the word ‘God’ (‘theos’) in the phrase ‘and the Word was God’.  The confusion arises from an assumption that if there is no definite article in the Greek, then it must have an indefinite meaning and thus should be translated with the indefinite article "a".  Based on this understanding, some argue that this phrase in John 1:1 should be translated "the word was a god," rather than "the word was God."  It is important at this point to understand that the Greek language has a definite article (‘the’), but does not have an indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’).  In certain instances, when the Greek omits a definite article, it may be appropriate to insert an indefinite article for the sake of the English translation and understanding.  But we cannot assume that this is always appropriate.  Greek does not operate in the same way as English does in regard to the use of the words ‘the’ and ‘a’.  In many instances in which English would not include the word ‘the’, the Greek text includes it.  (We don’t see it in the English translations because it would sound non-sensible in our language.)  (See Note 1, below.)  And in many cases where the Greek omits the definite article, the English translation requires it to convey the correct meaning of the Greek. (See Note 2, below.)  Therefore it cannot be assumed that if the definite article is absent, then an indefinite article should be inserted.  (For a clear illustration of this, see an example of the use of the word ‘God’ and the definite article in John chapter one.)  Furthermore, even though the Greek language does not have an ‘indefinite article’ like we think of in English, there is a way in Greek for the writer to indicate the indefinite idea and thus avoid confusion.  This is done in Greek by using the Greek indefinite pronoun ‘tis’.
    In John 1:1 there is no definite article in front of the word ‘God’ in the phrase, ‘and the Word was God’.  However, in this instance, it cannot just be assumed that the word ‘God’ is meant to be ‘indefinite’, and therefore an indefinite article used in the English translation.  Because the first use of the word ‘God’ in John 1:1 (‘the Word was with God’) clearly refers to the Only True God, the Eternal Pre-existent Creator, more than likely John would have used a different Greek construction than he did if he had meant for this next phrase (‘and the Word was God’) to refer to a ‘lesser’ god, and did not want us to confuse this with the True God he had just mentioned.  If John meant to avoid confusion, when making such a definitive statement, he could have done so by using this ‘indefinite pronoun’ (‘tis’) as an adjective. This would have made it clear that the Word was ‘a certain god’, but not the one he was just referring to.  For examples of this, see the verses Mark 14:51, Luke 8:27, Luke 1:5, and Luke 11:1 (among many, many other examples).  So, it seems that by the Greek grammatical structure in this statement, John is indicating that the Word (Jesus Christ - John 1:14) is the same essence and nature as God the Father.
    (For a more thorough explanation of the function and use of the Greek article (and meaning of its absence), see ‘Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics’, by Daniel Wallace.  He includes fifty pages - entitled ‘The Article, Part I’ - which is a more complete treatment of the subject that many grammar books present and explains all the general uses of the article.  He actually has a ‘Part II’ which discusses some special issues with the article.  Fifteen pages of this second section apply directly to understanding this passage in John 1:1.  It is highly recommended for those who really desire an honest and thorough understanding of this passage.)

The Predicate Coming Before the Subject

    Also, this phrase in John 1:1 is an example of a predicate nominative coming first in the sentence, before the subject. (Sentences like this one that use a linking verb require the noun in the predicate part of the sentence to be in the nominative case. Thus the phrase 'predicate nominative'.) The subject of this clause is ‘the Word’ and the predicate is ‘God’. In Greek, the word ‘God’ comes before the word ‘Word’.  According to normal Greek usage (Colwell's Rule), the word ‘God’ should not have a definite article.  Oftentimes, emphasis is shown in Greek by placing a word out of its normal, expected word order. Special emphasis is shown when the predicate comes first in the sentence.  In other words, contrary to the thought that ‘since there is no definite article used here it could belittle the fact of the Word being God’, the fact that the word ‘God’ is used first in the sentence actually shows some emphasis that this Logos (Word) was in fact God in its nature.  However, since it does not have the definite article, it does indicate that this Word was not the same ‘person’ as the Father God, but has the same ‘essence’ and ‘nature’.

The Context of All of the Apostle John’s Writings

    It is also necessary to see this statement in context of the rest of John’s writings. When comparing this with other statements about who the person and nature of Jesus Christ really is, it adds to what is already made clear by the Greek grammar. See for instance: John 8:56-59 (cf. Exo. 3:13-14); 10:28-33; 14:6-11; 1 John 5:20; (also John 8:23; 3:12-13; 5:17-18).  These verses also indicate that, in John’s understanding and thus the Bible’s clear statements, Jesus Christ is the same essence and nature as God the Father, but distinct in their person-hood.

Consulting with Other Well Respected Greek Scholars and Grammarians

    For a further explanation and clarification about these items, it is helpful to consult with many of the well respected Greek scholars and expositors.  Personally I have never come across any objective, well respected Greek grammarian that has come up with different conclusions that what has been presented here.  Many of them go into much more detail than I have in these few short paragraphs.  See for instance the writings of Daniel Wallace (‘Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics’), A.T. Robertson (both his ‘Grammar’ and ‘Word Pictures’), R.C.H. Lenski (in his commentary on the Gospel of John), Henry Alford (‘Greek Testament’), J.A. Bengel (‘Word Studies), Albert Barnes (‘Barnes’ Notes’), B.F. Westcott, and F.L. Godet, (and many others).

Final Comment

    Bethany, I hope this helps to answer your questions. Obviously you are asking about a very large topic that can only be touched upon in such a small answer.  My answer here is not meant to argue some theological doctrine, but to point out how important it is to have a pure heart when seeking God in His revealed speaking (the Bible) and how much it helps to know the Greek language in helping to answer some very complicated questions.  A little (and incomplete) knowledge of Greek can do more harm than good when people try to apply it beyond their scope of knowledge.  I beg you to seek the Lord honestly and continue to love Him with your whole heart.  1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 says, ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him’.  Many questions that are beyond our human understanding will only be answered when we see Him face to face. But for now, we continue to love Him and seek Him with our whole heart. The rest is up to Him.  Please let me know if I can be of further help or guidance.

For a more systematic answer to the person of Jesus Christ, being both God and man,
please see a paper I wrote here: The Unity of the Person of Jesus Christ, the God-man

For further information (and a somewhat more scholarly approach to this specific question)
please see James White's answer at: http://www.aomin.org/JOHN1_1.html.

Note 1:  A literal translation of the end of John 1:12 in Greek reads: ‘…to those who believe into [the] his name.’  It makes our English translation sound awkward or non-sensible to include the definite article 'the’ before the words ‘his name’, even though it appears in Greek.

Note 2:  Literally in Greek, John 1:2 says: ‘He was in beginning with God.’  Notice that in Greek there is no definite article before the word ‘beginning’.  It makes sense to include the definite article ‘the’ in our English translation for the sake of clarity and English idiom. Thus, ‘He was in the beginning with God.’

(Back to page of Answers to Questions)


 Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Created by Corey Keating at: http://www.ntgreek.org/