John's Prologue and the NWT
Let me take a quick moment to preface what I write here by saying that this is a very brief look at a passage that has caused much controversy, and my words here are derived from the hard work of actual scholars who have great knowledge of the original languages. In other words: I am just repeating what greater and more knowledgeable minds have said time and time again.
In fact, I am not going to go through great detail to discuss, at this time, most of the first verse of John's Gospel. For links to articles examining the fullness of first verse of John's Gospel, please see the bottom of this blog entry. I am going to get right to the point of dispute between the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation (NWT) published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the overwhelming majority of other English translations of the Bible.
Compare the NWT and the NASB on John 1:1:
NWT: In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.
NASB: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The segment we are going to focus on in John 1:1 has been bolded above. Before we get into the reasons behind the difference in translation, let us, just in passing, make a few observations to provide context. For more detail, please refer to the links at the bottom of this blog entry.
First, the first clause tells us much. The Greek is en arche ane ho logos, which means "In the beginning was the Word". No problem so far. But English has a hard time conveying what John is saying here. The tense of the verb "was" indicates continuous being, past tense. What it is literally saying is that "In the beginning, no matter how far back the beginning was, the Word was already there." Before any beginning, whether it is the beginning of this physical universe or when God created angels or whatever beginning, the Word was there already. The point John is making is obvious. The Word is eternal.
Second, if we take the first few verses and look at the different verbs John uses, we can see that John does not use ane to refer to anything created. He uses a different Greek word, egenetau, which denotes beginning. In verse 3 this is used of "all things" that "came into being". If John meant to indicate that the Word, which is Jesus (v.14), came into being at a point in time, then why not use this verb? Why use a verb that says that whenever the beginning was, the Word was already existing? The Jehovah's Witnesses insist that Jesus was created, the first created thing of all "other things". But John apparently has a very different idea. John, even in his choice of verbs, draws a line between the Word and creation -not just "other" creation, but created things in general.
Although there is more that could be said regarding the first two clauses of John 1:1, we will now go to the third clause which contains an obvious difference in translation. The difference is that the NWT inserts the word "a" before "God". Are they justified in doing so? Is John really saying, as they propose, that the Word was like God, or "a god" meaning a supreme spiritual being, but not God Himself?
Here is a quick grammar lesson. In English we have a part of speech called an "article". There is the definite article, "the", and the indefinite article, "a" or "an". The usage will demonstrate the difference better than any attempted explanation. If I am talking about "the book" you understand that I am referring to something specific. There is a definite book I am talking about. However, if I am talking about "a book" you understand that I am not being specific. It might be any book. It is indefinite. Now, in Greek there is only the definite article, which is translated "the". There is no indefinite article, no word to designate the unspecific. This is important information to have.
The Greek for the clause in question is kai theos ane ho logos, which in word-order says "and God was the Word". There is a definite article, and it comes before the word logos or "Word", but there is, as we have just noted, no indefinite article. There is no "a" before theos or "God". Yes, there are obviously times when "a" is put into the English translation when the definite article is not there, but there are also times when it is not -and for good reason. It is not a rule that whenever the definite article is missing before a noun we are to translate it by putting "a" in front of it. The translators of the NWT know this, as we will see further on.
But there is an even stronger reason for not including the word "a" in the translation. This is a grammatical structure that is used elsewhere. It is called a "copulative" construction. A copulative sentence is one that contains two nominative case nouns, one with the definite article before it, linked together by a linking verb (a verb of being like "is", "are", or "was", etc.) , and it is meant to convey something about the subject using the second noun as a descriptor about the nature of the subject. The nominative case has two uses: 1) as the subject of the sentence, or 2) the "predicate nominative" or the noun that is being ascribed to the subject in a descriptive fashion. Now, the question arises, "How do we identify the subject of the sentence?" For this type of construction, the presence of the definite article identifies the subject of the sentence. among the two nominative nouns (remember that in languages like Greek and Latin it is generally the case of words that determine their usage rather than their order in the sentence). The noun that is preceded by the article is the subject, where here is logos or "Word". Hence, the proper translation begins "and the Word was..." rather than "and God was...". Why should this construction not insert the word "a" in front of "God"? Because, as we just noted briefly, the copulative construction is meant to denote something about the essence or nature of the subject. Let's look at an example that will demonstrate this.
1 John 4:8, translated "God is love", is a good example of a copulative sentence. The Greek is ho (the) theos (God) agape (love) estin (is). There are two nouns, God and love, that are in the nominative case and hence could be the subject. However, only the word theos has the definite article ho in front of it. So the proper translations is "the God is love", God being the subject of the sentence and the word for "love" being the predicate nominative. Note what is being said. "Love" is being used to describe "God". The correct translation is not "God is a love". It is that God, in His nature or essence, is love. Love describes who He is.
Taking this knowledge back to the clause in question in John 1:1, we are left with the following explanation of "and the Word was God": John is saying that the Word, which is Jesus Christ, is in His very essence or nature God. God describes what the Word is. It is not "God-likeness" that describes Him, for there are other Greek words for that. He is God, theos.
There is no contextual reason and no grammatical reason to insert the indefinite article "a" into the English translation. The grammar shows that "God" characterizes "the Word", and the context shows that the Word is eternal and uncreated. It is simply one more attempt by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to obscure the clear intent of the apostles in demonstrating that Jesus is God. The Society folks protest on many grounds, mostly because they have no real understanding of what the doctrine of the Trinity really is -as evidenced by their own writings and pamphlets on the subject. No, we are not saying that there are three gods, and no, we are not saying that Jesus is the Father. We are saying what John is saying here... that Jesus always has been (is eternal, something only God is), that Jesus was with "the God" (in this context, the Father... see 1 John 1:1 where John uses very similar language and speaks of the Father), and that Jesus was and still is God. He is God, the Father is God. From this passage alone you are at least a binitarian!
One of the arguments proposed by the Society is pointing to Acts 28:6 where it says of the apostle Paul, "They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god." Paul was bitten by a viper and the native people of Malta were watching, expecting that he would surely die. Obviously, the phrase they are pointing to as evidence to support their translation of John 1:1 is "that he was a god". The problem here is that this is not a Greek construction parallel to John 1:1. It is not a copulative construction. One big reason it is not is because, although there are two nouns (one of them being a pronoun) linked by the linking verb "to be", neither of them are preceded by the definite article. You can't make a comparison here.
However, there are other verses where a comparison can be made. One particular verse is Mark 2:28, which the NWT translates properly. "hence the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath". Removing the extraneous words, the copulative construction is kurios estin ho huios. To clarify the English words, we have kurios (Lord) estin (is) ho (the) huios (Son). Just as in John 1:1, we have two nominative nouns linked by the linking verb where one is preceded by the definite article and one is not. So, by the placement of the definite article "the", we see that the subject is "Son". So the clause says, "the Son is Lord", not "the Son is a Lord". Again, the NWT translators were correct in not putting "a" before Lord here. They recognized that this construction is meant to characterize "the Son". The word "Lord" is meant to describe or tell us something about the Son. This is the same thing we saw in John 1:1 where "God" is meant to characterize "the Word". Just as the Son is Lord of the Sabbath, so the Word (also Jesus) is God.
In the Society's own Kingdom Interlinear Translation (KIT), which uses the Westcott-Hort Greek text, the word theos or "God" shows up in the Greek 282 times without the definite article "the". If what the Watchtower Society says about John 1:1 is true, you would expect "a god" to be their normative translation of theos without the definite article. However, in the overwhelming majority of instances it is translated simply "God", not "a god". Why do they break their own rule in so many places, even the majority of places? An example is found only a few verses after John 1:1, in verse 6: "There arose a man that was sent forth as a representative of God: his name was John." (NWT) There is no article before "God". If they insist this is a rule, then one would hope to see some consistency in applying it. Why not translate verse 6, "... as a representative of a god..."?
As with the many other translational blunders performed by the NWT translators, this is a clear attempt to use a little knowledge of the original language, but not an adequate knowledge, to justify ignoring a key truth of Scripture: the deity of Jesus the Christ. A telling sign regarding the Society's translation of John 1:1 is their reference to the opinion of a "spirit medium", a man named Johannes Grieber, in their defense of the translation of this clause. It is amazing to see the translational gymnastics required, in text after text in the NWT, to avoid the clear conclusion that Jesus is God.
As promised, here are some more links for further reading: