Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The New World Translation of John 1:1 and Colwell's Rule

I have been asked to comment of the interpretation of the third clause of John 1:1 in the light of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation and the Word was a god. To insist that John 1:1c should be translated and the Word was a god on the basis of Greek grammar is incorrect. Likewise, some people, seeking to defend the orthodox Christian translation of the clause, have misguidedly appealed to a grammatical rule called Colwell’s Rule.

Colwell stated that “definite predicate nouns [i.e., definite noun complements] which precede the verb usually lack the article” (E. C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” JBL 52 [1933]: 20), approximately 87% of the time (David Alan Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 79). That may be true for pre-verbal definite noun complements, but others have pointed out that anarthrous (i.e., non-articular) pre-verbal noun complements are usually qualitative.

In the end, the proper translation of such clauses is dependent on the context, but the balance of probability strongly favors the pre-verbal definite noun complement as being qualitative, hence the suggestion by some that John 1:1c is best translated as and the Word was divine. Given the broader context that Jesus and his disciples accepted the Jewish monotheistic idea that God is one, the New World Translation is clearly a case of eisegesis dictating translation. The idea of the Word being divine is that he shares in the divine nature of the one true God.


JohnOneOne said...


Many who take issue with Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" of 'theos' in John 1:1c (as, "a god") often miss the point that the structure of this whole clause is that it is 'a singular anarthrous predicate noun (meaning, without the Greek definite article), but one which is also *preceding the verb and subject noun (implied or stated)*' - that is, not just that use of the noun 'theos' in the third clause is lacking the Greek definite article. (In the Greek language of this period, there was no such thing as an indefinite article; therefore, depending upon the grammar, syntax, immediate and global context of the phrase, when translating to English, the decision on whether to add an indefinite article or not would be made by the translator.)

Quite interestingly, at other places within the "New Testament" where the syntax (Greek word order) is also the same as that found within John 1:1c, it is not uncommon to read where Bible translators will typically add the English indefinite article, either as an "a" or "an". You may wish to examine the following within your own preferred translation(s) of the Bible, that is, to see whether, within those works, such had actually been done. Here are a few scriptures to look into:

Mark 6:49
Mark 11:32
John 4:19
John 6:70
John 8:44a
John 8:44b
John 9:17
John 10:1
John 10:13
John 10:33
John 12:6

Now, when we encounter that very same Greek grammatical construction in John 1:1c, we find that there are many translators who do not follow the same guideline, that is, as when they did when translating the above verses. Apparently, this inconsistency is due to their own theologically induced predisposition, their bias, that of the centuries old, "Catholic" inspired tradition, the unbiblical belief that God is a Trinity. In other words, unknown to their readers, they are just being dishonest.

Furthermore, with respect to the suggestion that such a rendering though would fly in the strict Jewish monotheistic system of belief, in connection with Jesus' own words, recorded for us at John 10:34, 35 (when quoting from Psalm 82:6), there is this:

"The Hebrew for ‘gods’ (‘elohîm) could refer to various exalted beings besides Yahweh [or, Jehovah], without implying any challenge to monotheism,…"

Taken from: Blomberg, Craig L. (b.?-d.?), Distinguished Professor of the New Testament, Denver Seminary, Colorado.. "The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary." (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, c2002), "The feast of Dedication" ([John] 10:22-42), p. 163. BS2615.6.H55 B56 2002 / 2001051563.

Obviously, there need be more evidence to substantiate such a rendering as, "and the Word was a god," as well as to address many of the other issues often raised by such wording. This is just a number of the many points we hope to address within our forthcoming work, "What About John 1:1?"

To discover something of its design and progress, you are invited to visit:


Agape, JohnOneOne.


Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for your comment, JohnOneOne.

Those verses that you listed are good as examples of the anarthrous noun complement being indefinite. The more concrete the noun in question, the greater the chance it has of being indefinite rather than qualitative. But in the end it is context that must determine how these constructions should be translated.

In your understanding, if Jehovah is a god and Jesus is a god, how is their deity to be distinguished?

I’m glad that you mentioned John 10:34-35. I’m planning to do a post on those verses in the next day or so.

Scholar said...

JohnOneOne -- I'm sorry, but I have to ask if you know Greek? I even must wonder if you have seen the Greek transcript of the passage in question (or in fact of any you call out on your list).

Let's confine ourselves to the specific passage this blog addresses. John 1:1.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

or transliterated (without diacritics):

EN ARCHE en ho logos kai ho logos en pros ton theon kai theos en ho logos.

EN - In
ARCHE -- beginning
en - was
ho - the
logos - word
kai - and
ho - the
logos - word
en - was
pros - with
ton - (accusative case article not translated to English)
theon - God
kai - and
theos - God
en - was
ho - the
logos - word

Most translators rearrange the word order, as is proper for translating Greek to English, so it will easier to read. The goal, of course, should be to preserve the meaning. As we can see by going back to the Greek, the whole idea of discussing an "a" vs. "the" article is not at all applicable!

The Greek articles are "ho" for the noun logos, and "ton" for the accusative case (and the first occurance) of theos. Neither of these have any bearing on the translation of theos (God)!!!

Looking at the Greek, the meaning is crystal clear. Regardless of your belief about the content of the passage, the meaning itself holds no room for debate. None.

Personally, I don't understand why Jehovah's Witness don't simply have a prophet say the original Greek contained an error. That God has now revealed the lost passage...

Στην αρχή ήταν η λέξη και η λέξη ήταν με τον θεό και η λέξη ήταν θεϊκή

...at least this would not make them look foolish as they try to argue against all serious scholars.