[B-Greek] BeDuhn's "Truth in Translation"

Eric Weiss eweiss at gte.net
Wed Jul 30 22:10:49 EDT 2003

The following URL (Web page) has a lengthy statement by Jason Beduhn re:
John 1:1. There are some typos (likely by the person who typed the Web
page), but Beduhn's name at the end suggests that this entire extract,
and not just what was put in quotes at the beginning, is his comment on
John 1:1. This should give some idea of his knowledge of or expertise in
Greek and his qualifications to make scholarly statements about
translations and the Greek text - which is what your query seemed to be


What about John 1:1 in the NWT? 

Well, I will let Greek Scholar Jason BeDuhn from the Northern Arizona
University answer this one: 

"The Greek phrase is theos en ho logos, which translated word for word
is "a god was the word." 

Greek has only a definite article, like our the, it does not have an
indefeinite article, like our a or an. If a noun is definite, it has the
definite article ho. If a noun is indefinite, no article is used. In the
phrase from John 1:1, ho logos is "the word." If it was written simply
logos, without the definite article ho, we would have to translate it as
"a word". So we are not really "inserting" an indefinite article when we
translate Greek nouns without the definite article into English, we are
simply obeying rules of English grammar that tell us that we cannot say
"Snoopy is dog," but must say "Snoopy is a dog." 

Now in English we simply say "God"; we do not say "The God." But in
Greek, when you mean to refer to the one supreme God, instead of one of
the many other beings that were called "gods," you would have to say
"The God": ho theos. Even a monotheistic Christian, who beleives there
is only one God and no others, would be forced to say in Greek "The
God," as John and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament
normally do. If you leave off the article in a phrase like John 1:1,
then you are saying "a god." (There are some exceptions to this rule:
Greek has what are called noun cases, which means the nouns change form
depending on how they are used in a sentence. So, if you want to say "of
God," which is theou, you don't need the article. But in the nominative
case, which is the one in John 1:1, you have to have the article.) 

So what does John mean by saying "the word was a god"? He is classifying
Jesus in a specific category of beings. There are plants and animals and
humans and gods, and so on. By calling the Word "a god," John wants to
tell his readers that the Word(which becomes Jesus when it takes flesh)
belongs to the divine class of things. Notice the word order: "a god was
the word." We can't say it like this in English, but you can in Greek.
The subject can be after the verb and the object before the verb, the
opposite of how we do it in English (subject-verb-object). Research has
shown that when ancient Greek writers put a object-noun first in a
sentence like John 1:1 (a be-verb sentence: x is y), without the
definite article, they are telling us that the subject belongs to the
class represented by the object-noun: :"The car is a Volkswagen." In
English we would accomplish the same thing by using what we call
predicate adjectives. "John is a smart person" = "John is smart." So we
would tend to say "The word was divine," rather than "The word was a
god." That is how I would translate this phrase. "The word was a god" is
more literal, and an improvement over "The word was God," but it raises
more problems, since to a modern reader it implies polytheism. 

No one in John's day would have understood the phrase to mean "The word
was God" - the language does not convey that sense, and conceptually it
is difficult to grasp such an idea, especially since that author has
just said that the word was with God. Someone is not with himself, he is
with some other. John clearly differentiates between God from the Word.
The latter becomes flesh and is seen; the former cannot be seen. What is
the Word? John says it was the agent through whom God made the world. He
starts his gospel "In the beginning..." to remind us of Genesis 1. How
does God create in Genesis? He speaks words that make things come into
existence. So the Word is God's creative power and plan and activity. It
is not God himself, but it is not really totally separate from God
either. It occupies a kind of ambiguous status. That is why a monotheist
like John can get away with calling it "a god" or "divine" without
becoming a polytheist. This divine thing does not act on its own,
however, does take on a kind of distinct identity, and in becoming flesh
brings God's will and plan right down face to face with humans. 

I hope this helps. 

Best wishes 

Jason Beduhn 
Northern Arizona University 
Department of Humanities Arts and Religion 

- - -
Eric S. Weiss
eweiss at gte.net

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