The Word was God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Concerning the last clause of this verse some claim that the Greek implies that the Word is a god. This is not a valid claim. This has to do with grammatical construction in Greek. This is my understanding as a non-Greek reader.

In English we can have the sentence,

1. The dog chased the cat.

This is different from,

2. The cat chased the dog.

In sentence 1 the “dog” is the subject and the “cat” is the object. In sentence 2 it is the opposite. In English we get this from the word order. If we change the word order we have to rewrite the sentence, usually in the passive, to get the same meaning,

The cat was chased by the dog.

In several other languages including Greek the subject and object can be identified by the ending on the noun. So you could put either the subject or the object first (or even the verb!) depending on what you wish to emphasise. That is, word order doesn’t give meaning in Greek the same way it does in English (in general).

The problem is the verb “to be” is an identifier, an equating verb. So both words are the subject. There is no object. Take,

The man is the father.

Both man and father are the subject as the “man” is identified with the “father”. However the sentence,

The father is the man

while still equating the man and the father does not mean the same thing. In English this is not a problem as the word order gives us the meaning. There is a problem in Greek though because both the words are the subject, this means that the nouns have the same ending, this means we cannot tell which word is being identified with which. Take the Greek phrase (using English words)

God love be.

What would this mean? Does it mean?

“God is love”


“Love is God”

Very different meanings! Therefore the Greek phrase

ο θεος ην ο λογος

the God to-be the Word

could actually mean (in English)

“The Word was God”


“God was the Word.”

In Greek the definite article “the” is not included with the word which is being equated (predicate noun) if that word precedes the verb and the definite article is included when it follows the verb. So if we are equating “God” with the “Word” and the word “God” comes before the word “to be” we drop the definite article “the.”

Thus, if the intention of the sentence is

The Word was God

then it would be written

θεος ην ο λογος (God to-be the Word)

Which is what we see. The lack of the article says nothing about Jesus being “a” god rather than “the” God. Incidentally, Greek has no indefinite article, we add it in English. Further the definite article is frequently used in Greek (eg. in front of personal names) but it is left off in English because that is not how English is spoken.

This is not the full story however. While the idea “the Word was God” is written in Greek as recorded in John 1, what is written there could also have other meanings. Thus if “a god” was intended it would possibly be written the same way. While the claim—that the construction of the clause proves that “a god” is intended—is a false claim; the counter claim—that it must mean “God”—is not sustainable. A refutation of a negative claim may not actually be a positive claim.

Others have claimed a further interpretation of this construction. The NET Bible notes state,

Furthermore, Colwell’s Rule did not deal with a third possibility, that the anarthrous [without the definite article] predicate noun may have more of a qualitative nuance when placed ahead of the verb. A definite meaning for the term is reflected in the traditional rendering “the word was God.” From a technical standpoint, though, it is preferable to see a qualitative aspect to anarthrous θεός in John 1:1c.

Thus the word order has implications in Greek (though different implications than English). The claim is that placing “God” before “to be” is qualifying the following word “Word” with itself; both words have a dual identity. Thus the meaning of the phrase would be,

What God was the Word was.

This has a slightly different meaning than, “The Word was God,” though the implications are similar.
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