Is Jesus “a god”? Revisiting John 1:1 & the Jehovah’s Witness Translation

KNOCK, KNOCK. WHO’S THERE? J.W., WHO?

John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (ESV)

But not so fast! These astonishing statements at the beginning of John’s gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of orthodox Christian belief: Jesus is God, and God is at least two persons, bringing into view the Trinity. Yet, our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall say two thousand years of Christianity has gotten it all wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation, has John 1:1 as follows: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” (New World Translation) 

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is correct? The Greek word for “God” or “god” is theos. Ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization like we do today with English, so looking at the original Greek to see if “theos” is capitalized won’t help us. So, let’s focus on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, a few of them. 

WHO’S TRANSLATING?

To start, I once made the mistake of boldly stating in a blog that no scholar of New Testament era Greek has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. (For the record, this article covers much of the same info, but adds to it as well.) I should’ve known better than to make such an absolute statement unless I had absolute knowledge that the statement I was making was absolutely correct. Pushback came swiftly, accompanied by a list of translations where John 1:1 reads “a god.” Lesson learned. I repent. But please allow me to humbly cross-examine these translations. After all, just because something is found on the internet doesn’t mean it’s good information. (I realize that may come as a shock to some of you. That was sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell.)

First, were all these translations made by scholars of New Testament (Koine) Greek? After all, I wasn’t claiming no other translations out there read “a god”; I specifically claimed none were made by New Testament Greek scholars. Does the translator have a PhD in Koine Greek? Hold a position at a reputable university? Publish Greek grammar articles in peer-reviewed journals? Also—and this is important—was the translation made by a committee of Greek scholars? I’m sure you understand how easily a single person making a translation can make errors or smuggle in personal preferences without the checks and balances of working within a group of professionals. (And we should ask these same exact questions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation! To start: Who, exactly, translated it?)

Let me point out, even if the translations that read “a god” come from qualified and credible sources, they’re still in the vast minority. I can say with complete confidence that “a god” is plainly rejected by the great multitude of legitimate scholars. 

NOT DEFINITE ABOUT THE DEFINITE ARTICLE

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the theos, and the Word was theos.” This is accurate. But their argument is that since the second use of theos doesn’t have “the” (the definite article, for you grammar nerds), then the first use of theos is speaking of the one and only God (“the God”) and Jesus, the Word, is something like God but lesser. He’s “a god.” 

This isn’t how Greek grammar works. For one, the definite article (“the”) is used differently in Greek than in English, so it’s often not even translated into English. As we see, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World version doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where on earth do they get the idea that the lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos appears without the definite article (“the”) in the Greek, they should translate it as “a god” or, at least, as a lowercase “g” god. Yet, theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the” and their own translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lowercase “god” elsewhere. Their own New World Translation breaks their own odd grammar rule again and again. 

In fact, we don’t even have to leave John 1 to see this. None of the following include “the” with theos in the original Greek:

  • John 1:6: “There came a man who was sent as a representative of God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “who was sent as a representative of a god”?

  • John 1:12-13: “he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name. And they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “he gave authority to become a god’s children” and “they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from a god”?

  • John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him.” (New World Translation)

Why not, “No man has seen a god at any time” or “an only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side”? (I tackle the term “only-begotten” in another article.)

Many more examples exist throughout the New Testament, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation doesn’t insert an “a” before God or demote God to a lowercase status. (Also see Matthew 3:9; 6:24; Luke 1:35, 78; 2:40; Romans 1:7, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 15:10; Philippians 2:11–13; Titus 1:1.)

Likewise, what do all of the following verses have in common? I’ll include bold to help out:

  1. “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The book of the history of Jesus Christ…” (Matthew 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. “… just as these were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and attendants of the message…” (Luke 1:2) (New World Translation)

All four of these verses are missing “the” in the original Greek. As I said, the definite article (“the”) doesn’t work the same in Greek as it does in English. Again, it doesn’t appear the Jehovah’s Witnesses are holding too tightly to their own grammar rule! Why is “the” being inserted into the English instead of “a” in all of these verses? Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses follow standard Greek grammar rules everywhere, it seems, but in John 1:1? If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible are going to make up a grammar rule to wiggle around a clear teaching about Jesus, they could at least follow their own made-up grammar rule consistently.

SOME FINAL ISSUES

Thirdly, John 1:1 isn’t the only passage in the New Testament to declare Jesus as God. I’ve never met a mean Jehovah’s Witness, so when they come to my door I often get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion. Despite me pointing out the above issues to him, we weren’t getting anywhere. So, I said, “Neither of us are Greek scholars, so let’s put John 1:1 aside for now and look at other verses.” The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on a single verse! 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists (as well as the apostle John)! The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation dodges the Trinity in John 1:1 but still declares two gods! Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, deny this. Their own official literature explains the wording in John 1:1 as “because of his high position among Jehovah’s creatures, the Word is referred to as ‘a god.’ Here the term ‘god’ means ‘mighty one.’” [1] Well, that seems rather arbitrary! The sharp distinction Jehovah’s Witnesses make between Jehovah as “Almighty God” and Jesus as “mighty god” isn’t biblical. See Isaiah 10:20–21 and Jeremiah 32:16–18, where “Jehovah” (Yahweh/The LORD) is called gibbor el (Hebrew), “mighty God.”

  John and almost every writer of the New Testament were first century Jews. This idea of Jesus being a lowercase “g” god would’ve been alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you weren’t. No third option existed. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused traditional Christians of adopting pagan Roman ideas by believing Jesus is a divine person of the Trinity, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ idea of Jesus being “a god” is certainly closer to Roman paganism than Judaism. For the monotheistic Jews, there were no partial gods and no near-gods. Jehovah’s Witnesses have invented a category to put Jesus in not found in the Bible. [2] By trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deep hole.

[1]  What Does the Bible Really Teach?, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, December 2014 printing.

[2] In the Bible, there are cases where “god” (theos, elohim) is a title applied to beings that aren’t the LORD (Yahweh/“Jehovah”), but they’re false gods or beings inferior to the one true God of Israel. Even by Jehovah’s Witness thinking, Jesus is a different type of “god” than these “gods.” 2 Corinthians 4:4; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 82:1, 6–7 (John 10:34–36). 

RELATED GFTM ARTICLES:

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) & the Titles of God: Almighty God, mighty god, Jehovah, Elohim

Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)