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

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

NWT

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) (English Standard Version)

Now not so fast! These astonishing statements in John’s Gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of Christian belief: Jesus (“the Word” in John 1) is God, and God is at least two Persons, bringing into view the Trinity. But our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall (and the Watch Tower Society headquarters in Brooklyn) say we’ve gotten it all wrong.

Before moving on, let me give you some basics: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible is the Word of God, but they don’t believe in the Trinity; they don’t believe Jesus is God, nor do they believe the Holy Spirit is God. In order to interact with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you therefore need to understand why the Bible does, in fact, witness to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit being God, and you need to have your theology of the Trinity tight.

That being said, we’re going to look at (in this blog and future blogs) some specific things Jehovah’s Witness may throw at you to challenge the traditional (biblical) Christian views.

The Jehovah’s Witness 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.” 

Adding one teeny, tiny one-letter word to the sentence makes quite “a” difference!

JESUS: GOD OR “A GOD”?

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is right?

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 here. So, forget capitalization. Let’s focus on “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, more than one. 

First, no scholar of New Testament era Greek – whether a traditional Christian or otherwise – has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. That says a lot.

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the [ton] 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 idea of there being “a god” has its own problems, but first let me emphasize again that this isn’t how Greek grammar works and no Greek scholar would translate John 1:1 in this way. 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 Translation doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where do they get the idea that lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

BREAKING THEIR OWN RULE

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witness translation fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos (“God” or “god”) appears without the definite article (“the”) in the original Greek of the New Testament, they should translate it as “a god.” Again, this is according to their own reasoning. 

Theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the,” yet their New World Translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lower-case “god” anywhere else! 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 didn’t they translate it “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 didn’t they translate this “become a god’s children” and “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 didn’t they translate this, “No man has seen a god” and “a only-begotten god”?

And there are many more examples of this throughout the New Testament. If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witness 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.

DIGGING THE HOLE DEEPER

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 sometimes I get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee several times with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion, and despite me pointing out the above 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 reasons I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus is God.”

The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on only a single verse! I can’t say how the Jehovah’s Witnesses get around every one of them (nor would I take the time to address every one here), but the biblical evidence is substantial. 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation avoids the Trinity in John 1:1 but declares two gods! 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, will deny this. Their own 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 unquestionably arbitrary! Why does this instance of theos (compared to the many, many other times theos is used throughout the New Testament) mean only “mighty one” instead of the one, true God? 

John and almost all of the writers of the New Testament were first century Jews. This Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a lower-case “god” would be totally alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you were not. There’s no third option. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the idea of Jesus as God was added later to Christianity by the formerly-pagan Romans, yet the Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a near-god is certainly more Roman than Jewish. For the Jews, there were no partial gods, no near-gods, no lower-case “gods.”

By the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistranslating John 1:1 to avoid something that contradicts their beliefs, they’ve made matters worse for themselves. For the record, I don’t truly think Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in more than one God. My point is that by them trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deeper hole!

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society P.202

NEXT: If Jesus is the “firstborn” of creation how is he eternal God? (Colossians 1:15-19)

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