Germans, JWs, and John 1:1 (by James White)
It is difficult to imagine making it through any conversation
with one of Jehovah's Witnesses on the subject of the Deity of Christ
without having to tackle John 1.1, and the infamous "translation" (I
use the term very lightly) found in their New World Translation, "In
[the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word
was a god." At the same time, the average Christian is ill-prepared
to counter the information provided to the zealous Witness by the
Society, which includes numerous Watchtower articles (at least one a
year presents the translation as "accurate"), as well as appendices
in the back of the 1971 and 1984 editions of the NWT. Here,
impressive citations of various "scholars" are presented, and the
Witness feels comfortable that the truth is on their side - Jesus is
Before looking at exactly what the Witnesses put forward as
support for such a rendering, lets take a look at the verse itself
and see what is being said.
1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was Deity. (personal translation)
This verse provides the framework not only for the prologue that
encompasses verses one through eighteen, but for the entire Gospel
itself. The prologue functions, I believe, as an "interpretive
window" for the entire Gospel. John means us to read the rest of his
work with the foundational under-standing of the nature of Jesus
Christ, as presented in these verses, clearly in mind. It is just
the rejection of the lofty teaching of these verses that has caused
the myriad of inconsistent and illogical interpretations of the words
of Jesus later in the Gospel.
1.1 takes us back beyond creation itself. Some refer the
"beginning" here to that of Genesis 1.1, and this may be so, but the
verb "was" (Gr: en, imperfect of eimi) takes us before whatever
"beginning" we may wish to choose. The continuous action in the past
of the imperfect tense of the verb indicates to us that whenever the
"beginning" was, the Word was already in existence. In other words,
the Word is eternal - timeless - without a "beginning."
Note also the fact that John will very carefully differentiate
between the verbs "was" and "became" (Gr: egeneto, the aorist form of
ginomai). The reason for this, I believe, is that he wishes to
emphasize the eternal, non-created nature of the Logos over against
the finite, temporal, created nature of all other things. This will
come sharply into view in 1.14.
Just why John chose to use the Greek term Logos is a matter of
quite some debate. The term had great meaning in Greek philosophy as
the impersonal but rational ordering principle of the universe. The
Logos is what made sense out of the universe. But John does not use
Logos in just this way - in fact, he radically alters the use of the
word while still maintaining some of the inherent meaning it would
have for his readers. The Logos of John is personal - the Logos is
not just an ordering principle but rather a personal being. As
John's explanation of the Logos unfolds, we shall see that the Logos
makes God known and is, in fact, incarnated in Jesus Christ. For
John, then, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God in the flesh (1.14)
but He did not start revealing God at that time - instead, His
relationship to God the Father (1.18) has always been one of
revelation - the Logos always makes God known for it is the Father's
gracious choice to be revealed by the Word. This will be important
as well in seeing that John clearly identifies Jesus Christ as YHWH
in different ways - sometimes through the usage of the phrase "I Am"
(Gr: ego eimi) and sometimes by direct ascription, as in John 12.39-
"...and the Word was with God..." The Apostle John walks an
exceptionally fine line in this verse. In the first clause he
asserts the eternality of the Logos. Now he states that the Logos is
personally eternal - that is, that the Logos has been in communion
and communication with God for eternity as well. The verb is the
same as the first clause, and the preposition pros ("with") pictures
for us face-to-face communication. John does not yet identify these
persons for us - we must wait till verses 14 through 18 to see that
John is speaking of Jesus Christ the Son and God the Father. What he
wishes to emphasize here is the personal existence of the Logos in
some sense of distinction from "God" (i.e., the Father). The Logos
is not the Father nor vice-versa - there are two persons under
The third clause of this verse has occasioned great debate and
controversy, mainly due to the fact that the Greek word for God,
theos, does not have the definite article ("the") before it. Some
pseudo-Christian or Arian groups have said that this means that the
Word was a "god" or a god-like being like an angel (Jehovah's
Witnesses). But is this the case?
Actually, the answer to the whole question seems fairly obvious,
even to a first-year Greek student. The third clause of 1.1 is a
copulative sentence - that is, it follows the form "The (noun) is
(predicate nominative)". In Greek, one distinguishes the subject of
a copulative sentence by which noun has an article in front of it.
For example, in 1 John 4:8 we have the last clause reading "God is
love." Now, in Greek this is ho theos agape estin. There are two
nominative nouns in this sentence - God (theos) and love (agape).
However, the first noun, God, has the article ho before it. This
indicates that "God" is the subject of the sentence, and love is the
predicate nominative. It would be wrong, then, to translate 1 John
4:8 as "Love is God." The only way to make the two nouns
interchangeable is to either put the article with both nouns, or to
not put the article there at all. As long as one has the article and
the other does not, one is definitely the subject and the other the
predicate. Hence, 1 John 4:8 does not teach that all love is God,
nor that God and love are interchangeable things. Rather, the term
"love" tells us something about God - it functions almost as an
adjective, describing the noun (God) that it modifies.
We have the same situation in 1.1c. The Greek reads, kai theos
en ho logos. Notice that the term Logos has the article ho while the
term theos does not. This tells us that the subject of the clause is
the Logos. Hence, we could not translate the phrase "and God was the
Word" for that would make the wrong term the subject of the clause.
Hence, the term "God" is the predicate nominative, and it functions
just as "love" did in 1 John 4:8 - it tells us something about the
Logos - and that is, that the nature of the Logos is the nature of
God, just as the nature of God in 1 John 4:8 was that of love. Now,
John does emphasize the term "God" by placing it first in the clause
- this is not just a "divine nature" as in something like the angels
have - rather, it is truly the nature of Deity that is in view here
(hence my translation as "Deity"). Dr. Kenneth Wuest, long time
professor of Greek at Moody Bible Institute rendered the phrase, "And
the Word was as to His essence absolute Deity."
Before summing up the verse, then, let the reader note that when
groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses quote from Dr. Philip Harner's
article on the nature of anarthrous (=without the article) predicate
nominatives, they don't understand what they are talking about.
Harner accurately pointed out that the anarthrous predicate
nominative functions as a descriptive term rather than a specific or
definite term. Problem is, the Jehovah's Witnesses make "God" in
John 1.1 just as definite as the translations they attack!
Rendering it "a god" misses the whole point - the word "God" is
functioning to describe the Logos - translating it as "a god" means a
definite god is in mind, rather than following the actual sense of
Harner's article and making the term describe the being of the Logos.
The point Harner is making is that it is not the definite "God" that
is in view, far less the JW translation of "a god" (both are
definite) but rather the nature of the Logos that is important.
Hence, 1.1 tells us some immensely important things. First, we
see that the Logos is eternal, uncreated. Secondly, we see that
there are two Divine Persons in view in John's mind - the Father and
the Logos. Thirdly, there is eternal communication and relationship
between the Father and the Logos. Finally, we see that the Logos
shares the nature of God. These items will be important for a proper
understanding of many of the statements made by our Lord in this
book. It seems to me that John felt it was vitally important that we
understand the majesty of the Person of Jesus Christ right from the
start. We cab see these concepts played out through the rest of the
Gospel of John.
The Watchtower Society has put forward a number of
"translations" that supposedly support their rendering of John 1.1.
The 1984 Reference edition cited two from 1808 and 1864, the first
being The New Testament, in an Improved Version, Upon the Basis of
Archbishop Newcome's New Translation: With a Corrected Text. The
Second is The Emphatic Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson, "interlinear
reading." The Society used to quote Johannes Greber's translation,
which also read "a god", that is until it was discovered that the
Society was knowingly quoting from a translation which Greber
acknowledges he got from "spirit guides". Of course, the Watchtower
tried their best to cover their tracks on that one, but they got
We might first note that we don't know who is responsible for
the first of the above two quoted sources - what we have here is a
version that was originally done by Archbishop Newcome, but was then
"corrected" by a group of Unitarians whose scholarly abilities are
unknown. We certainly can't blame Archbishop Newcome for the
The second source, that of Benjamin Wilson, only reads "a god"
in the interlinear portion - Wilson's actual translation reads, "and
the Logos was God." One gets the sense that the WTBTS is desperately
trying to find some kind of scholarly support when it will go to the
hyper-literal interlinear rendering of a rather obscure translator of
the past century! But, this is the same group of folks who relied on
Johannes Greber and his spirit guides as well...
In 1985, the Society published a new edition of their Kingdom
Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures. In Appendix 2A they
added another "translation" to their list - that of John S. Thompson
of Baltimore, entitled The Monotessaron; or, the Gospel History,
According to the Four Evangelists. This rendition, dated at 1829, is
quoted as, "and the Logos was a god."
In their new book entitled Witnesses of Jehovah, Leonard and
Marjorie Chretien give us new information on just who John Thompson
was. They quote The American Quarterly Review of September, 1830.
Here we read Thompson saying, "I shall rejoice in having been the
happy instrument, in the hand of God, of having done fourfold as much
for mankind, as all the professed commentators of the last fifteen
centuries!" Aside from a lack of humility, it seems Thompson was
"moved about by every wind of doctrine" as well, moving from being a
Calvinist to an Arminian Methodist preacher, to being a
Restorationist, then on to an Arian Restorationist, until finally
being a Unitarian Universalist (should sound familiar by now!) The
Chretiens also record that Thompson admits to having exper-iences
with - yup, you guessed it - spirit beings who instruct him to "be
careful to represent Jesus as only the instrument of God in all he
does." The reader is directed to the Chretiens' book for further
With the exposure of the nature of Greber's work, the Society
was left with a dwindling list of translations to help bolster their
rendering of the last clause of John 1.1. So, they looked to the
Germans to help them out, and came up with three translations dated
1975, 1978, and 1979.
The first is that of Siegfried Schulz, entitled Das Evangelium
nach Johannes (all three translations have the same title). The
Society translates Schulz's version into English thus: "and a god
(or, of a divine kind) was the Word." The second is that of Johannes
Schneider. They render Schneider, "and godlike sort was the Logos."
Finally they cite the translation of Jurgen Becker, which they give
as "and a god was the Logos."
These new translations were included in the 1984 Reference
Edition of the NWT, in Appendix 6A. They have since been cited in
various Watchtower articles.
When I first saw these citations, I was struck by the irony of
the situation. Here, to attempt to bolster an obviously flawed
translation, the Society has to go to another language to come up
with some support! The next thing into my mind was, "does the
Society know much about the philosophy and world-view of modern
German biblical scholars?" That was immediately followed by the
thought, "if they did, would they care that these men probably
approach the Bible from a completely different perspective than they
themselves proclaim to be the absolute truth?" I knew then that
someone would have to track these translations down and get
information on them. One must always check out the Society's
quotations of scholars - the writers of the Watchtower are experts at
making scholars say the opposite of what they meant.
As time went by I saw nothing being published regarding these
men or their translations. So, I finally decided to try to get some
information myself. I wrote to Dr. Keith Parks, who heads up the
missions work for the Southern Baptist Convention in Europe. Dr.
Parks kindly referred my letter to Dr. Wiard Popkes of Theologisches
Seminar des Bundes Evanglisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden in
Deutschland. Dr. Popkes responded very quickly to my request for
information. He copied the actual translations for me, as well as
the accompanying commentary.
In a letter dated April 6, 1988, Dr. Popkes wrote, "My
impression is that all of the scholars want to work out the same
points, i.e., that the Word is of divine quality, although John has
to state in this context the non-identity of father and son. The
commentary says more about the ideas of the authors than the bare
translation does." (Personal letter from Dr. Wiard Popkes to James
Dr. Popkes also gave me information on the authors themselves:
"Johannes Schneider was a Baptist, teaching at the University in
Berlin. He died around 1970. Siegfried Schulz and Jurgen Becker are
both professors of New Testament, now in their later fifties, Schulz
at the University of Zurich, Becker at the University of Kiel. Both
of them belong to what can be called the main stream of German NT
research, and certainly both of them owe much to Rudolf Bultmann.
This does not mean, however, that their interpretations of John's
prologue simply follow that of Bultmann. Rather, in the years after
Bultmann much new research has been devoted to this very passage of
Before looking at the specific renderings given by these
authors, a few things should be pointed out. First, Jehovah's
Witnesses are experts at quoting individuals that come from
completely different perspectives and world-views in such as way as
to make it sound as if they (the person being quoted) support or lend
credence to the Watchtower's teachings. This is clearly seen here.
None of these scholars are classically Arian in their theology. Dr.
Schneider was a Baptist. The other two men, as Dr. Popkes indicates,
would come from a stream of biblical studies that is far removed from
the Witnesses' own views on inspiration and the nature of Scripture.
Anyone familiar with Rudolf Bultmann and his ideas knows what I am
talking about. As far as their view of the Bible goes, the Witnesses
would be to the extreme right of these men. Bultmann emphasized the
need to "de-mythologize" the Bible; that is, take out all that
supernatural silliness and you might have a chance to get back to the
real historical Jesus. The German schools are still stuck in the rut
of naturalistic biblical criticism, and two of the translations the
Witnesses cite come straight from that perspective.
Secondly, these men are trying to emphasize a very different
point than the Witnesses are making. These men are differ-entiating
between the Father and the Son in John 1.1, as well they should. But
the average Witness would not be aware of this, for they have been
given false information as to just what the doctrine of the Trinity
is. They feel that the Trinity presents the Father and Son as being
one person. This is not Trinitarianism, but rather modalism, an
ancient heresy that was sometimes called Sabellianism. These German
scholars are trying to emphasize the separate existence of the Logos
as a personal entity. While we understand this, it does seem that
they have gone too far in trying to accomplish their goal.
The material that Dr. Popkes sent me was, naturally, in German.
Though I studied German for three years long ago, I did not feel
qualified to attempt a good translation. So, I contacted a friend of
mine, Mr. John Cecchini, who has a Master's degree in German. John
kindly agreed to translate the relevant portions of the photocopied
As it might be of help for other ministries to have the actual
German renderings of the last clause of John 1.1 from these men, we
provide it below:
(Schulz) und ein Gott (oder: Gott von Art) war das Wort.
(Schneider) Und Gottlicher Art war der Logos.
(Becker) Und ein Gott war der Logos.
A thought that immediately struck me upon reading these in German
when they first arrived was that each of these translations seems to
miss the fact that in Greek the subject of the copulative sentence is
made known by the article - these translations seem to make the Logos
the predicate nominative, rather than the subject of the clause.
However, one of the authors (Schulz) clearly addresses this issue in
his commentary on the passage.
Mr. Cecchini's translation of the last clause of John 1:1 is as
(Schulz) "...and one [a] God (or type of God) was the Word."
(Schneider) "And a form of divinity was the Logos."
(Becker) "...and one [a] God was [the] Logos."
The comments of the men bear out the fact that they are trying
to emphasize the differ-ence between Logos and God in 1.1c to avoid
any intermixing of the two. Both Becker and Schneider, however, go
beyond the border of orthodoxy in their comments (which, given the
effect of Bultmann upon German liberalism is hardly to be a surprise
- we need to remember that Bultmann didn't think it was important
whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not). Schulz comments:
"The third phrase sets forth the basic premise concerning the
pre-existent "Word": "and God was the Word". In verse 1c "God"
stands in contrast to the clearly articulated divine concept in verse
1b emphasized at the beginning by lack of the article...In so much as
the last work of verse 1b was dealt with, the whole imparts a divine
being to the "Word". The obvious "and God" is the predicate and in
no way identifies the Word with the latter "with the God." Thereby
"the Word" is identified as "God" just as the other one is, with
which this "Word" stands in close association. The divinity/being
[German: Gott-Sein] denotes the essence of the "Word" as it does God
himself. The word "God" in the predicate of verse 1c is not the
subject - as in Luther's translation "God was the Word," on the
contrary it is the predicate. The "Word" is not "the God" (verse 1b)
or God the Father. Likewise, Logos is a kind of God, divine essence,
essentially equal to God, so that one has to translate them inter-
relatedly: "and the Word was a kind of God." The religious
traditions of monotheism in the Old Testament and the late Jewish
period are supported and honored by this pre-Johannine, Hellenistic
eulogy. In no way, however, as we have already stressed, is a simple
interidentification to be had."
The stress is clearly placed upon the differ-entiation of Father and
Son, not, as the Watchtower would like to say, upon the denial of the
deity of the Son. It is quite true that these men are willing to
engage in sub-ordinationism to maintain unity of the Godhead - and it
is equally true that they are capable of doing so only at the expense
of Scriptural teaching as well as strict monotheism. But we must
remember that, given the liberal German view of Scripture, the idea
of inconsistency in Scriptural teaching is easily accepted. It is
just here that the Biblical Christian - and, ironically enough, the
Jehovah's Witness - reject the German concept that the Bible is self-
contradictory. If most Witnesses knew that the scholars the
Watchtower is forced to quote viewed the Bible in the way that they
do, they would be quite surprised. For example, another German
scholar, Dr. Otto Weber, has written in his two volume Foundation of
Dogmatics (which I had the unfortunate responsibility of having to
read for a Systematic Theology class):
"It appears that the Word of Scripture is not just one word, but
rather the word of numerous witnesses. These are so different among
themselves that the search for "contradictions" in the Bible,
particularly since the Enlightenment, could become such a customary
as well as comfortable endeavor...But we must remember that the
contradictions in Scripture are not restricted to questions of
expression...Newer exegesis, which does not presuppose the agreement
of all biblical writings [i.e., which is based upon the rejection of
inerrancy and inspiration]...has found within the canonical
Scriptures many more gaps, leaps, and contradictions than someone
like Luther could have suspected." (1:236,261)
Note that Weber would be considered more "conservative" than those
who would follow the Bultmannian tradition, from which the Watchtower
Society is drawing its quotations.
So what does all of this mean? It seems to be important that we
cannot find any scholar who actually believes that the Bible is the
Word of God and is inspired and consis-tent with itself that renders
John 1.1 as "a god." We have found spirit mediums that do so, and
Unitarians who have to use someone else's translation as a basis upon
which they make "corrections". We've also found German scholars who
try to differentiate between the Father and the Son by coming up with
unusual translations of John 1.1, though none of these would identify
Jesus as some kind of created being like Michael the Archangel - they
would just engage in a form of subordinationism that would identify
the Logos as a secondary "emanation" from the being of God. What we
have seen, however, is what John 1.1 actually says, and what it
actually teaches. We have seen the eternal existence of the Word,
His eternal personal relationship with the Father, and His absolute
being as Deity. Hopefully you will be able to share these life-
changing truths with the next follower of the Watchtower Society who
knocks at your door.
James White, 1/18/89
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