I remember two Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to my door a while back. They were doing their very best to try to argue that we have a lot of our beliefs in common. They were insistent that all we had to do was just read the Bible and we’ll see that JW’s and Christians have a lot in common. I certainly couldn’t resist asking them which Bible they were talking about. One of them responded indicating that it didn’t matter because they were all saying essentially the same thing. I couldn’t help but bring up the New World Translation and ask how their translation is the same as ours on John 1:1.
These JW’s actually told me that there is an indefinite article in the Greek text and that’s why it's translated with an indefinite article in English. Which of course is not true since Koine Greek does not have an indefinite article. Most, however, are aware of the fact that there is no article next to θεός in John 1:1c. This issue alone, however, is not enough of a reason to translate θεός with an indefinite article.
Other JW’s are a little more studied. They point out the fact that an early Coptic translation translates John 1:1c with an indefinite article. Coptic does have an indefinite article. The argument, therefore, is that early Christians knew that John 1:1c was indefinite and knew Koine Greek better than we do. Thus, that particular translation carries a lot more weight and proves that the JW’s are correct. This article will attempt to show how this isn’t actually the case and will attempt to show that the original Greek text as well as the Coptic translation both say the same thing. And that neither say that Jesus was a lesser, created being who is still somehow divine.
The New World Translation in John 1:1 looks like this, “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” (John 1:1 NWT). We can see John 1:1c translated with the indefinite article and the word for θεός is translated in the lower case. Their reason for this is one that leads to a contradiction in their theology as well as an inconsistency in the way they handle the Koine Greek of the New Testament. The Greek text of John 1:1 appears as the following:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος
The clause containing the Greek word for “God” without the definite article is, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. It is true that there is no definite article before θεὸς. However, that does not automatically mean that θεός is indefinite. Ironically enough, the argument that the absence of a definite article means that an indefinite article is required in the translation creates a sticky situation for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The word, “Jehovah” actually never appears in the Hebrew text with the definite article. The Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament translates Jehovah as κύριος without the definite article (cf. Gen 2:8, 2:16, 2:18, 3:1, 1 Kings 1:48, Psalm 41:13, 72:18, 106:48, etc).
Before getting into that it is necessary to understand that Greek word order is manipulated for the sake of emphasis. Daniel B. Wallace asserts, “As we have said, word order is employed especially for the sake of emphasis. Generally speaking, when a word is thrown to the front of the clause it is done so for emphasis.” This is important to our understanding of John 1:1c. The word θεὸς does appear first in the order of the third clause. Since word order can’t be the determinative factor on which word is the subject and which is the predicate nominative, there must be a way that Koine Greek uses to determine these functions. Wallace points out, “We know that ‘the Word’ is the subject because it has the definite article….”
If the article appeared before θεὸς it would change the nature of the clause. Wallace comments that this would be propounding Sabellianism, stating that the Word was the Father. Wallace also points out that if θεὸς wasn’t pulled forward in the sentence that the clause would be promoting Arianism and could be translated with the English indefinite article.
Wallace further demonstrates the problem with the way JW’s translate θεὸς in the third clause of John 1:1. He quotes R. H. Countess who states,
In the New Testament there are 282 occurrences of the anarthrous θεὸς[God]. At sixteen places NWT has either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time....
The first section of John–1:1–18 furnishes a lucid example of NWT arbitrary dogmatism. θεὸς occurs eight times–verses 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, 18–and has the article only twice–verse 1, 2. Yet NWT six times translated 'God,' once 'a god,' and once 'the god.'
It’s obvious, then, that the NWT isn’t being consistent. Wallace further adds, “According to Dixon’s Study, if θεὸς were indefinite in John 1:1, it would be the only anarthrous pre-verbal [predicate nominative] in John’s Gospel to be so.”
The indefinite construction is not what John intended to write. Was John attempting to create a definite construction? As Wallace pointed out earlier, if the definite article was applied to θεὸς John would in fact teaching Sabellianism. However, Wallace also points out “Colwell’s Rule”. Wallace says, “Colwell’s rule is as follows: ‘Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article… a predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or a ‘qualitative’ noun solely because of the absence of the article; if the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun….’” Since it’s possible for a noun to be anarthrous and yet still articular, should Colwell’s rule be applied to John 1:1? Wallace continues in agreement with Walter Martin and Bruce Metzger when he states, “Our point is that Colwell’s rule has been misunderstood and abused by scholars. By applying Colwell’s rule to John 1:1 they have jumped out of the frying pan of Arianism and into the fire of Sabellianism.” Wallace argues that the definite construction of θεὸς is not the case. Notice, “The vast majority of definite anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives are monadic, in genitive constructions, or are proper names, none of which is true here, diminishing the likelihood of a definite θεὸς in John 1:1c.”
The only option left is the qualitative construction. Wallace identifies that this as the construction,
The idea of a qualitative θεὸς here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “the God” (of John 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in persons. The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father.
Dr. James R. White also concludes the same thing that Wallace did, “The last clause of John 1:1 tells us about the nature of the Word. The translation should be qualitative.” A proper understanding of the Greek text shows that John places “the Word” as the subject of the clause by supplying the definite article. John then pulls the word “God” forward in the sentence for emphasis. To maintain subject and predicate nominative identity and to stress the importance of the qualitative nature of θεὸς, John uses θεὸς without the article. The end result is that John argues for the full deity of Jesus Christ while maintaining a distinction between Him and the Father.
All of this clearly settles what the original Greek communicates. This on its own is enough to show that the NWT is incorrect. It also shows that the argument from the Coptic translation is a moot point. It ultimately doesn’t matter that an earlier translation also got it wrong the way the NWT did. However, it wouldn’t hurt to look at the Coptic translation and find out whether the argument is true. Is Jesus just “a god” in the Coptic translation?
The Sahidic Coptic translation at John 1:1 reads in like this:
ϨⲚ ⲦⲈϨⲞⲨⲈⲒⲦⲈ ⲚⲈϤϢⲞⲞⲠ ⲚϬⲒ ⲠϢⲀϪⲈ ⲀⲨⲰ ⲠϢⲀϪⲈ ⲚⲈϤϢⲞⲞⲠ ⲚⲚⲀϨⲢⲘ ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ⲀⲨⲰ ⲚⲈⲨⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ⲠⲈ ⲠϢⲀϪⲈ
The claim that is made by Arians is that the third clause of the Coptic translation translates θεός with the indefinite article. And when you look at the Sahidic text the indefinite article is in fact there. However, as odd as it may sound to us in our modern era, this also does not prove that they intended ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ (God) to be indefinite.
The third clause of the Sahidic text is a nominal subject/predicate construction consisting of only one morph or “[t]he smallest, basic units of grammatical or dictionary meaning….” Before the third clause, however, there are three bound groups (strings of morphs). The first sentence in the Sahidic text is going to sound strikingly familiar. “Hn” constitutes the preposition in, and is technically a part of the bound group “tehwite” to form the prepositional phrase “in the beginning”. The Sahidic text actually inserts the definite article “te” into this bound group,“the beginning,” whereas the Koine lacks a definite article in the phrase Ἐν ἀρχῇ.
What this shows is that the Coptics did understand Koine Greek. They were aware of the fact that the Greek text meant to indicate a definite period of time, “the beginning,” and supplied the definite article when there wasn’t one in the Greek.
The next bound group consists of a past tense marker which is understood as an imperfect copulative verb, namely “ne”. This becomes important to recognize in the Sahidic translation of the third clause of John 1:1. After the imperfect copula, the second morph contains a third person pronoun “f” and finally, the bound group is concluded with “shoop”. This bound group combined with the first one creates an interesting understanding of the Sahidic texts. The literal rendering places the present tense existence (shoop) of the Word (pshache) in the past tense imperfect time frame so as to read “the Word [subject] He was existing in the beginning.” Coptic uses a subject marker that appears in the text as “nqi”, letting us know that “the Word'' is the subject. This is an odd construction for a created lesser divine being since it denotes continuous existence up to the point of the beginning and beyond. So far, we see that the Coptic translation is being faithful to the original Koine.
“Auw” is the conjunction “and” which then sets off the next clause. “Peshache” once again “the Word” followed by the next bound group “nefshoop”. You’ll notice at this point the same bound group has appeared again in this clause. This becomes a problem in the Arian’s understanding of the Coptic text. The reason for this is that “shoop” is the verb of existence. Combined with the imperfect copula “ne” the Coptic text asserts that the Word was continuously existing with the Father. Still, the Coptic text continues to be faithful in its translation.
The translation of the Coptic of John 1:1, with what we’ve examined so far, could be like this, “The Word was existing in the beginning and the Word was existing with God….” The context thus far denies the Word’s creation. John 1:1 in the Coptic is actually stating not just the continuous existence of the Word, but that the existence parallels the Father’s existence. It would be enough to assume that only true, absolute deity has the capacity to continuously exist outside of creation (as John 1:1 denotes existence before creation happened). With that in mind, we can turn to the third clause.
“Auw neunoute pe peshache”. We have already seen the conjunction “auw.” The next bound group that we find has the controversial indefinite article. It is this bound group that has the nominal predicate (the bound group functioning as the predicate nominative). This bound group consists of the imperfect tense marker "ne" followed by the Coptic indefinite article “ou” which contracts after “e” or “a” to simply “u”. We’ve already seen the remaining elements of the sentence. The sentence would awkwardly be rendered literally as “and was a God He is the Word.” This shows the Coptic indefinite article is present before “noute”. As mentioned before, just because the Coptic indefinite article is present, it actually doesn’t mean that ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ is indefinite, “The Coptic use of ‘a’ and ‘the’ does not exactly correspond to English usage!” The Coptic definite article is often used to refer to someone known or anticipated by both listener and speaker. The indefinite article often refers to someone “unknown to the listener but known to the speaker, as at the beginning of a story” (my emphasis added). The indefinite article is also used for “an ordinary instance.” Therefore, the use of the indefinite article does not automatically mean that the Word is indefinite, but has to do with the fact that ⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ isn’t used the same way in the sentence that it was used earlier.
Further examination of the Coptic sentence structure shows that the third clause of John 1:1 in its nominal sentence predicate is showing a description of the Word. The construction of John 1:1c is known as a descriptive predicate. Layton defines descriptive predicates as,
One that speaks of an entity by its quality but without explicitly naming (denoting) the particular entity to which it refers…. Descriptive predicates are [indefinite] or [definite] article phrases of either a gendered common noun or a genderless common noun. They are usually introduced by [ou-] or [hen-] (rarely by the definite article)...” (my emphasis added).
The insertion of the indefinite article before “noute” is referring to the quality of the Word. In other words, it’s the Coptic way of translating the qualitative construction of the Greek text of John 1:1. It shows the deity of the Word yet distinguishes between He and the Father.
Now that we have an understanding of the indefinite versus definite article and the realm of the nominal sentence predication being descriptive, let’s look at the context of John 1:1 – 18 to gain further insight as to why John 1:1 in the Sahidic text is not saying that the Word is some created being who is still divine. John 1:18 reads,
ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ⲘⲠⲈⲖⲀⲀⲨ ⲚⲀⲨ ⲈⲢⲞϤ ⲈⲚⲈϨ. ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ ⲠϢⲎⲢⲈ ⲚⲞⲨⲰⲦ ⲠⲈⲦϢⲞⲞⲠ ϨⲚ ⲔⲞⲨⲚϤ ⲘⲠⲈϤⲈⲒⲰⲦ Ⲡ ⲈⲦⲘⲘⲀⲨ ⲠⲈ ⲚⲦⲀϤϢⲀϪⲈ ⲈⲢⲞϤ
John 1:18 says, “pnoute pshhre nouwt petshoop hn kounf mpefeiwt p etmmau pe ntafshache erof”. The reason why this phrase is important is that it uses the definite article to refer to Jesus as “The God, the only Son….” In other words, “the only Son” is placed in apposition to pnoute identifying Him as “the only Son” and ⲠⲚⲞⲨⲦⲈ, “the God”.
In light of the information provided, several conclusions can be made. First, the Greek text is a qualitative construction that identifies Jesus Christ (the Word) as truly God yet maintains His distinction from the Father. Second, not only does the Sahidic Coptic translation not affirm Arianism’s understanding of the Word being a lesser, created being, but actually affirms what the Greek text says. This is done by the descriptive nominal predicate construction that shows us the quality of the Word as God as well as distinguishing Him from the Father. It’s obvious by this brief study of both the Sahidic and the Koine text that the Coptic translators made the effort to stay true to the original Greek understanding; whereas the New World Translation, does not.
 William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, 27
 Ibid, 27
 Ibid, 28
 Arius was a heretic in church history who denied the deity of Jesus Christ.
 R. H. Countess, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament: A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, 54 - 55
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 267
 Also known as “modalism” i.e. that God is a single person existing in three different ‘modes’ simultaneously throughout history.
 Ibid., 257
 Ibid, 258
 Ibid., 268
 Ibid., 269
 Dr. James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief, 57
 J. Warren Wells, Sahidica: The New Testament According to the Sahidic Coptic Text
 Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, 14, 15
 Bently Layton, Coptic in 20 Lessons, 7
 Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, 14, 15
 Bently Layton, Coptic in 20 Lessons, 16
 Ibid., 15
 Ibid., 16
 Bently Layton, A Coptic Grammar, 227
 J. Warren Wells, Sahidica: The New Testament According to the Sahidic Coptic Text