Jehovah’s Witnesses translate this John 1:1 passage in their New World Translation (hereafter NWT) as “the Word was a god.” Their rationale is as follows:
1. Other translations render the verse this way (the interlinear Emphatic Diaglott and The New Testament in an Improved Version are two mentioned in Reasoning from the Scriptures [hereafter RS]).
2. The definite article (the) is with the first use of God, but not with the second. This is an anarthrous use, which simply means without an article—definite or indefinite. Where an anarthrous use appears prior to the verb, then it refers to one’s property or quality. Thus, “the text is not saying that the Word (Jesus) was the same as the God with whom he was but, rather, that the Word was godlike, divine, a god” (RS, 212).
3. The rest of the chapter explains that Jesus is the “only-begotten god” (NWT) who made the unseen God known (1:18). So obviously Jesus could not be God; He’s the Son of God as the gospels consistently say (cf. 20:31).
4. Jesus is therefore “the first and direct creation of Jehovah God” (The Kingdom Is at Hand [Watchtower, 1944], 46-7). Jesus then created all other things.
1. The NWT employs an extremely rare translation here. Rob Bowman says, “[F]or every one translation [employing a similar use of “the Word was a god,”] there are at least four or five currently circulating English translations which follow the traditional rendering or some equivalent [i.e., “the Word was God”]” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 136). Bowman goes on to say that the only committee he is aware of that translates John 1:1 not consistent with a Trinitarian way is the NWT.
The Emphatic Diaglott was done by Benjamin Wilson, who was an autodidact Bible scholar and obviously denied the Trinity and deity of Christ. As for The New Testament in an Improved Version, a Unitarian, Thomas Belsham, altered Archbishop Newcome’s text.
Further, the NWT translators are anonymous. But when Raymond Franz later defected from the Governing Body, he revealed the translators (Natahn Knorr, Fredrick Franz, Albert Schroeder, George Gangas, and Milton Henschel), and none of them are qualified as Greek or Hebrew translators.
So why should we trust this translation? The answer simply is because the Governing Body has given it to us. But this simply begs the question: why trust the Governing Body here? With such notable Greek translators as Dr. Julius Mantey, Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, and Dr. William Barclay all claiming that the NWT is a “shocking,” “reprehensible,” and “intellectually dishonest” translation (Ron Rhodes, The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 94), there is good reason to reject the NWT.
2. An anarthrous use does not entail “the Word was a god” translation. When qualities are mentioned, they typically are without an indefinite or definite article. For example, “the ball is red” stresses a quality of the ball. This is a typical way of saying that “the ball is a red one” (indefinite use) or “the ball is the red one” (definite use). Now of course there are many balls, but when it comes to God--the Creator and Sustainer of literally everything outside Himself--there is only One of Him.
So who has this quality? Obviously God does, but according to the passage, the emphasis is on the Word. He has this quality as well. Even the NWT translation points this out in verses 2 and 3: “This one was in [the] beginning with God. All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.” Jesus was in the beginning with God, since He was also God and by whom everything came into existence.
The anarthrous use is also in John 3:2, but here the JWs translate it as “God,” not “a god.” Here it is translated “a teacher came from God,” not “a teacher came from a god.” It seems obvious that the JWs are inconsistent. They play the indefinite article card simply when it suits their interests.
3. Thus, “the only-begotten god” (Jn. 1:18 NWT) has no reference to a lesser god, but to the second Person of the only God there is. Simply because He was begotten is no reason to think He is a lesser god. If one is begotten, then one has the nature of its begetter. Whatever a dog begets is a dog, for example, but again this does not entail that Jesus is another god because there is only one God. If God is eternally God in His nature, then whoever He begets must be eternally God as well. Thus, the Word must have been eternally begotten.
Whatever is made is not begotten. One can make a statute of a human, but since it was not begotten, it is not human; it is a rock. Since the Jesus of the JWs does not have the nature of God, their Jesus was made, not truly begotten. The Jesus of the Bible, on the other hand, is truly the “only begotten Son” (Jn. 3:16).
4. Finally, if Jesus was the first and only direct act of creation by Jehovah, then the Jn. 1 passage would say that in the beginning was God, and by Him everything came into existence, including the Word, who then created everything else. This is basically what the JWs did with their distortion of Colossians 1:15-17. As a result, they distort Jn. 1 and turn Jesus into a “lesser god,” who created everything else.
This is also problematic, since Genesis 1:1 indicates that Jehovah created the heavens and the earth in the beginning. So either Jehovah created the heavens and the earth in the beginning or He created Jesus in the beginning. Further, Jehovah makes all things, stretching and spreading out the heavens and earth “alone” and by Himself (Isaiah 44:24). He never had the help of a lesser god.
R. M. Sivulka
President, Courageous Christians United