What About That “a god” Translation in the “Jehovah’s Witness” Bible?
In The New Word Translation of the Holy Scriptures (the edition of the Bible that is translated, published, and used by the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”), the Gospel of John begins in this way: “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Why does this version use the expression “a god,” when referring to Christ? Almost all other translations read “the Word was God.”
The explanation is simple, though sad. Those of the “Watchtower” persuasion do not believe that Jesus Christ possessed the nature of deity. According to their little book, Let God Be True, they consider him to be nothing more than a “perfect man” (87).
Since John 1:1, in the common versions, identifies the Word (a reference to Christ; see v. 14) as “God” (i.e., deity in essence), these misguided people must reconstruct the verse in an effort to sustain their dogma. They somehow must attempt to convey the impression that while Jesus may have been a substandard kind of “god,” he was not fully divine in the sense that the heavenly Father is.
The “Witness” solution thus has been to render the Greek word
theos, as “a god.” In order to accomplish this linguistic marvel, the Witnesses have manipulated certain elements of New Testament Greek grammar in the interest of their own theological agenda. Let us develop some foundation for understanding this problem.
In English, there are both definite and indefinite articles. The definite article is “the.” Indefinite articles are “a” and “an.” Let us illustrate. “A” rock is simply a piece of stone; no particular stone, just stone – as to its character. “The” rock refers to a particular rock, as in: “The rock fell and hit John on his head.”
In Greek, however, while there are definite articles, there is no indefinite article. Accordingly, when a noun is accompanied by an article, usually a definite object is in view. When the noun is unaccompanied by an article, generally the nature of the object is being stressed.
The use of the Greek article, however, is a very complex study, and a failure to appreciate the article’s flexibility can result in a significant misunderstanding of some texts. One scholar has written an entire volume of over 500 pages, solely on the uses of the Greek article in the New Testament (Thomas F. Middleton, The Doctrine of the Greek Article, London: Rivington & Deighton, 1841).
Theos and the Article
In John 1:1 the term for “God” is twice used. In the first instance, the word is accompanied by the article; in the second instance (with reference to Christ) there is no article. It is this absence of the article that leads the Watchtower advocates to the unorthodox rendition “a god.”
We will not consume the time at this point in discussing the grammatical circumstances that reflect the diversity between the use and non-use of the article in this passage. We have dealt with the matter in some detail in our pamphlet, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Doctrine of the Deity of Christ. Rather, we will simply state here that the Watchtower procedure has been utterly repudiated by the best of the world’s New Testament Greek scholars.
At this point we would simply observe there are numerous instances in the original New Testament where the term theos (God) is used either with or without the article “without any apparent difference in meaning” (Balz, 140).
But perhaps the best way to expose the Watchtower fallacy is to throw the spotlight on their egregiously inconsistent translation of theos in those New Testament texts where theos is unaccompanied by the article.
The noun theos is found some 1,343 times in the Greek Testament (Smith, 173). According to one scholar, who has researched the matter considerably, in no fewer than 282 of these texts theos is without the article (Countess, 54-55). If the Watchtower “rule” is valid, one would expect to find the rendition “a god” in each of these passages. But that is not the case. In only sixteen instances of The New World Translation (6% of the total) do we find the rendition as “a god,” “god,” “gods” or “godly.”
Even in the context of John 1:1-18, where theos is found without the article on six occasions (1,2,6,12,13,18), it is only rendered as “a god” or “god” twice (vv. 1,18) in the NWT. The Witnesses do not even follow their own, self-imposed “rule.”
The next time a Jehovah’s Witness calls at your door, anxious to engage you in a Bible study, courteously ask him/her this question.
“Why is it that the word ‘God’ is translated as ‘a god’ in John 1:1b and 18b of the New World Translation, and yet the identical construction is rendered as ‘God’ in verses 2, 6, 12, and 13 in the same context?”
If you kindly, but firmly, press this inquiry, you likely will discover that your Watchtower visitor suddenly has urgent business elsewhere.
- Balz, H. & Schneider, G. (1991), Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 2.
- Countess, R.H. (1982), The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament: A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed).
- Let God Be True (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1946).
- New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1961).
- Smith, J.B. (1955), Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press).
- Wayne Jackson’s pamphlet, *Jehovah’s Witnesses And The Doctrine Of The Deity Of Christ is available from: Haun Publications, P.O. Box 3426, Pasadena, TX 77501 (1-800-231-9709).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.