Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Italians, John 1:1, and Colwell's Rule

There's a new woman working at my office. She is Italian. I think I'll ask her out.

Now, the above is completely fictional. There is no new woman at my office...I don't even work at "my office" but rather telecommute, and I just got married.

But think about that phrase "She is Italian."

Skip to John1:1-2, an oft-referenced verse that much has been made of. Standard translations go something like:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning."

The actual Greek of this statement is:

"En arche en ho logos kai ho logos en pros ton theon kai theos en ho logos. Houtos en en arche pros ho theos"

Translated interlinearly we get:

"In the beginning was the word and the word was [toward] the god and a god was the word. That one was in the beginning with the god."

(The "toward" here is one of several options.)

Now, the odd thing is John's use of "the god" and "a god." (I mean this interlinearly...not that "a god" is the proper real translation.)

"In the beginning was the word and the word was [toward] the god and a god was the word. That one was in the beginning with the god."

Now, the first thing to know is that the Greeks used "the god" to mean God [big "G"] and they used merely "a god" as a more general term to refer to idols, fictional gods, or merely powerful beings. For example, 2nd Thessalonians refers to the anti-christ exalting himself above "every god" (little g), putting himself in the Temple of God (big "G" for it is the Temple of the Living God) and claiming he is "a god" (little g).

The second thing to know is that there is really no such thing in Greek as "a god." There is no "a" in Greek. Either a noun has the article "the" in front of it, or it doesn't.

Anyway, the question is, what does John mean by using "God" in the first part of John 1:1, switching to "god" in the second, and then going immediately back to "God" in John 1:2.

Traditional translations have managed to take this grammar and claim it supports the Trinity doctrine. They claim that word order matters and the this is the only way John could have expressed exactly the trinitarian notion.

The claim [straight out of "Basics of Biblical Greek" Chapter 6 by Mounce] is that:

A god was the Word would mean Jesus was a god separate from "the God."


The Word was a god
means that all the attributes God has, The Word has as well without exhausting what it means to be God... so the Word was "fully" God without being the same as God.


The Word was the god
would mean The Word = God as though father and son were the same

[this of course already suffers from the obvious problem that it presumes "God" means "The father," which would in itself give the Orthodox version of The Trinity problems. Indeed, even if John had literally said "Jesus is the same as God," it would not really pose a problem for the Trinity, right? John would have to have said "Jesus is the Father" to do that...]

How does Mounce and others get away with turning "a god" into "the god"? The claim is something called "Colwell's Rule."

Colwell's "Rule" states that when predicate noun {god in this case} comes BEFORE a "be verb" (like "was"), it never has the article, even if it is meant to.

The problem with using Colwell's rule in this way is that Colwell's rule is wrong. There are many, many examples where a definite noun comes before a "be verb" and has the article. Even within the Gospel of John, this rule fails in John 6:51, 15:1, 21:7, and 21:12.

But there are other problems as well. Let's pretend Colwell's rule is right and can be used in the way Mounce and others claim it can. In that case we could derive other similar claims from the grammar that make no sense.

For example, consider John 4:19. The Greek of this verse is

"a prophet are you" translated in our bibles as "you are a prophet."

This matches the end of John 1:1c: "a god was the word"

The useful thing to note about "prophet" is that it is like "god" in that it has a special meaning when you put the "the" next to it. "The Prophet" was a very special figure in Jewish thought. John refers to "The Prophet" often. [See John 1:21 among others].

So, if what Mounce and others were saying is true, when the woman says "a prophet are you" she means "you have all the attributes of The Prophet without actually being the same as him."

That would be a rather odd statement!

Other examples can be found throughout John (including two I will mention later).

But lets get back to the Italian woman in my office that I might ask out. Notice the difference between:

"There's a new woman working at my office. She is Italian. I think I'll ask her out."


"There's a new woman working at my office. She is an Italian. I think I'll ask her out."

There is a subtle difference here. Indeed, in the first sentence I get to do something I normally don't get to do in English. Normally every noun in English has some sort of modifier in front of it. I cannot say "I picked up pencil" I either have to say "I picked up a pencil" or "I picked up the pencil."

That is the same as Greek. Normally there are just two options: either the word has the article before it or it does not. Either "god" or "the god."

But there is nothing wrong with saying "She is Italian." The Italian is an "adjective noun." It does not describe a category so much as a quality. The idea is not that she was born in Italy but rather that she has the personal attributes one associates with Italians.

However, saying "She is an Italian" suggests more that she was actually born in Italy [or at least is "full blood" Italian]... it does not really emphasize anything about her disposition or personal traits.

I think that is what is going on in John 1:1c. The statement is not a description of category. It is not saying "Jesus is a god." Nor is it a statement of identity. It is not saying "Jesus is God" [John appears to go out of his way to get away from saying this.] Rather it is a qualitative statement indicating Jesus' essence.

There is actually a very good verse that backs up this view. Consider the first part of John 4:24... the Greek is "a spirit is the god."

Now, if we were following Mounce's logic here, we really would be in trouble! Note that "God" has switched over from being the predicate nominative and is now the subject. According to Mounce's reasoning, this would be saying "All the attributes the Spirit has, God has as well without exhausting what it means to be the Spirit." [this is backwards from what Orthodoxy would want.]

But that isn't what Jesus means in John 4:24 at all. Jesus is not saying God is the Holy Spirit...nor is Jesus saying God is merely some random spirit [God is "a spirit"]. No, what Jesus means is that God has the quality of spirit-ness.

Note that John 4:24a has the exact same grammar as John 1:1c.

I would claim, then, that when John writes "a god was The Word," He is not claiming Jesus is "a god" (separate from God the Father), nor is he identifying Jesus as God (which he appears to go at lengths not to do) but rather claiming that Jesus has the quality of "god"-ness.

Whatever that means.

Much of this information comes from BeDuhn's excellent book Truth in Translation, but some of it is original to me [in particular the linkage to modern English and the discussion of what "The Prophet" means.]


JohnOneOne said...

Much of what you discuss above will be covered with a new work entitled, "What About John 1:1?"

You can learn more of its progress at the following weblink:

Agape, Alan.

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Alan. I hope you find something else of interest on my blog.

Note appears to be down atm.

Steve said...

I've read similar interpretations before; Barclay discusses this in his DSB commentary on John. It drives evangelicals nuts, though.

And welcome back from the honeymoon!

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Steve.

I feel so blessed!

sweetdreams said...

nice work
"In the beginning was the word and the word was [toward] the god and a god was the word. That one was in the beginning with the god."

Replacing Hebrew words we get something like this,

"In the beginning was the Memra and the Memra was agav (beside)] the Eloha and an elohim was the Memra. That one was in the beginning with the Eloha."

Eloha is singular for Elohim and refers to the one supreme God. Elohim can mean god, gods, angels, human judges etc. Moses was called an Elohim.

David Rudel said...

Thanks, this was actually the article that I posted on that email list before the behavior there caused me to leave. I think you were one of the participants. There were several there who just seemed not at all interested in real contemplation of anything or civil discussion.

sweetdreams said...

Hi David,
I don't recall seeing this post until yesterday.
The 3rd Century Coptic translation transliterated

Hn te.houeite ne.f.shoop ngi p.shaje
Auw p.shaje ne.f.shoop n.nahrm p.noute
Auw ne.u.noute pe p.shaje 1

Literally, the Coptic says:

In the beginning existed the word
And the word existed in the presence of the god
And a god was the word

This may rattle some theological cages but we should never be afraid of a correct translation.