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3. The First Pillar of Trinitarianism: John’s Prologue (1:1-18)

Chapter 3

The First Pillar of Trinitarianism:
John’s Prologue (1:1-18)

John chapter 1, specifically John’s Prologue (1:1-18), is the first of what I used to call “the four pillars of trinitarianism,” that is, the four chapters in the Bible that I had long regarded, in my staunchly trinitarian days, as providing the strongest support for the doctrine of the Trinity: John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, and Revelation 1.

For many years I would call up these four pillars when explaining (and advocating) trinitarianism to my students who were preparing for the full-time ministry. I now examine these four pillars in four chapters, starting with the present chapter, but no longer from a position of trinitarianism. My aim is to undo what I had been teaching many people over the years, in the hope of making up for the trinitarian errors that I had taught others, and which I myself had learned from others.

John’s Prologue is the first pillar not only in terms of canonical order (it precedes the other three pillars in the Bible’s book order) but also in terms of its importance to trinitarianism. My earlier book, TOTG, covered John’s Prologue and its pivotal verse, John 1:1, devoting three chapters (7,8,9) to its exposition. Our present discussion on John’s Prologue will complement TOTG but also overlap with TOTG, in equal measure.

Observant readers of the New Testament would notice there is little in the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke—that is of use to trinitarianism. It is apparently not of serious concern to trinitarians that three of the four gospels cannot be drawn upon to support the deity of Christ.

The fear of pronouncing God’s name

We begin our discussion on John’s Prologue with some brief remarks on the Jewish prohibition of uttering God’s name. Our starting point is a short quotation—so short that it isn’t even a complete sentence—yet one whose significance can hardly be overstated:

“the God who may not be named nor spoken of”

(Philo, On Dreams, that They are God-Sent, XI, 1.67)

We will discuss Philo later. It suffices for now to say that he was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who strived to combine Greek philosophy and Jewish religious thought into one coherent intellectual system; his ideas were later used by trinitarians. For now we reflect on his statement that God “may not be named nor spoken of”. It mirrored the belief of the Jews of Philo’s day that God’s name, YHWH, is too sacred to be uttered. And because Philo was a contemporary of Jesus, the same prohibition of uttering God’s name was observed by the Jews of Jesus’ day. The prohibition continues to this day among the Jews.

The historical roots of this prohibition go back six centuries before Christ when the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar defeated the nation of Israel (which by then had already been reduced to the kingdom of Judah) and laid siege to Jerusalem, its capital. The destruction of Jerusalem was almost total; the city was razed to the ground, and Solomon’s Temple was plundered and destroyed. Most of the Jews, especially the elite, were deported to Babylon.

Exactly as the prophet Jeremiah had forewarned Israel (2Chr.36:21; Jer.29:10), the people went into exile for 70 years as punishment for their idolatry. Their time in exile was a period of spiritual cleansing and purification. It took no less than the destruction of Israel as a nation by the ancient superpowers—Assyria, Babylon, Egypt—as well as captivity in foreign lands, for the people of Israel to return to their pure and original devotion to God. When they finally returned to Israel from exile, marking the start of what is called the “post-exilic” period of Israel’s history, they looked back at all their sufferings—the calamities, the humiliations, the killings, plus exile to foreign lands—and understood that these things happened because they had turned away from Yahweh.

After returning to Israel from exile, they entered a new phase in their history during which Israel steadfastly refused to worship any god other than Yahweh. From that time on, Israel remained strictly monotheistic and no longer practiced idolatry or polytheism. The Israelites began to recite the Shema every day. “Shema” (Hebrew for “hear”) is the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. Here “Lord” in Hebrew is literally “Yahweh,” the personal name of God. The Shema is literally saying, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God is one Yahweh”. To this day, every devout Jew would recite the Shema daily, but without uttering the name “Yahweh”.[1]

After the Babylonian exile had ended, monotheism became entrenched in Israel. The people began to fear and reverence God even to the extent of not pronouncing the name “Yahweh”. There is, however, no Scriptural basis for the prohibition against uttering God’s name, for Yahweh had earlier said to Moses, “[YHWH] is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Ex.3:15). A few chapters later, Yahweh said to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex.9:16). In Leviticus, Yahweh told the Israelites that whenever they swear by His name, it must not be under false pretenses (Lev.19:12). Near the end of the Pentateuch, Moses sang the words, “I will proclaim the name of Yahweh. Oh praise the greatness of our God!” (Dt.32:3). And a Psalmist wrote, “Give thanks to Yahweh, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done” (Ps.105:1). Calling on Yahweh’s name is not just a matter of praise but of salvation: “Whoever calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved” (Joel 2:32). (All verses cited in this paragraph are from NIV with “Yahweh” in the Hebrew restored.)

The Torah or the Law (or Instruction) taught the people of Israel to proclaim the name of Yahweh. Yet after returning from exile, they no longer uttered God’s name, a prohibition that has no Scriptural basis or historical precedent. Prior to the exile, the Israelites would regularly read out the name of YHWH which was written on almost every page of their Scriptures right up to the last page. But after the exile, they no longer spoke His name. With their new fear and reverence of Yahweh, they knew that if they should sin against Him once more, they will be uprooted again as a nation. They didn’t want to be exiled again, so they determined not to speak God’s name at all for fear of using it in vain (Ex.20:7; Dt. 5:11). Instead of calling Him Yahweh, they called Him by the substitute “Adonai” (Lord). But whereas “Yahweh” is God’s personal name, “Adonai” is not a name but a title.

The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, does not transliterate “Yahweh” into Greek but renders it as kyrios, the Greek word for “Lord” and the equivalent of the Hebrew “Adonai”. The Septuagint was merely following the practice of the day—of not saying “Yahweh”—that had been established a couple of centuries earlier.

What Philo says about God’s name, that it may not be spoken, is therefore without basis in the Scriptures, yet has become the norm for religious practice among the Jews. The man-made refusal to utter God’s name which is written in their own Scriptures has had significant consequences for the Jews, some of whom have forgotten the name of the God who had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and brought them into a new existence as a nation. With undoubtedly good intentions, they now refrained from uttering Yahweh’s Name in order to prevent any accidental blaspheming of the Name, a grave sin that in the Law would incur the death penalty. However, the authoritative Jewish work, Encyclopaedia Judaica, rejects the prohibition of uttering the name “Yahweh” (see Appendix 1).

The “Word” as a metonym for God

If God could not be named or spoken of, how would one refer to Him? This was usually done indirectly by means of a metonym or circumlocution such as “the Majesty” (Heb.1:3; 8:1), “the Highest” (Lk.1:35), or “Power” (Mt.26:64), all of which refer to God. A metonym is a name or a word that stands for something that is closely related to it (e.g. “Washington” is a metonym of the U.S. government). Many Jews today refer to God as “the Name” (HaShem).

With nearly 7,000 occurrences of “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible, what word or words did the people of Israel use as a metonym of Yahweh? The name Yahweh was commonly represented by the circumlocution “the Word of the Lord” or “the Word”. In Jesus’ day, every religious Jew who lived in Israel understood that “the Word” (memra in Aramaic) is a reference to God.

Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the main spoken language in the Israel of Jesus’ day. Its use in the New Testament is seen, for example, in the word bar (“son”) in names such as Barsabbas, Bartimaeus and Bar-Jonah (bar is Aramaic, ben is Hebrew). The use of Aramaic is seen in Jesus’ words, Talitha koum (“Little girl, I say to you, get up”) spoken to a dead girl (Mk.5:41), and also in Jesus’ cry at the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Mk.15:34 records this as, “Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic.[2]

Aramaic and Hebrew are related languages but are not mutually intelligible without some prior exposure to both.[3] In Jesus’ day, many could not read the Hebrew Bible adequately and had to depend on the Aramaic translations. A translation of the Hebrew Bible—usually of a portion of the Bible—into Aramaic is called “Targum” (“translation”). The various Targums collectively formed the Aramaic Bible in Jesus’ time but also in the time when John was writing his Gospel. Martin McNamara, an expert on the Targums, says:

A targum is an Aramaic translation of a book or books of the Old Testament, Aramaic being the language spoken rather generally in Palestine in the time of Christ, and indeed for some centuries preceding it. In the regular synagogue service, sections of the Pentateuch and of the Prophets were read out in Hebrew and were immediately translated into Aramaic. (Targum and Testament, p.11)

The Palestinian Targum, recited every Sabbath in the synagogues, would have been well known to Christ and his apostles, as well as to the Jewish converts to Christianity. (p.167)

In poetic language, the familiar metonym “the Word of the Lord” could reasonably be shortened to “the Word” (memra), a form which is in fact often seen in the Targums but also in John 1:1 which paraphrases the opening words of Genesis:

“In the beginning God” (Genesis 1:1)

“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1)

The identification of “God” in Genesis 1:1 with “the Word” in John 1:1 cannot be missed except by trinitarians, not only because “the Word” (memra) was a familiar metonym of God in John’s day (hence John 1:1, “the Word was God”), but also because the two parallel statements are the opening clauses of their respective books. A trinitarian who does not miss the identification is Thomas Constable of Dallas Theological Seminary who writes:

Obviously the word “Word” (Gr. logos; Aram. memra, used to describe God in the Targums), to which John referred, was a title for God. The Targums are Aramaic translations of the Old Testament. Later in this verse [John 1:1] he identified the Word as God. John evidently chose this title because it communicates the fact that the Word was not only God but also the expression of God. (Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes, 2010, on John 1:1)

The link between the logos of John 1:1 and the memra of the Targums is also noted by the New Testament scholars J.B. Lightfoot (A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica) and C.K. Barrett (The Gospel According to St. John). Alfred Edersheim compiles detailed connections between Jehovah and the Memra in chapter IV of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. More recently (2010), John Ronning gives data on the connection between John’s Prologue and the Targums in his fervently trinitarian work, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology.

In the Targums, “Yahweh” in most instances is replaced by “the Word of the Lord” but also by “the Word” in some instances. Although “the Word of the Lord” is the predominant metonym of Yahweh in the Targums, it is occasionally shortened to “the Word” even in the Targums; e.g. Gen.5:24; 9:17; 16:1; 28:10; Ex.15:8; 33:11; Lev.24:12; Dt.4:12; 5:22,23; 33:3; of the Targum Yerushalmi, i.e., Jerusalem Targum.[4]

The parallel between “Yahweh” and “the Word” is found even in the Hebrew Bible. In the following verse, dabar (“word”) stands in metonymic parallel with “Yahweh”:

Whoever gives attention to the word (dabar) finds happiness;

whoever trusts in Yahweh is blessed. (Proverbs 16:20)

 

The deep spiritual meaning of “the Word”

John’s use of “the Word” as a metonym of Yahweh (“and the Word was God”)—similar to the metonymic use of memra (“Word”) in the Aramaic Targums—finds rich expression in the well-known OT phrase, “the word of Yahweh” (or, in most Bibles, “the word of the Lord”). This important term occurs about 242 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It uses the key word dabar (דָּבָר, “word”) which carries the meaning of verbal communication. The noun (word, speech) occurs more than 1400 times in the Hebrew Scriptures; the verb (speak, declare), more than 1100 times.

The Word of Yahweh is integral to the very person of Yahweh; hence “the Word” is a familiar metonym of God. The Word of Yahweh is the means by which Yahweh speaks to humankind, communicating His will, His intentions, His love, His salvation. The Word is the channel by which He reveals Himself to us. For this reason, the Word of God is “living and active” (Heb.4:12) and is filled with God’s life (“the word of life,” 1Jn.1:1). Through the living Word of God, we come into contact with Yahweh’s life and creative power, and above all with Yahweh Himself.

With the Word as a metonym of Yahweh, John declares that “the Word was God” (John 1:1). This Word “became flesh” in Jesus (v.14) and is now embodied in him such that Yahweh now dwells in Jesus, that is, true God now lives in true man. “For in him (Christ) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col.2:9, ESV, note “bodily”). The man Christ Jesus embodies the Word of Yahweh, hence he embodies Yahweh’s fullness, grace, life, and power.

In John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh”), the Greek word for “became” is ginomai, which means “to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition” (BDAG). This is the definition of ginomai that BDAG assigns to John 1:14. The Word who is Yahweh by metonymy entered into a new state of being or a new mode of existence in Christ, namely, that of human life (cf. “entering a new mode of existence,” Wuest’s NT translation, Jn.1:14). BDAG also defines ginomai as “to make a change of location in space,” which aligns with the wonderful truth that Yahweh came into the world to dwell in Jesus bodily. Yahweh had earlier proclaimed that He will come to His people (Isa.40:3-5,10) and to His temple (Mal.3:1), which ultimately is Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “the Father who dwells in me does his works” (Jn.14:10).

Since Yahweh, with His Word, dwells in Jesus, John is able to say, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”. This Son embodies “the Word” which tabernacles in him; he is the temple of God that embodies God’s Shekinah glory: “the Word became flesh and dwelled (literally tabernacled) among us”.

How Yahweh’s Word functions in relation to Yahweh is seen in various metaphors. For example, Yahweh compares His Word (dabar) to the rain that comes down from heaven in order to water the earth, nourishing it and blessing all life. The Word goes out from Yahweh’s mouth and carries out His purposes:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11, NIV)

The Word of Yahweh finds ultimate expression as the Word dwelling in Jesus Christ. Just as Yahweh’s Word will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His purposes, so Jesus says, “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do” (John 17:4).

Word and Spirit

God created all things by His Word, yet the Spirit of God was also involved (Gen.1:2-3). Psalm 33:6 says, “By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host”. Here we see the Hebrew parallelism between dabar (word) and ruach (breath or spirit). The LXX of this verse has a similar parallel in Greek between logos (word, cf. Jn.1:1) and pneuma (spirit or breath).

The vital link between God’s Word and God’s Spirit is well known, and is noted by Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984, p.521, Holy Spirit):

God’s creative word (Gen.1:3ff) is closely akin to God’s creative breath (Gen.2:7). Both ideas are identical elsewhere with God’s spirit.

The connection between Word and Spirit is seen also in the NT. When Jesus speaks, he “speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without measure” (Jn.3:34). “It is the Spirit who gives life,” hence Jesus’ words are “spirit and life” (Jn.6:63). We are “born of the Spirit” (Jn.3:8) yet also “born again through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pet. 1:23). The sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Eph.6:17).

God’s Word and God’s Spirit are not two hypostases (persons) distinct from God, but are two aspects and expressions of God.[5] God is spirit in His very nature (Jn.4:24). The Word is the form, the Spirit is the substance. The Word is the seed (Lk.8:11) that contains the Spirit of life (Rom.8:2); cf. “the word of life” (1Jn.1:1).

Just as God’s Word and God’s Spirit were involved in the old Genesis creation, they are involved in the new creation which God had planned “before the foundation of the world” (Mt.25:34; Eph.1:4; 1Pet.1:20; Rev.13:8).

The danger of misapplied metonyms

In using the “Word” (Greek logos, Hebrew dabar, Aramaic memra) as a metonym of Yahweh, John’s Prologue is proclaiming the wonderful message that Yahweh—God the Creator—has come into the world to dwell in the man Jesus Christ, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells “bodily” (Col.2:9).

Metonyms of God can, however, be misunderstood or misapplied to a person other than Yahweh, including metonyms such as “the Majesty” (Heb.8:1) or “the Majestic Glory” (2Pet.1:17) or “Power” (Mt.26:64). This was what happened in the case of Simon the magician who was called “the Great Power of God” (Acts 8:10).

John wrote his gospel many years after the events in Acts, and was aware of what had happened in the early days of the church, and of the danger of the misplaced application of metonyms. This would explain the second and third clauses of John 1:1 (“and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). Evidently these were intended as a safeguard to ensure that “the Word” would not be mistaken as a second divine person alongside God.

In studying John 1:1, we need to be aware that the word “God” is understood differently by different people, depending on whether their beliefs are pagan or Christian, monotheistic or polytheistic. Some Roman gods are the same as Greek gods with different names (e.g. Roman Jupiter is the same as Greek Zeus). But “God” in Greco-Roman culture would mean something different from “God” in the Bible, so it is important to specify which God we are taking about, especially in explaining God to Greeks but also to people in general, Greek or Jew. This is what John does in John 1:1, making it specific that the God he is speaking of is Yahweh, the Creator of all things.

Verses 2 and 3 are similarly designed to prevent the reader from applying “the Word” to someone other than Yahweh. Yet Gentile Christians have done the very thing that John had intended to prevent! They did this by imposing the meaning “with” on the word pros in John 1:1b (“and the Word was with God”) and John 1:2 (“he was in the beginning with God”), even though “with” is not the primary meaning of pros.

Does pros mean “with” in John 1:1?

This is the most important question we can ask about John 1:1, for how we answer it will govern the way we interpret the whole verse. For convenience, we denote the three clauses in John 1:1 by the suffixes a, b, c:

John 1:1a       In the beginning was the Word,

John 1:1b      and the Word was with God,

John 1:1c       and the Word was God.

In John 1:1b, the word “with” is translated from the Greek preposition pros whose primary meaning is “to” or “towards” rather than “with”. Trinitarians render John 1:1b as “and the Word was with God” despite the fact that “with” is not the usual meaning of pros. There are in fact other prepositions that are more commonly used for conveying the idea of “with”: (a) syn means together “with” someone or something (cf. synchronize, sympathy); (b) meta means “with” someone or “after” someone (cf. metaphor); (c) para means “beside” someone or something (cf. parallel).[6]

But pros is not one of these prepositions. If John had intended to express the idea “with God” in John 1:1b, he would have used one of the other three prepositions instead.

This comes out in the data compiled in Modern Concordance to the New Testament, an important Greek-language tool that is useful for its categorizations by classes of meaning. This concordance is praised by Protestant and Catholic scholars alike [7] and is particularly useful for finding out what a Greek word actually means in actual writing.

In its data under the heading “With” (pp.679-681), Modern Concordance gives 164 instances of meta, 66 instances of syn, 34 instances of para, but only 16 instances of pros! Hence pros rarely carries the meaning “with” even though the word itself occurs 700 times in the New Testament, far more frequently than the other three prepositions: syn (128 times), para (194 times), meta (469 times). In fact, a few of these 16 instances of pros do not obviously carry the meaning “with” as we understand “with” in English.

The following table shows beyond doubt the preponderance of the prepositions meta, syn, para over the preposition pros for the meaning “with”. The table is based on the comprehensive data compiled under the heading “With” in Modern Concordance. The last cell of the table has only one line, indicating that pros seldom means “with” despite occurring 700 times in the NT, far more often than the other three prepositions.

 

Verses listed in Modern Concordance in which

prepositions meta, syn, para, and pros mean “with”

Meta: 164 of 469 occurrences (35%)

Matt 1:23; 2:11; 9:11; 9:15; 16:27; 17:17; 26:18; 26:20; 26:29; 26:36; 28:20; Mark 1:13; 1:29; 2:16; 2:19; 3:7; 5:24; 8:10; 8:38; 11:11; 14:14; 14:17; Luke 1:28; 1:58; 1:66; 1:72; 2:51; 5:30; 5:34; 6:17; 7:36; 22:11; 22:15; 22:53; 24:29; 24:30; John 3:2; 3:22; 3:26; 4:27; 6:3; 7:33; 8:29; 9:37; 11:54; 13:33; 14:9; 14:16; 14:30; 16:4; 16:32; 17:12; 18:2; Acts 7:9; 10:38; 11:21; 14:27; 15:4; 18:10; Rom 15:33; 16:20; 16:24; 1Cor 16:23; 2Cor 13:11; 13:13; Gal 6:18; Eph 6:24; Phil 4:9; 4:23; Col 4:18; 1Thess 3:13; 5:28; 2Thess 1:7; 3:16; 3:18; 1Tim 6:21; 2Tim 4:22; Titus 3:15; Phlm 1:25; Heb 13:25; 1John 4:17; 2John 1:2; 1:3; Rev 1:12; 2:16; 3:20; 4:1; 10:8; 21:3; 22:21; Matt 12:30; 17:3; 25:31; 26:23; 26:38; 26:40; 26:51; 26:69; 26:71; Mark 3:14; 4:36; 5:18; 5:37; 14:18; 14:20; 14:33; 14:67; 16:10; Luke 5:29; 11:23; 22:21; 22:28; 22:33; 22:59; John 6:66; 9:40; 11:16; 12:17; 13:8; 13:18; 15:27; 17:24; 18:26; 19:18; Acts 2:28; 7:38; 1John 1:3; 1:6; Rev 3:4; 3:20; 3:21; 14:1; 17:14; 20:4; 20:6; 22:12; Matt 5:25; 12:3; 12:4; 27:54; Mark 1:36; 2:25; 5:40; Luke 6:3; 6:4; John 11:31; 20:24; 20:26; Acts 9:19; 9:39; 20:34; Titus 3:15

Syn: 66 of 128 occurrences (52%)

Luke 7:6; 24:29; 24:44; John 18:1; 1Cor 15:10; Matt 26:35; 27:38; 27:44; Mark 15:27; 15:32; Luke 8:1; 8:38; 8:51; 9:18; 22:14; 22:56; 23:32; John 12:2; Acts 4:13; Rom 6:8; 8:32; 2Cor 4:14; 13:4; Phil 1:23; Col 2:13; 2:20; 3:3; 3:4; 1Thess 4:14; 4:17; 5:10; 2Pet 1:18; Mark 2:26; Luke 2:13; 5:9; 7:12; 8:45; 9:32; 24:10; 24:24; 24:33; Acts 5:17; 5:21; 13:7; 14:4; 22:9; 22:11; 27:2; Rom 16:14; 16:15; Gal 2:3; Col 2:5

Para: 34 of 194 occurrences (18%)

Matt 6:1; 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:30; 2:52; 9:47; 11:37; 18:27; 19:7; John 1:39; 4:40; 8:38; 14:17; 14:23; 14:25; 17:5; Rom 2:11; 2:13; 9:14; 1Cor 3:19; 7:24; Gal 3:11; Eph 6:9; 2Thess 1:6; James 1:17; 1:27; 1Pet 2:4; 2:20; 2Pet 3:8

Pros: 16 of 700 occurrences (2%)

John 1:1; 1:2; 12:32; 14:3; Rom 4:2; 5:1; 2Cor 5:8; 1Jn 1:2; 2:1; Mt 13:56; Mark 6:3; 9:19; 14:49; 1Th 3:4; 2Th 3:10

 

Also shown in this table are the percentages of occurrence for the meaning “with”: meta 35%, syn 52%, para 18%, pros 2%. The low percentage for pros (2%) means that pros seldom carries the meaning “with”—only 16 times in 700 occurrences, or once in 44 occurrences. Hence, in actual usage, “with” is not the usual meaning of pros but only the secondary or tertiary meaning. Yet it is the lesser meaning of pros that has been conscripted for trinitarian use in John 1:1.

The meaning of “pros” in the standard lexicons

The meaning “to be with someone” that trinitarians seek in John 1:1b (“the Word was with God,” implying a second person) is not the usual meaning of the preposition pros. This fact is seen not only in the way pros is actually used in the Bible (cf. Modern Concordance) but also in how it is defined by lexical authorities. The BDAG Greek-English lexicon gives the following definitions of pros. Some readers may wish to skip the definitions but it may be helpful to glance at the words shown in boldface (all italics and boldface are BDAG’s): [8]

 [3]  with accusative, marker of movement or orientation toward someone/something

(a) of place, person, or thing toward, towards, to, after verbs

α. of going

β. of sending

γ. of motion generally

δ. of leading, guiding

ε. of saying, speaking

ζ. of asking, praying

(b) of time near, at, or during (a certain time)

α. denoting approach toward

β. of temporal duration for

(c) of goal (aiming) at or (striving) toward

α. with conscious purpose for, for the purpose of, on behalf of

β. generally of design, destiny

γ. of the result that follows a set of circumstances (so that)

(d) of relationship (hostile or friendly), against, for

α. hostile against, with after verbs of disputing, etc.

β. friendly to, toward, with, before

(e) to indicate a connection by marking a point of reference, with reference/regard to

α. with reference to

β. as far asis concerned, with regard to

γ. elliptically ti pros hēmas

δ. in accordance with

ε. expressing purpose

(f) in adverbial expressions

(g) by, at, near pros tina einai be (in company) with someone

Of the many definitions listed here, the one that matches the trinitarian reading of John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) is the very last one (g). In fact this is the one that BDAG assigns to John 1:1. But being in the very last position, definition (g) is not considered by BDAG to be the principal meaning of pros. The trinitarian choice of the last meaning of pros for John 1:1b, to the exclusion of many other possible (and more plausible) meanings, would be totally arbitrary if we have no compelling reason for choosing the last option and rejecting all the other options (conformity to trinitarian doctrine is not a valid compelling reason).

And when we examine definitions (a) to (g) in BDAG, an important fact emerges: the dominant sense of pros (with the accusative) is not characterized by “with” but by “to” or “towards”.

We see something similar in another lexical authority: the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English lexicon. [9] In this lexicon, a principal meaning of pros with the accusative is “in reference to”. Hence “the Word was with God” would actually mean “the Word had reference to God,” that is, the Word referred to God or pointed to God. This is logically consistent with John’s third clause, “and the Word was God,” with these two clauses forming a natural progression. In fact nothing in the massive LSJ lexicon on pros supports the trinitarian reading of John 1:1b (“and the Word was with God”). This lexicon, unlike lexicons of biblical and Christian literature, is not particularly interested in providing doctrinal support for trinitarianism.

This referential meaning of pros is common in the Bible, and is seen for example in Mark 12:12: “he spoke the parable against them,” which in the Greek is literally, “he spoke the parable with reference to them”. This is confirmed by the Linguistic Key to the Greek NT which translates pros autous in this verse as “with reference to them”.

Conclusion: From the lexical information in BDAG and Liddell-Scott-Jones, John 1:1 should read: “In the beginning was the Word (i.e. God), and the Word had reference to God (i.e. pointed or referred to God), and the Word was God (by metonymy).”

Does pros ton theon really mean “with God” in Jn.1:1?

We have looked at the single word pros. What about the whole phrase pros ton theon? Does it really mean “with God” in John 1:1? To get an idea of its true meaning, we can simply see how ESV, a fervently trinitarian Bible, generally translates it. The phrase pros ton theon that we find in John 1:1 occurs 20 times in the New Testament: twice in John’s Prologue and 18 times outside the Prologue.[10] In the 18 verses outside the Prologue, ESV never translates pros ton theon as “with God” except in Rom.5:1 (“we have peace with God,” which does not carry the sense of “with God” which trinitarians seek in John 1:1b). ESV instead translates pros ton theon as “to God” or “toward God” in 14 of the 18 verses outside John’s Prologue! The same is true of NASB. In other words, where ESV is not compelled by trinitarian dogma, it never translates pros ton theon in the sense of “with God”.[11]

The meaning “to” or “toward” for pros is noted by some trinitarian commentaries. The following says that pros ton theon means “toward God”:

Most translators render this statement “and the Word was with God”. Actually it is difficult to translate the Greek phrase pros ton theon (in both vv. 1 and 2) into English. Literally it means “toward God.” (New American Commentary, John 1:1)

NAC is not the only trinitarian commentary which says that pros ton theon means “towards God” in John 1:1. Others include New Bible Commentary (“the thought is literally ‘towards God’”); The Preacher’s Commentary (“The literal translation could be “the Word was towards God”); and The Bible Speaks Today (“With here is literally ‘towards’”).

Why do trinitarians impose the meaning “with” on John 1:1?

Why do trinitarians impose the meaning “with” on the word pros in John 1:1 but not in the rest of the New Testament? The reason is doctrine. The trinitarian rendering—“the Word was with God”—would imply another entity that was “with” God at the creation, and trinitarians want to imply further that this entity is the preexistent Jesus. But to prove their case from the Bible, three conditions would have to be met.

First, it must be shown that the physical creation in Genesis 1 involved another entity besides Yahweh. But anyone who is familiar with the Genesis account would know that no one was involved “with God” when He brought creation into being. There is no record of any person, being, or entity besides God who was involved in the creation. There is also no “second deity,” a term used by Philo but which is interpreted by trinitarians to mean something different from what Philo meant. Thus whatever pros might mean in John 1:1, it does not mean “with” in any sense that implies another person alongside the one and only God.

Second, even if it could be shown that there is an entity “with God” in the Genesis creation, it must be further demonstrated that this entity is a real person and not just a reification, hypostatization, or personification of something like wisdom in Proverbs 8:30. So whether the Word in John 1:1 is another divine person besides Yahweh would still need to be proved, and as far as Scripture is concerned, that effort would be futile because there is simply no such person. Yahweh expressly declares that He alone is God (Isa.45:5) and that He created the heavens and the earth by Himself (44:24). Hence, even if we take pros in John 1:1 to mean “with God,” that is still not sufficient to prove trinitarianism.

Third, it must be demonstrated that John identifies “the Word” with Jesus, which is something trinitarians have never done. In fact, trinitarians have not gone beyond the first point, let alone the second and the third.

Trinitarians admit that their understanding of pros creates a conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c

It will come as a surprise to many that the key word in John 1:1 is not logos (word) or even theos (God)—these words are not controversial in themselves—but the tiny word pros. That is because the way we understand pros in John 1:1b governs the way we interpret the whole verse.

In fact, pros is not an obscure or mysterious word but a common word with a well-established meaning that creates no complications for John 1:1 unless we steer pros away from its main meaning. We have seen from BDAG and Liddell-Scott-Jones that pros has several meanings but the primary meaning is characterized by “to” or “toward” whereas the secondary or tertiary meaning is “with”. The former would make John 1:1b say that “the Word had reference to God” or “the Word referred to God” whereas the latter would align with the trinitarian rendering, “the Word was with God”.

As we have seen, Modern Concordance indicates that at most 16 of the 700 instances of pros in the New Testament carry the meaning “with”.

If we have no compelling reason for rejecting the primary meaning of pros for John 1:1, then the choice of its secondary meaning would be entirely arbitrary and probably invalid. In fact it is the opposite that is true, for we do have a compelling reason for choosing the primary meaning of pros: referential consistency. We likewise have a strong reason for rejecting the lesser meaning of pros: referential inconsistency. To see what this means, let us compare the two competing renderings of John 1:1:

Primary meaning of pros:

      a. In the beginning was the Word,

      b. and the Word had reference to God,

      c. and the Word was God.

 

Secondary meaning of pros:

      a. In the beginning was the Word,

      b. and the Word was with God,

      c. and the Word was God.

The two renderings are identical except for the underlined words. The first rendering has the weighty advantage of referential consistency: the word “God” means the same in line #b as in line #c (they both refer to the same person, God Himself). This is what gives the whole verse its natural flow and progression, with line #b leading naturally to line #c. But the second rendering lacks referential consistency because the word “God” in line #c is forced to have a different meaning from “God” in line #b, as many trinitarians admit.

The inconsistency between lines #b and #c in the second reading is problematic yet is demanded by trinitarians in order to avoid modalism but also to imply a second person who was “with” God. Many trinitarian scholars are aware of this trinitarian inconsistency, as anyone who reads their literature on John 1:1 would know. Most trinitarians would, however, quietly ignore the issue because it serves their doctrine to have a second divine person.

But the root problem is this: It makes no sense to say that the Word “was with God” at the same time the Word “was God”! This is a genuine dilemma for trinitarians, as we shall see. When John 1:1 is translated in the trinitarian way as in most Bibles, a logical conflict arises between John 1:1b and John 1:1c. The problem is not with John 1:1c (“and the Word was God,” which is a valid translation though not the only one), but with John 1:1b (“the Word was with God,” a less probable rendering that is nonetheless demanded by trinitarians in order to safeguard trinitarianism).

But the conflict is an artificial one because it is not inherent to John 1:1. The conflict is created when trinitarians force pros to take on its secondary rather than its primary meaning, in order to imply a second divine person.

The conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c in trinitarianism is not trivial, and is noted by many trinitarians. We now give five examples of this. These examples, especially the fifth one, expose the dilemma that is created when we push pros in John 1:1b away from its primary meaning. The first four examples are brief and simple. The fifth is longer and touches on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ flawed interpretation of John 1:1.

Five examples of the trinitarian effort to resolve the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c

Example #1. F.F. Bruce, trinitarian and well-known NT scholar, is aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c when they are translated in the standard way. He says of John 1:1c that “the meaning would have been that the Word was completely identical with God, which is impossible if the Word was also ‘with God’” (The Gospel of John, p.31). Note the strong word “impossible” that F.F. Bruce uses to describe the conflict. This conundrum impels him to search for a rendering of John 1:1c that would resolve the conflict without surrendering trinitarian doctrine. For example, he speaks positively of the rendering in New English Bible, “what God was, the Word was,” but admits that it is just a paraphrase. In the end, F.F. Bruce doesn’t seem to have found a solution that is satisfactory to himself beyond taking John 1:1c to mean, “the Word shared the nature and being of God”.

Example #2. IVP New Testament Commentary, which often expresses a trinitarian opinion, mentions the same logical problem that F.F. Bruce discusses, and then concludes, “These two truths seem impossible to reconcile logically and yet both must be held with equal firmness.” (These “two truths” are the two contradictory clauses that F.F. Bruce points out.) But after admitting that the two clauses “seem impossible to reconcile logically” (strong words), the commentary makes no effort to find a resolution beyond the bare suggestion that we simply accept the two “with equal firmness”.

Example #3. H.A.W. Meyer, in Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John (p.48), is aware that it is possible to read John 1:1b in the referential sense (the Word referred to God) and correctly saw that this would make the Word a “periphrasis” (an indirect term) for God himself. But this periphrasis undermines the trinitarian insistence that the Word is a second distinct person who was “with” God the Father. So Meyer rejects the periphrasis in favor of the standard rendering, “the Word was with God”. But he immediately sees the same logical conflict that F.F. Bruce sees. So Meyer insists that “God” in John 1:1c “can only be the predicate, not the subject,” and proposes the reading, “He was with God, and possessed of a divine nature” (italics Meyer’s), which is more or less the standard trinitarian interpretation.

Example #4. The NET Bible (whose footnotes in the NT often express a trinitarian opinion but less so in the OT) is aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c in the way they are translated in most Bibles. To resolve this, NET takes the principle that any reading of John 1:1c that collides with John 1:1b can be “ruled out”. In other words, the trinitarian reading of John 1:1b takes precedence over any possible rendering of John 1:1c. This is seen in the following statement (the words in parentheses are NET’s):

The construction in John 1:1c does not equate the Word with the person of God (this is ruled out by 1:1b, “the Word was with God”); rather it affirms that the Word and God are one in essence.

NET acknowledges the conflict between the standard reading of John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) and that of 1:1c (“the Word was God”), the latter of which equates the Word with God (or with what NET calls “the person of God”), which is not what NET desires. NET acknowledges the dilemma that this poses for trinitarians, and is forced to say that the common rendering of John 1:1c (“the Word was God”) is ruled out by 1:1b (“the Word was with God”). It then concludes that the Word in 1:1c is not the “person of God” but someone who is “one in essence” with God (this is adding quite a lot to John’s simple statement). This is in fact the trinitarian view that God is not a person but an essence or a substance. We have already quoted C.S. Lewis, a trinitarian, as saying: “Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person.” (Christian Reflections, p.79).

In the end, NET translates John 1:1c as “the Word was fully God,” a trinitarian paraphrase that depersonalizes the term “God” so that it no longer refers to the God. It is a qualitative statement of God’s essence rather than an equation of identity between the Word and God (“the Word was God”).

The trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1 is similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of exegetical procedure; their disagreement is really over doctrine, not exegesis

Example #5. This is the longest of our five examples but perhaps the most eye-opening. It is slightly technical, so some readers may wish to skip over the technical details. But it is written in such a way that you can glide over the technical details and still get the main point.

It is not our aim in this example to study trinitarianism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses in depth but to show that they are similar for all intents and purposes in their grammatical analysis of John 1:1. The similarity is surprising given their sharp disagreement over the divinity of Jesus.

In the final analysis, the true disagreement between trinitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses is over doctrine, not exegetical procedure. In fact they seem to agree on every aspect of exegetical procedure that matters for the interpretation of John 1:1:

  • They agree on the Greek text of John 1:1 (i.e. no textual issues)
  • They agree, word for word, on how the first two clauses, John 1:1a and John 1:1b, ought to be translated into English
  • Both take “the Word” in John 1:1 as a reference to Jesus Christ
  • Both take “God” in John 1:1b as a reference to God the Father
  • Both take pros in John 1:1b in its secondary sense of “with” (the Word was “with God”), rejecting its primary sense
  • Both take “the Word was with God” in John 1:1b as referring to two distinct persons, Jesus Christ and God the Father
  • Both are aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c when they are translated the standard way
  • Both try to resolve the conflict by changing the meaning of “God” in John 1:1c so that it means something different from “God” in John 1:1b
  • Both take “God” in John 1:1c as predicative, qualitative, indefinite (Greek grammarians tend to say definite but trinitarians tend to say indefinite in order to safeguard trinitarianism)
  • Both use the predicate anarthrous theos argument to justify their respective qualitative readings of “God” in John 1:1c
  • Both depersonalize the word “God” in John 1:1c such that “God” no longer refers to the person of God but is a divine quality or essence. In other words, both take John 1:1c not as an equation of identity (the Word was God by metonymy) but as a qualitative statement of God’s essence or divinity (which is the trinitarian view, e.g. J.P. Lange, Marcus Dods, H.A.W. Meyer, C.K. Barrett, R. Bowman).

If trinitarians and the Jehovah Witnesses agree so closely—indeed almost perfectly—in exegetical procedure, where is the area of disagreement? What they disagree over is not exegetical procedure but doctrine, specifically over which term is the most appropriate for describing Jesus’ divine nature: “God” (trinitarians) versus “a god” (JWs).

This unexpected similarity in exegetical procedure comes out in one of the most detailed grammatical-exegetical analyses of John 1:1 ever written by an evangelical. Robert M. Bowman Jr., an apologist for trinitarianism, wrote a book called Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John, which gives a detailed exposition of John 1:1 from a trinitarian perspective, interwoven with a critique of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the same verse.

For convenience we refer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the JWs without intending anything pejorative in the use of that term. Their translation of the Bible, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (2013 edition), is abbreviated NWT.

We won’t go into the details of Bowman’s book except to summarize the two main currents that run through his exposition of John 1:1.[12] Ironically, these two currents, especially the second, weaken Bowman’s own trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1.

First current: Like many trinitarians, Bowman is fully aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c when they are translated in the trinitarian way. He refers to the conflict explicitly:

What needs to be treated in some depth is the question of how the Word can be with God and yet be God … The Word certainly cannot be with “God” and be “God” unless the term God somehow changes significance from the first to the second usage. (pp.25-26)

Bowman here explains to us the dilemma which confronts trinitarianism: If the word “God” in John 1:1b means the same as “God” in John 1:1c, then trinitarianism cannot be correct. That is because if “God” means the same in John 1:1b as in 1:1c, we are forced to choose between one of two possibilities, both of which are detestable to trinitarians: either true Biblical monotheism (the Father, not Jesus, is the only true God, John 17:3) or the error of modalism (Jesus = Father = Spirit, just as H2O can be water, ice, or vapor). Neither is acceptable to trinitarians, and this explains the trinitarian effort to make “God” in John 1:1c mean something different from “God” in John 1:1b. That is the very dilemma that Bowman is trying to address when he explicitly requires that “the term God somehow changes significance from the first to the second usage” (i.e. from John 1:1b to John 1:1c).

But Bowman’s efforts to resolve the conflict is notable for the casual manner in which he alters the words of John 1:1 here and there without batting an eye, in contrast to the careful attitude of F.F. Bruce who hesitates to do this to even one word. Bowman speaks freely of “shifts” in wording, of changing the “significance” of words, of coming up with a “translation-paraphrase” (which is really a euphemism for “paraphrase”). So it comes as no surprise that after making all the alterations, here is his final and fully trinitarian reading of John 1:1:

In the beginning the Word was existing; and the Word was existing in relationship with the person commonly known as God, that is, the Father; and the Word was Himself essentially God. (p.26).

Second current: Bowman’s exposition of John 1:1 reveals the shocking fact which I had already sensed some time ago, that the trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1 is fundamentally similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of grammatical-exegetical procedure! In fact, trinitarians and the JWs agree on the first 80% of their interpretation of John 1:1 and diverge only in the final 20%. This accounts for the many grammatical-exegetical presuppositions that they share in common for the interpretation of John 1:1 (see the bullet points listed a few pages back).

Bowman admits agreement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on three key aspects of theos (God) in John 1:1c: the qualitativeness of the anarthrous theos (p.37); the predicateness of theos (p.38); the indefiniteness of theos (pp.41,47). With these things in agreement, Bowman faces the rather difficult—almost impossible—challenge of disproving “the Word was a god,” which is the JWs’ rendering of John 1:1c.

This bring us to the greatest irony of all: Bowman, on p.62, after giving the longest grammatical analysis of John 1:1 that I have seen, has no choice but to admit that the JW’s rendering of John 1:1c (“the Word was a god”) is “a possible rendering” and is “grammatically possible” (Bowman’s words)! Bowman therefore concedes that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are grammatically correct in their translation of John 1:1, but he rejects it only because it is not doctrinally acceptable to him.

There is nothing unusual or farfetched about a trinitarian who admits that “the Word was a god” (the JWs’ rendering) is grammatically possible. Thomas Constable of Dallas Theological Seminary, a trinitarian, likewise concedes that “the Word was a god” is grammatically possible, but like Bowman he rejects it as doctrinally unacceptable:

Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to this verse (John 1:1) to support their doctrine that Jesus was not fully God but the highest created being. They translate it “the Word was a god.” Grammatically this is a possible translation since it is legitimate to supply the indefinite article (“a”) when no article is present in the Greek text, as here. However, that translation here is definitely incorrect because it reduces Jesus to less than God. (Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes, on John 1:1)

The true disagreement between trinitarians and the JWs is over doctrine, not exegetical procedure. After agreeing in the first 80%, they diverge in the final 20%, namely, over the degree and the proper description of Jesus’ divineness: “God” versus “a god”. But even here they agree more than disagree because when trinitarians speak of “God” in John 1:1c, they don’t mean “the God” but “God” in the qualitative sense of a divine essence or nature, which is similar to the way the JWs understand “a god” to mean divine or godlike. In fact, Bowman (on p.63) and the JWs (in a footnote in NWT) both agree that the rendering “and the Word was divine” is a valid alternative reading of John 1:1c—yet further evidence of the agreement between their respective grammatical-exegetical procedures.

In the final analysis, Bowman’s disagreement with the JWs is really over which is the best word for describing the divineness of the Word: either “God” or “a god,” both in a qualitative sense. This is nothing more than a theological spat over the qualitative meaning of theos in John 1:1c. In fact Bowman uses many pages just to argue that his qualitative understanding of theos is better than the JWs’ qualitative understanding of theos!

The weakness of Bowman’s analysis of John 1:1—and therefore that of the JWs—is that they never consider the possibility (recognized by Meyer) that pros could be taken referentially. This would make John 1:1b read, “the Word referred to God,” which harmonizes perfectly with the next clause, “the Word was God” without ever depersonalizing “God”. Bowman never considers this possibility because it would undermine his trinitarian presuppositions but also because trinitarians are in perfect agreement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the meaning of pros in John 1:1b (Bowman, p.25).

How monotheism differs from both trinitarianism and the JWs in the interpretation of John 1:1

By way of summary, we now quickly list six key differences between Biblical monotheism on one side, and trinitarianism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the other side, in their respective interpretations of John 1:1. These are abbreviated BM on one side, and TR and JW on the other side.

Firstly, all three teach that “the Word” in John 1:1 is preexistent but disagree on who the Word is: either the second divine person called “God the Son” (TR) or a “spirit creature” who is neither God nor man (JW); or the Word who is God Himself, by metonymy (BM, cf. “the Word was God”).

Secondly, TR and JW read pros in John 1:1b by its secondary meaning (“the Word was with God”), creating a conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c. By contrast, BM reads pros by its primary meaning (“the Word was towards God” or “the Word referred to God”), which leads to no such conflict, and in fact flows naturally to Jn.1:1c (“and the Word was God”).

Thirdly, to resolve the conflict, both TR and JW are forced to change the meaning of theos (“God”) in the transition from John 1:1b to 1:1c whereas BM is wholly consistent, requiring no change in the meaning of “God”.

Fourthly, TR and JW cannot read John 1:1c (“the Word was God”) in a straightforward manner as an equation of identity, so they take it as a reference to God’s essence, thereby depersonalizing the term “God” in John 1:1c into a divine essence or divine nature. By contrast, BM reads John 1:1c (“the Word was God”) in a straightforward manner that preserves the personality of “God” and identifies the Word with God Himself. This equation of identity (“the Word was God”) is not to be taken as a mathematical equation but as a truth in which “the Word” refers to God by metonymy.

Fifthly, TR and JW need to paraphrase John 1:1c to make it mean what they believe it to mean (Bowman even characterizes his rendering of John 1:1 as a “translation-paraphrase”). By contrast, BM doesn’t need to paraphrase John 1:1c because BM takes the straightforward reading of John 1:1c (“and the Word was God”).

Sixthly, JW and especially TR need to use extra-biblical terms to explain their interpretations of John 1:1 and 1:14. In the case of JW, the non-biblical term that comes to mind is spirit creature (see the supplementary note below). In the case of TR, a vast catalog of extra-biblical terms is called upon in a convoluted attempt to explain the trinitarian understanding of John 1:1 and 1:14: trinity, Godhead, God the Son, substance, homoousios, hypostasis, second person, two natures, hypostatic union, eternal generation, perichoresis, communicatio idiomatum, and so on. By contrast, BM sticks to John’s basic vocabulary to explain John 1:1 and 1:14 (even memra simply means dabar or logos or word, these four being metonymic references to Yahweh God in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and English, respectively).

 

Supplementary Note: The Jehovah’s Witnesses on the origins of Christ

One of the clearest explanations of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach about the origins of Jesus Christ is found in their book, What Does the Bible Really Teach? (2005, 224 pages).

Here is a summary of the main points in chapter 4 of the book (pp.37-45, “Who is Jesus Christ?”): Prior to the creation of the universe, God created the Son of God, a “spirit creature” who is neither God nor man, and lacks a physical body (spirit creatures include angelic beings, p.96). Jesus is said to be the “only begotten” Son because he was the only person ever to be created directly by God; God then created the rest of the universe through the Son. Before the Son was born into the world, he was “the Word” who delivered God’s messages to other sons of God, “both spirit and human”. When the Word became flesh, the Son left heaven to live on earth as a man. The spirit creature that had been the Son of God became human when Jehovah transferred the Son’s life from heaven to Mary’s womb. Jesus became the Messiah when he was baptized in the latter part of the year 29 C.E. And after Jesus died, “his heavenly Father resurrected him back to spirit life” on the third day.

In an appendix, “Who is Michael the Archangel?” (pp.218-219), the answer given is that “Jesus himself is the archangel Michael”.

A serious error is the JWs’ denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. They teach that Jesus was resurrected back into an “invisible spirit” with no human body (Let Your Name be Sanctified, p.266). Jesus “was not raised out of the grave a human creature, but was raised a spirit” (Let God be True, p.272), for he cannot “become a man once more” (You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, p.143). The seriousness of this error lies in the denial of the humanity of Jesus: He is intrinsically a spirit creature who is neither human nor divine, and was man only temporarily during his time on earth. The resurrection of Jesus is not a bodily resurrection but simply a return to Jesus’ intrinsic state as a spirit creature.

This error contradicts what the risen Jesus says: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39)

Many theological errors stem from a failure to see the true humanity of Jesus Christ, whether we are talking about the Gnostics, trinitarians, Arians, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


 

John 1:1-3 is Derived from Genesis, not Philo

The “Word” in John 1:1-3

We now quote John 1:1-2 three different ways: (i) from a mainstream Bible, ESV; (ii) a literal translation of the Greek; (iii) the same literal translation with comments inserted (shown below in color).

John 1:1-2 ESV 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.

John 1:1-2 literal translation 1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word had reference to God, and God was the Word. 2 This in the beginning had reference to God.

John 1:1-2 literal translation with comments inserted 1In the beginning (referring to Genesis 1:1) was the Word (a metonym for Yahweh), and the Word (Yahweh) had reference to God (“identifying God,” ITNT), and God was the Word (Yahweh). 2 This (the Word) in the beginning (another reference to Genesis 1:1) had reference to God.

If in verse 2 we move the words “in the beginning” to the start of the verse to match the structure of verse 1, we will see a clear parallel:

v.1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word had reference to God

v.2: In the beginning this Word had reference to God

The repetition is undoubtedly for emphasis, similar to the emphasis in the triple use of “Word” in John 1:1. Here is verse 3 (ESV):

v.3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

The first half of this verse (“All things were made through him”) points to Yahweh as the Creator. This is the third time (in only three verses!) that John goes back to Genesis 1:1, making it clear that John 1:1-3 is to be understood in connection with Genesis.

Verses 1 and 2 in John 1 are parallel to the first half of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God …”) whereas verse 3 is parallel to the whole of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). That “God” in the Genesis account refers to Yahweh is confirmed in Genesis 2:4: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when Yahweh God made earth and the heavens.”

Even in the Nicene Creed, only God the Father, not God the Son, is the Creator of all things visible and invisible. But trinitarians go beyond the Creed when they say that the Son is the creator or co-creator with the Father. So they apply John 1:3 (“all things were made through him”) to Jesus, whom they equate with the Word.

When reading John 1:1-3, there are two solid, incontrovertible facts that must be kept in mind: (1) John nowhere identifies the Word with Jesus; (2) Genesis 1 makes no mention of any person or entity working alongside God in the creation account.

It must be kept in mind, too, that John’s Prologue is poetry. This fact is widely known in New Testament scholarship though there is some discussion as to whether it is a hymn.[13]

We now proceed as follows: (i) discuss the trinitarian use of Philo’s Logos for interpreting John’s Prologue; (ii) show why Philo’s Logos cannot be used in support of trinitarianism; (iii) show that John 1:1-3 is rooted in Genesis, not Philo; (iv) show that the Genesis creation was done by Yahweh alone without any help from a secondary agent, and that therefore John 1:3 (“all things were made through him”) refers to Yahweh and not to Jesus.

The trinitarian use of Philo

Trinitarians assume that the Word in John 1:1 is the preexistent Jesus Christ even though there is no trace of any divine being apart from Yahweh in the Old Testament. The OT verse that is often cited as evidence of a triune God is Genesis 1:26 in which God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” It is then concluded that the plural “us” constitutes proof of God’s triune nature despite several alternative explanations and despite the lack of any explicit reference to who might be the supposed second divine person in Genesis 1:26. We won’t discuss this verse here except to point out that some trinitarians do not accept the trinitarian interpretation of Genesis 1:26:

  • Zondervan Bible Commentary (ed. F.F. Bruce), on Genesis 1:26: “Leupold still argues strongly for the traditional Christian view that the plural refers to the Trinity. This should not be completely rejected, but in its setting it does not carry conviction … Probably the plural is intended above all to draw attention to the importance and solemnity of God’s decision.”
  • New English Translation (NET Bible), in a footnote on Genesis 1:26: “Many Christian theologians interpret [the plural ‘us’] as an early hint of plurality within the Godhead, but this view imposes later trinitarian concepts on the ancient text.”
  • Dr. Thomas Constable, trinitarian of Dallas Theological Seminary: “We should not use [the plural “us”] as a formal proof of the Trinity since this reference by itself does not prove that one God exists in three persons.” (Expository Notes, on Genesis 1:26)
  • Great Texts of the Bible, a 20-volume commentary compiled by James Hastings, on Genesis 1:26: “We are told that the language in which that creation is spoken of, i.e. ‘Let us make man,’ implies the doctrine of a plurality of persons in the Deity … We are told again that we are to establish on this account the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no reason, only ignorance, in such a view.”
  • Keil and Delitzsch view the plural “we” in Genesis 1:26 as pluralis majestatis (“a plural of majesty”) rather than a reference to a triune God, and as bringing out “the fullness of the divine powers and essences which [God] possesses”.
  • Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text, Genesis 1:1-2,4a: “However, taken all by itself, Genesis 1 is not an obviously trinitarian text. Although in history Christian commentators have been tantalized by the plural exhortations of ‘Let us make man in our own image … ,’ Hebrew scholarship long ago dispensed with the notion that this refers to any actual plurality within God—this was not in the minds of those who composed Genesis and so ought not be understood that way by later readers either.”

The absence in the Old Testament of a divine being who exists alongside Yahweh is evidently of no great concern to most trinitarians because some of them have borrowed from Philo, a Jewish philosopher, the idea that the Word (Logos) is a “second god”.

Philo was steeped in Greek philosophy and theosophy, and used Greek ideas to promote Judaism. He gave special prominence to the Logos (the Word), a concept that is of great appeal to Gentiles steeped in Greek culture. It was a prominent concept in Greek philosophy as taught by Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and others.

What makes Philo’s Logos useful to trinitarians is that although Philo teaches that the Logos is only an abstract intermediary between God and man, in a few statements he calls the Logos a “second god”. It is then concluded by trinitarians that John borrowed the concept of Philo’s Logos as a “second god,” and applied it to John 1:1 to declare that Jesus is a second divine person. We now show that the trinitarian appropriation of Philo’s Logos is erroneous and without basis.

Philo does not, as we shall see, regard the Logos as something on equal standing with God but as an abstract concept that is distinct from God and subordinate to Him. This is hardly surprising because Philo is at heart a Jew and a strict monotheist. Although he uses abstract language to personify the Logos, he does not actually believe that it is a real person, but treats it as a philosophical concept. Yet from the frequent references to Philo by some trinitarians, one might be forgiven for gaining the (mistaken) impression that Philo is a Christian! [14]

Some trinitarians assume without evidence that John, a fisherman, knew about Philo’s philosophy; to them the connection is self-evident and needs no proof. It is further assumed that because John knew about Philo’s philosophy, he went on to embrace it and incorporated Philo’s Logos into his gospel.

The fact is that Philo does not think of the Logos as a real person but as a religio-philosophical concept. But this does not deter some trinitarians from appropriating Philo to make the Logos in John 1:1 a second divine being. They do this because there is nothing in the Scriptures to support the existence of a second divine person called “God the Son”.

Philo was a pious Jew who put his own life in danger

A lot of academic material is available to those who are interested in Philo and his ideas.[15] His philosophical ideas, though abstract, are actually not hard to explain or understand. But because they are, for the most part, not directly relevant to our study, we now give only a short biography of Philo, and then mention a few things about his teachings.

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), also called Philo Judaeus, was born before Jesus and died after Jesus. He was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. He is noted for his efforts to harmonize Greek philosophy and Jewish religious teaching, and to combine Plato and Moses into one philosophical system.

Philo was known to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who says in Antiquities of the Jews that Philo was skilled in philosophy. Josephus also says that Philo steadfastly refused to honor the Roman emperor as god, and publicly resisted emperor Caligula’s plan to erect a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple. In fact Philo was the most visible spokesman in the Jewish opposition to the statues of Caligula set up in the synagogues of Alexandria. It was a dangerous stand for Philo to take because all this turmoil was taking place at a time when the Romans were crucifying Jews in Alexandria.

We mention Philo’s bold and public opposition to emperor worship to show that Philo was staunchly Jewish in his religious sensitivities. In fact he was a strict monotheist.

Philo’s Jewish piety is noted by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 263-339), known as the father of church history for his Ecclesiastical History. He says that Philo is a Jew who is steeped in the teachings of his forefathers and in the laws and customs of the Jewish nation. He confirms that Philo calls the Logos a “second God”.

But Eusebius’ explanation (see Appendix 9) of what Philo means by “second God” is of no help to trinitarians because it bears no resemblance to the Word in John 1:1 as understood by trinitarians (that the Word is a second divine person). To the contrary, Eusebius says that Philo proposes the “second God” as a means of avoiding a direct, unmediated connection between the divine and the human, and the immortal and the mortal, especially in the teaching that man was created in the image of God. Instead of being created in the image of God, man is said (by Philo) to be created indirectly in the image of the “Logos of God”.

That is how Eusebius understands Philo. What about Philo himself? Does he teach that the Logos or second God is a divine being? Is his Logos even a real person? The answer to both questions is no, as can be verified from Philo’s own writings. We will skip the details and give only a few points in summary. Those who are interested in the details are referred to Appendix 9.

What Philo really means by Logos (a quick summary)

One of the most accessible books on Philo is Kenneth Schenck’s A Brief Guide to Philo (2005, WJK), the first significant introduction to Philo in a quarter of a century.[16] Schenck’s book is not a book on religion or Christianity per se, but on Philo and his philosophical writings, which means that Schenck’s book is less likely to be doctrinally motivated to interpret Philo through the prism of trinitarianism (the book has no discussion on trinitarianism beyond a survey of John’s logos in the chapter, “Philo and Christianity”). Here is a summary of Schenck’s explanation (pp.58-62) of what Philo means by the Logos:

  • Philo teaches that God is one
  • Philo occasionally speaks of the logos as a “second God”
  • Philo says that many people mistake his logos for God
  • Philo sometimes depicts the logos as God’s reason in action, and sometimes as a boundary between God and His creation
  • Philo says that the logos is neither created nor uncreated; yet he puts it on the created side of the creation
  • Philo does not regard the logos as a person, but as a hypostasis, though not a personal one.

For the details, see Appendix 9. Philo does not teach that the logos is a real person. Yet some early binitarians found his logos useful for their doctrine. Early church leaders who were steeped in Greek thinking such as Justin Martyr, one of the foremost interpreters of the logos, readily adopted the concept. His strongly anti-Semitic statements in his Dialogue with Trypho show the degree of his departure from the Jewish roots of his faith. His statements, along with similar ones made by other early church fathers, hastened the “parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians.

Scholarship is aware that Philo’s logos is not a person

The problem with the trinitarian use of Philo’s Logos for John 1:1 is threefold. First, Philo was a strict Jewish monotheist. Second, there is no evidence that John, or even the scholarly Paul, was aware of Philo, much less had use for his teaching. Third, although Philo proposes the Logos as an intermediary between God and man, his Logos is not equal with God, and is not even a real person. The last point is noted by The Catholic Encyclopedia, ISBE, and Encyclopedia Judaica (their statements are given in Appendix 9).

The reader who is interested in Philo’s own statements is referred again to Appendix 9 of the present book. It contains numerous citations from The Works of Philo, translated by C.D. Yonge. Since most readers may wish to skip the appendix, we will quickly mention that the quotations in the appendix are arranged in three sections to show that Philo: (i) believes in one and only God; (ii) does not believe that the Logos is a real person; and (iii) depicts the “second God” not as a real person but as the words, thoughts and intentions emanating from a divine Being.

Philo’s concept of God is that of a remote transcendent Being who is inaccessible to man. But the God of the Bible is just the opposite, for He took the initiative to reach out to man. Interestingly it was during Philo’s lifetime that God came into the world to dwell in the man Jesus Christ. Yahweh’s coming into the world is the message of John’s Prologue and of the good news of the New Testament.

The Genesis roots of John’s Prologue

It makes no sense to say that John derived his Logos concept from Greek philosophy via Philo when John had at hand the biblical concepts of the dibbur and the memra (“word”). John was inspired by Hebrew Scripture, not Greek philosophy or theosophy.

The scholar among the apostles was not John [17] but Paul. If any apostle knew about Philo of Alexandria in Egypt, it would be Paul, not John. Yet there is not a hint in Paul’s letters that he knew about Philo or had any use for his philosophy. Moreover, John 1:1 tells us in plain language that the Word has to do with Genesis 1:1 (“in the beginning”). This is repeated in the next verse (“this was in the beginning with God”). In short, John’s Prologue has to do with Genesis 1:1, not Philo. A.T. Robertson says, “John’s standpoint is that of the Old Testament and not that of the Stoics nor even of Philo, who uses the term Logos” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, John 1:1). Similarly, F.F. Bruce says:

The term logos was familiar in some Greek philosophical schools … It is not in Greek philosophical usage, however, that the background of John’s thought and language should be sought … The true background to John’s thought and language is found not in Greek philosophy but in Hebrew revelation. (Gospel of John, p.29)

In John 1:1-3, we find three unmistakable references to Genesis 1 (see the words in boldface):

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (ESV)

If we, amazingly, had missed these three references to Genesis, there is yet another in verse 10: “the world was made through him”. Yahweh in His wisdom knows how to leave us “without excuse” (Rom.1:20)!

In John’s day there was no chapter/verse numbering system for the Bible, for that came much later. How then would one refer to a passage in Genesis or any other in Scripture? This was often done by quoting its opening words, in this case, “In the beginning”. This is explained by a commentary that sees a Genesis connection in John 1:1:

When hearing the phrase “in the beginning,” any person in John’s day familiar with the Scriptures would immediately think of the opening verse of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” … Echoes of the creation account continue here with allusions to the powerful and effective word of God (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”). (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds NT Commentary, vol.2, on John 1:1)

In John 1:2 (“He was in the beginning with God”), the Greek word translated “he” is houtos (“this one”). Hence a more accurate rendering would be, “This was in the beginning with God”; this meaning comes out in KJV (“The same was in the beginning with God”) and ITNT (“This word, expressed in the beginning, belonged to God”). Marshall’s Greek-English interlinear renders houtos in John 1:2 as “this one” in the English parallel, as does the Greek-English interlinear by Brown and Comfort.

But most Bibles have “he” in v.2 (“He was in the beginning with God”); this is a trinitarian interpretation that implies a different person from God the Father. How powerful is the influence of a translation on the reader who cannot, or does not, check the original Greek text!

The Creator in Genesis 1

In Genesis 1, Yahweh created all things through His word. In this chapter alone, the phrase “and God said” or similar occurs eleven times. Eight of the instances (vv.3,6,9,11,14,20, 24,26) are declarations of an act of creation in the manner of, “And God said, Let there be light”. The other three instances (vv.22,28,29) are ancillary commands given to the things God had already created, along the lines of, “And God blessed them and said, Be fruitful and multiply”. Six of the eleven instances conclude with, “and it was so”.

All eleven refer to God’s acts of creation through the speaking of His word. What is important is not just the fact that He spoke, but that His word brought creation into being.[18] This is a concrete and living expression of the Word of God. Yet the creative power of the Word resides not so much in the Word as in the One who speaks it. When God speaks, He sends forth His power by His dynamic and creative Word that accomplishes His purposes straightaway; hence the repetition of “and it was so”.

We now see that “Word” is the primary metonym of God in Genesis 1. A metonym of God points to a specific aspect of His character, attributes, and works. The description of God as the Word in John 1:1 (“the Word was God”) highlights His creative power as displayed in His creation.

It also declares that God has come into the world to dwell in Jesus Christ in order to establish a new creation consisting of those who are “born from above” or “born anew” (John 3:3-8). Genesis 1 is about the physical creation, yet it already gives an intimation of the new creation by pointing to it in seed or prophetic form. The very last of the eight authoritative declarations of creation (in the manner of, “And God said, Let there be light”) relates to the creation of man (“Let us make man in our image,” v.26), yet it does not conclude with the customary “and it was so”. It may be a hint that God’s work in man hasn’t yet been concluded, for man hasn’t yet been perfected. This hint is strengthened by fact that although the phrase “God saw that it was good” occurs six times in Genesis 1 (vv.4,10,12,18,21,25), Genesis abruptly stops using it just before it comes to the creation of man in verses 26-28. But after moving past the creation of man, Genesis reverts to “and it was so”.

The last verse of Genesis 1 concludes the whole creation account with the observation, “Behold, it was very good,” a summation of the glorious creation. God will fulfill His purposes for His creation through His appointed Messianic King; then all things will indeed be “very good”.

The repeated use of “and God said” is an emphatic way of saying that God created all things by His Word. Thus it is easy to see why the Word is a metonym of God. The power of His Word is seen in Psalm 33:8-9: “Let all the earth fear Yahweh; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”

Jaroslav Pelikan, eminent historian of Christian doctrine, draws a direct link between “the Word” of John 1 and “God said” of Genesis 1:

These opening words of [John 1] declare the common faith that Christianity shares with Judaism … The vocable “word” here translates the Greek noun logos, which comes from the verb legein, “to say” or “to speak”… But whatever other meanings it may or may not be said to have, “In the beginning the Word already was” may be read as a summary and paraphrase of the repetition of the elevenfold “In the beginning God said” from the first chapter of Genesis. (Whose Bible is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, p.25)

 

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is the only Creator

Trinitarian interpretations of John 1:3 are often feats of circular reasoning: Since Jesus is the Word and the Word is God, therefore Jesus is the creator of all things (“all things were made through him”). And since Jesus is the creator of all things, he is God. One can be caught in this merry-go-round reasoning without realizing it.

Jesus is not the creator or co-creator of the universe, for Scripture consistently teaches that Yahweh alone is the creator of all things. This is seen in many OT passages which give not the slightest hint that He was assisted in any way by another person (the following are from ESV unless otherwise indicated, with “Yahweh” in the Hebrew restored):

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Nehemiah 9:6 You are Yahweh, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.

Psalm 8:3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place …

Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 102:25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.

Isaiah 40:28 Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Isaiah 45:12 I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.

Isaiah 48:12-13 I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.

Isaiah 51:13 Yahweh, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.

Jeremiah 10:12 It is he (Yahweh, v.10) who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. (repeated in 51:15)

Jeremiah 27:5 It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.

Jeremiah 32:17 Ah, Lord Yahweh! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm!

Jeremiah 51:19 He is the Maker of all things, including the people of his inheritance—Yahweh Almighty is his name. (NIV)

Zechariah 12:1 Thus declares Yahweh, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him …

(Also Psalm 136:5-9; 146:5-6; Isaiah 42:5)

These verses show that Yahweh created all things without help from anyone. This is stated with double emphasis (“alone” and “by myself”) in the following verse:

Isaiah 44:24 I am Yahweh, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.

 

In the New Testament, Yahweh is the only Creator

The New Testament continues the Old Testament teaching that Yahweh is the only Creator. The following NT passages give no hint that Christ assisted in God’s work of creation (all from ESV unless otherwise noted; note also my comments):

Acts 4:24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. (NIV)

Comment: In this prayer the people declare that God is the maker of all things. Twice (vv.27,30) they refer to “your holy servant Jesus,” which means that Jesus is a different person from God who made the heavens and the earth.

Acts 7:48-50 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?”

Acts 14:15 the living God who made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them! (CJB)

Acts 17:24-26 The God who made the world and everything in it … he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.

Comment: The immediate context says that God had appointed a man whom He raised from the dead (v.31). Hence Jesus is a different person from the God who “made the world and everything in it” (v.24).

Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (NIV)

Ephesians 3:9 God who created all things …

Revelation 4:11 Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.

Revelation 14:7 … worship him (God) who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.

No fewer than four of these texts are from Acts. This is the book that records the going forth of the gospel of salvation from the center of the spiritual world, Jerusalem, to the center of the secular world, Rome. In the promulgation of the gospel it is important to declare who is the God from whom the gospel proceeds, and who is the God who sends His apostles into the world to preach it.

That God is the creator of heaven and earth—and everything in them—is His unique “mark of identification”. Trinitarians ought to think of what they are doing when they reassign Yahweh’s mark of identification as Creator to their preexistent God the Son. In so doing are they not treating Yahweh with contempt, seeing that according to Scripture He alone is the creator of all things? His creation reveals His glory (Rom.1:20), yet trinitarians dare to wrest that glory from Him and give it to the second person of the Trinity who does not exist in the Scriptures.

In Romans 1:25, Paul refers in the singular to “the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is a doxology and as we shall see in chapter 7, doxologies are almost always addressed to Yahweh God.

Jesus also refers to the Creator in the singular: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Mt.19:4)

John 1:3: “All things were made through him”

Since the Word in John’s Prologue refers to Yahweh, therefore John 1:3 (“all things were made through him”) refers to Yahweh, and with that the case is closed. But trinitarians will argue that John 1:3 says that all things were made “through him” rather than “by him,” implying a second person who is not identical with Yahweh the Creator yet is nonetheless His agent in the creation. The intention is to say that Jesus is that second divine person.

We now briefly examine “through him” as applied to Yahweh and to Jesus in the New Testament. Those who depend solely on English translations won’t get the full picture because the various Bible translations render John 1:3 differently; some have “through him” and others have “by him”.

To make the matter easy to understand, we look at the word dia (used in John 1:3) which in Yahweh’s wisdom is easily recognized even by those who don’t know Greek. When transliterated into English, this word is dia, which looks like the word in Greek script, δια! And when we examine dia (a preposition), we will see that it is sometimes used in the New Testament of God (Yahweh) in connection to His being the Creator.

The meaning of a Greek preposition varies according to the grammatical “case” of the word that follows it (often the genitive or accusative but also the dative). The preposition dia can take either the genitive or the accusative. In John 1:3, dia (“through”) is used with the genitive, so we are interested in the instances of dia+genitive which pertain to the creation. For reference, here is John 1:3 again, noting the dia+genitive:

John 1:3 All things were made through him (dia+genitive), and without him was not any thing made that was made.

An important verse for our present discussion is Hebrews 2:10 because it has two instances of dia which relate to the creation, the first with the accusative, the second with the genitive:

Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting that he (God), for whom (dia+accusative) and by whom (dia+genitive) all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (ESV)

This verse is saying that the God who created all things (“by whom all things exist”) is also the one who made Jesus perfect through suffering. This immediately makes Jesus a different person from God the Creator. This crucial fact, in combination with the fact that God is mentioned here as the Creator using the dia+genitive construction as in John 1:3, greatly weakens the trinitarian assertion that the Word in John 1:3 refers to Jesus. BDAG (dia, B2a) says that dia+ genitive in Hebrews 2:10 “represents God as Creator”.

In Romans 11:36, dia+genitive refers to God as Creator without mentioning Jesus: “For from him and through him (dia+genitive) and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” The triple “him” refers to Yahweh who is mentioned two verses earlier by an allusion to Jer.23:18 and Isa. 40:13, both of which speak of Yahweh. But Jesus is not mentioned at all in Romans chapter 11, nor in chapter 12 except in v.5 in a different context (“we are one body in Christ”).

Nowhere in the NT is the Genesis creation attributed to Jesus. But trinitarians, having decided ex cathedra (on their own authority) that the Word in John 1:3 refers to Jesus since Jesus is the creator of all things, now use this same verse to say that Jesus created all things! This kind of circular reasoning is common in the trinitarian literature on John’s Prologue. Yet it is clear from the above passages that God, the creator of all things, is a distinct person from Jesus Christ.

Those who wish to research the topic further can examine the instances of dia+genitive pertaining to God or Jesus Christ, either exhaustively with the BibleWorks software program or by looking up the references listed in BDAG, dia, A. The investigation will yield three verses highly relevant to our present discussion (the asterisk denotes the dia+genitive in the following three verses, all from ESV):

Ephesians 4:6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through* all and in all.

1 Corinthians 1:9 God is faithful, by* whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hebrews 1:2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through* whom also he created the world. (We will look at this verse in chapters 4 and 5 of this book)

The first verse speaks of God the Father, not the Son; the second and the third verses speak of God as being distinct from “his Son”. Even in the third verse which speaks of the Son, the creator is still the Father. All this strengthens the fact that the Word in John 1:3, and therefore also in John’s Prologue, refers to Yahweh and not to Jesus. The plain fact is that the Word nowhere refers to Jesus in John’s Gospel or the New Testament.

In the beginning

My earlier book, TOTG, concluded by pointing to the glorious Old Testament message, revealed long ago by Yahweh, that He Himself will be coming into the world to accomplish His saving plan for humanity. John’s Gospel begins with a poem that proclaims this truth.

The poem may have been written originally in Aramaic which was the common spoken language in Israel until at least A.D.135. Most NT scholars believe that John’s Gospel was written in the 90’s of the first century, which would mean that Aramaic was still current in John’s day.

When the poem was expressed or re-expressed in Greek, its key word logos (“word”), a concept rooted in Hebrew religious thought, would be unintelligible to John’s Greek-speaking and Greek-thinking readers unless it is explained by the original leaders of the church who were Aramaic-speaking Jews like the apostle John. By ignoring the Aramaic, scholars to this day debate fruitlessly over the meaning of the Word in John 1:1. Trinitarians insist that the Word refers to Jesus even though there is not an iota of evidence for this identification in the New Testament.

But even if Jesus is the Logos, his being “in the beginning” does not prove that he is God. “In the beginning” refers to the time when the heavens and the earth were created. The creation account in Genesis appears to have specific reference to our solar system, not the entire universe. This is not to say that the universe was not created by God, for undoubtedly it was. But looking at the Genesis account with its reference to the sun and the moon, we can be sure that the account is mainly about the solar system and the creatures in it. There is no specific mention of stars apart from Genesis 1:16, but even here it is unlikely that the verse is speaking of the creation of stars, as noted by some scholars.[19] The stars were undoubtedly created by God, for nothing can come into being apart from Him. But Genesis 1 and 2 are mainly about the creation of man and not how the universe as a whole came into being.

In James Ussher’s calculations, the world came into being some 6,000 years ago, an estimate that he arrived at by assuming that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days. Counting back to Adam via the genealogies in the Bible, he arrived at a figure of just over 6,000 years. For those who accept his calculations, “in the beginning” was not very long ago and would hardly prove that Jesus is the eternal God or the eternal “God the Son” of trinitarianism.

The same holds true even if we look at time from a scientific perspective. There is general consensus among cosmologists that the universe came into being through the Big Bang about 13.77 billion years ago.[20] This figure is not as intimidating as it once was, for nowadays we would speak of financial matters in terms of billions or even trillions of dollars. Even if Jesus existed 13 billion years ago, that still would not prove his divinity, for God is eternal and infinite: “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps.90:2). Yahweh is “the everlasting God” (Gen.21:33; Ps.90:2; Isa.40:28; Jer. 10:10). With Him there is no beginning or end. He is the beginning and the end of everything, including the universe and all created beings. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know that infinity cannot be contained in a number with a finite number of zeros, even a trillion trillion zeros.

Where is Yahweh in John’s Prologue?

John’s Prologue is rooted in the Old Testament and not in Greek philosophy or Philo. But our thinking has been so swayed by Christocentric trinitarianism that we don’t see Yahweh in the New Testament. He has vanished from our thinking and line of sight.

Where does Yahweh appear in John’s Prologue? Since Jesus is said to be God in trinitarianism, Jesus is the one who immediately comes to mind when we encounter a name or noun or pronoun in the Prologue, whether it is “Word” or “life” or “light” or “him” or “his”. Not even God the Father of trinitarianism makes an appearance!

But the opening clause of John’s Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word,” refers to Yahweh, not only because the Word is an established metonym of Yahweh but also because Yahweh “in the beginning” created the heavens and the earth by Himself. At the Genesis creation, Jesus had not yet existed, yet all things were created for him, that is, with him in view.

How many times is God referred to directly or indirectly in the 18 verses of John’s Prologue? Many people may be surprised by the preponderance of references to Yahweh in the Prologue, either directly (“God”) or metonymically (“Word”) or pronominally (“He”): vv.1,1,1,1,1,2,2,3,4,5,6,9, 10,10,10,11,11,11,11,12,12,12,12,13,14,14,18,18,18. There are more instances than these but we omitted a few because some readers may count fewer instances than we. But irrespective of the exact count, these serve to bring home the point that Yahweh is central to the Prologue. “Jesus Christ” is named only once, at the end of the Prologue (v.17, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”), whereas John the Baptist is named twice (vv.6,15).

In the New Testament, “God” (theos) occurs 1,317 times, not counting the many instances of the divine passive in which God is the author of an act without being named (e.g. Heb.9:28). On the other hand, “Jesus” (’Iēsous) without “Christ” (Christos) occurs 672 times; “Christ” without “Jesus” 281 times; “Jesus Christ” 135 times; and “Christ Jesus” 95 times; for a total of 1183 times, fewer than the 1,317 instances of “God”. These figures do not include the pronouns referring to God or instances of the divine passive.

That God is mentioned more frequently than Jesus in the New Testament aligns with the fact that God is central to the NT as also to John’s Prologue. As trinitarians we read the NT as if Christ is the central figure and God has a less prominent role than Jesus who is, after all, God! The fact is that Jesus is not called “God” in the New Testament; hence the elevation of Jesus to God amounts to idolatry.

The Israelites were deeply inclined towards idolatry. They had barely left Egypt when they clamored for something to worship. Aaron obliged them by making a golden calf under whose image they worshipped the Canaanite god “Baal,” a word which means “Lord”. Because the Israelites also called Yahweh “Lord” (Adonai), a situation developed in Israel in which “Lord” could refer to Yahweh or Baal. The Israelites in the end didn’t care much which Lord they were worshipping, and most of them ended up worshipping Baal. That was the main reason for their exile.

The situation of ancient Israel was later mirrored by the Gentile church soon after the time of Jesus. Since Yahweh is called “Lord” and Jesus is called “Lord,” Yahweh was soon replaced by Jesus in the church, and almost no one had noticed that anything had happened! The church now has a tripartite God, the Trinity, ensuring that there is no room in this “Godhead” for the real Yahweh. The “church of God” (a term which occurs nine times in the New Testament) had been commandeered by the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and other cities in the Roman Empire, with the emperor, starting from Constantine, as the general overseer.

The herald in the Prologue

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8, ESV)

Why is John the Baptist given so much prominence in the Prologue when his place in the four gospels as a whole does not have similar prominence? It is because he is none other than the herald of Yahweh’s coming! This was foretold by Isaiah:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the desert a way for Yahweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be levelled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of Yahweh will be revealed and all humanity will see it together, for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5, NJB)

This passages mentions “Yahweh” three times. A voice cries out to proclaim His coming. It also proclaims “the glory of Yahweh” which in John’s Prologue is the “glory” (Jn.1:14) that shines forth in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist confirms that he is the herald spoken of by Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord (Yahweh),’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23)

All four gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 (Mt.3:3; Mk.1:3; Lk.3:4; Jn.1:23) and are united in declaring that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled by Yahweh’s coming into the world in Christ. This is a most astonishing event for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.


 

John 1:14

The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us

The Word is mentioned in verses 1 and 2 of John’s Prologue, but is not mentioned again until verse 14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)

John’s Prologue culminates in the statement, “And the Word became flesh”. This is poetic language and is not meant to be taken literally to mean that God changed into flesh, [21] but that He came into the world “embodied” in Jesus the Messiah (cf. Col.2:9, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”). Indeed, the language of “dwell” comes out in the Greek of John 1:14, in the words “dwelt among us”. Here “dwelt” is literally “tabernacled”; hence John is saying, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us”.

In English, tabernacle is a noun, not a verb, but Greek has a verb form of “tabernacle”: skēnoō (to tabernacle), which is the verbal cognate of the noun skēnē (a tabernacle). BDAG says that the noun skēnē is used in the LXX of “Yahweh’s tabernacle” and “the Tabernacle or Tent of Testimony”. BDAG also says that the verb skēnoō in John 1:14 is “perhaps an expression of continuity with God’s ‘tenting’ in Israel”. Scripture elsewhere says that Jesus is the temple of God (Jn.2:19), as are those in Christ (1Cor.3:16).

The following verses in Revelation are helpful for bringing out the meaning of “tabernacle,” both the verb and the noun, albeit in a different context from John 1:14. The words in italics correspond to the Greek naos (a temple) or to skēnē (a tabernacle) or to skēnoō (to tabernacle):

Revelation 7:15 Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (ESV)

Revelation 12:12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! (ESV)

Revelation 21:3 Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them. (NASB)

Once we see that it was Yahweh Himself and not the second person of the Trinity who “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn.1:14)—similar to Yahweh’s declaration, “My tabernacle that is among them” (Lev.15:31)—we will see Yahweh’s glorious indwelling presence in the man Christ Jesus through whom Yahweh worked and spoke. The right way of understanding the power in Jesus’ words and deeds, including his miracles, is to see God’s presence in him. Indeed these mighty miracles were done by God “through” Jesus (Acts 2:22). There is no need to resort to what we were doing before, attributing Jesus’ God-empowered activities to his own alleged divinity as God the Son. That was the way we used to assert that Jesus is God, disregarding John’s intention that through his gospel we may believe that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn.20:31) rather than God the Son.

Yahweh came into the world to dwell in flesh, that is, bodily, in order to reconcile the world to Himself in Christ (2Cor.5:19). John’s Gospel is a proclamation of Yahweh’s saving activity in Christ. Jesus plainly said that it was his Father, Yahweh, who worked and spoke through him, but we trinitarians were stone-deaf to this plain statement. If it were not for God’s mercy, we would have no hope of seeing the truth.

We have seen his glory

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The glory mentioned here is God’s glory and presence in Jesus Christ, and is explained by Paul as “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4:6). The glory in John 1:14 is related to the light mentioned a few verses earlier in John’s Prologue, in verses 4 and 5: “in him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This in turn relates to Gen.1:3 (“let there be light”), thus returning to Genesis once again!

Not only is light linked to glory, it is linked to life (“the life was the light of men”), as seen also in the following OT verses (all from ESV):

Job 33:28 He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light.

Job 33:30 to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be lighted with the light of life.

Psalm 36:9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

Psalm 56:13 For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.

The words “light of life” in two of these verses are quoted by Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (Jn.8:12) In the Genesis creation, God is the giver of life to His creatures (cf. John 1:4, “In Him was life”).

John’s Prologue mentions “light” again in v.9: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world”. Yahweh, the One coming into the world, is identified as the true light. The picture of Yahweh as light is seen in many Old Testament verses: Ps.27:1 (“Yahweh is my light and my salvation”); Ps.84:11 (“Yahweh is a sun and shield”); Isa.2:5 (“let us walk in Yahweh’s light”); Isa.60:1 (“your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you”); Isa.60:19 (“Yahweh will be your everlasting light”). Since God’s fullness dwells in Jesus, it follows that God’s light will shine through Jesus:

And the city (New Jerusalem) has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23 ESV, also Rev.22:5)

God is the light whereas Jesus is the lamp, confirming that the Word in John 1:1 is Yahweh in the first instance and not Jesus.

At the transfiguration of Jesus (Mt.17:1-9; Mk.9:2-9; Lk. 9:28-36), God’s glory shone through Jesus in a way that was visible to the three disciples who were with him, Peter, James and John. Years later, Peter recalls this event, noting that Jesus’ glory was something that Jesus had “received” from God the Father, who is called the Majestic Glory:

… we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2Peter 1:16-18, NIV)

John almost certainly referred to this manifestation of glory, of which he was an eyewitness, when he said in John 1:14, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”.


 

John 1:18: The only Son or the only begotten God?

ESV and HCSB, two modern Bibles that were first published at around the same time, give conflicting translations of John 1:18 (italics added):

ESV: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

HCSB: No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son—the One who is at the Father’s side—He has revealed Him.

Which rendering is correct? ESV has “the only God,” a trinitarian rendering which makes Jesus the only God, whereas HCSB has “the One and Only Son,” a non-trinitarian rendering which makes Jesus the Son of God. These divergent renderings represent two main camps. One camp includes HCSB, CJB, KJV, NJB, RSV, REB, which prefer “the only Son” or variations such as “the one and only Son”. The other camp includes ESV, NASB, NIV, NET, which prefer “the only God” or variations such as “the only begotten God”.

These in turn represent two opinions on which Greek text-type is to be used for translating this verse: the Byzantine versus the Alexandrian. The “only Son” rendering is based on the Byzantine text-type (popularly known as the Majority Text), which is the text-type with the widest attestation (support) among all known Greek manuscripts. On the other hand, the “only God” translation is based on the Alexandrian text-type represented by manuscripts which, though fewer, are generally of an earlier date and are given more weight in UBS5 and NA28.

The criterion of early date is reasonable but does not by itself take into sufficient account the fact that even early manuscripts can have errors (e.g. a misunderstanding of the Aramaic, as we shall see). Careful NT exegesis takes into consideration both the Majority Text and the UBS5/NA28 critical text, so it is not a matter of choosing the one to the exclusion of the other.

Among Bibles with the “only God” rendering, there is further differentiation between “the only God” and “the only begotten God” as seen in ESV versus NASB (italics added):

ESV No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

NASB No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

ESV’s rendering is problematic in terms of logic and theology. What sense do we make of “the only God”? If Jesus is the only God, then Jesus must be invisible in some sense, for the same verse says that “no one has ever seen God”. Even worse, if Jesus is the only God, that would exclude the Father as God, a conclusion that even trinitarians would find blasphemous; it would also contradict John 17:3 which says that the Father is the only true God. NIV 1984 matches ESV in absurdity: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”

 

[The next two or three paragraphs are slightly technical, so some readers may wish to skip them and jump to the next section, “The internal evidence”]

 

The Greek text underlying the “only begotten God” reading is the Novum Testamentum Graece (NA27/NA28) and the United Bible Societies Greek NT (UBS4/UBS5). The companion volume to UBS4, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.), explains on pp.169-170 that manuscripts P66 and P75 were what influenced the “majority” of the UBS editorial committee of five scholars to prefer “the only begotten God”. But one of the five, Allen Wikgren, a distinguished Greek and NT textual expert, registered his objection to the committee’s decision in a note that is included in the commentary in which he says that monogenēs theos (the only begotten God) “may be a primitive (early) transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition”; this is the tradition that asserted Jesus’ deity and triumphed at Nicaea. Wikgren adds, “At least a D decision would be preferable.” When a text in UBS4 is classified as {D}, it means that “there is a very high degree of doubt concerning the reading selected for the text”. In UBS4/5, the actual classification is {B}, expressing the opinion that the textual evidence is in favor of monogenēs theos (the only begotten God), though not overwhelmingly.

Another committee member, Matthew Black, in his book An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, cites with approval another Aramaic scholar’s assessment that:

… one of Burney’s most valuable observations of this kind [a misreading of the Aramaic] is that the disputed monogenēs theos in John 1:18 mistranslates yehidh ‘elaha, “the only-begotten of God” (p.11).

In other words, “the only begotten of God” was misunderstood as “the only begotten God”! It is alarming that the decision of a “majority” of the five-member committee resulted in millions of copies of the Bible being printed with “the only begotten God” rather than “the only begotten Son”. Most readers don’t know the truth behind this reading.

The internal evidence

Here is the situation so far: The manuscript evidence for John 1:18 is divided between “the only begotten Son” and “the only begotten God”. The divide is reflected in the divergence within the UBS committee—hence the {B} level of uncertainty in UBS5 in favor of “the only begotten God”—but also in the divergence among Bibles, some of which prefer the trinitarian reading (ESV, NASB, NIV, NET) and some the non-trinitarian (HCSB, CJB, KJV, NJB, RSV, REB). Hence the textual evidence does not, by itself, settle the issue. So what about the internal evidence?

The word monogenēs means “only begotten” or “only” or “unique”. In the New Testament, this Greek word is used of Jesus only in John’s writings, including John 1:18. Interestingly, the five instances of monogenēs in John’s writings all refer to Jesus. The following are the four verses in the NT outside John 1:18 in which monogenēs is applied to Jesus (all verses are from NASB):

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

1 John 4:9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.

A few observations:

  • Of these four verses, the last three have the word “Son” (Greek huios) in the phrase “only begotten Son”. Hence, outside John’s Prologue, whenever monogenēs is used of Jesus, it always refers to the only begotten Son, never the only begotten God.
  • The first of these four verses, John 1:14, does not have the word “Son” or the word “God”. Hence it constitutes “neutral” evidence for deciding between “the only begotten Son” and “the only begotten God”.
  • But if we take John 1:18 to mean “the only begotten God” (the trinitarian reading), we run into the difficulty that this verse now contradicts the other verses which speak of “the only begotten Son”. The fact is that “the only begotten God” appears nowhere in the NT outside the debated John 1:18. Why would John be inconsistent with himself, using “the only begotten Son” consistently in his writings except in the debated John 1:18? If we detach John 1:18 from the rest of John’s writings by making it say “only begotten God,” it would be left without parallel anywhere in John’s Gospel or the NT.
  • On the other hand, if we take John 1:18 to mean “the only begotten Son,” all five verses would harmonize.
  • It comes as no surprise that of the five verses, John 1:18 is the only one with textual issues. The other four have no textual issues and are given zero comment in UBS5’s critical apparatus.

One could argue as a principle of textual criticism that since “the only begotten God” is the more difficult reading than “the only begotten Son,” it is more likely that the former was changed to the latter in order to smooth out this difficulty. Perhaps so, but this overlooks the fact that the textual issues surrounding John 1:18 are not doctrinally neutral, unlike the situation with most other verses with textual issues such as the verse just after it, John 1:19, which has textual issues but is doctrinally neutral (“the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him”).

The issue of doctrinal motive is crucial because the process of deifying Jesus began before A.D. 200. If indeed “the only begotten God” was the established reading in the early manuscripts of around A.D. 200, wouldn’t it be quickly adopted by the Gentile church leaders who by that time were already elevating Jesus to deity? Yet the fact remains that the majority of NT texts have the “only begotten Son”.

That is why Allen Wikgren, whom we have quoted, says that the “only begotten God” reading may be an early “transcriptional error in the Alexandrian tradition,” a statement which implies that the “only begotten God” reading may be the result of trinitarian influences in the early church.

James F. McGrath, in The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context, makes some striking comments on John 1:18, including the observation that manuscripts P66 and P75 (regarded by some as tipping the balance in favor of the “only begotten God” reading) contain evidence of trinitarian tampering. For example, both manuscripts delete the word “God” from John 5:44 to avoid saying that the Father is “the only God”. Moreover, P66 adds “the” to “God” in John 10:33 to imply that Jesus calls himself “the God”. The following is an excerpt from McGrath’s book (p.65, his footnotes omitted):

The attestation of two early Alexandrian papyrus manuscripts of the Gospel, known as P66 and P75, is frequently given more weight than it deserves. P75 is indeed a very early text, but it frequently gives a reading which is generally accepted to be inferior, and in a few instances shows signs of conscious additions or alterations having been made. Also significant is the agreement of these two manuscripts in omitting the word God in John 5:44, which almost all scholars agree was part of the original text. Beasley-Murray regards this as accidental, but it may equally be the case that the scribes who copied these manuscripts had difficulty referring to the Father as the only God, since the Logos can also be spoken of as “God.” Also significant is that P66* adds the definite article before the word “God” in John 10:33. There are thus indications that the copyists of these manuscripts had a particular theological view which their transcription reflects. Both of these manuscripts preserve inferior readings in abundance, and although their combined weight needs to be taken very seriously, it is not conclusive, as indicated by the general agreement that “only God” is the original reading in the instance just cited (John 5:44).

Philip Wesley Comfort, in his fervently trinitarian textual commentary, A Commentary of the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament, says on p.248 that “the only begotten God” is the more probable reading for John 1:18 partly for the reason that it would align with the rest of John’s Prologue in upholding the deity of Christ and is therefore a fitting conclusion to the Prologue and a mirror of John 1:1. But this argument is unconvincing because it can equally argue for the opposite, by exposing an obvious trinitarian motive for giving John 1:18 a trinitarian reading, a factor that carries weight because of the rising deification of Jesus in the early church.

In the final analysis, irrespective of what may be the external or internal evidence, the overall result is that Bibles such as CJB, KJV, HCSB, NJB, RSV, and REB, despite their trinitarian leanings to one degree or another, have chosen to interpret John 1:18 in a non-trinitarian way. By contrast, ESV gives John 1:18 a trinitarian rendering despite the immense difficulties that it creates. It makes John contradict himself and implies that Jesus is “the only God” to the exclusion of God the Father.

Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon (on monogenēs) rejects the reading “only begotten God” for John 1:18 for the reason that it is incongruous with John’s speech and way of thinking, and may have been doctrinally motivated:

The reading monogenēs theos (without the article before monogenēs) in John 1:18, which is supported by no inconsiderable weight of ancient testimony … is foreign to John’s mode of thought and speech (John 3:16,18; 1John 4:9), dissonant and harsh—appears to owe its origin to a dogmatic zeal which broke out soon after the early days of the church. (Greek transliterated)

 

John 1:18: Only Son or unique Son?

Whereas KJV has “only begotten Son” for John 1:18, many translations omit “begotten” because scholars are aware that monogenēs simply means “only” or “unique”. When monogenēs refers to a son, it simply means an only son or a unique son without the word “begotten”. “Begotten” is an archaic English word for “born”; an “only born son” is simply an “only son”.

The application of monogenēs is not limited to Jesus. It is used of Isaac the only son of Abraham (Heb.11:17); of a widow’s only son who died and was raised from the dead (Lk. 7:12); and of the only son of a man (Lk.9:38). It is also used of female offspring, e.g. Jairus’ only daughter (Lk.8:42).

In the NT, monogenēs is used of Jesus only in John’s writings (Jn.1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1Jn.4:9). BDAG gives two definitions of monogenēs:

1. pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only

2. pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind) of something that is the only example of its category

In short, BDAG gives two basic definitions of monogenēs: only and unique. The glosses (BDAG’s summary definitions shown in italics) nowhere contain the word “son” or “born,” though many of BDAG’s citations for the first definition have to do with human offspring.

The word monogenēs consists of two parts: the first part, mono, is easily recognized as the first part of mono+theism (“one and only” + God); the second part comes from a Greek word for “born” (or “begotten” in archaic English). From BDAG’s explanation of monogenēs, it is clear that the meaning of this word stems mainly from the first part of the word (mono) rather than the second part.

Which then is the more accurate rendering of John 1:18, “only Son” or “unique Son”? [22] Since both renderings are lexically valid, the question of which is the intended meaning can only be answered by seeing which fits the New Testament data better.

Whereas most translations prefer “only Son” when monogenēs refers to Jesus, BDAG allows for “unique Son”. BDAG notes that in John’s writings, monogenēs huios is used only of Jesus; then it says that in all such instances, “the renderings only, unique may be quite adequate for all its occurrences here.” In other words, for the term monogenēs huios, BDAG allows for both “only son” and “unique son” in all instances.

But if we choose “only Son” for John 1:18, we run into a problem with the word “only” because in the Bible, the title “son of God” is applied not only to Jesus but to many categories of beings as noted by many scholars.[23] It means that Jesus is not literally the “only” son of God. In fact the plural “sons of God” appears in both the Old and New Testaments (Job 1:6; Mt.5:9; Gal.3:26). The fact that Jesus is called the “firstborn” (Rom.8:29; Col.1:15,18; Rev.1:5) indicates that he is not the only son. In God’s predetermined plan, Jesus is to be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom.8:29). That is why Jesus speaks of his disciples as his “brothers” (Mt.25:40; 28:10; Jn.20:17). Jesus and his believers belong to the same family: “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb.2:11, NIV 1984). What is beautiful about this verse is that Jesus, the one who is holy by reason of his perfection, is not ashamed to accept as his brothers those who have not (yet) attained to perfection. There is no self-righteousness in him.

Adam is “the son of God” (Lk.3:38) as are all believers (Mt.5:9; Gal.3:26). The sons of God are those who cry out to God, “Abba, Father,” and are fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17).

From the New Testament data, there are many sons of God, so Jesus is not literally the “only” son of God. Therefore taking John 1:18 as referring to “the only Son” would leave us in an exegetical quandary. But the problem disappears as soon as we take monogenēs in John 1:18 to mean “unique,” a definition that in any case is lexically possible. It means that John would be bringing out the uniqueness of Jesus as Yahweh’s “one and only Son” by virtue of his being, for example, the one and only perfect man. Though there are many sons of God, Jesus is the unique Son of God. This makes perfect sense and harmonizes with the New Testament.

 

The following excerpts from three standard references explain monogenēs in a way that brings out Jesus’ uniqueness as Son of God.

Monogenēs is literally “one of a kind,” “only,” “unique” (unicus), not “only-begotten,” which would be μονογέννητος (unigenitus), and is common in the LXX in this sense (e.g. Judg 11:34; Ps 21(22):21; 24(25):16). It is similarly used in the NT of “only” sons and daughters (Lk 7:12, 8:42, 9:38), and is so applied in a special sense to Christ in Jn 1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1Jn 4:9, where the emphasis is on the thought that, as the “only” Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.’ (Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the NT, monogenēs)

Monogenēs, pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—“unique, only.” τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν “he gave his only Son” Jn 3:16… “he who had received the promises presented his only son” or “…was ready to offer his only son” He 11:17. Abraham, of course, did have another son, Ishmael, and later sons by Keturah, but Isaac was a unique son in that he was a son born as the result of certain promises made by God. Accordingly, he could be called a μονογενής son, since he was the only one of his kind. (Louw-Nida Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains; monogenēs, 58.52, emphasis added)

[“Begotten” is] used especially of God’s act in making Christ His Son: “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (Ps 2:7) quoted in Acts 13:33 in reference to His resurrection (compare Rom 1:4). The same passage is cited (Heb 1:5) as proving Christ’s filial dignity, transcending the angels in that “he hath inherited a more excellent name than they,” i.e. the name of son; and again (Heb 5:5) of God conferring upon Christ the glory of the priestly office. (T. Rees in ISBE, article “Begotten,” emphasis added)

The last of these excerpts reminds us that the New Testament application of “begotten” and “son” to Jesus Christ is rooted in Psalm 2:7 in which God declares the promised Messiah to be His Son, the one who will rule over Israel and all nations (vv.8-10). The declaration “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” in Psalm 2:7 is quoted in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. But even where Psalm 2:7 is not quoted explicitly, the concepts “begotten” and “son” when applied to Christ are implicitly derived from Psalm 2:7.

John adds “unique” or “only” to “son” in the case of Jesus in order to bring out his uniqueness. That is because in John’s Gospel, believers are also called sons of God for the reason that they are “not of the world” (Jn.15:19; 17:16) but are “born from above”. The rendering “born from above” for John 3:3,7 in NJB, NRSV, CJB, ITNT [24] is correct since anōthen means “from above” according to BDAG and Thayer. The words “from above” are parallel to “from heaven” (John 3:31). Of course, whereas the title “son of God” applies to Jesus and believers, only Jesus the unique Son is the Messiah.[25]


 

Is Wisdom in Proverbs 8 to be identified with Christ?

Some trinitarians equate wisdom in Proverbs 8 with Christ, just as they equate the Word in John 1 with Christ. The theme of Proverbs 8 is wisdom, which is presented as a principle of godliness, but is famously personified in Proverbs 8 as the wisdom who speaks in the first person (e.g., “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion,” v.12). Most significantly, wisdom is said to be present with Yahweh before and during the creation of the universe. Note the words in boldface, especially in v.30:

22 The Lord (lit. “Yahweh”) possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.

25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, 26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.

27When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

30 then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,

31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.

(Proverbs 8:22-31, ESV)

Just as trinitarians identify the Logos with Christ, so they identify the personified wisdom of Proverbs 8 with the preexistent Christ. But not all trinitarians agree with this identification, and for a very specific reason. One of them says: “Many have equated wisdom in this chapter with Jesus Christ … But because wisdom appears to be a creation of God in 8:22-31, it is unlikely that wisdom here is Jesus Christ.” [26] This explanation is notable for the reason given for rejecting the identification of wisdom with Christ, namely, that wisdom in Proverbs 8 “appears to be a creation of God”—and trinitarianism would never accept the idea that Christ was created!

A careful reading of Proverbs 8 shows that wisdom (which incidentally is feminine in both Hebrew and Greek) is never directly involved in the work of creation. It is only Yahweh who creates. Wisdom is only a firsthand witness who is present with Yahweh at the creation, delighting and rejoicing in Yahweh’s work. In v.30 of some Bibles (ESV, RSV, NASB), wisdom is described as a “master workman,” but some other Bibles (NIV, CJB, KJV) omit these words because the Hebrew text doesn’t allow them, according to some scholars.[27]

In Proverbs 8, wisdom speaks in the first person, but it doesn’t mean that wisdom is a separate person from Yahweh. Wisdom is just one of His attributes and is not a separate person from God. Similarly, wisdom and understanding in Proverbs 3:19 are not separate persons from God: “Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens”.

The trinitarian identification of wisdom with the preexistent Christ is negated by the fact that wisdom in Proverbs 8 was created by Yahweh. The United Bible Societies OT Handbooks, a series which deals with issues of Bible translation rather than theology, concludes on the basis of Proverbs 8:22 that wisdom was created, and that this fact should be reflected in Bible translations:

Wisdom is not engaged in an independent creative act and, aside from the Lord as creator, Wisdom has no independent existence. In verse 22 it is the Lord who creates Wisdom. (UBS OT Handbooks, Prov.8:22)

The following are four renderings of Proverbs 8:22, the verse which according to UBS Handbooks speaks of the creation of wisdom (italics added):

ESV: The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

CJB: Adonai made me as the beginning of his way, the first of his ancient works.

NIV: The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.

RSV: The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

There are significant differences between the four versions, notably in the words highlighted in italics. ESV represents the trinitarian position by not portraying wisdom as something created. But the other three versions all say explicitly or implicitly that wisdom was created: “made me” (CJB); “brought me forth” (NIV); “created me” (RSV). The Septuagint explicitly says, “the Lord created me”.

Whether we take Proverbs 8:22 to say that Yahweh “possessed” wisdom (ESV) or “created” wisdom (RSV, LXX), are we saying that God had no wisdom until He brought it into existence? That cannot be, for wisdom is an inalienable part of God. It would be absurd to suggest that the first thing God had to do was to acquire wisdom, for this would imply that He had no prior wisdom. Paul speaks of God as “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27).

But read poetically, Proverbs 8 is not a problem, and was not a problem to the Jews. The problems were created later by Christians, beginning from the middle of the second century, who applied to Proverbs 8 the poetic device of personifying wisdom (similar to the personification of love in 1Cor.13:4, “love does not envy or boast”)—and then made wisdom into a real person.

We easily fail to see what is so perceptively stated by ISBE in the article “Wisdom”: “And Wisdom is a quality of man (Prov 8:31-36), not a quality of God.” ISBE is not saying that God has no wisdom but that the purpose of Proverbs is to teach wisdom to those who seek it. Proverbs is an instruction manual. As a book of instruction, it is like the “Torah,” which is usually translated “Law” but which means “instruction” or “teaching”. In Proverbs, wisdom is practical and spiritual in its guidance for daily living.

The principle of wisdom in Proverbs finds full expression in the life, the person, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Wisdom is an essential element of his perfection. One could say that Jesus is the embodiment of wisdom, though in New Testament he is not explicitly identified with wisdom.[28]

Jesus is said to have wisdom (Mt.13:54; Mk.6:2; Lk.2:40,52); to impart wisdom (Lk.21:15); to possess wisdom as hidden treasure (Col.2:3); and to be ascribed wisdom (Rev.5:12). Christ is spoken of as the wisdom of God (1Cor.1:24,30).



[1] The Shema originally referred to the sacred proclamation of Dt.6:4 but has since been extended to include Dt.6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and Num.15:37-41.

[2] Matthew 27:46 has, “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic except for the Hebrew “Eli”. But some important NT codices, including the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus, have the Aramaic “Eloi” (see the critical apparatus of NA28).

[3] The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, p.137.

[4] Also called “Targum Pseudo-Jonathan” because of an accident of history (Wikipedia, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).

[5] When we say that a man achieved great success by his wisdom, we don’t mean that wisdom is an entity distinct from him. Similarly, the statement, “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jer.10:12, ESV), doesn’t mean that God’s power, wisdom, and understanding are three separate persons distinct from Him.

[6] A well-known instance of para is used in Proverbs 8:30 (LXX) of the personified wisdom who was “beside” God at the creation (“I was beside him like a master workman”).

[7] This concordance is praised as a “magnificent achievement” by David Noel Freedman, general editor of the Anchor Bible series, and well-known expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls; and as “the best modern language concordance that I have seen” by Raymond Brown, eminent Catholic scholar and specialist in biblical studies.

[8] We quote the entire third section of BDAG’s definition of pros (with citations omitted, abbreviations spelled out, Greek transliterated). We omit the first and second sections because these pertain to the genitive and the dative whereas the third section pertains to the accusative (which matches the case used in John 1:1).

[9] See pros, C-III, 1-5. LSJ’s long explanation of pros+accusative is given under several headings. The section relevant to John 1:1b is the one under the heading “III. of Relation between two objects”. The following is LSJ’s definition (with citations omitted): “1. in reference to, in respect of, touching; 2. in reference to, in consequence of; 3. in reference to or for a purpose; 4. in proportion or relation to, in comparison with; 5. in or by reference to, according to, in view of; 6. with the accompaniment of musical instruments; 7. πρός c. acc. freq. periphr. for Adv., π. βίαν, = βιαίως, under compulsion; 8. of Numbers, up to, about.”

[10] The 18 instances outside John’s Prologue are in Jn.13:3; Acts 4:24; 12:5; 24:16; Rom.5:1; 10:1; 15:17,30; 2Cor.3:4; 13:7; Phil.4:6; 1Th.1:8,9; Heb.2:17; 5:1; 1Jn. 3:21; Rev.12:5; 13:6. The two instances in John’s Prologue are John 1:1 and 1:2.

[11] The Concordant Version gives the correct meaning “toward” for John 1:1: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was toward God, and God was the word.”

[12] For the details, see Bowman’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Baker, Grand Rapids, 1989), and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures, 1965, pp.1158-1160 (the 1965 edition has a more detailed exposition of John 1:1 than the 1984 edition).

[13] A strong case for reading John’s Prologue as a hymn is developed by M. Gordley in The Johannine Prologue and Jewish Didactic Hymn Traditions: A New Case for Reading the Prologue as a Hymn, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol.128, no.4, 2009, pp.781-802.

[14] The trinitarian use of Philo is noted by New Bible Commentary, on John 1:1: “[Logos] was widely used in Greek literature, and many scholars have supposed that its significance for John can be understood only against such a background … This idea was much more fully developed in the writings of Philo of Alexandria.” Note the illuminating word “only”.

[15] A readable book on Philo is Kenneth Schenck’s A Brief Guide to Philo (2005, WJK, 172 pages). More technical is Cambridge Companion to Philo (ed. A. Kamesar, 2009, Cambridge University Press, 301 pages). For Philo’s own writings, see The Works of Philo (1993, Hendrickson, 944 pages).

[16] In the opinion of G.E. Sterling, professor of NT and Christian Origins, University of Notre Dame, and general editor of the Philo of Alexandria Commentary.

[17] Unless we are talking about another John. Because the writer of 2 John and 3 John calls himself “the elder,” some have suggested that the writer of these letters was a certain “John the Elder” or “John the Presbyter,” who was a different person from John the apostle. Even if this were so, we still would not know anything about this John the Presbyter.

[18] In eight stages, namely, the creation of: light; an expanse amid the waters; dry land amid the seas; vegetation; lights for day and night; birds and marine creatures; land animals; man and woman (though, strictly speaking, they were “formed” by God).

[19] UBS Old Testament Handbooks, vol.1, Gen.1:16: “He made the stars also: the words he made are added by many English translations, but they are not in the Hebrew.” Another reference says, “Thus v.16 is not an account of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day but a remark that draws out the significance of what has previously been recounted.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, abridged, K.L. Barker and J.R. Kohlenberger III eds., on Gen.1:16)

[20] NASA at http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_age.html. We are using the American definition of billion: 1,000,000,000.

[21] In an earlier section, “The spiritual meaning of the Word,” we briefly looked at the meaning of the Greek word ginomai, translated “became” in John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh”).

[22] The Complete Jewish Bible incorporates both: “only and unique Son”.

[23] Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, article “Son of God,” says that “son of God” or “sons of God” applies to the following categories of beings or entities: Israelites; Israel as a whole; God’s people; Zion’s king; David’s offspring; the righteous man; heavenly beings; and finally Jesus Christ.

[24] Idiomatic Translation of the New Testament by Dr. William G. MacDonald, author of The Greek Enchiridion.

[25] For a balanced study of Paul’s concept of the Messiah, see The Jewish Messiahs, the Pauline Christ, and the Gentile Question, Matthew V. Novenson, pp.357–373, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol.128, no.2, 2009.

[26] Allen P. Ross, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol.5, p.943, cited in Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes, 2010, on Proverbs 8.

[27] ISBE, article “Wisdom,” explains why “master workman” may be incorrect: ‘The most famous passage is Prov 8:22-31, however. The Wisdom that is so useful to man was created before man, before, indeed, the creation of the world. When the world was formed she was in her childhood; and while God formed the world she engaged in childish play, under His shelter and to His delight. So Prov 8:30 should be rendered (as the context makes clear that ’mwn should be pointed ’amun) “sheltered,” and not ’amon, “as a master-workman.”’

[28] In the NT, wisdom is personified only in Mt.11:19 (“yet wisdom is justified by her deeds”) and Lk.7:35 (“yet wisdom is justified by all her children”). 

 

 

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