Is NT Greek Magic?

I really enjoy reading biblcal texts in their original languages. I find this to be tremendously enlightening and just plain fun. Sometimes I worry that people will think I value a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek only because I happen to possess such a knowledge. But of course, I didn’t come out of the womb knowing Hebrew and Greek; rather, I came to the conclusion that knowing the languages was important, and I made the effort to learn them.

I should be clear that I do not believe a knowledge of Hebrew and/or Greek is essential for one to be a good student of the scriptures. For most purposes, reading the scriptures in a good translation is adequate. Where particular questions or problems arise, one can usually get a handle on the issues by reading several different translations and/or several different commentaries (preferably from a variety of theological viewpoints). The Bible is so important that various tools have been devised to allow one who does not know the original languages nevertheless to gain access to those languages for limited purposes. (These tools tend to be more successful for individual word studies than for nuances based on grammar or syntax.)

But I’ve noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

Just as beginning students of Latin traditionally begin their studies with Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (Gallia est omnis divisa in partis tres . . .[All of Gaul is divided into three parts. . .]), beginning students of New Testament Greek traditionally begin their studies with the Gospel of John. Therefore, to anyone who has ever studied even a little Greek, the beginning of John’s prologue in John 1:1 is quite familiar:

a. In the beginning was the Word,
b. and the Word was with God,
c. and the Word was God.

a. En arche en ho logos,
b. kai ho logos en pros ton theon,
c. kai theos en ho logos.

We know from John 1:14 that the “Word” refers to the preexistent Christ. The “God” of clause b is generally understood to be God the Father. There, the word “God” [ton theon] is articular; that is, it has the definite article [ton]. This is difficult to see in English, because here we do not translate the Greek article with the English article (“the”). That is, we do not say “the Word was with the God.” Greek and English vary somewhat in their use of the definite article. For instance, Greek often uses the article with proper names, where we would not in English (we do not say “the Jesus,” but simply “Jesus”). English handles definiteness in this sense with capitalization rather than the article. Nevertheless, the word “God” in clause b is definitely definite and refers to a particular God, namely God the Father.

The problem arises because the word “God” in clause c is anarthrous (which is just a fancy way of saying that it lacks the article). Instead of ho theos, that clause simply has theos. (Note that ton and ho are simply different inflections of the same word.) So when we say “and the Word was God,” do we mean something different or something less by the anarthrous “God” of clause c than we meant by the articular “God” of clause b?

There are three main approaches to this issue. The first is to understand the theos of clause c as indefinite: “and the Word was a god.” This is the rendering favored by Jehovah’s Witnesses; see the lengthy note on John 1:1 in the Appendix to The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures (affectionately known as the “purple dragon”). The second is to understand the theos of clause c as implicitly definite: “and the Word was God.” This is supported by a grammatical rule to the effect that an anarthrous noun in a predicate nominative preceding the verb generally lacks the article, even where the noun is definite. (I know that last sentence is probably incomprehensible to most people; just take it on faith that there is a grammatical argument for understanding the word theos as being definite here.) Unfortunately, this is more an argument than a definitive resolution, because that rule is by no means absolute, and even if it were to be applied, it simply provides that the noun may be definite, not that it must. (For a description of Colwell’s Rule, see here.) Some have stated that the indefinite translation is impossible, while others have stated that the definite translation is impossible. In fact, either translation is a possible understanding of the Greek, which is simply ambiguous.

The third approach, favored by Moffatt and others, is to understand theos as a qualitative: “and the Word was divine.” Some consider this too weak to reflect John’s intent (whatever that intent was), particularly since Greek has a perfectly good adjective, theios [divine], that John could have used if that were what he wanted to say.

People have been fighting tooth and nail over this issue for a long time (witness the many, massive debates in the archives of the b-greek list, for example), because how one understands theos in John 1:1c has profound ramifications for one’s Christology. As we have seen, however, the Greek is ambiguous. Any attempt to resolve this issue fully would have to examine not only the linguistic details of the Greek, but also the religious and historical setting in which John wrote (i.e., the religious difficulty in predicating the word “God” of Jesus in the Church of the first century C.E., whether the indefinite reading would be perceived as polytheistic in a Hellenistic culture, etc.)

I do not claim to have the answer to this issue. My own (tentative) approach is to favor the qualitative view. I think the emphasis in clause c is on the nature of the Word, not his identity. I view the Jehovah’s Witness rendering, with its strongly Arian emphasis, as inadequate based on the word order, which placed “God” at the beginning of the clause for emphasis. The Word was not just any god; the relationship of the Word with the God of clause b is very strong. The NEB paraphrase, by following the Greek word order, captures this aspect of the situation well: “What God was, the Word was.” On the other hand, if we were to read theos in clause c as definite, that would suggest that John was equating the Word with the God of clause b, and I do not believe that was his intention. In several places John’s Gospel preserves the distinction between the Father and the Son, as in John 14:28: “for my Father is greater than I.” To simply equate the Word with the Father would be problematic for both Mormons and more orthodox Christians, because it would suggest a Sabellian concept of God (that is, that the Father and the Son are simply different roles of one God, rather than separate persons). While the orthodox conception of the trinity is ontological and the Mormon conception is social only, nevertheless this approach resolves the problem for both traditions.

These days many Christians are so intent on arguing against the Arianism of the Jehovah’s Witness view that they fail to recognize that their position (i.e., that theos is definite) is more consonant with the Sabellian heresy than their own orthodoxy. But more thoughtful Christians have long been aware of the problem and have followed a more balanced approach. In fact, the venerable history of this approach reaches back to Luther, who declared that the lack of an article is against Sabellianism, while the word order is against Arianism.

In reviewing this situation, it is not my intention to solve this problem. Rather, my purpose is to illustrate a case where there is a serious, consequential disagreement over the meaning of the Greek text, and yet an appeal to Greek linguistics is inadequate to resolve the problem. A definitive resolution, which does not yet exist, would have to take other factors into account, such as the religious, historical and cultural background to the statement. To date, most arguments concerning the meaning of John 1:1c (including my own) have been dominated by theological rather than linguistic considerations (including the importation into this statement of post-Nicene thought). There are some problems for which an appeal to the Greek text, by itself, is simply inadequate to resolve.

[The title to this post was inspired by Sarah Silverman’s “Jesus is Magic” comedy routine.]


  1. I’ve been fascinated by early national American understandings of the word and the nature of divine speech (with its many roots and ramifications): thanks for bringing up this topic.
    As far as magical beliefs, I heard today a man talking about the problems with Mormonism, particularly its ideas about prophecy and Joseph Smith’s legitimacy, by making reference to “the Greek” of the Bible, although he clearly had no knowledge of any Greek. Part of this may be Romanticism in its ramifications, but part of it strikes me as a yearning for the primal, for the secrets of those who have passed on. I’m fascinated by that magical influence as it is reflected in many different cultures, including Kababalah, Smithian Mormonism, and a variety of other metaphysical reflexes.

  2. So every available manuscript in Greek of John is missing this article? If some are not missing the article, how do we determine if they came before or after the ones missing the article and if they are from a different line of copyists, how do we know they have not preserved better the original?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam, yes, people will often cite “the original Greek” almost as if it were a talisman, even though they clearly don’t know any Greek and haven’t actually studied the issue in question. I’ve seen this from both LDS and non-LDS. It reminds me of on my mission, when people would ascribe anything they were trying to bolster to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since most people had no idea what was in the scrolls (or what is in the Greek NT, for that matter), these assertions have a kind of conversation-stopping authority. When I was a missionary, I started keeping a list of crazy things people attributed to the DSS. Off the top of my head, I can recall a few (but I had two pages worth of these kinds of assertions):

    – the DSS prove that Paul was married
    – the DSS prove that we have a mother in heaven
    – the DSS prove that the KJV is the most accurate translation of the Bible

    Matt W., I am unaware of any Greek text that preserves a variant reading with the article in clause c.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., for a more general response to your “how do we know which text to follow?” question, see the chapter on the basics of NT textual criticism from Footnotes to the NT for LDS, here.

  5. (affectionately known as the “purple dragon”)


    There was a time when I liked having concrete answers. For some reason, having a few questions that don’t have a particular answer is comforting to me now.

  6. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I think I favor the qualitative reading as well. It makes more sense to me on a number of levels. A couple points: (1) John wasn’t a native speaker/reader of Greek, was he? So it’s possible he simply made a mistake. “Theos” and “theios” certainly look easy enough to mistake to me. (2) Maybe the mistake wasn’t John’s; maybe it’s one of the many scribal errors that have crept in. Point #2 would be something for someone with a familiarity with many texts to address.

  7. The magical power of Greek can come up in other settings. At a mechanical engineering department seminar, a student was presenting some work that involved poking living cells and measuring minute forces. Referring to the fluid encapsulated by the cell membrane, he drew a blank on the correct term and called it “the, the, … the cell stuff.” Everyone had a little laugh at that. You can’t go calling cytoplasm “cell stuff” even though the rest of your talk is in English.

  8. Kevin, The Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the Jesus family tomb actually belonged to Augustine’s hidden, illegitimate family (with conspiratorial backdating of the stratum in which the sarcophagi were locate).

    Incidentally, they also prophecied the GWB Presidency (oh, wait, that was Revelation 13).

  9. Costanza says:

    SMB, your right. But you didn’t mention that the only way to find the tomb is by using the hidden message in the original Greek manuscript of the Smithsonian’s denial that the Book of Mormon is used as an archaeological guide book. Opps, I wasn’t supposed to talk about that.

  10. Costanza, I worried that the albino flagellating monk would assassinate me if I were to leak that information. You may need to change your name.


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