Have you ever discussed the divinity of Jesus with a Jehovah’s Witness or anyone else who claims to be a Christian but denies this essential doctrine? If you have, you know how frustrating it can be. Every time you present what you think is clear scriptural proof that Jesus really is God, they always seem to have some clever way of denying the plain meaning of the text. Yet, it can be pretty difficult to put our finger on where exactly their interpretations go wrong. These arguments are often vexing to believers in Jesus’ divinity, and they can cause people to question the doctrine or even lose faith in it altogether. As a result, it is important for us to be able to spot the flaws in their logic and explain what these passages really mean. To that end, let’s look at one of the most common of these clever explanations and see how we can get around it to show that Jesus truly is God.
Is Jesus “A” God?
Surprisingly, there are actually very few passages in Scripture that explicitly call Jesus God. It may seem to us like the most natural thing in the world for a Christian to do, but the writers of the New Testament almost always chose to express their belief in Jesus’ divinity in other, more subtle ways. However, there are a few places in Scripture where they apply the word “god” to him, and one of them is the very first verse of the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
When presented with this seemingly irrefutable proof of Jesus’ divinity, deniers of the doctrine will argue that the verse actually says “and the Word was a god” (meaning that Jesus is a lesser divine being), not “and the Word was God.” This may sound preposterous, but there’s actually a legitimate linguistic basis for it. Ancient Greek didn’t have indefinite articles (the words “a” or “an”). Instead, when ancient Greek speakers wanted to express something that we in English would express with an indefinite article, they simply used a bare noun (that is, one without the words “a,” “an” or “the” in front of it) and expected people to know what they meant. That explanation may be a bit abstract, so let me give an example.
Let’s say that an ancient Greek speaker wanted to say, “Give me a book.” Since they didn’t have the word “a,” they would simply say, “Give me book.” That sounds really weird to us modern English speakers, but to ancient Greek speakers, it made perfect sense. They understood that the bare noun “book” in this context meant the same thing that we today would mean by the phrase “a book.”
When we turn to the first verse in John’s Gospel, we find that in the original Greek, the word “god” in the clause, “and the Word was God”, is a bare noun, just like the word “book” in my example above. Because of that, it’s possible to translate it as “the word was a god,” so the Jehovah’s Witnesses do in fact make a legitimate linguistic point. From a purely linguistic point of view, this translation is just as possible as the one that supports Jesus’ divinity.
Nouns, Articles, and Greek Grammar
So how do we decide between these two possibilities? We have to look at the context. When we do that, we actually find something that seems to support the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ case. As they are fond of pointing out, the first instance of the word “god” in this verse (in the clause, “and the Word as with God”) actually has the word “the” in front of it in Greek. In other words, the clause literally says, “and the Word was with the God” (we don’t do this in English, but it is pretty common in ancient Greek). The Greek makes it crystal clear that Jesus was with the one true God, not simply with a lesser god. As a result, they argue that when the very next clause, the one of concern (“and the Word was God”), uses the word “god” as a bare noun, John is actually doing that on purpose in order to distinguish between the true God and Jesus, who is just a god.
If you don’t know Greek, that may sound pretty convincing, but there is actually a fatal flaw in the argument. I do not want to get too technical with the details of Greek grammar, so I will just say this: John worded this clause in a way that actually made it impossible for him to literally say that Jesus is “the God” (because of a rule of ancient Greek grammar, the details of which I will not bore you). Unlike modern English, word order in ancient Greek was very fluid, so you could jumble the words of a sentence in several different ways and still retain the same meaning. In the clause of concern, the word order that John chose prohibited him from putting the word “the” in front of the word “God”. Thus, like I said, he was actually unable to write “and the Word was the God.” Instead, he was grammatically forced simply to write, “and the Word was God,” thereby engendering all the ambiguity contained in the bare noun “god.”
Once we understand the Greek grammatical constraints, we can see that the mere fact that John used the phrase “the God” in one clause and then just the bare noun “god” in the next doesn’t mean anything. The rules of ancient Greek grammar forced him to do that, so it does not tell us anything about the meaning he intended to convey. Consequently, we need to look at other context clues to see whether he meant that Jesus was the true God or a lesser god.
What other clues does the context give us? If we look at the entire opening section of John’s Gospel, which scholars call its prologue, we can see that it uses the word “god” several times (John 1:1, 2, 6, 12, 13, 18). Many of these verses clearly refer to the one true God, but don’t use the word “the”. Specifically, verses 6, 12, 13, and 18 do this.
Consequently, the clause we are looking at comes in a context where John is using the word “god” both with and without the word “the” (in fact, mostly without it) in order to refer to the one true God, and that is super important. Thus, we must conclude that throughout this entire passage, John didn’t intend any difference between the phrase “the God” and the bare noun “god”. There is absolutely no reason to think he intended any such difference in the first verse either. In fact, it would be strange if he did. That would mean that he intentionally distinguished between “the God” and “god” in his first verse, but then, almost immediately, did away with that distinction and began to use them synonymously with no warning or indication of this change.
That is a really strange way to write. It is theoretically possible that he did this, but it is highly unlikely. Rather, it’s much more likely that he knew he was using the phrase “the God” synonymously with the bare noun “god”. Thus, his choice to word the clause “and the Word was God” in a way that forced him to omit the word “the” before “god” was just a stylistic choice. Simply put, he wrote it that way because it sounded better to him, not because he intended to teach that Jesus was just a god rather than the one true God. As a result, when he applied the word “god” to Jesus, he almost certainly meant it in the same exact way he used it throughout the prologue. He meant that Jesus is the one true God, just like the Father is.
A Clever Denial, But Wrong
From all this, we can see that while the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ explanation of John 1:1 is clever and actually has a basis in Greek grammar, it is ultimately incorrect. John was not saying that Jesus is just a god, some sort of divine being who is superior to humans, but still not the one true God. No, he was teaching that Jesus is truly God, the almighty Creator and Lord of all that exists.