John 1:1 -- one more foray

I suppose I am a bit obsessed with the meaning of the first verse of the gospel of John.  I have written enough on it (e.g. here and here).  But it bugs me that a simplistic bit of translation has totally distorted the meaning of the passage.

In English Bibles, John 1:1 is normally translated as:  "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God".

But that's nuts.  How can you both BE god and be WITH god?  It's logically self-contradictory.  By saying you are WITH someone you imply that you are NOT that someone.  So what gives?  Was the holy apostle John talking nonsense?  He was not.  What he wrote in the original Greek of the New Testament was quite different from what we read in most English Bibles.

But I can't altogether blame the translators.  Translating it literally does make for ponderous English.  So why not do it the simple way?

To show you what I mean, here is the closest I can get to an exact translation:  "In a beginning was the word and the word was with the god and the word was of god-substance."  You see what I mean.  It sounds a bit weird.  Note "THE god".

As I mentioned recently, it all goes back to the way holy Jews long ago stopped referring to the name of their god -- which was YHWH ("Jehovah" in English).  So they referred to him by generic terms such as "Gods" or "Lord" ("elohim" or "adonay" in Hebrew).

YHWH tells us most emphatically that he is very proud of his name, wants it used reverently and wants it known worldwide that he is supreme.  See the Ten Commandments and Psalm 83:18.  He is so emphatic about it in Psalm 83:18 that even the King James Bible renders the name as "Jehovah" rather than with their usual practice of substituting "the LORD" for YHWH. So it is a huge irony that the worshippers of YHWH do exactly the opposite of what he clearly commands.

And that confusion carried on into New Testament times.  Because the Jewish god had no name, the New Testament writers couldn't identify their god very clearly either.  They referred to him as "the God" ("ho theos") -- which is how Greeks referred to the local god, whoever he may be.  In the ancient world there were lots of gods and it depended on where you were to find out which god you most likely worshipped.  So right from the beginning, John 1:1 was going to have some ambiguity

A non-Jewish speaker of Greek would have taken the text to be very vague indeed, amounting to a claim that a mysterious someone was with the local god of the writer at some beginning and that the mysterious someone was made out of the same stuff as the local god was.  And that is EXACTLY what it means.  We see more in it than that because we know its religious context

Most Christians go in for vagueness there too.  They see it as justification for their theological "Trinity" doctrine -- and that's as vague as it gets -- saying that Jesus and God are the same yet different -- which is also logically self-contradictory.

I note that even the latest Zondervan Study Bible (using the latest version of the NIV) concedes in its notes that the meaning of "with god" is, "The word is distinct from God the father and enjoys a personal relationship with him".   That is pretty right -- but how you get a Holy Trinity out of it is the mysterious part.

I am not going to start mentioning anarthrous predicates and  the fine points of the Greek grammar involved.  I have done that on several previous occasions.  Suffice it to say that my rendering of what the passage actually means now seems to be mainstream among textual scholars. See e.g. here.

And nor is it a modern translation.  Another Bible translation  is the old Geneva Bible, a translation even older than the KJV. It was the translation that the Pilgrim Fathers mainly used.  And in their footnotes they interpret the passage to mean that the Word was of "the selfsame essence or nature" as the creator, which is pretty fair.

Note:  I might in passing recommend the latest Zondervan study Bible.  It is a massive tome with huge amounts of information. It is a worthy successor to the old Companion Bible. They are going for $33.99 at the moment from Christian Book.

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