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Chapter 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, YHWH. 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 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 to them 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, the 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 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 prior exposure to both.[3] In Jesus’ day, most of the Aramaic-speaking people could not read the Hebrew Bible adequately and had to depend on Aramaic trans­lat­ions. A trans­lation of the Hebrew Bible—usually a portion of the Bible—into Aram­aic is called “Targum” (an Aramaic word which means “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)

The familiar metonym “the Word of the Lord” could, in poetic language, be rea­son­ably short­ened to “the Word” (memra), a form which is 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 via the Aramaic memra 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 (Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1) are the open­ing clauses of their respective books. A trinit­arian who did not miss the iden­ti­fica­tion is Dr. 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. Accord­ing to TWOT, 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 love, His intent­ions, 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 the word “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 Christ Jesus, 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 really 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 the second clause, John 1:1b, the word “with” (underlined above) is translated from the Greek preposition pros whose intrinsic meaning is “to” or “towards” rather than “with”. But trini­tarians render John 1:1b as “and the Word was with God” even though “with” is not the usual meaning of pros. There are in fact other preposit­ions that are used far more often for convey­ing the idea of “with”: (a) syn means together “with” some­one (cf. synchron­ize, sympathize); (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 class 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.

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 the preponder­ance of the three prep­osi­tions (meta, syn, para) over the preposition pros for the mean­ing “with,” based on the comprehensive data under the heading “With” in Modern Concordance. The very 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. You do not need to go through the verses in the table; they are listed to show the relative frequencies of the four 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

 

The table also gives 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 means “with”—only 16 times in 700 occur­rences, or once in 44. 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 pros. This is seen in the way pros is actually used in the Bible (cf. Modern Concordance), but also in how it is defined in Greek-English lexicons. BDAG gives many definit­ions of pros, and these are shown in the following. The definitions are technical, but you can skip them without impairing the flow of reading. It may be helpful, however, 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 even by BDAG to be the principal mean­ing of pros. The trini­tarian selection of the last meaning of pros for John 1:1b, to the exclusion of many other more plausible meanings, would be totally arbitrary if we cannot give a com­pell­ing reason for doing this.

And when we examine BDAG’s definitions (a) to (g) shown above, 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 con­sist­ent with John’s next 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 of classical Greek, unlike lexi­cons of biblical and Christ­ian literature, is not parti­cularly inter­ested in pro­viding doctrinal support for trinitarian­ism.

This referential function 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”.

Another example of the referential use of pros is found in Romans 10:21: “But regarding Israel (pros ton Israēl) he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contentious people’”.

Conclusion: From the lexical information in BDAG and Liddell-Scott-Jones, John 1:1 should be understood as: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word had reference to God (pointed to God), and the Word was God (by metonymy).” [10]

Does pros ton theon really mean “with God” in John 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.[11] 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”!

Interestingly, the correct reading “toward God” for pros ton theon in John 1:1 is acknow­ledged by some trinit­arian com­mentaries. For exam­ple, New American Commentary says:

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 in John 1:1 means “towards God”. 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’”).

The LXX has around 70 occurrences of pros ton theon, most of which are translated as “to God” in English Bibles.

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

Why then 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 rendering—“and the Word was with God”—promotes trinitarianism by imply­ing that 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 has been misappropriated 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 (Isaiah 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 insufficient 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 trinitarian 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 word pros. That is because the way we under­stand pros in John 1:1b governs the way we interpret the whole verse.

The plain fact is that 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 primary 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 doctrinally motivated. By contrast, 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 translations are identical except for the underlined words. The first rendering has the 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 admitted by many trinit­arians.

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 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 well 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 some well-known trinitarians, as we shall see. When John 1:1 is tran­s­lated the conventional 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,” a valid translation though not the only possible one), but with John 1:1b (“the Word was with God,” an improbable rendering that is 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 exists only because 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 a trivial one, and is noted by many trinitarians. We now give five exam­ples of this. 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 colossal trinitarian effort to resolve the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c

Example #1. F.F. Bruce, trinitarian and eminent NT scho­lar, is aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c when they are trans­lated in the conventional 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 which 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 he 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” refer to the two con­tradictory clauses that F.F. Bruce points out.) But after admit­ting that the two clauses “seem im­possible to reconcile logically” (very strong words), the com­mentary offers no resol­ut­ion beyond the bare suggest­ion that we simply accept the two “with equal firm­ness,” i.e., accept the contradiction as it stands.

Example #3. H.A.W. Meyer, in Critical and Exegetical Hand­book to the Gospel of John (p.48), is aware that John 1:1b can be read 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 often express a trinitarian op­inion in the NT 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 which collides with John 1:1b can be “ruled out”. In other words, it is the trinitar­ian read­ing of John 1:1b which overrides all possible interpretations 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 here acknowledges the conflict between the conventional reading of John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) and that of 1:1c (“the Word was God”). NET rejects this translation of 1:1c because it equates “the Word” with “the per­son of God,” which is not what NET wants. In struggling with this trinitarian dilemma, NET is forced to reject the conventional rendering of John 1:1c (“the Word was God”) because it is “ruled out” by 1:1b (“the Word was with God”). As a result, NET goes on to say 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 total 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”). That is why James White says that God is not a “who” but a “what”.

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

Example #5. This is the most eye-opening of our five examples but is slightly technical. 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 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 conventional 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; and both use the predicate anarthrous theos argument in an attempt 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 to 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).

The similarity in exegetical procedure comes out strikingly in one of the most detailed gramma­ti­cal-exegetical anal­yses of John 1:1 ever writ­ten by an evangelical. Robert M. Bowman Jr., an ardent apologist for trinitarianism, wrote a book, 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 John 1:1. But the inconven­ient fact is that their respective interpretations are almost identical in terms of grammatical-exegetical procedure.

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.

As for Bowman, we won’t go into the details in his book except to out­line the two main currents that run through his expo­sition of John 1:1.[12] Ironically, these two currents, especially the second one, have the unintended consequence of weakening 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 conventional way found in mainstream Bibles. 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 (in which the Father, not the Son, is the only true God, as in John 17:3) or the error of modal­ism (Jesus = Father = Spirit, just as H2O can be water, ice, or vapor). Neither option is acceptable to trinitar­ians, and this would explain 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 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 his euphemism for “para­phrase”). Hence 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 confirms the shock­ing fact which I [Bentley Chan] had already sensed some time ago, namely, that the trinitarian inter­pret­ation of John 1:1 is fundamentally similar to that of the JWs in terms of grammatical-exegetical procedure! 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); and the indefinite­ness of theos (pp.41,47). With these things in agreement, Bowman faces the great and daunting challenge of disproving “the Word was a god,” which is the JWs’ render­ing of John 1:1c.

This bring us to the most shocking 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 own words)! Bowman is conceding that the JWs are grammatically correct in their rendering of John 1:1, but he rejects it only because it is not doctrinally accept­able to him and his fellow trinitarians.

There is nothing unusual or farfetched about a trinitarian who admits that “the Word was a god” (as preferred by the JWs) 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)

In the final analysis, the real disagreement between trinitarians and the JWs is over doctrine, not grammatical-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 accept “and the Word was divine” as 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 only skin-deep, mainly over the best way of depicting the divineness of the Word: “God” versus “a god,” both in a qualitative sense. When you think about it, 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”. Moreover, there would be no need to alter the meaning of “God” in going from John 1:1b to 1:1c.

Bowman refuses to consi­der the possib­ility of the referential use of pros in John 1:1 because it would undermine his trinitarian presup­posit­ions but also be­cause trinitar­ians are in perfect harmony 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 John 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 John 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 own 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?”): Before 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 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 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 the 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; (ii) a literal translation of the Greek; (iii) the same as (ii) but with comments inserted (shown in boldface).

John 1:1-2 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 had reference to God (“identify­ing God,” ITNT), and God was the Word. 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’s Prologue 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 will 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 Gen.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, on Gen.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 (c. 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), 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 does call 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 to 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 the present book) 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 brief 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 the book is less likely to be doctrinally motivated to inter­pret Philo through the prism of trinita­rian­ism (it 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 doc­trines. 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 now quickly mention that the quotations in Ap­pendix 9 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.



[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 printing 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 man. 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 in Prov.8:30 (LXX) where it is used of the person­ified wisdom who was “beside” God at the creation (“I was beside him like a master workman”).

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

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

[9] See pros, C-III, 1-5. LSJ’s long discussion 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 Concordant Bible gives the correct meaning “toward” for John 1:1: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was toward God …”

[11] The 18 instances outside John’s Prologue are 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 Jn.1:1 and 1:2.

[12] For the details, see Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Baker, Grand Rapids, 1989); also the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Inter­linear Transla­tion of the Greek Scriptures, 1965, pp.1158-1160.

[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: “[The 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 a compilation of 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.

 

 

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