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Jason BeDuhn's Second Reply to Robert Hommel 


Dear Robert,

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks on the problems of translation with regard to John 1:1. I will comment on a selected portion of what you wrote, to keep the dialogue from becoming too lengthy (you and I are both wordy guys).

>ROBERT: I agree that he misunderstood the application of 
>Colwell's rule (as did Colwell himself, and scads of other 
>scholars). However, I'm not sure that I agree that his other 
>reasons were on "the basis of theology." At least not entirely. 
>If I recall correctly, he bases at least a portion of his 
>conclusion on his understanding of John's theology. While 
>Metzger's theology may color his understanding of John's to some 
>degree, I think it's painting with too broad a brush to suggest 
>that Metzger bases his conclusion (apart from Colwell) entirely on 
>his own theological preferences. Metzger, I'm sure, has drawn 
>conclusions about John's christology based on the rest of John's 
>Gospel and John's other works, and these conclusions certainly 
>play a legitimate part in his displeasure with the NWT rendering. 
>I believe you concur with this methodology, for you say: "What 
>John's language does provide is a reference to logos, which has 
>philosophical and theological meaning in the time of John that we 
>can draw on to better understand what he is conveying, and a 
>careful presentation throughout the gospel that fills in some of 
>the things we need to understand about the 
>Word-become-flesh/Christ. That is what the reader should attend 
>to." Since you are not engaging in theology when you attend to 
>these matters in John's Gospel, I don't think its quite fair to 
>accuse Metzger of doing so. 

JB: Certainly Metzger believes that how he reads John 1:1 corresponds to what John's overall view is. Metzger also believes that his own personal beliefs correspond to John's overall view and to that of all "orthodox" Christianity. It's that combination of assumed correspondences that puts pressure on Metzger's reading of any one verse. Am I being unfair, not giving him the benefit of the doubt? I read Metzger as I would any text, and I can see in his heightened rhetoric his "displeasure," as you put it, his response to an affront to his own beliefs. He does not offer any substantive contextual reading to back up his interpretation/translation of John 1:1. 

I simply don't share Metzger's set of assumptions that everything will line up comfortably between the Bible and a particular form of modern Christianity. As a historian I am aware of how much our society, culture, language, etc. differs from those of the people who wrote the Bible, and as a student of the Bible I am prepared to have it surprise and inform me . . . still. 

Yes, literary context matters in helping to narrow down what an author could possibly mean in a given passage. Language is inherently ambiguous, and translation and interpretation struggle with that. The point I am trying to make about John is that he is BUILDING an argument, or presentation, about Christ in his gospel. What precisely, theologically, that argument and presentation is can be debated to some degree. But in terms of translation, you cannot legitimately pack the whole of that presentation into any one passage, verse, or word. You must let the presentation unfold in the course of the gospel. John 20:28 is a climax John has worked very hard to prepare the reader for, by spelling out in a variety of ways throughout the gospel in what way it can be true that Jesus is Thomas' "Lord and God." The gospel is all about stretching monotheism to accommodate the intimacy of identity between Christ and God the Father. It is a gross oversimplification of John's elaborate and delicate task in doing this to translate John 1:1c in the traditional manner. It is not what John wrote and it misses the point of what he wrote. 

>ROBERT: I agree that Colwell's Rule is of no value in determining 
>the proper translation of John 1:1c, and that Colwell himself was 
>mistaken when he used it to do so. However, I think you're 
>overstating the case that his Rule "as formulated" is "a 
>completely imaginary rule of Greek Grammar." His rule reads: 
>"Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the 
>article" (Colwell, p. 20). 
>This rule, as stated, is, I believe, fairly well substantiated. 
>That is, if one begins with nouns in the semantic category 
>"definite" and examines their occurance in pre- and 
>post-copulative constructions, it is not hard to demonstrate that 
>"usually" definite nouns in pre-copulative constructions are 

JB: The problem, you see, is that the methodology of this study, and of the studies that follow it, is unsound. It starts with nouns already determined to be definite. How was that determination made? How could it be made? Validly, the determination of a noun as definite must be made by grammatical signs. Colwell made his predetermination of definite nouns on purely subjective grounds, of nouns that "must" be definite because of what he thought they mean. It can be shown that in nearly every example of anarthrous pre-copulative nouns Colwell cites, he is mistaken about their definiteness.

But we agree that even if Colwell's Rule were valid, it does not help us with John 1:1c. So I will move on.

>ROBERT: It seems to me that everyone has certain presuppositions 
>which govern their beliefs and conclusions. For example, while 
>you may not consider yourself a theologian, I suspect you have a 
>worldview of some sort. You have a set of beliefs - about whether 
>God exists; about whether the Bible is God's Word or man's word; 
>about whether the Bible's is inerrant; about whether we need to 
>harmonize our translation of John 1:1c with Paul's christology or 
>the hyper-monotheism of the author of Deuteronomy and Isaiah (or 
>Deutero-Isaiah, if you prefer). One's beliefs in these areas will 
>certainly affect how one interprets John 1:1, don't you agree? Or 
>am I missing something fundamental, here? 

JB: You are right that everyone has biases. The critical thing is which biases operate when and with what self-awareness. Yet you have missed "something fundamental" which most people usually miss, and that is the training of someone like myself in the field of religious studies. You see, I teach at a state university. Teaching religion at a state institution requires the cultivation of objectivity and neutrality, or what we in the field call "bracketing." That is, we learn and strive to bracket our personal beliefs when engaged in our professional work, in the classroom and in research. When we fall short, others are there to point it out to us. It's very important to do this because, in the US, religion can only be taught in state institutions if it is handled in this neutral way. That's the law, but more importantly it is absolutely essential to our religious freedom. But, to stick to the point, I "bracket." But I don't expect you to take my word for it. If in my arguments you detect a bias at work in defiance of the grammatical, literary, and historical/cultural facts, come down on me as hard as you can.

>ROBERT: At this point, I'm unwilling to concede that the rules 
>and properties of Greek grammar mandate an indefinite semantic 
>force for theos in John 1:1c. 

JB: Then you must have a grammatical argument to make for the definite semantic force. I take it that the following is your argument, and will respond accordingly.

>ROBERT: Perhaps we should more clearly define our terms. If you ask me 
>what grade my daughter is in, I'll answer "She a second-grader." 
>From my understanding, this would be a classic indefinite usage. 
>I'm saying that she is in the "class" or category of children in 
>the second grade. However, if you ask me if I'm going to take my 
>daughter to see the film The Lord of the Rings, I might answer, 
>"No, she's just a second-grader." Here, my meaning is not that my 
>daughter is a member of a class - but rather that she has the 
>qualities or characteristics of second-graders - that is, she's 
>too young to appreciate the film. This is a qualitative usage. 
>In English, we often use the indefinite article to signify 
>qualitativeness, but not always. Some nouns lend themselves more 
>to a qualitative usage without the article - "man," for instance. 
>If I say to an evolutionist, "Homo Erectus was man," I'm not 
>saying that our ancient ancestor was "a man," (a member of a class 
>or category), nor that he is The Man (definite); instead, I mean 
>that he was fully human - possessing all the qualities, 
>attributes, or characterstics of humanity. Greek grammarians 
>since Robertson (and even some before) have demonstrated that 
>anarthrous nouns in Greek often lay stress on the qualities or 
>characteristics of the noun. The question, then, as you note, is 
>how best to translate this semantic nuance into English. In many 
>occasions, it will have to be with the indefinite article - since 
>English idiom restricts us. In other cases, we may choose an 
>adjective (for example, I think "sinful" works better than "a 
>sinner" for hamartwlos in John 9:24, 25). In some cases, the noun 
>may simply be rendered without either the definite or indefinite 
>article (which is how most translators render kurios in Mark 
>2:28). The translator must determine what semantic force is 
>predominant (indefiniteness or qualitativeness) and then decide 
>the best English equivalent. 

JB: The semantic distinction between quality and category is not made in Greek GRAMMAR. In other words, Greek writers do not write differently for qualitative meaning than they do for categorical meaning. For them, category and quality are the same. We can argue over the exact nuance of a phrase, over its semantic stress, certainly. But the language does not carry in itself anything that allows us to settle the argument definitively. On the other hand, it carries enough information to permit us to define the semantic RANGE of a phrase, what is possible and what is impossible, what conveys what the language carries and what steps beyond that. Your argument above would support, at most, a translation of "the Word was god," using "god" as a common noun denoting a category of being, just as "man" in your example. Of course, to translate that way results in exactly the same meaning, the same semantic force, as "the Word was a god." For John, as for Greek writers generally, membership in a category carries with it (at least some, if not always all) the qualities of that category.

>ROBERT: I would argue that Greek conveys quality with a 
>qualitative noun. If one accepts qualitativeness as a 
>semantic nuance, I don't see how it's possible to convey 
>that nuance with an indefinite noun (which has an entirely 
>different semantic nuance). In Greek, that is. While we may, in 
>some cases, translate a qualitative noun with an indefinite noun 
>in English, we must, I think, argue from sense, not 
>translation. Either the author intends to convey the qualities of 
>his subject, or he intends to place that subject in a class or 
>category. And while members of a class or category have the 
>attributes associated with that class, that is an extra-linguistic 
>deduction. The author (unless intending ambiguity) places 
>emphasis on one or the other. He or she intends a specific 
>meaning in using a qualitative construction. When the lady at the 
>well calls Jesus "a prophet," she is not merely placing Him in a 
>category of other prophets, but rather is emphasizing Jesus' 
>prophetic attributes that enabled Him inimately to know about her 
>past. Her emphasis is on the qualities of "prophet," not on 
>membership in the class or category of prophets. 

JB: We agree on the point that by placing someone or something in a category, ancient Greek endows that person or thing with the qualities and attributes of that category generally speaking. That is part of the IMPLICIT MEANING in such a usage. But there is no "qualitative noun" in Greek GRAMMAR. "Quality" is a matter of interpreted semantic stress in a usage of a noun in one of its forms, in the case of John 1:1c, an indefinite form. The author may well intend stress one way or another, but we only know the author's "intention" based upon signs in his use of grammar and syntax. What's not there can only be guessed at. Harner may well be right that a certain pattern of placement of anarthrous nouns is such a sign of stress on quality. That would yield a translation of "the Word was a divine being" or, a bit looser, "the Word was divine." Is there something conveyed in such translations that is not conveyed by "the Word was a god" or "the Word was god"?

>I agree that quality can be conveyed with an adjective, but I 
>think an adjectival sense often is less than is intended by a 
>qualitative noun. The lady at the well is, I think, saying more 
>than Jesus is "prophetic." She is saying that He has all the 
>qualities, attributes, or characteristics of a prophet in full 

JB: Now how do you know this, Robert? What is there in the language on the page that gives you this? Isn't it because this is Jesus she is talking about that you read into the words more content, more significance, than you would if she was talking about some other "prophet." John's a good enough writer that if he wants to communicate that information, he can quite clearly. John frequently uses irony in such statements by others, and I would contend that "prophet" has a very thin, inadequate meaning in the woman's mouth in this passage, one that Jesus repeatedly outshines in the gospel.

ROBERT: Indeed, though the lady does not know this (but John 
>certainly does), Jesus more completely embodies the qualities of 
>"prophet" than does anyone in the OT that might be considered 
>prophetic - He is the One who has been intimately with the Father 
>"in" the Beginning, who "exegetes" the Father, who speaks only the 
>Father's words, and does everything the Father does in like 

JB: Yes, and what you have done is paraphrase OTHER verses where these things are stated. But these very things are NOT in the word "prophet" spoken by the Samaritan woman. This is precisely what I mean by "reading in" -- as seems to be happening with John 1:1, although you haven't actually declared your translation of it yet, so I don't want to pre-judge.

>Could you please tell me whether the anarthrous pre-verbal PNs in 
>the following verses are indefinite or adjectival, in your view: 
>Mark 2:28 (kurios estin); John 1:14 (sarx egeneto); John 3:6(sarx 
>estin; pneuma estin); John 6:63(pneuma estin; zwe estin). 

JB: I don't think the choice between indefinite and adjectival works for you here. Don't you want it to be between indefinite and qualitative? or categorical and qualitative?

Mark 2:28: "So the Son of Man is lord (or a lord) also (or even) of the sabbath." He has the status of lord, master. He is not "lordly" or "masterly" -- these adjectives don't work here. He belongs to the class of beings that have mastery over the (rules of the) sabbath. He does not have the "nature" or "qualities" of a master -- he has the authority of one.

John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh." "Flesh" (sarx) is an indefinite noun of substance, just as we would say, "The jar is pewter." So it doesn't take the indefinite noun in English. "Fleshly" could work as an adjective here, although some would object that the connotation would be wrong applied to Christ. The fact is that John is not stressing "fleshly" in that moral sense, but the material substance. But there are ramifications of that material substance that are negative for John -- most importantly, it is vulnerable and mortal. The Word takes on or becomes the substance, and so the qualities and attributes of flesh, certainly. The Word becomes something in the "flesh" category.

John 3:6: "That which is born of flesh is flesh." Excellent example of two indefinite nouns, indistinguishable grammatically, that convey what I have been saying about category and quality. In short, category defines qualities. Belonging to the flesh category means that one has flesh qualities. You could get away with "fleshly" for the second sarx, but it hardly seems necessary. The same remarks hold true for "spirit" (pneuma).

John 6:63: "The words that I have spoken are spirit and life." In the context, Jesus has talked about the "spirit" as the life-force that animates flesh into a living being. Now he identifies his teachings metaphorically with this imagery of spirit and life. "Spiritual" and "living" doesn't quite get at the direct analogy he is making.

>ROBERT: Harner and others have written that a qualitatitve noun 
>attributes the qualities, attributes, or characteristics of the 
>noun to the subject. I'm not sure how one could define "nature" 
>without saying that it is the sum total of a being's qualities, 
>attributes, and characteristics. If one of the characteristics of 
>ho theos is self-existence, is that not part of His nature? Isn't 
>that one of the attributes of the true God that distinguishes Him 
>as categorically distinct from other so-called gods in the Bible? 
>Doesn't that make the true God's nature unique? 

JB: But how do you know what John includes in the list of qualities and attributes he intends in this particular verse by the category theos? Does he spell that out sufficiently in the subsequent pages of his gospel? How much should we bring in the common or philosophical views of theos John would have assumed in his readers? To keep from being totally circular in our reasoning, and from reading into the text everything we might want to be there, we have to ask ourselves self-disciplining questions such as these. Put the shoe on the other foot: when John says that "the Word became flesh" does he mean that Christ has "the sum total" of the qualities, attributes, and characteristics of "flesh" as those are spelled out in the Bible, including lust, selfishness, warring against the spirit, etc.? Or when Jesus himself says that he is the vine, does he mean he has the sum total of a vine's characteristics, including leaves and juice? Or when he says that he is the son of God, does that mean that he has all of the characteristics of a son, including genetic material of the father? Categories are flexible, and the qualities associated with a category vary with use.

>ROBERT: Actually, I think the English word Deity works a bit 
>better, in that we are more accustomed to seeing it used 
>qualitatively: "The Word was with the Deity and the Word was 
>Deity." I prefer "Deity" to "divine" because it signifies all 
>that makes God, God (or a god, a god), whereas "divine" can mean a 
>mere god-like quality. Qualitative nouns - even those that may 
>include some indefiniteness - attribute all the qualities or 
>characteristics of the noun to the subject; at least, I have not 
>found any that clearly attribute only some qualities or all 
>qualities in lesser measure. But on the whole, I prefer the 
>traditional translation to other alternatives - all require some 
>sort of explanation, but I think the traditonal rendering conveys 
>more of the essential truth of what John was writing. Of course, 
>I know you disagree... 

JB: Yes, I do disagree, because the traditional translation inadvertently makes an individual identification that John does not intend (because he shows he does not intend it by writing theos differently in John 1:1c than he does in 1:1b). "Deity" is a bit awkward, I think, but so is "a god." But you cannot legitimately capitalize "Deity" because it is not used as name. And by using "Deity" also in John 1:1b you commit the same mistake of individual identification that the traditional translation makes. 

With all due respect, I think you are simply overlooking very common uses of "qualitative" nouns (meaning indefinites) where all the attributes are not carried over to the subject. After all, metaphor and simile could not possibly work in a language such as the one you imagine. One of the most famous lines from the Bible -- "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- is translated thus from the original "All is vapor." Now the passage does not mean that all things have the entire sum of qualities of vapor or mist. Rather, the passage highlights a particular quality of vapor/mist -- that it quickly evaporates without a trace -- that everything is said to have. When Pilate asks "Am I a Jew?" He is not asking, "Am I circumcized? Do I pray at set times of the day? Do I observe the sabbath?" etc. -- all the attributes of Jewishness. He means simply, "Do I belong to the category of persons for whom what you are saying would have some meaning?"

>ROBERT: Again, I don't see the grammatical necessity for a 
>indefinite semantic force. John, it seems to me, is saying much 
>more than the Logos is a member of a "divine class." I think 
>Harner's study is helpful, here. We should consider why John 
>wrote 'theos hn ho logos' and not 'ho logos hn theos,' or 'ho 
>logos hn theios.' The first would have been unambiguously 
>indefinite; the second clearly adjectival. Why did John write 
>what he did, and not one of these alternatives? The stairstep 
>construction in John 1:1 places emphasis on the repeated words: 
>"...ho logos kai ho logos...ton theon kai theos... This device 
>seems to me more than a poetic decoration - John is setting forth 
>the theme of his Gospel: The Word - God. The stress John places 
>on theos is, I think, more than the indefinite nuance can bear. 
>John is saying more than the logos is a member of a class - he is 
>stressing the qualities of the logos - for the logos is "in" the 
>Beginning, intimately with ho theos. Through the logos, all 
>things came into being, and not one thing came into being apart 
>from Him. The Son is the "one and only" - he is unique, not 
>merely the member of a class, but in a class by Himself. 
>Throughout his Gospel, John will distinguish ho logos from ho 
>theos, as you rightly say. But he will also define precisely how 
>ho logos "theos is" as well. 

JB: I agree, and have always maintained, that there is room within the semantic range of what John has written for it to be either adjectival or nominal, because I know that category and quality fall within the same grammatical construction in Greek. You prefer an adjectival rendering -- that preference does not rule out other renderings. Yes, it is useful to compare what John wrote to what he could have written. Such a comparison clearly shows that John didn't mean "the Word was God" because there are at least two other ways to write John 1:1c that could only be read that way, and John didn't use them. It is also true that there is at least one other way John could have written 1:1c that could only be read as "the Word was a god," and he didn't use it either. There are also several ways John could have written 1:1c with an adjective, that could only be read as "the Word was divine," but he didn't. So what we are left with is phrasing that could be adjectival or nominal, and we have no way to prove it one way or the other. I agree that the chiasmic repetition of "theos" and "logos" is deliberate and significant, as well as poetic. But what you seem to gloss over in mentioning that pattern is that it is slightly broken, in that John drops the article with second "theos." Now in ancient Greek when you set up a parallelism and break the parallel in one place, you are drawing attention to that break (Paul does this all the time). So John is being very careful here to mark the nuance he is trying to convey in John 1:1c: the Word was with HO THEOS, and the Word was THEOS. What is the significance of that distinction? What is John getting at? The answer is open to interpretation, and the translator's job is not to foreclose and predetermine interpretation, but to convey John's phrasing as openly as John left it.

>ROBERT: Do you find that Trinitarian scholars who've written on 
>the Gospel of John have not done so? I'd be interested to hear 
>your opinion of Carson's commentary on John, or Ridderbos' or 

JB: I think modern scholarship has handled what we know about the ancient concept of Logos very poorly when it comes to applying it to biblical interpretation. But I may have missed something.

>ROBERT: Though I have my presuppositions like 
>everyone else, I strive also to let John say what he says. I 
>suspect that everyone who has written on this subject - including 
>Metzger and Colwell - would say the same as well. The fact that 
>some have allowed their presuppositions to override clear thinking 
>is a cautionary tale for all of us. 

JB: Indeed it is.

best wishes,
Jason BeDuhn

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