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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"and the Word was divine."

Additional Reading:

As it might be thought that what Dr BeDuhn has written regarding how best to render QEOS EN HO LOGOS as "the Word was divine" and this somehow undermines the rendering of "the Word was a god" and even obviates the Witnesses 'use' of Dr BeDuhn regarding the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the following may prove helpful to explain a little more this scholars reasons for his preference in both translation _and_ understanding. Dr BeDuhn himself has written:

"It is true that the most formal, literal translation of the words in John 1:1c would be "and the Word was a god." The grammatical rules involved in this passage weigh very heavily against the more commonly seen, traditional translation, "and the Word was God." However, translation is not only
about rendering a passage word-for-word. It involves also consideration of broader syntax and the
meaning of a passage as a whole.

"The grammatical construction used here can be called the qualitative or categorical use of the indefinite. Basically, that means x belongs to the category y, or "x is a y." The examples I used in a letter now widely circulated are "Snoopy is a dog"; "The car is a Volkswagen"; and "John is a smart person." The common translation "The Word was God" is as erroneous for this construction as it would be to say in English "Snoopy is dog"; "The car is Volkswagen"; or "John is smart person." The indefinite article is mandatory because we are talking about a member of a class or category.

"Sometimes in English we can accomplish the same syntactical function by using a predicate adjective in place of the indefinite noun phrase. In the examples I gave above, this only works with "John is a smart person," which means the same thing as "John is smart." What Harner calls the qualitative sense is the same as what I call the categorical sense. In the many examples throughout the New Testament of the same grammatical construct as found in John 1:1c, the indefinite noun used is always a class or category to which the subject is said to belong. But in several of these examples, the category is used to suggest the quality the subject has, as in the many "a son of x" expressions found in the New Testament.

"Because of this evidence, we cannot rule out the possibility that for John quality was the center of focus rather than category"" Being honest to the original Greek, we cannot narrow the range of acceptable translation of John 1:1c any further than to say it is EITHER "And the Word was a god" OR "And the Word was divine." I can, if pressed, explain at length why these two translations amount to the same thing FOR JOHN. But I also recognize that they leave open interpretation to a range of possible understandings. I am afraid I cannot do anything about that. If I were to say that the NWT translation is the only possible one, I would be committing the same offense as those who have said that "And the Word was God" is the only possible translation. The whole point of my work is to get us past these false assertions, and follow the original Greek, and follow it only as far as it takes us.

"What I can say is that "And the Word was God" is extremely difficult to justify, because it goes against the plain grammar of the passage. Either of the other two translations are acceptable, because the Greek allows them, while it does not obviously allow the traditional translation. What your correspondent needs to understand, in dealing with others on this question, is that the wording "The Word was divine" agrees 100% in meaning with "The Word was a god" and only 50% with "And the Word was God." What must be given up from the latter wording is the absolute identity between Word and God that the traditional translation tried to impose. John clearly did not intend to make such an absolute identification, and that is precisely why he very carefully manipulates his word in the passage to rule it out. But, yes, John is putting the Word into the "god" or "divine" category, and that is as true if the wording is "a god" or "divine."

"Remember, the Word is not a human person, and John does not use "god" for the Word to say he is talking about a prophet or a leader or an important person. The Word is a superhuman (hence "divine") essence or being, very intimately connected to The God. How intimately? In what way connected? In what precise relationship? The answers to those questions are much more involved, and must be based on a reading of the Gospel of John as a whole, where John works very hard to make it all clear. And yes, there will be disagreements about how to understand this larger picture John is trying to convey.

"Of course, if your correspondent is using what I have written in arguments with people who favor the traditional translation, they are likely to seize upon my acceptance of "The Word was divine" as somehow a defense of their view. That is also something that cannot be helped. The idea of a Trinity developed over the centuries after the Gospel of John was written precisely as one solution to the questions raised by John's wording. The JWs have a different solution to those same questions. I am not in a position to arbitrate such historical interpretations of the text. I think John went as far as he felt inspired to go in his understanding of things, and I do not fault him for not going further and for not answering all of the additional questions people have been able to raise since his time.

"The bottom line is that "The Word was a god" is exactly what the Greek says. "The Word was divine" is a possible meaning of this Greek phrasing. "The Word was God" is almost certainly ruled out by the phrasing John uses, and it is not equivalent to "The Word was divine" because without any justification in the original Greek it narrows the meaning from a quality or category (god/divine) to an individual (God)."

Jason BeDuhn:
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, and Chair
Department of Humanities, Arts, and Religion
Northern Arizona University.