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#29 - John 1:1 controversy -- "The Word was God" or "The Word was Godly"

by Robert Nguyen Cramer

This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.


Question/insight #29: "I have been trying to understand what the controversy is about John 1:1. One website says the end should be translated 'and what God was, the Word was too' or 'and the Word was fully God.' I do not believe your site mentions anything about Colwell's Rule. What is Colwell's Rule?"

Response #29: You refer to the translation of the third statement about the Word (the Logos) in John 1:1. Colwell's Rule is the Greek grammatical rule regarding an equational Greek sentence construction. In 1933 E.C.Colwell ("A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament," in Journal of Biblical Literature, 1933, Volume 52, p. 21) stated:

Scholars have long been divided as to the application of Colwell's rule.

The rule affects the Greek translation of what in English is a predicate nominative as compared with what is a predicate adjective. Previously there had been an understanding among many Greek scholars that in an equational Greek sentence construction, (1) if such a noun does not have a preceding article, it should be considered an adjective (a predicate adjective); and (2) if such a noun does have a preceding article it should be considered a noun (a predicate nominative).

Daniel B. Wallace in his excellent work on Greek Grammar and its application to New Testament translation and exegesis (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, p. 827 pages) writes (on pages 257 and 269):

In the case of John 1:1, the Greek construction is: "Theos en ho Logos" [word-for-word: Godly/divine was the Word]. A literal word-for-word translation would be, "God was the Word." However, only "Logos" [Word] has the modifying article "ho" [the]. "Theos" [God] has no preceding article; thus, according to the "qualitative" understanding the Greek meaning, "Theos" should be translated "Godly" or "divine." This is why the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible translate this passage, "what God was, the Word was." The TEV (1976) translates it, "the Word was the same as God." Goodspeed translates this, "the Word was divine." And Moffatt translates this, "the logos was divine."

In A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, Unabridged, 4th Revised Edition (by Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1993, page 285), we read regarding this phrase: "the Word was divine,… insisting on the nature of the Word."

In Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (by Ritz Rienecker, edited by Cleon Rogers Jr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980, page 217), we read, "The word is without the article and is the predicate emphasizing quality, 'the word had the same nature as God' (s. Phillip B. Harner, "Qualitative Anarthros Predicate Nouns," JBL, 92 [March, 1973], 75-78)."

Many scholars use John 1:1c either to affirm or to deny the teaching that Jesus himself is God himself. Rudolph Bultmann (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971, pages 19-36) addresses many aspects of this complex issue. He writes:

Biblical passages that relate to man or Christ as the image/likeness of God (or reflecting God's nature, qualities, and power) shed considerable light on the meaning of John 1:1c. To read the full text of some of those biblical passages, browse the topic "IMAGE/LIKENESS OF GOD" in the webpage at

To read an additional commentary on John 1:1c ("the Word was God" or "the Word was the same as God") and a further explanation of the Greek grammar affecting its translation, browse


Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer