Explorations · Series

The Grammar and Syntax of John 1:1

Prior knowledge check: Key Terms in Biblical Interpretation · The Greek Alphabet · Some Basics in New Testament Greek Grammar


The purpose of this post is to simply describe what its title proclaims: the grammar and syntax of John 1:1. (If you are unfamiliar with the meaning of either of those terms, refer to the posts I have linked to above.) Here’s how that scripture reads in English, along with the reading from the NA28 and UBS5 underneath it:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Transliteration: en archē ēn ho logos, kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos.

There’s a number of great things about this verse that are worthy of note right from the beginning. First, there aren’t any well-attested textual variants for this verse.[1] (This is why NA28 and UBS5 omit them.) What we read in the Greek here is almost certainly what was originally written down in this Gospel. (There’s always the slight chance it wasn’t since we’re dealing with history here and not deductive logic.) Second, the way this verse is translated and memorized follows the Greek word order so closely that explaining the grammar and syntax will be quite easy.

Dividing Up the Verse

If you do any further reading of John 1:1, you will find scholars refer to “John 1:1c.” When letters are assigned to any verse in the Bible, they are meant to be a shorthand for referring to a particular part of that verse. Most of the time, this means placing an ‘a’ to refer to (roughly) the first half of the verse, or a ‘b’ for (roughly) the second half of the verse. If somebody wants to refer to a verse and those that follow it in the same unit of thought (paragraph, section, etc.), they will sometimes place ‘ff’ after the verse to mean “and following” (like John 1:1ff).

With all of that said, scholars refer to John 1:1c, for example, because it is common to refer to each of the three parts of this verse. Those are:

John 1:1a In the beginning was the Word
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
John 1:1b and the Word was with God
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
John 1:1c and the Word was God.
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

I will always refer to each part of John 1:1 in this way.

Grammar

It isn’t my purpose to parse every word in John 1:1. Instead, I will point out just a couple of important grammatical features of this verse.

  1. This gospel opens with the propositional phrase “In the beginning.” Quite obviously, then, this is the scope of the verse, and we can’t lose sight of that fact. Everything that is said in this verse had to do with how things were in the beginning.

  2. I say how things “were” in the beginning because the word translated as “was” (ἦν) here is in the imperfect tense in Greek. If you don’t know what that means, it is honestly quite simple. There are two verb tenses in Greek that indicate an action occurred in the past. One is the aorist tense, and the second is the imperfect. The difference is that the imperfect tense indicates an ongoing, or uncompleted, aspect. So, John 1:1a tells us the Word “was” in the beginning, meaning that the Word existed in the beginning in an uncompleted sense. Whatever we want to call the “beginning,” the Word was already in existence.

  3. The word logos (λόγος) is in the nominative case and has a definite article (ὁ) preceding it throughout this entire verse. This means that it is the subject of each part of the verse.

  4. The term for God in John 1:1c is also in the nominative case but lacks a definite article. This leads us directly into a look at the syntax of this part of John 1:1.

Syntax of John 1:1c

Let’s isolate John 1:1c from the threefold division above, and begin to look at it more closely.

John 1:1c and the Word was God.
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

We can never forget that every word in Scripture is inspired by God (1 Timothy 3:16), so it’s incredibly important to understand what each word is doing in a sentence.

John 1:1c begins with a conjunction (καὶ) that clearly connects this part of the verse with the preceding two. It’s important to note that we often use to word “and” in English to join ideas together, and this is also the case in Greek. But because the Greek that the New Testament was written in had no lower-case letters or punctuation, it’s also important to recognize that the word “and” (καὶ) doesn’t always connect ideas together. It can serve other purposes, and only context can tell us if two ideas are joined together by καὶ or not.

Sometimes writers (especially older ones like Granville Sharp) will refer to καὶ as a copula. Just be aware of that if you do any independent research.

Next in line is the word for “God” (θεὸς). This word is a noun, but is a special kind of noun called a predicate nominative. Recall that a predicate is a word that says something about the subject of the sentence. It is a predicate nominative because “God” (θεὸς) is in the nominative case. Notice that it is lacking a definite article and is therefore anarthrous. Whatever this word is doing in this sentence, it is functioning as a predicate nominative. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in later posts.

The word “was” (ἦν) is clearly the verb. To make things somewhat confusing (but to also prepare you for independent reading), this verb is also sometimes called a copula. In a broad sense, a copula (like “and”) is just any connecting word. But in a more narrow, technical sense, a verb that functions as a copula (“copulative” or “equative” verb) is a form of the verb “to be” that connects the subject and predicate of the sentence together. I will simply refer to “was” (ἦν) as the verb, rather than as the copula.

Like I just said, every word is inspired by God. That includes the definite article (ὁ) translated “the” here. Because the definite article precedes the noun for “Word” (λόγος) here, that makes the Word the subject of this sentence.

John 1:1c is therefore organized in this way:

[conjunction] [noun] [verb] [article] [noun]

Colwell Constructions

It’s incredibly important to recognize the word order of John 1:1c. Let’s say that a particular, common way of ordering words is called a construction. The [noun] [verb] [article] [noun] construction is a type of “Colwell Construction.” A Colwell Construction is any construction that involves a pre-verbal, anarthrous predicate nominative. Before I tell you more about E. C. Colwell himself, let me say more about John 1:1.

Let’s think a bit more about the word “God” (θεὸς) there. There’s a number of things to notice. First, as I’ve already said, it is anarthrous; it doesn’t have definite article. Second, it appears before the verb. So, we can say that it is pre-verbal. Third, and also as I’ve already said, it is a predicate nominative. The word “God” (θεὸς) is therefore a pre-verbal, anarthrous, predicate nominative. We are indeed looking at a Colwell Construction here.

E. C. Colwell was a Bible scholar who lived from 1901 to 1974. He is well-known partially because he published a famous article in 1933 called “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament.” In that paper he discusses constructions where predicate nominatives were pre-verbal and anarthrous. What he found was that “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.”[2] This is what scholars subsequently began calling “Colwell’s Rule.”

There are two words that I emphasized in the preceding quote, and I need to explain them. First, he was referring to definite nouns. A definite noun is a particular thing. It is a noun that could receive the definite article. The definite article is what makes a noun definite. Second, note that he didn’t say that definite, pre-verbal predicate nouns always lack the article. This is demonstrably false.

Unfortunately, Colwell’s Rule has been misunderstood and misapplied ever since Colwell wrote his famous article. (Ironically enough, there’s evidence that Colwell himself misapplied his rule.)[3] Colwell, and scholars after him, have been committing a common logical fallacy that has led to a misapplication of Colwell’s original rule. Consider the following statement:

(D) All dogs are mammals.

In logic, the terms “dogs” and “mammals” here are the subject and predicate of (D), respectively. We can actually switch around the subject and predicate of this sentence (in logic, called a conversion)[4] to make it say something different:

(D*) All mammals are dogs.

By switch It’s been obvious to everybody looking at statements like (D) and (D*) since at least Aristotle’s time (384 – 322 B.C.) that you CANNOT infer (D*) from (D). Just because all dogs are mammals, it doesn’t follow that all mammals are dogs. The converse of a (D) doesn’t follow deductively.

When Colwell wrote his famous article, what he was asserting the following statement (“Colwell’s Rule”):

(C) All definite PNs that precede a copulative verb are (usually) anarthrous.

Note: PN stands for “predicate nominative.”

What does not follow is the converse of this rule:

(C*) All anarthrous PNs that precede a copulative verb are (usually) definite.

In fact, (C*) is demonstrably false within the context of the Gospel of John.[5]

Why should you care about Colwell’s Rule, and its misapplication? Because it has (unintentionally) misled a lot of well-meaning interpreters of Scripture, including Oneness Pentecostals. In the next few posts I’m going to demonstrate exactly what I mean. I will also carefully look at each of the ways Oneness Pentecostals can interpret John 1:1c and see if any of those interpretations make the best sense of the grammar and syntax of the passage. Any interpretation has to make sense in light of the immediate context of John 1:1 (namely John 1:1-18), and in light of the entire Gospel as a whole.

In the next post, we’ll start this exploration by gaining an understanding of the four ways John 1:1 can be interpreted.

 


Footnotes:

[1] I say “well-attested” because, as far as I’ve gathered so far, only Codex Regius (produced around the 8th century) has John 1:1c say: καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. That being said, the evidence for an anarthrous θεός is overwhelming (e.g., P75, א, B). In addition, we can properly invoke Colwell’s Rule as a reason for thinking that the reading in Codex Regius came later: namely, that the anarthrous reading most likely gave rise to the articular reading.

[2] E. C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 52, no. 1, (April 1933): 20

[3] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 258-259.

[4] See Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, 167.

[5] See Paul Stephen Dixon, “The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John” (Th.M thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1975).

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