In our translation, this reads:
In the beginning there was the Word,
The Word was with The God,
And [a] god was the Word.
The NIV – and most Bibles – put it quite differently:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Greek does not have the word ‘a’ (or ‘an’), but you’ll see it throughout Bible translations because the translator will add it where he or she thinks it’s right to add. So why do we add ‘a’ here to say ‘a god?’
Consider these four points.
1. The two ‘God’ references are different in the Greek text
The two uses of the term ‘God’ are not identical in the Greek source texts, they are actually both different. The first term actually says ton theon (The God), while the second simply says theos (God or divine).
The phrase ton theon (The God) is used throughout the Christian books in Greek to refer to Almighty God, and it never refers to Jesus (or ‘the Word’).
If the author had truly wanted to say that the Word was both with God Almighty and was God Almighty, then the two uses of ‘God’ would have been identical, but they are not. The author has instead chosen to use two different terms.
If we, as translators, fraudulently translated these two terms so they appear identical in English, we would be deceiving our readers into thinking that the Greek text also has two identical terms – when it does not.
So we must convey to English readers that the first reference is the common reference to Almighty God, while the second one is not.
2. There were many gods
In Christian culture, there is only one God – but in the first century, there was an entire category of God-like, or divine, beings. The word theos, or God, was not just a noun, but also an adjective – a describing word, meaning divine.
So the idea of a miracle-worker being a divine being, or a god, was not an alien concept, but a common one throughout the pantheons of all nations.
Exactly the same wording is used in Acts 28:6 when the Maltese people thought that Paul was a god. Paul also talks about there being ‘many gods’ in 1 Corinthians 8:5.
3. Ancient writers believed John 1:1 to be talking about substance, not person
Ancient writers said that the second reference to ‘God’ (theos) was qualitative, that it’s describing Jesus’ essence or nature – they believed it to be an adjective.
For example, 11th century Byzantine archbishop Theophylact said:
From the Word being with God, it follows plainly that there are two Persons. But these two are of one Nature; and therefore it proceeds, In the Word was God: to show that Father and Son are of One Nature, being of One Godhead [emphasis added]
So his view was that theos described Jesus’ nature, not his identity. In other words, that it has two separate persons of the same nature (or as we might say, the same species). So, according to him, in John 1:1 theos is describing a divine being, or as we could say, ‘a god.’
4. Nobody believed that Jesus was Almighty God in the first century
It is well-established that first century Christians did not believe that Jesus was Almighty God. History tells us that such a belief did not arise until well after the Bible was completed; so John would have been making a remarkable statement to say that Jesus was Almighty God – yet we have nothing to suggest that he was saying something outrageous for the time.
However, if he was merely saying that Jesus is a divine being, or a god, then this would be in full agreement with first-century Christian belief.
So for the above reasons, it seems likely to us that first-century readers saw theos in John 1:1 as saying that Jesus is a divine being, or as we say in English, a god. This is also consistent with the context of the Gospel of John which seems to be designed to emphasize that Jesus is more than a mere man, but is God’s Son from heaven.
That’s why it seems entirely reasonable to us to make this one of the many places that translators add ‘a’ in English.
So let’s look at it another way: if we didn’t include the ‘a,’ it would distort the text into describing a doctrine not developed until centuries later. It would imply that the writer had something in mind that he likely did not have. So we are compelled to include ‘a’ in John 1:1. If we were to ignore the above problems, and say ‘was God’ just to keep people happy, then what sort of precedent would that set? Are we only supposed to translate in ways that make people happy? Where would it end?
Interestingly, the most ancient translation of John in the Coptic language uses grammar to indicate ‘a god.’
What if John was originally written in Aramaic?
Aramaic doesn’t have the word ‘the,’ so the phrase ‘The God’ seen in Greek doesn’t exist in Aramaic. The word ‘a’ also does not exist in Aramaic, so the concept of ‘a’ is only implied by context.
As mentioned, history tells us that nobody believed that Jesus and his Father were one-and-the-same person in the late first century. So Aramaic-speakers would have understood when ‘god’ meant God Almighty or some other god.
So what did they think? Well, whichever Aramaic-speaker wrote the ancient translation into Greek made sure to make the distinction between The God (ton theon) and God (theos). So whoever that Aramaic-speaker was, he or she understood there was a difference and chose to convey it that way.
We can also demonstrate that the Aramaic wording does not necessarily imply that ‘the Word’ was Almighty God by looking at Acts, which we believe was originally written in Greek and translated into Aramaic. The Aramaic of Acts 28:6 (where the Maltese people thought that Paul was a god) uses exactly the same wording as the Aramaic of John 1:1. We presume that the people did not mistake Paul for Almighty God, but for a divine being or a god like those in their pagan pantheon.
The Aramaic does teach us one important thing about John 1:1, that the second reference to ‘god’ is not an adjective meaning ‘divine,’ because Aramaic has a different spelling for that. In Aramaic it can only mean ‘God’ or ‘a god.’ So this tells us that even though theos in the Greek of John 1:1 can mean either ‘god’ (a noun) or ‘divine’ (an adjective), it should only be understood as a noun in that place.