I have a concern about the translation of John 1:1. Should the Greek text be translated "the word was God," "the word was a god," or "the word was divine"? I know most accepted bibles use the first translation, but does the "the" before the first "God" make a difference between the two uses of the word "God"? -- Timothy Goody

Every time in John 1 the anarthrous (without the definite article thetheos appears, it is translated "God." (This is especially the case when the noun precedes the verb.) It isn't necessary in Greek that the definite article appear for a noun to take on a definite sense. (Even though you will hear from many people who have dabbled in Greek -- especially Jehovah's Witnesses -- that without the article, the word must be translated "a god.") It is properly translated, therefore, 'The word was "God".'

As this question has been addressed before in the Q&As, at this point let me switch over to some general advice for the prospective student of Greek.

I have a lot more advice, but if you know in your heart that all you seek is a short answer, one that won't require a lot of homework, how about this? The same construction as in John 1:1 appears in Mark 1:1. All translators render this "The beginning of the gospel..." -- never "a beginning," even though there is no definite article. Further anarthrous constructions appear in the first verse of Matthew, the first verse of Mark, the second verse of Luke, and in the first verses of 1, 2, and 3 John (Matt 1:1; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:2; 1 John 1:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1) -- and in 100s of other places in the NT.

Propose that point to your friends who have been influenced by the bogus argument (against the divinity of Christ) that a noun has to be translated without the in the absence of the article.

If you want to go deeper, my recommendation would be to take the following steps:

  • Thoroughly read a book on English grammar. This is always the first step in entering a classical language, like Greek. To make assessments about another language, you should first be master of your own. No terminology should remain unfamiliar, no areas of confusion linger.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Greek alphabet, so that there is no stumbling. Your facility reading Greek aloud should match your facility with reading English.
  • Start with a one- or two-year university level course in ancient Greek. My advice: one year of Attic Greek (the fine language of Athens, c. 4th century BC), then one year of Koine (the primary dialect of the N.T.), and then, if possible, another year of Attic, Koine, or Hellenistic Greek. Although you could do this online -- or, if you are a highly disciplined person, teach yourself -- by far the best way is classroom experience.
  • Read the entire New Testament in Greek.
  • Continue to refresh your Greek every year, and never stop! Constantly re-read the entire New Testament.

If this level of commitment is not feasible, this does not mean you shouldn't read books that refer to the Greek. But it does mean that you are ever at the mercy of others' interpretations. It is simply not realistic that a Greek scholar will be produced through dabbling, any more than that one can determine the answer to a calculus problem without having gone through the prerequisite steps: basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, derivation and integration. Does this seem right?

As one preacher quipped, "I know just enough Greek to be dangerous." And As Alexander Pope quipped,

A little learning is a dang'rous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinkly largely sobers us again.

Pope is right; and the languages of sacred scripture are not fit subjects for dabbling. In other words, if we are going to learn Greek, let's "drink deep" and "drink largely." If we are going to go for it, let's aim for excellence!