Colwell’s Rule and its Implications for John 1:1c

If you’ve ever heard a Jehovah’s Witness (or anyone else) translate John 1:1c as “and the Word was a god” (like the NWT translation) then you need to read this.  Note: you don’t have to know Greek to read and understand this essay, but it would help.  :-)

Definition of Colwell’s Rule

Colwell’s Rule pertains to a specific grammatical construction in the Greek New Testament: anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives that are judged to be clearly definite in context.  Wallace begins by clarifying the terms.[1]

  • Anarthrous = without the article
  • Pre-verbal = before the equative verb
  • Predicate nominative (PN) = the noun in the nominative case which is the same as the subject (more or less).

This specific construction was the limited field of investigation that led to the discovery of Colwell’s Rule.  While first studying John 1:49 (and then other verses with definite PNs in similar grammatical constructions), Ernest Cadman Colwell discovered that “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article…a predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or a ‘qualitative’ noun solely because of the absence of the article; if the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun…”[2]   Colwell noted that in John 1:49 (apekrithē autō Nathanaēl, Rabbi, su ei ho huios tou theou, su basileus ei tou Israēl [Nathanael answered to him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel”]), while the two PN constructions differed according to the presence of the article and the word order of the PNs, the meanings were similar.  Colwell then made the assumption that the definiteness of a PN could be defined from a shift in the word order.  His discovery was first published in 1933 as an article entitled, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” in JBL 52 (1933) 12-21.  This well-known article has since led to the particular rule being named Colwell’s Rule, summarized as “a PN that precedes the copula [i.e., the equative verb], and which is apparently definite from the context, usually lacks the article.”[3]

Continue reading here.

[1] The three definitions following are from Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 256.

[2] Wallace, GGBB, 257.  He cites Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Arti¬cle in the Greek New Testament,” in JBL 52 (1933), 20.

[3] Wallace, GGBB, 257.  Italics original.

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12 Responses to Colwell’s Rule and its Implications for John 1:1c

  1. matt says:

    The Paper you have presented says:

    “In addition, John 1:1c cannot contain an indefinite PN because the theology would also be inconsistent with the Gospel of John and the rest of the NT. So John 1:1c cannot be translated with an indefinite PN based on grammatical and theological grounds.”

    But does not bring up the word “theology” with regard to the alternate and more popular rendering ‘The Word was God’. This is the natural opposite of the preceding quote. He weakens his own case in doing so.

    Further, he has also igonred other scholars who have asserted that the construction ‘a god’ is an accurate rendering of John 1:1 (Again from grammar alone.)

    SO

    C.H.Dodd:
    “If a translation were a matter of substituting words, a possible translation of [theos en ho logos]; would be “The Word was a god”. As a word-for-word translation it cannot be faulted… (Dodd does not like the rendering ‘a god’ for reasons other than grammar)

    Trinitarian Murray J. Harris has written: “Accordingly, from the point of view of grammar alone,[QEOS HN hO LOGOS]could be rendered “the Word was a god,….” -Jesus As God, 1992, p.60.

    So it is theology, not grammar that motivates the opinion of the writer. Should not the word be aloowed to speak for itself?

    • Brian says:

      Matt,

      Yep, it’s theology that motivates the translators in most of these renditions.

      Additionally it can be translated as “Divine”.

      Either way, the rest of the scripture flatly refutes Trinity, and what further helps is the Spurious verses that don’t show up in Early manuscripts like First John 5:7 and the extra Alpha and Omega in Revelation 1:11.

      The proof is in the pudding that Trinitarian wording was in fact prompted by Church bias as well as a little dose of Roman insertions over the years.

      The Sinaiticus is a great example for spurious verses that DONT appear in the text which support the Polytheistic Trinitarian position.

      • This is an Arian reading of Scripture and Church history. That is fine if you want follow the heretic Arius (by the way Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians). But the early church rightly followed Scripture and the apostolic tradition by agreeing with Athanasius that God is One and Three (the doctrine of the Trinity). Arguments built on textual variants citing 1 John 5:7 and Revelation 1:1 are red herrings. The council of Nicea did not cite 1 John 5:7 (the so-called Johannine Comma) because it had not yet been inserted into the textual tradition (yes–it was a later insertion). But that did not destroy the case for the Trinity. There are numerous articles on the Biblical Evidence for the Trinity on the Internet. Read a few and decide.

  2. Matt, thanks for the comment. Hopefully I can offer a couple of clarifications.
    I do not mean to suggest that a strict word-for-word translation of John 1:1c must be translated “the Word was a god”, and that it is only theological inconsistency in the gospel of John and the rest of the NT that controls the translation so that it reads “the Word was God.” My argument is first grammatical, and secondarily theological. Colwell’s Rule is not a theological rule but a grammatical rule. In his NT Greek Grammar textbook, Wallace gives many other examples from the gospel of John and the rest of the NT that demonstrate why a better translation renders theos as qualitative, rather than definite (God) or indefinite (a god). Theos understood as qualitative would be translated as “divine”.
    Furthermore, anyone who tries to translate from one language into another realizes that strict word-for-word is many times impossible, because it would render garbled, stunted grammar in the target language. From Greek to English is no exception. Grammar and translation is a little more complicated than using a computer translation program. This is obviously true to anyone who uses one of those Internet translation programs.
    Finally, notice the careful use of words that Dodd and Harris choose to comment on John 1:1c. Dodd: “a POSSIBLE translation of…” Harris: “…from the point of view of grammar alone [it] COULD BE rendered…” I capitalize to stress the careful wording. “The Word was a god” is a possible translation, but other translations are equally possible too: “the Word was God” or “the Word was divine”. Wallace demonstrated FROM THE GRAMMAR of the NT that “an anarthrous pre-verbal PN is normally qualitative, sometimes definite, and only rarely indefinite.” His argument is not theological, it is grammatical. So Dodd and Harris as theologians are only secondarily relevant at this point. If you are going to disagree with me (which is fine :-), then you need to respond to Wallace’s grammatical argument.

  3. iven losaria says:

    is there any issue in john 1:1, about the logos?

    • Iven, If you’re asking about textual/grammatical issues, the answer is no. John 1:1 unambiguously teaches that in the beginning was the Word (logos). John’s prologue as a whole teaches that the divine Word of God (logos) became flesh and dwelt among men. John identifies the Logos as Jesus Christ. Peace, Brian

  4. iven losaria says:

    the colwell’s rule are often not used by those people that are close minded. this rule is a correct rule to use in john 1:1c for jesus is really with the father during the creation week.

    • Iven,
      To answer your question above, that is what my article is about. In the Greek, John 1:1c does not include the definite article (English: “the”; note that Greek does not have an indefinite article, i.e. English: “a” or “an”). Translators that don’t apply Colwell’s Rule translate 1:1c “…and the Word was a god.” While this is a straighforward wooden translation of the text, it flatly contradicts the rest of John 1 (and the entire gospel of John!). Colwell studied this grammatical construction throughout the NT and discovered the translation principle codified in Colwell’s Rule. Hence the accurate translation of John 1:1c (which all reputable versions use) is either “…and the Word was God” (theos as noun) or “…and the Word was divine” (theos as adjectival).

      Hope this helps.
      Brian

  5. One should also not exclude the contextual evidence…both the historical context regarding the person of the author and the grammatical context regarding the Logos. John was a historical Hebrew. Attributing attributes of God to anyone other than God was not in his bag of choices. So, the grammatical context (In vs. 1 he is eternal. In vs 3 he is the creator. In vs. 4 he possesses life intrinsically), in which attributes of God are applied to the Logos, teaches that the Logos is God, not a god. This is a bit stronger than mere theological construction.

  6. Mitch says:

    Is there any merit to the argument that considering the word order in John 1:1 may suggest the translation “God was the Word”? Word order sometimes is significant in Greek

    • Hi Mitch,

      That’s a fair question. In Greek, the word order sometimes influences meaning. But usually the case of nouns and the tense of verbs are determinitive for meaning. In this case the Greek reads (kai theos ēn ho logos). “Ho logos” (the word) is in the nominative case, which means it is the subject of the clause. “Theos” (God/divine) is not modified with the direct object marker (“the”; hence the mistranslation using the indirect object marker: “the Word was a god”), and is also in the nominative case. But since “theos” doesn’t have the direct object marker, Colwell’s rule applies (see the explanation in my article). If John wanted to write “God was the Word” he would have used the direct object marker (“the”) with “theos” in the nominative case and would have used the accusative noun case with “logos”. As the grammar of the phrase is worded, the best translation is “the Word was God/divine”. Thanks for the question.

      Brian

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