John 5: Was Jesus “Equal with God”? — If so, How?

A poster recently used John 5:18 to support the contention that the NT develops Jesus’ sonship in ontological categories.  I have seen this sort of argument so many times over the years that I’ve decided to interact with it here.

The primary part of the text that’s in question reads as follows, according to the NASB:

15 The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” 18 For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”

To use this account to support the notion that the NT develops Jesus’ sonship in ontological categories is begging the question, because to make this connection one must first assume (a) that Jesus was in fact “making Himself equal with God”, and (b) that the “equality” in view was ontological.  Both of these assumptions are problematic at best.

Right off the top of my head I can think of at least 5 or 6 possible interpretations of John 5:18, and so I think it’s a bit dangerous to automatically assume that it’s speaking to Jesus’ ontological constitution.

There are a number of crucial questions that impact interpretation:

  1. When the Evangelist said that Jesus was “making himself equal with God”, was he making a factual statement from his own perspective, or was he simply relating what Jesus’ opponents were ostensibly thinking or trying to assert for their own purposes?
  2. What is the significance of the words “own Father”, and how does that impact our understanding of the account?
  3. What would a man’s claim to be “Son of God” likely suggest to the Jews who first heard it?
  4. Was the notion that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” true or false?
  5. If the answer to #4 is ‘true’, then was the “equality with God” to be understood functionally, hyperbolically, or ontologically?
  6. How does Jesus’ response help us in understanding the nature of the charge?
  7. How does sensitivity to historical probability help us to determine which of the plausible understandings is more likely to be correct?

Regarding Question 1:  I find it probable that the Evangelist was simply noting what Jesus’ opponents were ostensibly thinking or trying to promote for their own purposes.  There are several reasons for this:

(a) The charge that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” is presented in conjunction with a charge that he broke the Sabbath.  Did the Evangelist believe that Jesus was a Sabbath breaker?  I find that unlikely, because then he’d have a lot more explaining to do to justify presenting Jesus in a favorable light to the Jewish community.  One expositor, whose name escapes me at the moment, said during a radio interview that Jesus didn’t break the OT Sabbath law, but that his actions may have been at odds with certain oral traditions in which the Sabbath law was expanded upon to include elements that are not stated in the original law.  If this is so, then note that breaking a subsequent tradition of men is not the same as breaking the original law. As Adela Yarbro-Collins has put it, “…talk about Jesus ‘breaking the Sabbath’ is clearly spoken from the point of view of the opponents of Jesus, not necessarily from the vantage point of Jesus as a character in the narrative or of the audience of the gospel.” (Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children), p. 64

(b) Since the claim that Jesus was a Sabbath breaker was probably meant to convey the ostensible view of Jesus’ opponents, and not the Evangelist’s own view, it becomes likely that the “making himself equal with God” part also reflects the ostensible view of Christ’s opponents, and not the Evangelist’s own view.

(c) A claim to be God’s Son by a Jewish man in a Jewish context probably wouldn’t have had ontological implications at the time the claim was made.  I develop this in more detail below.

Regarding question 2:  I have been quite bemused by the way some apologists with whom I’ve conversed have used the words “own Father” as a basis for asserting that the man Jesus was God ontologically.  It is almost as though some think that for one to call God “his own Father” (Πατέρα ἴδιον) is equivalent to a claim to be God’s “ontological” Son.  I think that this is a very strange exegetical path to take, and I can only guess that it is traversed by some because they are reading the text with later theological developments or categories in mind, and those later developments or categories constitute the controlling presupposition.

An inference to divine Sonship based on those words may have been a natural one for pagan Greeks, but it would not have been a natural inference for a community of ancient Jews (see below).  The reason Jesus called God his Father in verse 17 (Πατήρ μου) rather than saying “our Father”, is twofold:

(a) The Sonship in view was Messianic Sonship, and to say “our Father” would have necessitated an inference to general sonship, as no one would have thought that the Messianic office would be shared by a group.

(b) By their rejection of Jesus and their determination to have him killed, Jesus’ opponents, from the perspective of the Evangelist, clearly showed themselves to be sons, not of God, but of the Devil.

In light of these considerations, Jesus really had no choice but to refer to God as “my Father”, from the perspective of the Evangelist.  This description was probably meant to function as a sort reverse image reflecting his status as “Son of God”, which, as noted, was Messianic in its significance.

Regarding Question 3:  Rather than repeat myself unnecessarily, let me direct you to the lengthy post I’ve already submitted on the topic of what “Son of God” would have signified in Jesus’ day, which is located here:

I will repeat the observations of two scholars before moving to the next question, though:

Geza Vermes:  “To a Greek speaker in Alexandria, Antioch or Athens at the turn of the eras, the concept hUIOS QEOU, son of God, would have brought to mind either one of the many offspring of the Olympian deities, or possibly a deified Egyptian-Ptolemaic king, or the divine emperor of Rome, descendant of the apotheosized Julius Caesar.  But to a Jew, the corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic phrase would have applied to none of these. For him, son of God could refer, in an ascending order, to any of the children of Israel; or to a good Jew; or to a charismatic holy Jew; or to the king of Israel; or in particular to the royal Messiah; and finally, in a different sense, to an angelic or heavenly being. In other words, ‘son of God’ was always understood metaphorically in Jewish circles. In Jewish sources, its use never implies participation by the person so-named in the divine nature. It may in consequence safely be assumed that if the medium in which Christian theology developed had been Hebrew and not Greek, it would not have produced an incarnation doctrine as this is traditionally understood” (Jesus in His Jewish Context), p. 66

As you review the post on what “Son of God” means, you’ll notice that numerous expositors have commented on how that phrase would have denoted obedience, not equality.  This is such a likely connotation in a first century Mediterranean setting, and Jesus’ response so consistent with this understanding, that one scholar has suggested that ποιῶν should be understood concessively:

James F. McGrath:  “This further suggests that the traditional translation of v. 18 is very probably incorrect. It is usually rendered along these lines: ‘He claimed that God was his own father, thereby making himself equal with God’, equality being understood as a corollary of sonship. However, in view of the evidence we have surveyed, it appears better to take the participle ποιῶν as a concessive participle, which would mean that the phrase as a whole be given a sense something like, ‘He claimed that God was his Father, yet at the same time made himself equal with God.’ Jesus has claimed to be God’s son; the Jews are accusing him of not behaving in a way appropriate to sonship, because he is claiming for himself his father’s unique prerogatives. That is to say, ‘the Jews’ are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that discredits or tells against his spoken claims, of saying one thing but doing another, of contradicting his claims through his behaviour.  This interpretation not only fits with the cultural background of the time, but also with the response which the Johannine Jesus goes on to give.” (A Rebellious Son?  Hugo Odeberg and the Interpretation of John 5:18, NTS, Vol. 44, 1998), p. 472

McGrath makes very good points, and I think that his sensitivity to historical context is instructive and important.  In my judgement, McGrath’s view is certainly higher on the plausibility scale than the view that this post is addressing.  However, I don’t think the view that ποιῶν must be taken concessively is necessary, and while I think that an inference to ontological equality must almost certainly be ruled out, I suspect that an inference to either hyperbolic or functional (= legal) equality can’t be so confidently set aside.

To be continued…

Check back later to see my response to questions 4-7.


Kazland So Far: From Newest to Oldest

Since I have found myself providing people with links to various articles here lately, I decided to submit this post for ease of reference.  The posts are listed below from newest (on top) to oldest (on the bottom):

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 4), found here:

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 3), found here:

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 2), found here:

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 1), found here:

John 1:1 as Prooftext: Trinitarian or Unitarian?, found here:

Does ‘Son of God’ mean ‘Posses the (ontological) Nature of God’?, found here:

Jesus Identified as YHWH? — Psalm 102/Hebrews 1:11, found here:

God can do Nothing at All? — A Really Bad Argument Involving John 5:19, found here:

‘Before Abraham was, I’…what, exactly?, found here:

Grasping for Accuracy: A Note on Philippians 2:6, found here:

On Mûmakil’s and the Problem of Expectation: There’s an Oliphaunt in Larry Hurtado’s Room, found here:

Pop Goes the Strawman: Ken Miller Misrepresents Michael Behe, found here:

On Evolution:  What’s Wrong with a Definition?, found here:

‘Making Himself’ What? — The Charge Against Jesus at John 10, found here:



And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 4)

I’ve been corresponding with a nice fellow on another forum who offered P.B. Harner’s argumentation to support taking QEOS at John 1:1c “qualitatively”.  Since I still haven’t managed to find the time (or to take the time) to address Harner’s thesis in this series, I thought it might be useful to post my most recent response to my fellow interlocutor, as I do provide a bullet list of what I consider the most serious problems with the ‘Q Hypothesis’, including some of Harner’s contentions.  I’ve omitted my interlocutor’s name and his side of the dialogue because I did not get his permission to quote him here.  You can read the dialogue for yourself at the link that appears at the end of this post if you wish.

Begin Quote:


[Snip comment]

I appreciate the fact that you took the time to consider my perspective. I actually have a number of issues with what I call the ‘Q hypothesis’ as it was formulated by Harner and later “refined” by Dixon, and I hope to elaborate more when I finally post on Harner on my blog.  (I’m a bit shy about posting an encyclopedic argument here [on Trinities]!)

First of all, though, I would say that neither of them “arrive[d] at their conclusion that the noun QEOS is ‘qualitative’” via any sort of sound exegesis or demonstrably valid grammatical analysis. Rather, I think that they both came to realize that Colwell’s Rule had been misapplied, and they came to feel that a definite QEOS equated the LOGOS with God in a way that was perceived to be unacceptable, which left them with a problem to solve. As they pondered a potential solution, they came to sincerely believe that a ‘qualitative’ QEOS was the only QEOS that could sit comfortably within their Christological worldview, and so they assumed it to be so before ever picking up pen and paper. At that time there was probably a growing uneasiness among informed people about the once popular Calwell-ian understanding, and so when someone came along and offered an alternative, they embraced it with great alacrity and childlike eagerness long before it was properly vetted or demonstrated to be a valid linguistic phenomenon.

From my perspective, what Ken Ham does vis a vis modern science is what Harner and Dixon did vis a vis Greek. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ken Ham, but because he reads the creation accounts as speaking of a literal six-day creation, he has to chuck a pretty large part of modern science, including Big Bang Theory (one of the most well established thoeries of our time), and come up with novel counter arguments to make YEC seem plausible. Most of us aren’t about to chuck Big Bang Theory, however, because of the YEC notion that unexpectedly low levels of moon dust tells us that the universe is young (as just one example of the sort of ‘novel’ counterargument that YEC’s have offered).

Harner was probably motivated by apologetic concerns, and Dixon certainly was, as one can infer when reading the introduction to his thesis. Not only did he explicitly state that both a definite and an indefinite QEOS were unacceptable (i.e. the two valid options, IMO), but he also presented his case as evidence specifically against the ‘a god’ rendering found in the Watchtower Society’s New World Translation. The folks at DTS, which is the Seminary Dixon attended when he wrote his thesis, have historically been a bit obsessed with the NWT. When I see the odd contortions that those folks have gone through to try and disqualify one of the two patently valid renderings, I find myself echoing Queen Gertrude by observing that “The lady doth protest too much”;-)

The Q hypotheses appears to be founded on assumptions about how language works that are confused, ambiguous, unsubstantiated, and rather easy to dis-confirm if you’re willing to look at the data dispassionately. The following are what I consider the most conspicuous, critical problems:

a. The notion that if a noun is used in a context where nature is inferred, then it may be “technically” indefinite, but in some self-serving way that somehow renders use of the indefinite article in translation as inappropriate or inadequate.

b. The notion that ‘qualitative’ is a separate distinct category of bounded noun, when one can easily demonstrate that the very ‘qualitativeness’ they infer — if it’s even really there in a given context — actually depends on a bounded noun’s definiteness or indefiniteness.

c. The confused conflation of ‘definiteness’ and ‘indefiniteness’ with meaning itself, when in reality these are more like syntactical tools that contribute to meaning, but aren’t meaning in and of themselves.

To help illustrate this problem, which may be a little vague as stated, I once saw someone on b-greek argue that QEOS at John 1:1c is “qualitative-indefinite”. One of the posters there who seemed to favor Harner’s/Dixon’s approach (if memory serves) responded by saying something like this:

“I’d like to see an example of a qualitative-indefinte noun that does not involve a double entendre.”

In making that statement, the gentleman revealed that he considers both qualitativeness and indefiniteness to be interchangeable or synonymous with meaning itself. So, for him, if it is qualitative then that is its meaning; if it is indefinite then that is its meaning; to be both would be to have two meanings, which would be a double entendre.

I think that this is simply an ill-conceived notion that emerges due to imprecise thinking.  Again, I think that indefinitness is more like a syntactical feature that contributes to meaning, but it isn’t necessarily meaning in and of itself. Moreover, as I pointed out in my first blog post in this series, the very qualitativeness that proponents of Dixon’s chimera infer to be present with various indefinite bounded nouns actually depends on the nouns’ indefinitness, just as the qualitativeness some might infer from various definite bounded nouns actually depends on the nouns’ definiteness. If qualitativeness depends on a noun’s definitness or indefinitness, then it cannot be the noun’s meaning to the exclusion of the noun’s definiteness or indefiniteness.

It seems that Dixon himself probably intuitively realized this at some level, as he states in the intro to his thesis that all nouns are “technically” either definite or indefinite, and that he separated the “qualitative” nouns from the class of indefinite nouns for the sake of “expediency”. I’d say that the folks at DTS are masters at smoke and mirrors, but they actually seem to be rather clumsy at it;-)

d. The notion, seemingly born ad hoc from pure imagination, that if John wanted readers to infer an indefinite QEOS then he would have placed it after the verb rather than before the verb. I suffered third degree burns from spilling my coffee in my lap when I read that nonsense (humor alert), so bemused was I to see a professed ‘authority’ utter what any first year student of Greek can plainly see is not true. Indeed, statistically, it is more common for pre-verbal anarthrous predicate bounded nouns to be indefinite than anything else, and usually when they’re definite there are contextual factors that make this probable, even unavoidable in some cases. The reason the English translations of all those verses I posted on my blog make such good sense in context even with the indefinite article is because they accurately convey the sense of the underlying Greek.  It’s not merely that the use of the indefinite article conforms to English syntax (which it does, of course), but that said English syntax actually captures the sense of the Greek.

e. In conjunction with ‘d’, the bizarre notion, again apparently born ad hoc from pure imagination, that merely placing a noun before a verb causes the noun to change meaning, when everyone who’s studied Greek at all knows how flexible the language is vis a vis word order. As far as I can tell, the most that is achieved by fronting may be a mild though useful shift in emphasis, similar to what occurs in English when we rearrange a sentence from the active to the passive voice. If we rearrange a sentence from the active to the passive voice, there is no shift in meaning at the word level; there is merely a shift in emphasis at the sentence level. Likewise, when a noun is placed before the verb in Greek, there is not a shift in meaning at the word level, but there may be a subtle shift in emphasis at the sentence level.

[Snip comment about a Jehovah’s Witness he spoke with]

Well, if the JW felt that the mere grammatical feature of an indefinite QEOS by itself meant that Jesus was a lesser god, then I’d say that he was clearly mistaken. One could say that “the Father is a god who is slow to anger”, or “the Father is a god of the living, not of the dead”, or “the Father is a god who designed us in a way that is fear-inspiring”, or “the Father truly is a god (=a supremely powerful supernatural being)”, etc., without in any way suggesting that He is something other than the absolute Ruler of the universe.

However, if the JW you conversed with was also considering context, not just the indefinite QEOS by itself, then I would have to agree with him. IMO, in the context of John 1:1, the Bible as a whole, and the Jewish culture from which the NT emerged, the LOGOS could only be either a subordinate ‘G-god’, or ‘God/a god’ non-literally (=functionally/representationally). In arriving at this conclusion I obviously take different things for granted than you do. For example, I look at the Jewish worldview as expressed in pretty much every form of writing available at the time and note that in every case, without exception, whenever an agent of God has a divine title applied to him, the subordination of the agent to the principal is taken for granted (e.g. angels, Moses, Judges, Kings, Melchizedek, the Israelites at Sinai). Most scholars today recognize how much the agency principle sheds light on the Son’s relationship to the Father and us, and while it’s quite striking to realize that his work as agent began with the act of original creation itself, it was still work performed as agent.

[Snip interlocutor’s concluding comments]

I agree [that understanding QEOS at John 1:1c to mean “the God” has baggage], though I’ll simply point out that QEOS wouldn’t need the article at John 1:1c to be definite. Although Colwell’s Rule was misapplied for decades, the part that was misapplied appears to be valid (as actually stated, not as restated or re-conceived by some who abused it):

“Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article” (A Definite Rule…, p. 20)

In other words, say we assume that QEOS is definite at John 1:1c, which would make KAI QEOS HN hO LOGOS equivalent to KAI hO QEOS HN hO LOGOS. Granting that assumption for the sake of argument, we can note that it’s actually statistically more likely that it would not have the article. That’s why some have pointed out that the only meaningful application of Colwell’s Rule is for textual criticism. To exemplify how this is so, let’s say that a textual critic were to have before him or her two manuscripts that contain the same verse, and one has a definite pre-verbal noun with the article while the other has the same definite pre-verbal noun but without the article. Were this to occur, the scholar could conclude that it’s statistically more likely that the manuscript with the reading that omits the article is the one more likely to have the correct reading.

Anyway, my pillow is calling me, so I’ll wrap this up by agreeing that I too have a horse in the race, and theology can influence my judgement just as it can anyone else’s. Having conceded that, however, I will say that I consider myself to be somewhat less biased with reference to the subject text than most people I’m familiar with who’ve used it apologetically. I happily embrace both the traditional translation (‘the Word was God’) and the one that sticks in the craw of the folks at DTS (‘the Word was a god’) as legitimate possibilities, grammatically, contextually, and theologically.  Indeed, though I would probably fear for my sanity in light of my understanding of how bounded and unbounded nouns function in both English and Greek, from a purely theological perspective I wouldn’t even mind if someone could prove that I’m mistaken about the ‘Q Hypothesis’, as this would merely increase the possibilities by a third. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though;-)

What disappoints me the most isn’t that orthodox Christians favor the traditional rendering, or even some paraphrase that is thought to stress ‘qualitativeness’, but that it’s virtually impossible to find a willingness on their part to honestly present the real grammatical possibilities and express their preference in an evenhanded way. Like the rest of us, they want confidence for themselves and their followers that they understand the text correctly, and this drives them, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to try and stack the deck against alternative views. Sadly, they’ve gone to such absurd lengths to secure this confidence that they’ve simply undermined their own credibility. I’m not speaking about you, of course, but about the professed ‘authorities’ who have demonstrated such a shameful track-record when it comes to the most sacred of all theological cows: John 1:1c.

End Quote

This dialogue can be read, here:



And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 3)

Since I haven’t had time to address the contribution of P. B. Harner in relation to this series, I decided to make part 3 a reiteration of my response to the article that appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies by Brian J. Wright and Tim Ricchuiti entitled “FROM ‘GOD’ (QEOS) TO ‘GOD’ (NOYTE): A NEW DISCUSSION AND PROPOSAL REGARDING JOHN 1:1C AND THE SAHIDIC COPTIC VERSION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT” (JTS, Vol. 62, Pt 2, October 2011)

Note: Caps are not mine, but appeared in the original document.

This was not a piece of serious scholarship, and the argumentation offered to support their polemic shows breathtaking incompetence, along with a level of bias so extreme that inferences and arguments were not just ill-conceived, but downright bizarre.

Their reasoning is so sloppy and distorted toward their goal that it reminds me of the sort of thing I’ve read from various anti-cult apologists.  I was so struck by this aspect of their approach that I Googled their names and found that they actually do participate in anti-cult apologetics (see the link below):

Their argument appears to have been born as a reaction to the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which, combined with the sloppiness of their approach and oddness of their conclusions, suggests that a truly enhanced understanding of Coptic or even John 1:1 was not their real objective.  It seems pretty clear that they merely sought to turn the tables, as Jehovah’s Witnesses have appealed to the Coptic of John 1:1c to support the “a god” rendering found in the New World Translation published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Since my criticisms are rather harsh, let me offer a few particulars.

Firstly, their approach was methodologically flawed in that they only examined how QEOS is rendered in Coptic.  Their readers would have been better served if they had taken a broader approach and attempted to determine how the Coptic indefinite article is generally used when included in their translation of bounded nouns that originated in PNVS, SVPN, and other types of Greek clauses.  I suspect that the reason they took such a narrow approach is because, had they included other bounded nouns in their sampling, then they would have reached very different results, and their apologetic would have fallen apart.  The Bible is about “the one God” of Jewish and Christian monotheism, and so it is not surprising that most occurrences of the Greek QEOS (God) from the NT and the Coptic NOUTE (God) from the ancient Coptic translation(s) are definite nouns rather than indefinite nouns.  In the NT, God is typically a proper noun, which usually functions like a proper name.

Secondly, the argumentation presented was patently contrived and terribly sloppy.  For example, notice the following argument:

Our small sample size is itself a clue to the Copts’ use of the indefinite article, or their neglect of it altogether. Of the 25 instances of the AnNS [QEOS], the vast majority are reflected in the Sahidic Coptic version with the definite article (21/25; 84%). Of these, the vast majority are also in reference to  the God of the Bible’ (20/25; 80%).  It is no exaggeration to suggest, then, that the Coptic translators were disinclined to use anything other than the definite article when translating [QEOS]. If the Coptic translators were so reluctant to use the indefinite article with [NOUTE], our question must not be  ‘what uniformly required the translators to use the indefinite article?’ but instead  ‘what individual circumstances required the use of a disfavoured construction?’ (p. 502)

The point they seem desperate to massage from the data simply doesn’t follow, logically.  Let me restate the pertinent data:

1.  “Of the 25 instances of the AnNS [QEOS], the vast majority are reflected in the Sahidic Coptic version with the definite article (21/25; 84%).  Of these, the vast majority are also in reference to  the God of the Bible’ (20/25; 80%).”

2.  “[T]he Coptic translators were disinclined to use anything other than the definite article when translating [QEOS].”

3.  “[T]he Coptic translators were so reluctant to use the indefinite article with [NOUTE] [that] our question must [be] ‘what individual circumstances required the use of a disfavoured construction?'”

Do you see what they’re doing?  They’re actually suggesting that the Coptic use of the definite article in contexts where QEOS/NOUTE is a definite noun implies that the use of the indefinite article with NOUTE should be considered a “disfavored construction”!  The conclusion they wish to promote simply doesn’t follow.  The only valid inference that we can make from the data is the rather uncontroversial observation that the Copts generally would not be inclined to render definite nouns with the indefinite article.  But then, who among us would?

Here’s another example of their contrived argumentation:

The same category applies to John 1:1c. This qualitative/descriptive understanding makes the best sense within John’s prologue. The Copts understood John to be saying that  ‘the Word’ has the same qualities as  ‘the God of the Bible’. On the other hand, if one disagrees with our arguments above, the only other viable interpretations given the other usages would suggest that the Copts understood  ‘the Word’ to be either ‘a  god of the pagans’ (cf. Acts 28:6) or some  ‘usurper god’ (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). Yet, this leaves one with much wider problems. (p. 509).

Notice how, once again, they seem determined to massage the data.  They want to make it seem as though one has to either accept the “qualitative/descriptive” understanding or conclude that the LOGOS was either “a god of the pagans” or “a usurper god”.  The problem — well, one of the problems — with this silly false dilemma is that, contextually (i.e. in the Prologue) it’s impossible to infer that the LOGOS is either a “god of the pagans” or a “usurper god,” regardless of translation, because the LOGOS is used by God the Father to create all things, and has a special place at His bosom!

Again, this contribution by Wright and Ricchuiti is not an example of serious scholarship; it is instead a rather flaccid attempt to bring the Coptic of John 1:1c into harmony with their preferred theology over against the Watchtower’s NWT, which they oppose as part of their anti-cult apologetic.  That we find this sort of thing coming from people associated with Dallas Theological Seminary is not particularly surprising.  That Oxford University allowed this patent nonsense to be published in their respected Journal is most unfortunate, and I’ve informed them that they need better peer review if their journal is to retain its standing as a quality publication.  Since JTS is a peer reviewed journal, dare I speculate that the reviewer(s) was/were also associated with DTS?

The truth about God and His Son is the truth, regardless what any minority or majority group has to say.  Christians should not feel the need or succumb to the temptation to massage and distort language itself to support a preferred position.

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 2)

Below is a list of nouns that Paul Dixon tags as “qualitative” or “probably qualitative” in the appendix of his thesis, but which are actually either definite or indefinite.

“Qualitative” and “Probably Qualitative” Nouns that are Actually Probably Definite

1.   John 1:49
Greek:            σὺ Βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ
Interlinear:   you the king are of the Israel

Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'” (NRSV)

2.  John 3:29
Greek:            νυμφίος ἐστίν
B-Greek:        NUMFIOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   the bridegroom is

“He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (NRSV)

3.  John 5:27
Greek:            Υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν
Interlinear:   the Son of Man he is

“[A]nd he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” (NRSV)

4.  John 8:33
Greek:            Σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ ἐσμεν
Interlinear:   the seed of Abraham we are

“They answered him: We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free?” (Rheims)

5.  John 8:37
Greek:            σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ ἐστε
Interlinear:   the seed of Abraham you are

“I know that you are the children of Abraham: but you seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.” (Rheims)

6.  John 8:54
Greek:            Θεὸς ἡμῶν ἐστιν
B-Greek:        QEOS HMWN ESTIN
Interlinear:   God of us He is

Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God‘” (NRSV)

7.  John 10:2
Greek:            ποιμήν ἐστιν
B-Greek         POIMHN ESTIN
Interlinear:   the shepherd is

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” (NRSV)

8.  John 10:36
Greek:            Υἱὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ εἰμι
B-Greek:        hUIOS TOU QEOU EIMI
Interlinear:   the Son of the God I am

“[D]o you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (NASB)

9.  John 19:21
Greek:            Βασιλεύς εἰμι τῶν Ἰουδαίων
Interlinear:   the King of the Jews I am

Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate: Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am the King of the Jews.” (Rheims)

“Qualitative” and “Probably Qualitative” Nouns that are Actually Indefinite

1.  John 4:19
Greek:            προφήτης εἶ σύ
B-Greek:        PROFHTHS EI SU
Interlinear:   a prophet are you

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.'” (NRSV)

2.  John 6:70         
Greek:            διάβολός ἐστιν
B-Greek:        DIABOLOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a devil is

“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.'” (NRSV)

3.  John 8:34         
Greek:            διάβολός ἐστιν
B-Greek:        DIABOLOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a slave is

“Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'”  (NRSV)

4.  John 8:44         
Greek:            ανθρωποκτονος ην
Interlinear:   a manslayer was

“He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” (NRSV)

5.  John 8:44         
Greek:            ψεύστης ἐστὶν
B-Greek:        YEUSTHS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a liar he is

When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  (NRSV)

6.  John 8:48         
Greek:            Σαμαρίτης εἶ σὺ
B-Greek:        SAMARITHS EI SU
Interlinear:   a Samaritan are you

“The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?'” (NRSV)

7.  John 9:8            
 Greek:           προσαίτης ἦν
B-Greek:        PROSAITHS HN
Interlinear:   a beggar was

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?'” (NRSV)

8.  John 9:17         
Greek:            προφήτης ἐστίν
B-Greek:       PROFTHS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a prophet he is

“So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.'” (NRSV)

9.  John 9:24         
Greek:            ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν
B-Greek:        hAMARTWLOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a sinner is

“So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.'”  (NRSV)

10.  John 9:25         
Greek:            ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν
B-Greek:        hAMARTWLOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a sinner he is

“He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.'” (NRSV)

11.  John 10:1       
Greek:            κλέπτης ἐστὶν
B-Greek:       KLEPTHS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a thief is

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (NRSV)

12.  John 10:13     
Greek:            μισθωτός ἐστιν
B-Greek:        MISQWTOS ESTIN
Interlinear:   a hired hand he is

He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.” (NASB)

13.  John 12:6       
Greek:            κλέπτης ἦν
B-Greek:       KLEPTHS HN
Interlinear:   a thief he was

“Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.” (NASB)

14.  John 18:35     
Greek:            Μήτι ἐγὼ Ἰουδαῖός εἰμι
Interlinear:   Not I a Jew am

“Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?'” (NRSV)

15.  John 18:37a   
Greek:            βασιλεὺς εἶ σύ
B-Greek:        BASILEUS EI SU
Interlinear:   a king are you?

“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?'”  (NRSV)

16.  John 18:37b
Greek:            βασιλεύς εἰμι ἐγὼ
Interlinear:   a king am I

“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king.'” (NRSV)

As you can see, Dixon’s list of “qualitative” and “probably qualitative” nouns doesn’t actually contain a single count noun that is not logically inferred to be either definite or indefinite.  You may also notice that there are more indefinite pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives then there are definite ones (almost 50% more), and that those that are definite often have definitizing factors in context.  I think it’s worth noting that there are no definitizing factors at John 1:1c, while there do seem to be factors that suggest indefiniteness (e.g. πρὸς τὸν Θεόν).

Someone once suggested that when one encounters a noun in the Collwell construction, one should assume definiteness unless there are factors that suggest indefiniteness.  That’s misguided for two reasons:  (1) If one wishes to to approach such constructions with a governing presupposition, then, statistically speaking, it would make more sense to assume indefiniteness, and only opt for definiteness when there are definitizing factors in context; but (2) it doesn’t really make any sense to assume either definiteness or indefiniteness when encountering such nouns, as there are plenty in both categories.  The prudent approach would therefore be to consider each such noun without presupposing either definiteness or indefiniteness, to carefully consider context, and tag the noun accordingly.

In my next entry in this series I’ll address a couple problems with P.B. Harner’s contribution to the “qualitative” theory.

And the Word was God “Qualitatively”?: Torturing Language and Grammar to Preserve a Preconceived View (Part 1)

Those who are familiar with the debate over the third clause at John 1:1 probably appreciate how much theology influences the answers folks will accept to the question: What or Who was the Word according to John?  Those who accept the real personal heavenly preexistence of the one who became Jesus the Messiah want to know whether the LOGOS was ‘God,’ ‘a god,’ or ‘divine,’ and whether the application of the divine title was primarily functional or ontological in its significance.

In my view, John was developing Jesus’ relationship to God in primarily functional categories in the Prologue, and in the rest of the Gospel.  I have no problem with either a definite or an indefinite rendering of John 1:1c, as both “the Word was God” and “the Word was a god” are grammatically possible and theologically and contextually appropriate when interpreted properly.  But for most orthodox Christians this verse is perhaps the most sacred of all theological cows, which must either state that Jesus is “God” definitely (i.e. identifying him as the one God of the Bible), or that he is God “qualitatively,” which is presuppositionally nuanced to mean that he fully shares the ‘divine nature’ with the Father within a trinitarian Godhead.

As I read the various arguments by people who are referenced to support taking QEOS “qualitatively” at John 1:1c — i.e. Paul Dixon [1], P.B. Harner [2], Don Hartley [3], etc — it became very clear that these folks are theologians, not professional linguists.  If you compare a good secular study in linguistics and grammar with these studies, you’ll probably be struck by how qualitatively different the religiously motivated thesis is.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that the “qualitative” thesis has never been properly vetted.  Rather, it was embraced with alacrity because it provided exactly what the doctor ordered, namely, a solution to problems that began lurking in the shadows as people came to realize that the previous answer probably wasn’t the right answer after all.  What was the previous answer?  It was, as so many had argued prior to the 1970s and some continue to argue today, that QEOS is definite at John 1:1c, per Colwell’s Rule, which was articulated by E.C. Colwell in 1933 [4].  Colwell’s Rule as (mis)applied to John 1:1c was also embraced uncritically and with great alacrity for many years, but then folks began to perceive problems.

What were the problems?  Firstly, Colwell’s rule states that “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article,” [5] yet most theologians, including Colwell himself (it seems), assumed that the converse were true, i.e. that anarthrous predicate nominatives that precede the verb are usually definite, which is obviously incorrect.   If you review part 2 of this series, you’ll see that there are many anarthrous predicate nouns that appear before the verb in the Greek NT, which are clearly not definite.  Secondly, theologians came to believe that if QEOS were definite at John 1:1c, then this would result in Sabellianism.  This isn’t necessarily correct, but it is a commonly accepted presupposition.  So these problems — one legitimate and one assumed — necessitated a new solution to the problem of John 1:1c.

My primary purpose here is to point out some of the methodological problems, unsupported assumptions, dubious and faulty assertions, and unwarranted conclusions that have been promoted by advocates of the “qualitative noun” thesis, and to reveal the true motivation behind it.

Let’s start with the last item, i.e. what motivates some to embrace and promote the notion that QEOS at John 1:1c is “qualitative”?  Paul Dixon gives the game away on page 2 of his DTS Masters thesis, The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John, to wit:

The importance of this thesis is clearly seen in the above example (John 1:1) where the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the Trinity are at stake.  For, if the Word was ‘a god,’ then by implication there are other gods of which Jesus is one.  On the other hand, if [QEOS] is just as definite as the articular construction following the verb because, ‘the dropping of the article…is simply a matter of word order,’ then the doctrine of the Trinity is denied.

So, in Dixon’s view, either an indefinite or a definite QEOS is problematic and must be rejected.  The former would supposedly result in polytheism, while the latter would supposedly result in the demise of his favored doctrine, the Trinity.  While both of these assumptions are highly dubious, what is certain is that, as a student of DTS, Dixon was doubtless compelled to secure an understanding that is not out of harmony with the Trinity doctrine.  Note that “the Trinity” is the first of the “Essential Doctrinal Commitments” for DTS students:

So Dixon simply had to secure a third alternative: A “qualitative” use of QEOS [7].  In order to make this objective at least appear to work, he made a move that represents the first of the methodological problems I want to address.  Notice how Dixon sets up his approach:

An indefinite noun is a noun which stresses neither definiteness, nor qualitativeness, but membership in a class of which there are other members.  Technically, any noun which is not definite is indefinite.  For expediency, however, we exclude qualitative nouns from the class of indefinite nouns.  (ibid, p. 9)

Dixon erroneously asserted that indefinite nouns only stress membership in a class of which there are other members, and then used that faulty assumption (or assertion) to justify the “expedient” upon which his entire thesis hangs: The separation of indefinite nouns that are used to stress nature from those that are used to stress categorization, and re-dubbing them “qualitative” as a third distinct category.  Ironically, his use of “expediency” was singularly appropriate, for “expedient” means “Suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance,” [6] and in this case the “end” was clearly determined before the thesis was even begun.

In reality, indefinite nouns are used to categorize, to stress nature, and to convey blended nuance.  Moreover, it is critical to note that when an indefinite noun is used to stress ‘nature,’ the “qualitativeness” we infer depends on the noun’s indefiniteness.  For example, if you wanted to say that a woman is “beautiful,” you could say (among a number of available choices):
“She’s a beauty.”
“She’s beautiful.”

These two sentences mean essentially the same thing, but in one case an indefinite noun is used to stress the quality of the woman’s appearance, while in the other an adjective is used for this purpose.  Moreover, in the first example, the noun “beauty” must be indefinite lest the meaning become obscured.  Notice that if you omit the indefinite article or insert the definite article in its place, you get the following:

“She’s beauty.”


“She’s the beauty.”

You wouldn’t typically say “She’s beauty,” or “She’s the beauty,” if your sole purpose were to assert that the “she” in question is “beautiful.” The lack of indefiniteness as signaled in English by the indefinite article changes the statement to an abstract one, perhaps suggesting that “she” is the personification or embodiment of beauty.  Moreover, “beauty” would be an abstract noun in that case (=a mass noun), not a count noun like QEOS at John 1:1c. This could ultimately mean the same thing, but the meaning is arrived at differently, i.e. not via the application of a “qualitative” count noun, but with an abstract noun instead.   On the other hand, the presence of the definite article makes the assertion specific, and could be viewed as shifting the focus from “beauty” to the “She” (depending on context, of course).

Interestingly, definite nouns can also be used to stress ‘nature,’ and, once again, the “qualitativeness” that we infer depends on the noun’s definiteness.  For example, if someone wanted to really ram home how wicked he felt another person is (pick your own historical figure of a person who embodied evil), he might say: “That monster is the Devil himself.”  Here “qualitativeness” is emphasized by a formal lie, and “Devil” is clearly definite.

A potential biblical example of this may be John 6:70, where DIABOLOS may be functioning as a definite noun (possibly, though I take it to be indefinite).  Wallace believes that it is monadic, and, like Tyndale, favors the rendering “one of you is the Devil” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics), p. 265.  If so, then here again we have the ‘nature’ of a subject stressed via a definite noun offered in the context of a formal lie.

With both examples the word “Devil” is used to stress the ‘nature’ of a subject, and the “qualitativeness” we infer depends on the definiteness of the nouns.  If they were purely qualitative then we wouldn’t necessarily even know whose “qualities” are being transferred to the subject via formal lie, as quality isn’t a who.

So, both definite and indefinite bounded nouns can be used to convey the nature of a referent (= “qualitativeness”), and in all cases the qualitativeness actually depends on the definiteness or indefiniteness of the terms.  I would argue that this applies in biblical Greek just as it does in English.  The difference is that in Greek there is no indefinite article to signal that a noun is not definite, and so this must be inferred from context.

The problems with Dixon’s approach don’t end with employing an invalid expedient.  In order to massage the statistics in his “favor,” he misidentifies categorical indefinites as “qualitative” nouns, even though they don’t appear to be stressing nature at all.  With this flawed two-fold approach, i.e. (a) placing indefinites used to stress nature in a third distinct category dubbed “qualitative,” and (b) identifying indefinites that aren’t even used to stress nature as “qualitative,” he manages to end up “concluding” (=asserting) that there is only one solitary indefinite predicate nominative in all of John’s Gospel! [8]  Sound plausible to you?  It doesn’t to me, either.

I’m sure that Paul Dixon is a fine man with many admirable qualities, but the thesis that won him fame is not a serious piece of linguistic/grammatical research.  It is an apologetic piece, inspired by fidelity to his doctrinal commitments.  This is hardly surprising coming from a student of Dallas Theological Seminary!

In my next blog entry I’ll list many of the nouns that Dixon claims are “qualitative,” which are actually either definite or indefinite.  It’s quite revealing.


[1] The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John, Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (May 1975).

[2] Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1, JBL, Vol. 92 No 1 (March 1973), pp. 75-87.

[3] Criteria for Determining Qualitative Nouns with a Special View towards Understanding the Colwell Construction, Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (1996).

[4] A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament, JBL, Vol. 52 (1933), pp. 12-21.

[5] Colwell, “A Definite Rule,” p. 20.

[6]  See:

[7] J. Gwyn Griffiths was also critical of the view that Θεὸς is used “adjectivally” (yesteryear’s term for “qualitatively”) at John 1:1c, and observed that, “Taken by itself, the sentence καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος could admittedly bear either of two meanings: (I) ‘and the Word was (the) God’ or (2) ‘and the Word was (a) God.'”  (The Expository Times, Vol. 62, October 1950 — September 1951), p. 315.  Griffiths favored the former because of πρὸς τὸν Θεόν whereas I favor the latter for the same reason.  While I’m confident that the former rendering is acceptable if interpreted properly (=functionally), I highly doubt that the Evangelist could have said or his readers heard that someone was literally Θεὸς and  πρὸς τὸν Θεόν (i.e. “God” and “with God”) without necessitating further explanation about how such a paradox could be true.   We must bear in mind that at the time the Gospel of John was written, the Trinity doctrine did not yet exist as a conceptual grid into which such seemingly paradoxical statements could be placed to avoid cognitive dissonance.  It therefore seems historically unlikely that the Evangelist intended or his readers inferred what orthodox expositors tell us the controversial verse means, because if he did have such meaning in mind, then there would have been concerns expressed and disputes severe enough for us to hear about them, along with a call for discussion and clarification.  That discussion, once begun, would have led quickly to the sorts of disputes that occurred only later, on the tortuous and unfortunate road to Nicaea and Chalcedon.

[8] “The Significance…,” p. 57.  Dixon lists John 11:38 as the only verse in all of John’s Gospel that contains an indefinite predicate nominative!