Metzger, Colwell , John 1:1 and the New World Translation

In 1950 the New World Translation of The Christian Greek Scriptures was released. As readers of this site probably know the rendering of John 1:1c as "and the Word was a god," occaisioned much criticism.

One such criticism came from the very well known and respected Greek scholar Bruce M. Metzger. In "Theology Today" 10.1(April 1953), p.75, Metzger wrote;

"As a matter of solid fact,...,such a rendering is a frightful mistranslation. It overlooks entirely an esablished rule of Greek grammar which necessitates, "...and the Word was God." Some years ago Ernest Cadman Colwell of the University of Chicago pointed out in a study of the Greek definite article that, "A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb...The opening verse of John's Gospel contains one of the many passages where this rule suggests the translation of a predicate as a definite noun. The absence of the article [before theos] does not make the predicate indefinite or qualitative when it precedes the verb; it is indefinite in this position only when the context demands it..."(19)."-italics ours

19.E.C.Colwell,"A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature, LII(1933),12-21. Cf. also B.M.Metzger, "On the Translation of John i:1," Expository Times, LXIII(1951-52), 125f., and C.F.D.Moule, The Language of the New Testament, Inaugural Lecture, delivered at Cambridge University on May 23, 1952,pp.12-14.

We can see here that Metzger was accepting and using 'Colwell's Rule' to substantiate his belief that the Greek word "theos" in "kai theos en ho logos" was definite and to condemn the NWT's rendering, so calling it a "frightful mistranslation." Was Metzger right to do this?

The New World Translation Committee obviously rejected this rule, at least here at John 1:1c. They wrote in the first edition of the New World Translation (1950, pp.773-777) an appendix that gave the reasons why they so rendered John 1:1c.
After citing the translations of both Moffat and Goodspeed "and the Logos/Word was divine" they remarked, "Every honest person will have to admit that John's saying that the Word or Logos "was divine" is not saying that he was the God with whom he was. It merely tells of a certain quality about the word or Logos..."-italics ours. A little further on we can read "Careful translators recognize that the articular construction of the noun points to an identity, a personality, whereas an anarthrous construction points to a quality about someone."-pp.773,774.
Unlike Metzger the NWTTC did not consider the predicate "theos" as definite but qualitative(with an indefinite sense derived from the context).
Were the New World Translation Committee right to do so? Basically, was Metzger or the anonymous NWT Committee right?

In 1975 Paul M. Dixon did a study of all the anarthrous predicate nominatives in the gospel of John. "The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John" (Dallas Seminary, 1975). It was cited favorably several times in Wallace's recent grammar, "Beyond the Basics". Below are two quotations from this thesis.

On pages 18, 23 we find;

"The only other conceivable value of Colwell's rule [that is, other than for textual criticism] is to say it is possible to have an anarthrous predicate nominative preceding the verb that is definite (but, did we not already know that?), and that because Colwell apparently found some. Yet, it is most important to see that the rule says nothing about the probability of definiteness (contrary to what Colwell and Blum would have us believe), nor can it, as Colwell has not considered both definite and non-definite nouns. Because Colwell considered only definite predicate nominatives then his rule applies only when definiteness has already been determined, then, the probability of articularity may be ascertained. . . . Assuming the rule is valid, its value is almost exclusively for textual criticism. The rule may not be valid, however, as it's underlying assumptions are hihly questionable."

This is the conclusion,CHAPTER VI, of Paul S. Dixon's Th.M. thesis:

"The use of the anarthrous predicate nominative in John is significant. It is qualitative in 65 out of 74 occurrences, or 88% probability. When the anarthrous predicate nominative precedes the verb it is qualitatative in 50 of 53 occurrences, or 94% probability. When it follows the verb the anarthrous predicate nominative is qualitative 13 of 19 occurrences, or 68%.

The implications of this are equally significant. No longer should Colwell's rule mislead us into thinking that an anarthrous predicate nominative preceding the verb is just as definite as the articular predicate nominative following the verb and that "there need be no doctrinal significance in the dropping of the article, for it is simply a matter of word-order."(1) Our conclusions show that when John wished to express a definite predicate nominative, he usually wrote it after the verb with the article, 66 of 77 occurrences or 86% probability. When he wished to express a qualitative predicate nominative with the verb, he usually wrote it before the verb without the article, 50 of 63 occurrences or 80% probability.

Finally, we may conclude three things about John 1:1. First, Colwell's rule cannot be applied to the verse as an argument for definiteness. Colwell's rule says that definite predicate nominatives preceding the verb usually are anarthrous. The rule says nothing about definiteness. It does not say that anarthrous predicate nominatives preceding the verb usually are definite. This is the converse of the rule, and as such is not necessarily valid. Indeed, our thesis demonstrates just the opposite, that anarthrous predicate nominative preceding the verb usually are qualitative, 94% of occurrences. Second, on the basis of the contrast with 1:14 (where the humanity of Christ is stressed), we conclude that QEOS in 1:1c stresses quality. Third, this thesis demonstrates that the statistical probability of QEOS being qualitative, rather than definite or indefinite, is quite high, 94%."

(1) E. C. Colwell, "A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature 52 (1933):13.

In "Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass/Count Nouns"(Sept.,1998) D.E.Hartley of Dallas Theological Seminary partly said in the Introduction:

"Increasingly Colwell is cited as evidence of a determinate semantic reading of John 1:1c. Both orthodox and otherwise utilize Colwell’s rule to promote not only different but contradictory interpretations of this passage—obviously contradictory interpretations cannot at the same time and in the same way be true. Adding to this problem, otherwise careful scholars misstate and misunderstand Colwell’s rule. ....The purpose of this article, then, is first to clearly articulate what has become known as Colwell’s rule, including its abuse, ....."-italics ours

Further along under "Evaluating Colwell's Rule" Hartley informs us correctly by writing, in part:

"There are several problems with Colwell’s method of tabulation as well as statement of rules....

"Third, Colwell appears to be responsible, because of his application to John 1:1, for laying the groundwork of a logical blunder.Colwell’s rule “Definite predicate nominatives that precede the verb usually lack the article” came to be seen as “Anarthrous predicate nominatives that precede the verb are usually definite.” We have affirmed, based on our study, that Colwell’s original rule is valid but the converse of his rule is inductively falsifiable. .... this converse is neither true of the whole nor of its parts. So although definiteness is a possible semantic category, it is certainly not the probable one regarding anarthrous constructions. In addition, although the converse of Colwell’s rule is not formally illogical, it is inductively falsifiable.

"Fourth, Colwell seems to have misunderstood what a definite semantic to the noun entailed linguistically. His improper method of prescription, based on his analysis, led him to commit a category mistake by foisting a semantic upon a certain group of nouns (pre-copulative PNs) that he failed to appreciate on their own terms. Because of this, and apparently without considering the ramifications of what the semantic suggested, he applied it to John 1:1c and argued against the indefinite or qualitative sense. But this was an improper use of his own rule, for his rule was only to be applied post hoc to nouns clearly understood to be definite from context.

"Where he regarded his rule most important, in the area of translation and interpretation, is exactly where it is in fact most irrelevant yet ironically most dangerous, especially the latter. When his rule is applied prescriptively in the fashion he and others since him have, it is most damaging to the semantics of the pre-copulative anarthrous construction as a whole. For when it is determined that most pre-copulative anarthrous PNs are in fact not definite, then one has to ask what use the rule serves at all in determining such. It is one grand question begging venture, therefore, to cite his rule for ascertaining any semantic preponderance anywhere, not to mention disputable passages like John 1:1c."

Then under the sub-heading "Illegitimate Usage of Colwell":

"Thereafter Colwell’s conclusions were accepted nearly unanimously in the scholarly world. Many evangelicals, because of the implications to John 1:1, unwittingly assumed, as Metzger did, the converse of Colwell’s rule which led to its abuse. His actual rule states, “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.” This statement, however, was taken to imply that anarthrous predicate nominatives that precede the verb are usually definite. This type of abuse bled into the commentaries on John as well. Later research seriously questioned this consensus of opinion by attempting to demonstrate that pre-copulative anarthrous PNs were predominately qualitative in nature, a fact not considered seriously enough within the semantic range of some, including Colwell."-emphasis ours.

The editors of this page cannot come to any other conclusion with Metzger's stated position(and also William Barclay-Expository Times 65, October 1957, pp.31-32; Julius M. Mantey-Letter to the WTB&TS, July 11, 1974; Robert Countess- 'The Jehovah's Witnesses' New Testament, 2nd,1987 who all likewised used Colwell's Rule to condemn the NWT at John1:1c) that the New World Translation proved the more scholarly in this matter.
That may well come as a surprise to many but it appears to us to be an inescapable fact.

It is true that the NWTTC did not argue that the converse of Colwell was a "logical blunder" and so the scholars who did so use Colwell against the indefinite rendering were exhibiting an understanding of his rule that was demonstrably falsifiable. However, we do not know of any scholars who showed that Colwell's rule 2b had little relevance in determining the degree of definiteness in such constructions of that of John 1:1c. But the NWTTC did.

Yet, some authors of sites/pages that criticise/condemn the NWT's rendering of John 1:1c on the www(but much less so now in books!)still cite the comments of Metzger, Barclay and Mantey without realising this!
It is our hope, probably a forlorn one, that those sites will now remove such unscholarly remarks by scholars who unfortunately 'abused' a Greek rule that has been shown to have no use in regard to how John 1:1 could be translated and henceforth misled, and very likely still misleading, many to think the NWT's rendering ignored an "established rule of Greek grammar."


We note that the one volume NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words (The Zondervan Corporation, Paternoster Press, 2000, p.555) also perpetuates this mis-understanding and mis-use of Colwell's Rule at John 1:1 with a reference to the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.

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