In 1 John 1:1, third clause, c, in Greek is it “The Word was God” (KJV) or “God was the Word”?
In answer to this question we need to first be aware that the rendering “God was the Word” which is found in the Wycliffe Bible (c.1382) is not relevant as Wycliffe was translating from Latin not from Greek. So put Wycliffe and the Latin Vulgate out of the picture.
1. What does the Greek actually say?
However most if not all modern scholars agree with all grammars of classical Greek (and that includes the Greek of both Greek and Roman periods) that in John 1:1 the subject is ho logos (the word), while the predicate is theos (God or god). So this is a sentence describing the quality of what the Logos is – the Logos is theos. Not saying that what God is, that God is the word, but that the word is God.
1:1 ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος
i.e. literally ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.’
This is the opposite structure of a sentence like 1 John 1:5:
1 John 1:5 – This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.
Here’s it’s clear that the subject is God and “God is light” is the same structure as “God is love”. And not “Light is God” “Love is God”. So in John 1:1c we have the slightly awkward (through unfamiliarity, but not inherently) statement. “The Word is God”, but in the past tense in John 1:1c so, “was” not “is”.
And those comparisons with “God is light” “God is love” are relevant since in “God was the word” the predicate “God” is probably being used qualitatively to describe the subject, “the Word”:
“The most likely candidate for θεός is qualitative”  (Wallace,1996)
2. But how does a translator capture that in English?
We’ll now look at the second problem, now we know what it says in Greek, how should a modern translator render that idea into modern English?
To start with, in the sense familiar to any reader of the Greek Old Testament, the Logos or word, is not God himself. Psalm 33:6
Psalm 33:6 (LXX 32:6) τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ κυρίου οἱ οὐρανοὶ ἐστερεώθησαν καὶ τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ πᾶσα ἡ δύναμις αὐτῶν
Literal Septuagint translation: By the logos (by the word, instrumental case) of the KYRIOS (Greek Lord for Hebrew YHWH) the heavens were made strong, and by the pneuma (spirit, breath, instrumental case again) of his mouth all their powers.
But one can see how from a verse like this the identification of the word with God himself has some background in the Old Testament. But it isn’t describing God as a quality of the subject Word as John 1:1c does.
The literal translation “and God was the word” could lead to ideas such as taught by the Branhamite Oneness Pentecostal churches that Jesus was YHWH – which is obviously not what John intended. For this reason almost all credible Bible versions have to end up with the traditional – but slightly inaccurate – reading “..,and the word was God”
So we come back to having to read context, explain and consider. This is needed for anyone reading the text according to the traditional English translation:
3. Translator choice of “him” or “it” in 1 John 1:2-4 affecting reading of 1 John 1:1c.
So back to the fuller context of the first five verses of John 1.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 ESV)
Looking at the full text of 1 John 1:1-5 after having looked at 1 John 1:1c immediately brings us back to earth with a bump to the more evident problem of “He… through him ..without him.. in him” having turned the noun Word from just word to a person.
This continues in the next section with Light also being moved from just light to a person. But in this case with more justification as the true light is evidently intended to be read as a person, Jesus.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people[c] did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And then back to the Word, but now the Word made flesh – Jesus.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.[e] 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God,[f] who is at the Father’s side,[g] he has made him known. (ESV)
This is a bigger subject than the question here, what does John 1:1c actually say, and how best to translate it. There are other answers on this site addressing the larger context of John 1. But just for influence on John 1:1c it needs to be noted that reading straight from verse one into the introduction of the Word as a person by “he” in verse two is not the same intent as what John wrote in Greek where verses 1-5 seem to have a foot in both creations – the old Genesis creation of the Logos in Psalm 33:6 and also the new creation in Christ.
4. Honourable and dishonourable mentions – Some translations that try hard, some that make things worse.
We’ll briefly touch here on some alternatives:
4A. “and the Word was a god.” (Thomas Belsham 1808, also Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation)
This is problematic because the Bible is – apart from when mocking pagan gods – wholly monotheistic. So the idea that anything other than God can be ‘a god’ is ruled out by verses such as:
Isaiah 45:5 which in Hebrew reads “I am Yahweh, and there is no other. There is no other Elohim besides me”. and likewise in Greek LXX:
Isaiah LXX 45:5 ὅτι ἐγὼ κύριος ὁ θεός καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι πλὴν ἐμοῦ θεός καὶ οὐκ ᾔδεις με – “I am KYRIOS (Greek Lord) the Theos, and there is no other. There is no other Theos besides me”
Thomas Belsham (1750-1829) was a Unitarian minister, and presumably influenced not just by his church’s theology but equally by the quite widespread misunderstanding, which remained common until the late 19th Century, that because the Septuagint had censored a handful of Elohim verses in the Hebrew Old Testament (verses which the translators in Alexandria found problematic) to ‘judges’ and ‘angels’, that therefore meant that ‘judges’ and ‘angels’ were legitimate meanings of Elohim. This mistake was incorrectly listed in Christian Hebrew Lexicons despite being impossible and even blasphemous in rabbinical Hebrew. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that a better understanding of the motives and sensitivities of the Septuagint translators led to that idea being overturned. But it still has a following today among those dependent on cheaper or free out of copyright Strong’s-number indexed reference tools.
As for the Jehovah’s Witnesses following Belsham, that is clearly as a result of JW theology under which Jesus is actually Michael, a pre-existent Theos, or semi-divine being. So both Belsham and the NWT can be disregarded.
4B. “the Logos was divine” – The Bible: James Moffatt Translation 1924
Moffats’ rather awkward use of Logos appeared in 1924. But from a translation standpoint there is no reason to render Word as Logos just in John 1 only. Moffat’s translation foreshadowed the reading “and the Word was divine” (Smith and Goodspeed, Chicago 1935).
The very obvious problem with Moffat and Goodspeed – though these were credible and sincere scholars – is that “divine” is an adjective which the author John could have used, but didn’t. So we lose the noun use of “God”, which makes the whole sentence John 1:1abc hang together, and separates John 1:1c into some odd and inconsistent afterthought.
4C. “and what God was the Word was” (New English Bible, NEB, 1961, followed by the NET 2005)
The NEB makes a brave attempt to capture the meaning behind the “and God was the Word” original Greek. And in all fairness it does stop the reader in his or her tracks and make them think about what they are reading. Unfortunately the result is either a matching of the two terms “X is as Y, Y is as X” or could be read as a a triangulation “X and Y are both Z”. This isn’t what John intended. The main value of the NEB reading is simply to show that serious qualified translators (Oxford University Press no less) have attempted a different way to capture John 1:1c.
This is probably the best of the alternative renderings. But the NEB reading has the problem that additional footnotes and explanations are required to not cause more as much or more misunderstanding than the traditional rendering “and the Word was God”.
4D. Back to Wycliffe?
Ironically the one fully literal translation, “and God was the Word”, is one that no English Bible since Wycliffe has attempted. And perhaps rightly.
Happily it’s now known that Wycliffe and his translators did after all have some knowledge of Greek and were not translating totally blind from Latin. Therefore we can assume that they legitimately felt that “and God was the word” was a faithful rendition both of the Greek and the Latin into 14th Century English. This positive influence of Latin on English is evidenced as early as the Lindesfarne Gospels (bilingual Latin-Old English translation, c 700) which illustrates Latin influencing the use of Bible English in sermons. We also need to remember that Wycliffe Bible is not just a laboriously copied pre-printing book, it was a living script used by the Lollard preachers to preach in English in market places, churches and homes. It was in a very modern sense an ‘audio-book’, designed to be listened to, not read. So for those Lollard preachers, just as for official Church clergy, a reference to John 1:1c in any English sermon would naturally follow the Latin, and therefore hark back to the original Greek:
John 1:1 in principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum (Latin Vulgate)
..et Deus erat Verbum, “and God was the word”.
 The following footnote is taken from one of, if not the, standard modern grammars of New Testament Greek in use among Evangelical Christians. PN here means Predicate Nominative, a predicate noun in nominative case. Points a, b, c, illustrate the three grammatical questions asked regarding John 1:1c.
Interestingly in each one of the three questions a, b, c, follows the format of a grammatical statement (which is correct) and then a theological statement defending the Trinity (marked here by * and italics) which may well be a reassurance required by the publishers Zondervan and their distributors and readers, but is not objective grammar but exegesis. Or eisegesis potentially – and anachronism given that the NT was written 250 years before the Trinity became orthodoxy. But this is it way that grammars of New Testament Greek are. If someone wants a grammar without theological comment, then go for a grammar of Classical Greek, which despite the name ‘Classical’ will extend to cover the Greek of the Eastern Roman empire. There is zero tangible grammatical difference between the Greek of the New Testament and the Greek used by other writers in the Hellenistic period.
But since we need to understand how modern Protestants read the grammar, here is Wallace:
Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Daniel B. Wallace. Zondervan, 1996.
John 1:1 states: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. In the last part of the verse, the clause καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1c), θεός is the PN. It is anarthrous and comes before the verb. Therefore, it fits Colwell’s construction, though it might not fit the rule (for the rule states that definiteness is determined or indicated by the context, not by the grammar). Whether it is indefinite, qualitative, or definite is the issue at hand.
a. Is Θεός in John 1:1c Indefinite?
If θεός were indefinite, we would translate it “a god” (as is done in the New World Translation [NWT]). If so, the theological implication would be some form of polytheism, perhaps suggesting that the Word was merely a secondary god in a pantheon of deities.
(Isaiah 43:10 [NIV]) You are my witnesses, declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.
The grammatical argument that the PN here is indefinite is weak. Often, those who argue for such a view (in particular, the translators of the NWT) do so on the sole basis that the term is anarthrous. Yet they are inconsistent, as R. H. Countess pointed out:
In the New Testament there are 282 occurrences of the anarthrous θεός. At sixteen places NWT has either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time. …The first section of John-1:1–18-furnishes a lucid example of NWT arbitrary dogmatism. Θεός occurs eight times-verses 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, 18-and has the article only twice-verses 1, 2. Yet NWT six times translated “God,” once “a god,” and once “the god.”
If we expand the discussion to other anarthrous terms in the Johannine Prologue, we notice other inconsistencies in the NWT: It is interesting that the New World Translation renders θεός as “a god” on the simplistic grounds that it lacks the article. This is surely an insufficient basis. Following the “anarthrous = indefinite” principle would mean that ἀρχῇ should be “a beginning” (1:1, 2), ζωὴ should be “a life” (1:4), παρὰ θεοῦ should be “from a god” (1:6), Ἰωάννης should be “a John” (1:6), θεόν should be “a god” (1:18), etc. Yet none of these other anarthrous nouns is rendered with an indefinite article. One can only suspect strong theological bias in such a translation.
According to Dixon’s study, if θεός were indefinite in John 1:1, it would be the only anarthrous pre-verbal PN in John’s Gospel to be so. Although we have argued that this is somewhat overstated, the general point is valid: The indefinite notion is the most poorly attested for anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives. Thus, grammatically such a meaning is improbable.
* Also, the context suggests that such is not likely, for the Word already existed in the beginning. Thus, contextually and grammatically, it is highly improbable that the Logos could be “a god” according to John. Finally, the evangelist’s own theology militates against this view, for there is an exalted Christology in the Fourth Gospel, to the point that Jesus Christ is identified as God (cf. 5:23; 8:58; 10:30; 20:28, etc.). *
b. Is Θεός in John 1:1c Definite?
Grammarians and exegetes since Colwell have taken θεός as definite in John 1:1c. However, their basis has usually been a misunderstanding of Colwell’s rule. They have understood the rule to say that an anarthrous pre-verbal PN will usually be definite (rather than the converse). But Colwell’s rule states that a PN which is probably definite as determined from the context which precedes a verb will usually be anarthrous. If we check the rule to see if it applies here, we would say that the previous mention of θεός (in 1:1b) is articular. Therefore, if the same person being referred to there is called θεός in 1:1c, then in both places it is definite. Although certainly possible grammatically (though not nearly as likely as qualitative), the evidence is not very compelling. The vast majority of definite anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominatives are monadic, in genitive constructions, or are proper names, none of which is true here, diminishing the likelihood of a definite θεός in John 1:1c.
* Further, calling θεός in 1:1c definite is the same as saying that if it had followed the verb it would have had the article. Thus it would be a convertible proposition with λόγος (i.e., “the Word” = “God” and “God” = “the Word”). The problem of this argument is that the θεός in 1:1b is the Father. Thus to say that the θεός in 1:1c is the same person is to say that “the Word was the Father.” This, as the older grammarians and exegetes pointed out, is embryonic Sabellianism or modalism. The Fourth Gospel is about the least likely place to find modalism in the NT. *
c. Is Θεός in John 1:1c Qualitative?
The most likely candidate for θεός is qualitative. This is true both grammatically (for the largest proportion of pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives fall into this category) and theologically (both the theology of the Fourth Gospel and of the NT as a whole). There is a balance between the Word’s deity, which was already present in the beginning (ἐν ἀρχῇ … θεὸς ἦν [1:1], and his humanity, which was added later (σὰρξ ἐγένετο [1:14]). The grammatical structure of these two statements mirrors each other; both emphasize the nature of the Word, rather than his identity. But θεός was his nature from eternity (hence, εἰμὶ is used), while σάρξ was added at the incarnation (hence, γίνομαι is used).
* Such an option does not at all impugn the deity of Christ. Rather, it stresses that, although the person of Christ is not the person of the Father, their essence is identical. Possible translations are as follows: “What God was, the Word was” (NEB), or “the Word was divine” (a modified Moffatt). In this second translation, “divine” is acceptable only if it is a term that can be applied only to true deity. However, in modern English, we use it with reference to angels, theologians, even a meal! Thus “divine” could be misleading in an English translation. The idea of a qualitative θεός here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “the God” (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person. The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father. *
(c) Zondervan 1996. This is only a copy of pp 267-268 main text. There are extensive footnotes on the lower half of each page.