For an Answer Home Mars Hill  Index Bibliography Glossary
The Bible Gateway The Blue Letter Bible The Greek New Testament (NA26) Greek & Hebrew Lexicons

powered by FreeFind

Mars Hill  Apologetic Discussions



Robert Hommel's Fifth Reply to Jason BeDuhn

Part 2


To all:


This is my response to part 2 of Dr. BeDuhn’s 3-part reply to me on John 1:1 and the New World Translation.


A.     The relation of mass terms to THEOS

I had written:

RH:  My introduction of mass terms was to demonstrate the existence of qualitativeness as a semantic force distinct from indefinite (membership in a class). Having established that point, which Dr. BeDuhn originally denied, I then demonstrated examples where the qualitative force is present with count nouns.

Dr. BeDuhn responds:

JB:  I have never said there was no such thing as a "qualitative semantic force."  What I have maintained is that Greek does not have a distinct "qualitative" GRAMMATICAL FORM.

I recognize that in later posts Dr. BeDuhn accepts the qualitative semantic force, but I did not take him to do so when we first discussed this subject (“originally denied”).  Consider the following exchange from our second round of discussions:

ROBERT: At this point, I'm unwilling to concede that the rules and properties of Greek grammar mandate an indefinite semantic force for theos in John 1:1c.

JB: Then you must have a grammatical argument to make for the definite semantic force.

Notice that Dr. BeDuhn said that if THEOS did not have an indefinite semantic force, it must have a definite one.  In this same post, Dr. BeDuhn also discusses his objection to Harner’s argument for a grammatical form (anarthrous nouns preceding the copula) signaling qualitativeness.  So, I had taken him to be denying both semantic force and grammatical distinction – which was why I introduced the discussion about mass terms in the first place – to establish a semantic force Dr. BeDuhn appeared to deny.  If Dr. BeDuhn actually meant to write, “ Then you must have a grammatical argument to make for a definite or qualitative semantic force,” I apologize for wasting so much time on this topic.

As Dr. BeDuhn (now) accepts qualitativeness as a distinct semantic force, we have reached agreement on this point (and the people said, “Amen!”) But Dr. BeDuhn continues to argue that there is no such thing as a “qualitative noun” at all, based on the fact (as he sees it) that there is no distinct grammatical form for such nouns:

JB:  Since mass nouns are not necessarily qualitative in their semantic force, there actually is not, even in English, a distinct qualitative grammatical form.  In other words, there is no such thing as "qualitative nouns."  There are only nouns that can have a qualitative semantic force in particular usages.

This denial of the existence of “qualitative nouns” actually includes an apt paraphrase of Greek grammarians when they define qualitative nouns in the first place:

“A qualitative noun places stress on the quality, nature, or essence” (Wallace, p. 244).

“This [omission of the article] places stress upon the qualitative aspect of the noun rather than its mere identity (Dana-Mantey, p. 149).

Such language is echoed in many other grammars (Robertson, p. 794 [j]; BDF, §252; Moulton, III, p. 184; Zerwick, §171, 176; etc.).

Harner himself, though arguing for a grammatical (syntactic) marker for qualitativeness, nevertheless describes qualitativeness in the same way:

“This study will suggest that anarthrous predicate nominatives preceding the verb may function primarily to express the nature or character of the subject, and this qualitative significance may be more important to the question whether the predicate noun itself should be regarded as definite or indefinite” (Harner, p. 75).

Thus, for Greek grammarians, a “qualitative noun” is precisely as Dr. BeDuhn says: An anarthrous noun that has “a qualitative semantic force in particular usages.”  I hope this demonstrates that a noun exuding a qualitative semantic force is a “qualitative noun” – at least as defined by those whom we regard as authoritative in these matters.

Dr. BeDuhn suggests that because the grammatical form (the lack of the article) is the same with indefinite and qualitative nouns, there is really no distinction between the two.  I suppose I could use this same argument to ‘prove’ that there is really no such thing as an “indefinite noun” in Greek.  There are just nouns that exude an indefinite semantic force in particular usages ;-)

Dr. BeDuhn’s argument presents the question: What is significant in translation – representing the grammatical form of the source language into the target, or representing the meaning (the semantic force)?  Dr. BeDuhn has said that he wishes to do the latter.  He agrees that there is a semantic difference between indefinite and qualitative.  He agrees that John wishes to emphasize qualities in John 1:1c.  He has termed his preferred translation (“the Word was divine”) as ‘purely qualitative.’  But because he sees the indefinite semantic nuance as including qualitativeness in English, he argues that “the Word was a god” is also an acceptable and accurate translation.

I have no objection of translating qualitative nouns with the indefinite article in English when the qualitative emphasis is obvious.  This is not the case with “a god” in John 1:1c.  A translation like “the Word was D/deity” accurately reflects that qualitative emphasis John intends.  “A god,” however, does not necessarily deliver the correct semantic force, for it can easily be taken to be indefinite – the Logos being merely the member of a class of “gods.” 

Dr. BeDuhn objects to the traditional rendering of John 1:1c on the basis that “the Word was God” may be easily confused with a definite semantic force (“The Word was [the] God”).  I object of the “a god” rendering of the NWT on the same grounds that it will cause confusion.  I invite Dr. BeDuhn to join me in advocating a translation that delivers the qualitative semantic force unambiguously in English.

Finally, Dr. BeDuhn says that mass terms are not really helpful in this discussion because they are not uniformly qualitative and because the rules governing the use of the article is different between English and Greek.  Dr. BeDuhn offers several examples in support of his first point.  I don’t think these examples prove what Dr. BeDuhn says they do.  The first two are not examples of predication; the example, “John’s knife is steel,” is qualitative, because the “knife” in question is made of “steel” – that is, it has the nature, properties, character, and essence of “steel.”  The fact that, as Dr. BeDuhn notes, we can substitute an adjective for the predicate noun (“John’s knife is the/a steel one”) makes the qualitative aspect clear.  With regard to the article, mass terms occur in both English and Greek with and without the definite article.  What we don’t see in either language is a mass term predicating class membership in equative phrases, neither with the indefinite article in English nor with the indefinite semantic force in Greek.

Dr. BeDuhn had previously argued:

JB:  Since THEOS is a count noun, not a mass noun, it should have the indefinite article added when translated into English.

To which I had responded:

RH:  Such a translational model would lead us to render Luke 6:5 as "The Son of Man is a lord of the Sabbath;" John 1:18a as "No one has seen a god at any time;" John 3:6 as "that which is born of the Spirit is a spirit," none of which the NWTTC opted for (nor should they have). There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such examples. I would ask Dr. BeDuhn to produce a single Greek grammar that states that the indefinite article "must be added" to non-definite count nouns when translated into English.

Dr. BeDuhn now replies:

JB:  It is a mere rhetorical ploy to ask me "to produce a single Greek grammar that states that the indefinite article 'must be added' to non-definite count nouns when translated into English."

Not at all.  It is an attempt, once again, to encourage Dr. BeDuhn to justify his statements. Dr. BeDuhn has made a categorical claim about how we “must” render a non-definite noun in English and I’m asking him to support that claim beyond mere assertion.  I’m sure our readers will recall that this is not the first time Dr. BeDuhn has offered his unsubstantiated opinion as an argument.  Each time, I’ve asked Dr. BeDuhn to support his views and have offered evidence demonstrating that Dr. BeDuhn’s opinions often don’t hold up.  Dr. BeDuhn says all non-definite Greek nouns must have the indefinite article added in English translation.  Why?  The answer cannot be simply because Dr. BeDuhn says so.

JB:  What I said about adding the indefinite article was based on what we do in ENGLISH.  Greek grammars say nothing about following rules of English grammar. 

I didn’t say they did.  But Greek grammars certainly do tell us how Greek constructions are to be rendered in English.  That’s one of their primary functions.  I’m unaware of any Greek grammar that says that non-definite Greek nouns must have the indefinite article added in English.  I’m unaware of any scholar (other than Dr. BeDuhn) who advocates such a view.  If we really did have to add the article before every non-definite noun in the GNT, we would expect to see at least one English translation or one Greek Grammar or one scholarly journal article that followed that rule.  I’m not saying there are none that do, but the burden is on Dr. BeDuhn to produce them.  Further, what we “do” in English with the word “deity” (my preferred rendering of THEOS in John 1:1) is to drop the article when we wish to emphasize qualities: “The word was D/deity”).  The result is idiomatic English, it accurately reflects the qualitative emphasis we both agree John intends, and it avoids the confusion of introducing the indefinite semantic force by adding the unnecessary indefinite article.

Dr. BeDuhn continues:

JB:  But you correctly ascertain the "translation model" I am using: Luke 6:5 "The Son of Man is a lord of the Sabbath"; John 1:18a "No one has seen a god at any time"; John 3:6 "That which is born of the spirit is a spirit" -- Yes, my translational model would lead us to render these verses in exactly this way, because this is precisely what these three verses say.

Dr. BeDuhn offers a model of translation in which anarthrous Greek nouns are rigorously translated with the indefinite article in English, unless certain definitizing factors are present (and even then, he chooses to render at least some of these nouns indefinitely, such as THEOS in Mark 12:27 and Luke 12:22).  He appears to be unique among Greek scholars in this assertion (at least, he has yet to provide a single Greek scholar who supports his views).  He suggests we follow his model, regardless of the semantic force intended by the author.  He accepts the qualitative semantic force – indeed he agrees this force is specifically present in John 3:6 and John 1:1 – but insists we “must” include the indefinite article in translation – which delivers a different semantic force (membership in a class).  His reason for doing so is his claim that in Greek, there is no grammatical distinction between qualitative and indefinite semantic forces.  But he agrees there is a semantic distinction, and he says that translators should render what the author meant.  So, I cannot see why he insists that John 3:6 should be rendered, “That which is born of the Spirit is a spirit” (as though the spiritually reborn become members of the class of spirit beings), when “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” more accurately reflects the meaning Dr. BeDuhn agrees John intends (“That which is born of the Spirit is [by nature] spirit”).  His translation introduces a semantic force foreign to John’s intended meaning, and the reason for doing so is, apparently, because Dr. BeDuhn doesn’t accept a grammatical distinction that, in fact, is present in this verse (“spirit” is anarthrous, before the copula – the very criterion Harner argues most often signals qualitativeness). 

Even if Dr. BeDuhn is correct, and there is no grammatical distinction (and I don’t believe Dr. BeDuhn has offered convincing evidence of this at all), this still does not justify rigorously translating Greek syntax into parallel English syntax, unless one is bound to formal equivalence in translation, which Dr. BeDuhn has previously denied.  Translators, to the best of their abilities, should strive to reproduce the semantic force the author intended.  If John intended to emphasize the qualities of “spirit” and not membership in a class, the translation, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” perfectly and unambiguously reflects John’s meaning.  That, even Dr. BeDuhn agrees, is precisely what this verse means.

Dr. BeDuhn continues to find fault with Harner, saying that his conclusion regarding word order is “iffy” and that Harner himself offered no ‘rule’ on which we could certainly base a qualitative emphasis on any given noun.  Dr. BeDuhn says:

JB: Harner actually contradicts himself in the case of John 1:1c, for although he wants to include it I the set of sentences for which the placement of the noun is meant to convey "qualitative" force, he asserts, "In this clause, the form that John actually uses, the word THEOS is placed at the beginning for emphasis" (page 85).  This is a much more widely accepted understanding of the possible meaning of a predicate noun placed at the beginning of a clause.  If this word order serves to convey emphasis, would we then have to conclude that "qualitative" nouns are always emphasized?  This, of course, would be absurd.  But it shows where we would have to go to reconcile the one, widely recognized function of this word order, with the one Harner wants to assert.

I must point out that Dr. BeDuhn – once again – has misunderstood Harner’s argument.  Harner has not contradicted himself, for there is nothing stated or implied in his argument that requires qualitative nouns to be emphasized.  Dr. BeDuhn has confused a noun occurring before the verb with a noun occurring at the head of its clause.  The construction Harner is dealing with (predicate nominatives which lack the article, before a copulative verb) does not require the PN to be placed at the head of its clause, as it is in John 1:1c.  For example, the other verse we’ve been discussing here, John 3:6, has the PN as the second-to-last word in its clause (ESTIN being the last word) – far from the beginning.  Most of the verses Harner discusses do not have the PN at the beginning of the clause.  Thus, Harner’s point is that while the qualitative PN may occur anywhere in the clause (so long as it is before the copula), it is placed at the head of its clause in John 1:1c for emphasis – which Dr. BeDuhn previously acknowledged:  “A qualitative noun can be emphasized by placement, of course, and that is what is happening in John 1:1c.”  THEOS in this verse is qualitative because it occurs without the article and before the verb HN; it is emphasized because it is the first word in its clause.  In the very passage Dr. BeDuhn quotes, Harner actually considers the syntax:  hO LOGOS THEOS HN, which he still considers qualitative, but emphasizing that hO LOGOS (as opposed to something else) is THEOS (p. 85).

If Dr. BeDuhn regards Harner’s argument as ‘contradictory,’ it is because he misconstrues Harner’s argument.  I hope the clarification I have provided will encourage Dr. BeDuhn to reconsider Harner’s study.

Dr. BeDuhn concludes this section of our discussion with:

JB:  I applaud your use of “deity” as an effort to avoid this confusion.  But in English conventions, any such word used with a capital letter would be read as a personal designation just as “God” is, and this is different from what is happening in the Greek

I most certainly agree that THEOS in John 1:1c is not a ‘personal’ designation – that is, it is not definite.  However, we must agree to disagree with respect to the capitalization of  “deity,” for the reasons I have previously stated.  The lack of the article, I think, makes it clear that a personal designation is not in view, because when “deity” is used without the article (whether with a capital or not), it typically is a qualitative noun.  In English conventions, an indefinite noun such as “a deity” signifies membership in a class, and that too is different from what is happening in the Greek, and from what John intended.


B.     Do qualitative nouns express qualities in "full measure"?

Dr. BeDuhn and I have been wrangling over whether the grammar of a qualitative noun limits or does not limit the list of qualities associated with the PN.  I’d like to thank Dr. BeDuhn for his detailed response on this point, as it has helped me see exactly where our previous confusion has come from.

I had used the alphabet as an analogy to describe the qualities associated with ‘gods’ and YHWH.  I had said that the category of ‘gods’ may be represented as qualities A-D.  The “category” containing YHWH (as conceived by 1st Century Jews like John) has qualities A-Z.  I was thus trying to demonstrate that if John were placing the Logos in a category, he would place the Logos in the same category containing YHWH (A-Z), not the category of lesser gods (A-D).  I was asserting that ‘limiting’ the category THEOS in John 1:1c (to use Dr. BeDuhn’s terminology) to qualities A-D was not a matter of grammar, but of theology.  The grammar of a qualitative noun does not limit the list of qualities ascribed to the PN any more than the grammar of a definite noun limits the identity ascribed, or the grammar of an indefinite noun limits the membership in a class.

I tried to be clear that I was speaking in terms of categories in both cases:

RH:  Thus, we may recognize two categories (to use Dr. BeDuhn's term) of theos - that which is defined by qualities A-D (lesser "gods) and that which is defined by qualities A-Z (true God).

Apparently, I was not clear enough.  Dr. BeDuhn continues to accuse me of “confusing” the categorical qualities of THEOS with the personal qualities possessed by the God of Israel:

JB:  THEOS has a set of defining characteristics that we might agree to refer to as "the short list" (the minimum list to qualify something as belonging to the category THEOS -- "qualities A-D" in RH's later discussion), while any specific HO THEOS has "the long list" that includes all of the short list plus some characteristics not necessarily shared with any or all of the other things in the category ("qualities A-Z" in RH's later discussion). 

I apologize if I was unclear.  Let me try again.   The category containing hO THEOS would ascribe to its member(s) attributes and qualities not possessed by lesser gods (qualities A-Z in my example).  These distinctive qualities are not mere personal attributes distinguishing one “god” from another within a single category, but categorical attributes that distinguish the category containing the true God of Israel from another category containing all lesser gods.  If we accept Dr. BeDuhn’s “categorical” view of THEOS in John 1:1c, the author is placing hO LOGOS into the same category as hO THEOS, and therefore He shares all the attributes associated with that category – qualities A-Z.

This point is the heart of my argument in this section of our dialog, and I regret not being clearer and so creating a situation where Dr. BeDuhn was unable to directly address it.

Dr. BeDuhn writes:

JB:  Since RH has himself acknowledged that identification is not occurring in John 1:1c, and since "full set of qualities" as referring to "the long list" would be identification, I invite him to join me in finding another point of clarified common ground on which we can stand without dispute.

Identification is not occurring in John 1:1c – we agree on that point.  I am not speaking of personal attributes that distinguish members within a class.  Personal qualities define “identity.”  I am speaking of categorical qualities that distinguish classes of beings.  YHWH is in a class by Himself, as I tried to document in some detail in my last post.  He is not merely distinguished by personal attributes from all other gods; He is distinguished categorically from them.  And I hope that now Dr. BeDuhn will agree with me that the ‘short list’ of qualities (as I’ve clarified them) is also not appropriate here, for John attributing to the Logos the qualities of a restricted ‘class’ (defined by the ‘long list’), right alongside TON THEON.  This is the view advocated by Harner when he says that hO LOGOS no less than hO THEOS has the qualities of THEOS, and one which I tried support with several lines of evidence in my last post.

Which leads us to the next section in our discussion:


C. Does the Logos have the qualities of God or a god?

In my last reply to Dr. BeDuhn, I had stated that I thought this section of our debate was really at the heart of the disagreement between us.  I spent quite a bit of time trying to establish the reasons I hold the position I do; I had hoped that in doing so, Dr. BeDuhn would respond as he has in other areas of our discussion, with a careful reading of what I’ve written and a thoughtful response.  Unfortunately for our readers, I don’t think this is what Dr. BeDuhn has given us at all.  Dr. BeDuhn seems to have ignored or skimmed over salient points in my argument, and thus his response really doesn’t address the issues at all.  This is most disappointing.

Consider the following.  I had said:

RH:  He [Dr. BeDuhn] says that the category of theos would have included ho theos and a number of other divine beings as well.

Dr. BeDuhn responds:

JB:  I never said that. 

Here’s what Dr. BeDuhn had written previously about the category of THEOS:

JB (Previous): Putting the Word into the "god" category was the first step in a lengthy explanation by which he further elaborated the basic definition, and sought to make clear in what sense the pre-incarnate being who became enfleshed as Jesus was in the "god" category rather than some other. John's audience had a working definition of a "god" that included things like superhuman knowledge and power, extremely long or immortal existence, transcendence of physical limitations, etc. To be in the "god" category, a being would be assumed to have the necessary qualities. But not every being in the "god" category would be assumed to be identical in every way, only the same in the critical qualities necessary to be considered a "god." In short, one could be THEOS without being HO THEOS, because the latter term refers to a specific being within the larger THEOS category.

I think it is a perfectly reasonable inference to take Dr. BeDuhn to mean that the ‘god’ category is broad, rather than narrow, and contains divine beings apart from hO THEOS.  How else is one to take the sentence in bold, above?  If he meant to say otherwise, surely he could have clarified it for us here.  Instead, he elaborates as follows:

JB:  I never said that.  I said that THEOS would have a shorter, and so broader and looser defining set of characteristics than HO THEOS, so that it could contain beings or things other than just HO THEOS.  If that were not true, John could never have written John 1:1.  He found flexibility in the THEOS category that he needed to make his important, indeed emphasized point about the Logos. 

How, exactly, “the category of theos would have included ho theos and a number of other divine beings as well” differs from “could contain beings or things other than just HO THEOS,” Dr. BeDuhn will have to explain.

Next, Dr. BeDuhn writes:

JB:  And it is certainly relevant, contrary to RH to bring in how the term THEOS was actually used in other texts of the period as just such a broader, looser term.  I hope it is not news to RH to learn that we would have no Greek grammars or dictionaries if the use of terms in ancient literature was not examined and reduced to the definitions provided in such modern works of reference.  As he concedes, IN THE BIBLE ITSELF the term THEOS is used more broadly and loosely than "in full measure" being equated with the nature of HO THEOS.

So, Dr. BeDuhn continues to argue for the broader definition of THEOS – that is, for a category containing hO THEOS and other divine beings.  Yet, he says up front that this is not what he has written.  I’m confused.

Confusion aside, I don’t believe Dr. BeDuhn has said anything here contrary to anything I’ve said, nor is my acknowledgment of Biblical usage a concession.  Despite Dr. BeDuhn’s sarcasm, it cannot be “news” to me how lexicons are written, nor that THEOS has a broader application in Koine Greek than merely hO THEOS, when this is the foundation of my entire line of argumentation in this section of our debate.  Of course THEOS has a broader semantic range than the true God of Israel.  The question is not what can THEOS possibly mean in each of the contexts in which it may appear, but rather what does it mean in this specific context.  The arguments I presented – five of them prior to the discussion about Biblical Monotheism – all were grammatical arguments centering on the meaning of THEOS in the context of John 1:1c.  Dr. BeDuhn continues to argue that the meaning of THEOS here is ‘broader’ and ‘less rigid’ than I do on the basis of what he says THEOS meant in general terms to John’s audience.  But Dr. BeDuhn offers nothing in the way of evidence to support his view, aside from his learned opinion.

Circles of Context

The first argument I presented was that of “concentric circles of context.”  After establishing the principle that smaller circles of context should generally have greater weight that more distant ones in determining the meaning of a given word, I concluded:

RH:  From the standpoint of the immediate context, where theos is used in John 1:1b to refer to the true God of Israel, it would seem unlikely that John intends a different sense just two words later.  This sense is reinforced by larger contextual circles, including the striking conclusion of John's Gospel - the confession of Thomas, who calls Jesus ho theos mou.

Dr. BeDuhn responds:

JB:  This is just a repeat of the same mistake RH makes over and over again.  John 1:1b does NOT use THEOS, it uses HO THEOS.  As for the end of the gospel, you cannot simply extract a verse in a word-search and leave out all that John has done in the intervening twenty chapters to explain HOW Christ mediates the experience of HO THEOS to Thomas.

This is not a response to my argument at all.  Of course John 1:1b has THEOS with the article.  So what?  Does this mean that THEOS does not occur in the immediate context?  Dr. BeDuhn implies that THEOS and HO THEOS have different senses in this context, based on the presence or absence of the article.  This is simply wrong.  Dr. BeDuhn is confusing sense with referent.  THEOS in 1:1b refers to the Person THEOS; THEOS in 1:1c refers to the qualities of THEOS possessed by the Logos (or, in Dr. BeDuhn’s terminology, the category of THEOS).  I am not arguing that the referent is the same in both cases – but I think it is clear that the sense is the same:  “Deity, true God.”  HO THEOS is the Person who is true God; hO LOGOS is the Person who has the qualities of true God.  If Dr. BeDuhn wishes to argue that THEOS in 1:1c is some sort of general ‘god’ category, which may include other divine beings, he will have to account for this apart from the principle we are here discussing.

With regard to Thomas’ confession, Dr. BeDuhn is being unfair in accusing me of a ‘word-search’ argument.  I presented an argument based on a well-known principle of lexical semantics; I referenced Moises Silva – a noted Biblical scholar and linguist - and I said that the use of THEOS in John 1:1b was reinforced by larger contextual circles, including the conclusion of John’s Gospel.  Thus, I implicitly include what John says about the Logos between John 1:1 and 20:28; Dr. BeDuhn may think these concentric circles of context support his view and not mine, but calling my argument names doesn’t prove that.

Of course, the real focus of my argument is on immediate context, and Dr. BeDuhn has offered not one argument to support his view based on this context.  His reasons for considering THEOS indefinite/categorical – at least from what he has shown us in this discussion – are based on assumptions (most of which have proven to be invalid) about anarthrous nouns in general and the use of THEOS in other Biblical and non-Biblical sources.

Maximum Redundancy

I had cited Martin Joos to reinforce the idea that immediate context should inform our understanding of THEOS in John 1:1c.  I had said:

RH:  Applying this principle to John 1:1, it seems clear that theos should be understood with the same sense in both clause b and clause c (the former with a definite semantic force, the latter qualitatively). If we know what "ho theos" means, and we know what "ho logos" means, we should be able to intuitively understand what "theos" means when it is predicated of the Logos in John 1:1c.

Dr. BeDuhn responds:

JB:  Exact same mistake, confusion of THEOS with HO THEOS. 

Dr. BeDuhn ignores my parenthetical qualification.  I am not “confusing” hO THEOS with THEOS.  Dr. BeDuhn is confusing semantic force (definite vs qualitative)  and/or "meaning" with sense (denotation).  I am arguing that the sense of THEOS does not change between John 1:1b and 1:1c, though the semantic force does.  The sense of THEOS is “Deity” in both cases (the capital “D” signifies a distinction in class or kind from all other deities).  The semantic force of THEOS in 1:1b is definite (a specific individual); it is qualitative in 1:1c (qualities or attributes).  Semantic force changes the "meaning" of a given PN, but the sense - the abstract concept denoted by the PN -does not change due to this force.  THEOS may have multiple senses - "God," "god" - but the presence or absence of the article does not determine which sense pertains in any given context.  Joos' axiom and the other grammatical/rhetorical arguments I have presented argue for the same sense - "God" - in both 1:1b and 1:1c, but with different semantic forces - "the God" and "the qualities of God."  Dr. BeDuhn agrees that 1:1b signifies "the God," but asserts that 1:1c is, "the qualities of [a] god." I leave it to our readers to decide who has presented evidence of his position and who has not.

Dr. BeDuhn continues:

JB:  I would hate to think of the result if we applied Joos' axiom generally to reading the Bible, where so much is accomplished by the nuance of a single word.  John 1 is just such a place where the words are crafted with exact care to introduce novel ideas.  Joos' axiom would eliminate the ability to transmit novel ideas or to bend or stretch already existing terms to new meanings.

Dr. BeDuhn apparently is unaware that Joos’ axiom is, indeed, used by Biblical scholars and linguists (see Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, pp. 153 – 156).  The example I quoted from Joos is completely valid and relevant to the discussion at hand.  Silva says the principle of maximum redundancy is “readily applicable to polysemy” (p. 155), that is, to words like THEOS with a range of senses.  Dr. BeDuhn argues that “so much” is accomplished in the Bible by the nuance of a single word – but he has yet to demonstrate any principles by which we can determine when this is happening, or that John is introducing such a new nuance in THEOS in this verse.  More significantly, Dr. BeDuhn presupposes that “meaning” may be contained in a single word which the author “nuances,” but as I have pointed out to Dr. BeDuhn before (and which he did not dispute), meaning is contained in larger pieces of discourse than mere words, as James Barr and others have demonstrated beyond serious contention. 

Joos’ point is that in the vast majority of cases, the meaning of a given discourse is not governed by the sense of a single word.  Because language is redundant, it is almost always possible to understand what someone is writing, even if we do not completely understand the sense of a certain word.  Context will fill in the blanks in such a way that we can guess the meaning of the word in question with a high degree of accuracy.  Redundancy, in fact, is essential for language acquisition – it is how we build most of our vocabularies – not by looking up words in a dictionary, but by reading them or hearing them in contextual settings that make their meanings discernable.

Of course authors can finesse words to exude new or unusual semantic nuances from time to time, but – again – context is king, for it is only by context that we can determine that the author intends a “play” on the word in question.  Thus, it is context that must establish for us the meaning of THEOS in any given passage, and Dr. BeDuhn has not provided any evidence that John is manipulating the sense of THEOS between clauses b and c, other than to claim a distinction in sense based on the presence / absence of the article – a claim that remains to be demonstrated beyond assertion.

Stair Step Parallelism

I had suggested that the poetic device used by John in the first verse of his Gospel argued for the same sense of THEOS each time it is used.  I had said:

RH:  This pattern conveys all the characteristics of a common rhetorical feature that was found to be used among classical rhetoricians. By positioning theos before the verb the writer is consistently following the rhetorical device used in the entire verse.

Dr. BeDuhn responds:

JB:  What pattern?  Sometimes the subject is before the verb and sometimes after; sometimes the predicate uses a prepositional phrase, and sometimes an isolated noun.  The only consistent pattern is that HO LOGOS is the subject and EN is the verb, all other terms vary in content and deployment.

Dr. BeDuhn apparently missed the definition of stair step parallelism which I provided just a few sentences earlier:

RH:  "One favored device among classical rhetoricians was to end an expression with a word and to begin the following expression with the same word" (cf., _Style and Discourse_, Nida, Louw, Snyman and Cronje, p. 27).

I’m sure if Dr. BeDuhn considers the description of this rhetorical device as defined by Nida, et al, he will see that the reason the subject is “sometimes before the verb and sometimes after,” etc., is that John is shaping the opening verse of his Gospel so that he ends each clause with the same word with which he begins the next clause (LOGOS (kai) LOGOS; THEON (kai) THEOS).

Drs. Nida, Louw, Snyman, and Cronje (the first two are the co-authors of one of the most acclaimed modern Greek-English lexicons) cite John 1:1 as an example of this device.  If Dr. BeDuhn wishes to dispute these scholars, he is welcome to do so; but to be credible, he must demonstrate an understanding of the argument in the first place and a cogent reason for rejecting it.

He continues:

JB:  The rhetorical feature is a formal one, not necessarily a semantic one.

If Dr. BeDuhn has examples of this device where the pattern involves a subtle distinction in the sense of the repeated words, he has yet to provide us with them.  The examples provided by Nida (Romans 5:3-5 and John 1:1) are, indeed, cases where the repeated words exhibit the same sense, despite the fact these terms often alternate between articular and anarthrous forms – Dr. BeDuhn’s citation of Smyth’s classical Greek Grammar notwithstanding (in fact, in the introduction to the paragraph Dr. BeDuhn quotes states:  The generic article is frequently omitted, especially with abstracts (§1132), without appreciable difference in meaning”).

Dr. BeDuhn may rightly point out that the reason the sense doesn’t change is because the noun remains definite, even when used without the article.  However, Smyth’s Grammar speaks of THEOS with and without the article as follows:

§1129. Words denoting persons, when they are used of a class, may omit the article. So anthrôpos, stratêgos, theos divinity, god (ho theos the particular god). Thus, pantôn metron anthrôpos estin man is the measure of all things P. Th. 178b.

Thus, Dr. BeDuhn’s own source classifies nouns used of a class (which sounds identical to what Dr. BeDuhn calls a “categorical indefinite”) as a definite noun.  That is, the non-use of the article does not signify indefiniteness in this case, but rather the article is omitted because the noun points to a specific class and is thus definite apart from the article.  This would appear to contradict Dr. BeBuhn’s persistent appeal that Greek writers conflated indefinite and categorical nouns.  If THEOS is categorical in John 1:1c, referring to the class of divine beings, it is a definite noun, according to Smyth, not an indefinite.  Thus Dr. BeDuhn’s preferred translation “the Word was divine” might be sustained (that is, ‘the Word has the qualities of the divine class’), but his assertion that this is the same in Greek as “the Word was a god” is contradicted by a source Dr. BeDuhn offers as authoritative on matters of the use and non-use of the article.


Dr. BeDuhn says that John presents a chiastic structure...

JB:  ...between logos-theon-theos-logos, while manipulating the semantics by subtle differentiations (articular vs. anarthrous, accusative vs. nominative).  This would be considered the epitome of rhetorical skill in John's day.

I can only assume that by “semantics,” Dr. BeDuhn means “sense.”  This would seem necessary for his argument about TON THEON having a different sense than THEOS.  I have never read any Greek scholar argue that sense is affected by grammatical case.  If John is “manipulating” the meaning of words by “subtle” differentiation between accusative and nominative, it is so subtle as to be non-existent.  THEON and THEOS (accusative vs nominative) mean the same thing.  Similarly, the meaning of THEOS is not governed by the presence or absence of the article. The referent or semantic force (definite, indefinite, or qualitative) may vary, but not the sense of the word itself.

My understanding of rhetorical devices like chiasm is that they bring emphasis on certain words or signal units of related discourse.  This emphasis is established by the words having the same sense.  I have never heard that subtle differentiation was a criterion for establishing the skill of the writer, or encountered examples in the NT where this is so.  I, of course, am not a Greek scholar, so it is possible that such examples exist.  But it is Dr. BeDuhn’s argument to prove, and his burden to provide examples that do so.

One or Two Senses of Theos?

Dr. BeDuhn quotes my previous post as follows:

RH:  "In the beginning was Felix, and Felix was with the Cat, and a cat was Felix." . . .  I think most of us would naturally understand that placing "cat" two words apart in a sentence like this would virtually insure that the word has the same sense both times.

And he responds:

JB:  I think I hardly need say that such a sentence would at first strike most readers as puzzling.  But as they sat and pondered it they would "novelize" it, so to speak, and presume that "the Cat" was either someone's name (a street urchin whom Felix followed around?) or some sort of ideal super-cat (based on English conventions of capitalization).  Seeing that Felix was "with the Cat" and was "a cat" they would reason out that there were some shared qualities that explains the use of related terms, but that capitalization in one case and non-capitalization in another implies some crucial distinction.  But hey, that’s just me.

Dr. BeDuhn responds as if I my example about Felix were floating alone, isolated from any context.  But if he had just read the previous paragraph, he would have seen that I established a context right up front:

RH:  By way of analogy, we may consider Dr. BeDuhn's argument in terms of the category "cat."  Suppose we agree that "the Cat" is a specific domestic housecat.  The category "cat" includes all other housecats.  However, there also exists a superordinant category "cat" which includes domestic housecats, tigers, lions, cheetahs, pumas, etc.  As Dr. BeDuhn might say, a partcular feline may be a cat without being the Cat.  Indeed, this feline may or may not even be a domestic housecat.  There are, thus, two senses of the word "cat."  Taken in isolation, a phrase like "Felix is a cat" does no more than predicate membership in the superordinant "cat" category.  Felix may be a housecat, a lynx, or a leopard.  As such, he may share some or all of the distinguishing qualities of "the Cat."  I take this analogy to be similar to what Dr. BeDuhn is arguing for when he distinguishes between the qualities possessed by ho theos and the general qualities he sees in the broader category of theos.  But let's put Felix into a specific context:  "In the beginning was Felix…”

So, for the sake of my analogy, I had said: Suppose we agree that "the Cat" is a specific domestic housecat.  Dr. BeDuhn responds:  they would … presume that "the Cat" was either someone's name (a street urchin whom Felix followed around?) or some sort of ideal super-cat (based on English conventions of capitalization).  No, Dr. BeDuhn, they would not.  They would have known that “the Cat” was a specific domestic housecat, as I had originally “supposed.”  Just as John’s audience knew that “the God” was a specific god – the God of Israel.  This is a crucial element of my argument and I think it most unfair of Dr. BeDuhn to ignore this point – but hey, that’s just me ;-)

If this weren’t enough, the portion of my response which Dr. BeDuhn replaced with “…” went on to argue:

RH:   “…and a cat was Felix."  Dr. BeDuhn would, I presume, suggest that we must not read too much into Felix being "a cat."  After all, in the broader context of the word "cat," Felix could be a Bengal Tiger.  But is this conclusion reasonable in the immediate context?  If we apply the grammatical and rhetorical principles I've suggested, above, I don't believe that it is.  I think most of us would naturally understand that placing "cat" two words apart in a sentence like this would virtually insure that the word has the same sense both times.  Add to this the rhetorical devices discussed and the principle of maximum redundancy.  Finally, factor in the surrounding context in which there are no cats other than housecats, and the activities Felix is said to partake in are those commonly known only to be performed by housecats. 

I think my original conclusion is quite sound:  I would suggest that the conclusion is nearly certain - Felix is a housecat, just as much as "the Cat" is.

Dr. BeDuhn has not responded to my analogy of Felix.  He has, instead, argued for his view by ignoring context – which, by the way, is precisely my objection to his view of John 1:1c.

I had written previously:

RH:  And, if there were Gods that existed in the "true God" category alongside YHWH, I would not object to rendering qualitative theos in John 1:1c as Dr. BeDuhn suggests. The problem is that from the perspective of Biblical monotheism, YHWH is unique - there is only one being in the true God category. This is why I favor the traditional rendering over those offered by Dr. BeDuhn.

To which Dr. BeDuhn responded:

JB:  Since RH has chastised me for characterizing his position as rooted in theology, I ask now what sort of reason or argument for a position is to be found in the above passage?  He admits here that he would translate John 1:1c in the ordinary, typical English manner were it not for certain theological concerns he has over what might be the implications of that translation. I think a cry of "foul" is in order here. 

As should be clear to those who read my comments in context, my argument is not based on concerns I have over the theological implications of an indefinite rendering.  My comments are based on the historical evidence about what John and his Jewish contemporaries understood about the God of Israel.  I do not suggest that because I think YHWH is unique in class and kind, that’s what John meant.  I suggest (and offered a fair amount of evidence in my last post) that this is what John believed.  The comments Dr. BeDuhn quotes come at the end of five other arguments that are purely grammatical in nature, so to suggest that I am really arguing on the basis of my theology is a mere strawman.

But let’s consider how Dr. BeDuhn establishes his understanding of THEOS in John’s day.  He appeals to what he considers “literary and cultural context” to establish a categorical meaning of this term.  And he contrasts this with my appeal to “Biblical Monotheism,” as if they were somehow different: 

JB:  I have myself appealed to literary and cultural context to explain what John means by his wording when it is literally rendered into English.  I have never used it to justify replacing a literal translation with an interpretive one.

Nor have I.  There is nothing any more “interpretive” in my preferred translation than Dr. BeDuhn’s.  Mine is actually more “literal” than his, in that it renders the article in 1:1b and a substantive (THEOS) with a substantive (“Deity”) in 1:1c.  Dr. BeDuhn’s understanding of ‘literary and cultural context’ leads him to conclude what THEOS in John 1:1c can and cannot mean.  My understanding of the literary and cultural context leads me to a different conclusion.  On this point, we are using the same methodology, but differ on the “sample” of literary and cultural data we should consider essential for understanding John’s meaning.  Dr. BeDuhn’s cry of ‘theological bias’ sidesteps this essential issue completely.

JB:  But what does RH mean by "the perspective of Biblical monotheism"?  Does he mean the contextual use of THEOS in John or in the NT?  No, because in both THEOS is used occasionally of someone or something other than "God."  So he is merely applying this very prestigious term "Biblical monotheism" to a theological view that he wishes to apply to this passage.

I went into some detail on what I mean by Biblical monotheism later in my post.  Dr. BeDuhn said much of what I said there was a red herring, but perhaps I was unclear about the underlying reason this evidence is so vital to our discussion.  We have been disputing the ‘literary and cultural context’ in which (and to which) John was writing.  If this context can help establish for us what John means by “placing the Logos in the THEOS category” (to assume Dr. BeDuhn’s understanding), it cannot be unrelated to the point at hand (i.e., it cannot be a “red herring”). 

As I said before, Biblical monotheism includes the idea that “occasionally” THEOS may apply to gods other than hO THEOS.  I have never argued otherwise.  It begs the question, however, to suggest that this “occasional” usage should determine John’s meaning in John 1:1c.  Jews characterized their God in a variety of ways to distinguish Him in class and kind from all other so-called gods.  I have argued that this vital point suggests that when John placed the Logos in the same category as hO THEOS, as Dr. BeDuhn says he was, this means that John was ascribing qualities to the Logos possessed only by the true God of Israel. Despite Dr. BeDuhn’s accusations, my argument is an appeal not to what I believe, or what later creeds were to codify, but to what John believed.  So, I am not “merely applying this very prestigious term” to hide my theological view.  I am appealing to literary and cultural context to understand John’s theological view – just as Dr. BeDuhn says he is doing.

Dr. BeDuhn goes on to argue that the theology of John’s audience (a mixture of Jews and Greeks) should inform our view of what John was writing; I argue that John’s theology should inform our view.  Thus it may be that we differ on which “literary and cultural context” ought to be normative for John’s Gospel – that is a fair topic to debate.  But to continually assert that my use of the term "Biblical monotheisim" and his of "literary/cultural context" are different things or that my views are somehow more theological (and less objective) than Dr. BeDuhn’s is simply an example of the pretended neutrality fallacy.

Biblical Monotheism

In a further effort to explain why I believe that John was not merely placing the Logos in a general “divine” category, but was placing Him in the exclusive category belonging to YHWH alone, I cited a number of sources demonstrating that Jews in John’s day regarded YHWH as unique in class and kind.  When Dr. BeDuhn was speaking about the understanding of THEOS in the culture of John’s day, I had wrongly assumed that he meant the understanding of God shared by Jews, Gentile proselytes, and prospective proselytes (the “God-fearers” in the synagogues described in the book of Acts) – that is, those adhering to the 1st Century understanding of Biblical monotheism.  This assumption was wrong, as Dr. BeDuhn clarifies for me:

JB:  I spoke of John's audience, his readers, his contemporaries, and RH seems to have assumed those were only Jews.  I said, apparently not clearly enough, that the term (in Greek theoi, in Hebrew often elohim) was used more broadly by Jews and non-Jews alike than modern Christians (or Jews!) use "God” …. RH assumes in his argument that John was writing primarily to Jews, and goes on to demonstrate that Jews, unique in their region, were strict monotheists.  But it is unlikely that John was writing primarily to Jews, given that in his gospel the term "Jews" is used of aliens, outsiders, and enemies to Jesus and his mission.  So if indeed John was writing to those who saw Jews as others, all that RH quotes about the complex and hierarchical view of the "divine" realm held as "typical of the Hellenistic world" would apply to John's audience. 

I appreciate Dr. BeDuhn hitting me over the head with this point.  I assumed that – like many modern scholars of John’s Gospel – he was using the term “Gentile” to mean Greek proselytes to Judaism or Christianity, or prospective converts who had at least a basic familiarity with the OT and its theology.  This was a mistaken assumption for which I apologize.

Now that I’m clear, I think Dr. BeDuhn’s position is reasonable to the extent that John was keeping his audience in mind – both Greek and Jew.  I agree.  However, even if we accept Dr. BeDuhn’s view of a primarily Hellenistic pagan audience (with its hierarchical view of the divine realm), this does not necessarily imply that John’s concern for rhetorical pathos would lead him to use terms like LOGOS or THEOS in ways that contradicted his own theology.  I recognize that Dr. BeDuhn’s argument is more nuanced than this; but if John would not have conceived of other gods inhabiting the same category or class as hO THEOS, he would not have implied this were possible, merely to appeal to the Hellenists in his audience.

But what of Dr. BeDuhn’s assertion about John’s audience?  The same kind of internal evidence Dr. BeDuhn raises to suggest John’s audience was not primarily Jewish can also be used to demonstrate that John expected his audience to know the Old Testament scriptures, and – at least provisionally – to accept their authority.  John's Gospel fundamentally presupposes the OT.  As Westcott notes:  

"The teaching of St. John is characteristically Hebraic and not Alexandrine.  It is intelligible as the final coordination through facts of different modes of thought as to the divine Being and the divine action, which are contained in the Old Testament" (The Gospel According to St. John, p. xviii).

Godet says:

"From end to end our Gospel makes the appearance and words of Jesus the final evolution, the crowning of the Old Covenant" (Commentary on the Gospel of John, I, 132).

And Snackenburg concurs:  "This gospel would be unthinkable without the OT basis which supports it" (The Gospel According to St. John, I, p. 124).

It is true that John defines certain technical aspects of Judaism that suggest his audience was not familiar with every aspect of Temple observance, but he clearly expects his audience to know the OT and  prior heroes of the faith.  For example, John expected his audience to be familiar with Moses and the prophecy in Exodus regarding the coming Prophet who would be like him:

“There can be little doubt that the way Christ is presented in the Fourth Gospel is intended to indicate that he is the fulfillment of Deut 18.15-19" (Glasson, Moses in the Fourth Gospel, p. 30).

John expects his audience to know about the major Jewish festivals and the various parties in power in Jerusalem.  This evidence suggests to me that John’s audience was primarily Jews & Christian converts outside of Jerusalem, both ethic Jews and Greeks, and possibly prospective converts.  On this view, John was writing to adherents (or, at the very least, prospective adherents) to the Biblical view of YHWH as unique in class and kind. 

This view is advocated by a number of modern scholars of John’s Gospel.  Richard Longenecker, for example, says of John and several other NT books:

“These I take, along with the Apocalypse, to be ‘Jewish Christian’ writings in the sense that they both reflect a Jewish Christian background and are addressed to Jewish Christians or to potentially interested Jews, whether of Palestine-Syria or the wider Diaspora” (Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, p. 18). 

For those interested in this topic, Longenecker provides a survey of recent (and not so recent) studies on both the milieu of John’s Gospel and its audience (IBID, pp. 18-20, particularly note 45).  Culpepper provides a similar survey of commentators in his Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, pp. 211-223.  He concludes (p. 222) that John was writing primarily to Christian Gentiles.  Commentators Carson (p. 92) and Brown (lxxvii) present views in agreement with Longenecker.  Beasley-Murray’s view is more along the lines of Dr. BeDuhn’s (lxv), but even he does not believe this view leads to “a god” or “divine” as possible renderings of THEOS in John 1:1c (pp. 10-11).

I don’t suggest that Longenecker et al have won the day; there are certainly differing views about John’s audience – just as there are about many other aspects of John’s Gospel.  But there is certainly a significant group of modern scholars – perhaps even, as Longenecker suggests, a growing consensus – that John was writing to those well-acquainted with Judaism.  This view is supported by internal evidence, as I have noted.  This fact alone should, I think, give pause to Dr. BeDuhn, when he says: “I certainly never meant to suggest that ‘2nd Temple Judaism ’ sets the definition of THEOS for John 1:1.”  If Dr. BeDuhn has good reasons for his views and for rejecting those I have just mentioned, he has yet to share them with us.

Furthermore, even if Dr. BeDuhn can establish that John’s audience held (or had formerly held) a Hellenistic view of the THEOS category, he has not established that John is appealing to that view in John 1:1 to “bridge” the gap between Jewish and pagan concepts of “God,” beyond his idiosyncratic understanding the use of THEOS without the article in this and other verses he has discussed, and his assumptions about the beliefs of John’s audience. 

Dr. BeDuhn says that “for the life of” him, he cannot understand why I quoted Larry Hurtado in support of THEOS not referring to an angelic being in John 1:1c.  Perhaps if Dr. BeDuhn had considered the paragraph immediately preceding the quote, he would not be so perplexed:

RH:  Dr. BeDuhn says that the qualities associated with 'gods' in the minds of John's Jewish contemporaries, "included things like superhuman knowledge and power, extremely long or immortal existence, transcendence of physical limitations, etc."  In this category, I suppose, might be placed pagan gods (if they were conceived as actual beings, as Moses (Deut 32:17) and Paul (1 Cor 10:20) seemed to), angels, and deified humans.  The context of John 1:1 precludes pagan gods and deified humans, leaving only angels as a possibility.

In response, Dr. BeDuhn rightly points out that he has never suggested that the Logos was an angel.  But Dr. BeDuhn has never really clarified for us what sort of “god” the Logos is.  If He is not an angel, deified human, or pagan “god,” what else – from a Biblical perspective – could the Logos be?  I am pleased to see Dr. BeDuhn offer the opening chapter Hebrews as teaching that the Son is superior to angels; I agree with him completely.  But if that’s true – if the Son is not an angel or angel-like being – does Dr. BeDuhn think that John and the Hebrews author are di-theists?  That would seem to be the only logical deduction we can infer from Dr. BeDuhn’s insistence that the Logos is “a god.”

Simply put, either John believed that “gods” could be in the same category alongside hO THEOS or he didn’t.  To argue that John believed that YHWH was in a category by himself (as the evidence I presented in my last post suggests) but used THEOS with an indefinite semantic force (which could lead Gentile readers to include the Logos in a broad category of gods alongside YHWH) for the sake of appealing to his audience is not credible.

Finally, I had acknowledged that scholars differ on the topic of Biblical monotheism.  I had said that I doubted Dr. BeDuhn and I would reach agreement on this topic in a forum such as this.  However, I said that I hoped Dr. BeDuhn would at least see that while I have strong theological commitments, “I have good reasons apart from them to understand John 1:1 as I do.”  This last reply from Dr. BeDuhn appears to close the door on even this small acknowledgement.  Dr. BeDuhn seems deeply invested in portraying me as theologically biased, while himself as reasonable and objective – and he is willing to ignore or overlook key points in my arguments to make his case appear as strong as he can.  I can only trust that our readers will be fair-minded in their assessment of what we have written and will be able to see who has presented the better case in support of his view.

This concludes my response to Part 2 of Dr. BeDuhn’s latest reply.  My response to Part 3 will follow shortly.

Kind regards,

Robert Hommel

Return to Jason BeDuhn - Robert Hommel Index