Thursday, November 6, 2008

How Not to Use Colwell's Rule (part 1...due to fatigue and sundry unexpected interruptions)

Now that Obama has ushered in the Pax Americana, I'm ready to talk about anything other than politics. Hence, I submit the following post regarding Greek syntax.

If you've talked much with Jehovah's Witnesses, you know they have at their disposal a slew of arguments which undermine the deity of Christ. Perhaps their favorite tactic is to note that in John 1:1c ("and the Word was God"), there is no article before "God" in the Greek text. Therefore - they maintain - we should supply an indefinite article, and translate John 1:1c "and the Word was a God." This argument can seem quite intimidating, especially if you haven't studied koine Greek. On the other hand, if you've taken some Greek, or just read some good cult apologetics, you have in your arsenal a devastating rejoinder; Colwell's Rule. First set forth by emanent text-critic E.C. Colwell, the rule is as follows;

Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article...a predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or 'qualitative' noun soles because of the absence of the article, it should be translated as a definite noun...
[E.C. Colwell, "A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Creek New Testament, JBL 52 (1933); 20].

Nouns that should be translated as definite (i.e. with the definite article) which occur before the verb usually do not have the article. We have just such a noun in John 1:1c. Therefore, many see Colwell's Rule as demonstrating that an indefinite article cannot be placed before "God" in John 1:1c, and therefore Jesus is God, the Arians are wrong (including JW's, Mormons, and a smorgasbord of other cults), end of story. But does Colwell's rule actually demonstrate that which most assume it does?


Colwell's rule does not prove the deity of Jesus. Now before you pick up stones, let me quickly add a few disclaimers...

(1) I worship all three members of the Trinity as equally and fully God.
(2) I think inserting an indefinite article before "God" in John 1:1c is grammatically absurd, grossly inimical to the context (which is all about Jesus being...well...God), and driven by prior theological commitments.

Hopefully your blood pressure is now subsiding. So what's wrong with using Colwell's rule to demonstrate the deity of Christ in John 1:1c? Two things, and I will address these on Tuesday.


Jason said...

This was one of my favorite parts of reading Dan Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. He spends pages and pages explaining Colwell's Rule and then has to explain why it doesn't apply to this passage.

Still, I'm with you. Putting in the "a" is absurd. I look forward to part 2. Oh, and I also would rather talk Greek syntax than politics right now. Thanks!

JohnOneOne said...

As can be witnessed above, many who take issue with Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" of 'theos' in John 1:1c (as, "a god") often miss the point that this is 'a singular anarthrous predicate noun *preceding the verb*' - that is, not just that use of the noun 'theos' in the third clause lacks the Greek definite article. (In the Greek language of this period, there was no such thing as an indefinite article; therefore, depending upon the grammar, syntax and context of the phrase, when translating, the decision to either add indefinite articles or not would be decided by the translator.)

This would also explain why some of the examples many feel inclined to provide (John 1, verses 2, 6, 12, 13, 18 and 51), that is, as NWT violations of this supposed guideline (that these also do not have the Greek definite article, and yet, they have otherwise translated theos there as "God"), do not apply; and this is simply because, those other instances do not fit the same grammatical, syntatical criteria as that found within John 1:1c.

Now, with regard to some specific examples of Biblical verses which do represent the same, basic Greek, grammatical construction of John 1:1c, please examine the following within your own prefered translation of the Bible and see whether the translators had, themselves, appreciated the need to insert either an "a" or "an" there. At each of the cases below, it has been found that most Bibles consistantly do:

Mark 6:49
Mark 11:32
John 4:19
John 6:70
John 8:44a
John 8:44b
John 9:17
John 10:1
John 10:13
John 10:33
John 12:6

As can be seen, at each of the above verses, identity of the one being discussed was not at issue; no, but rather, the class of the individual is. Following this same syntactatical pattern as that found within John 1:1c, it should be easy to appreciate how that Jesus ("the Word") can also be properly identified as "a god"; and certainly not as "God," the one of whom he was just said to be "with" (1:1b).

Agape, Alan.

Jeffrey Bruce said...

reading Dr. Wallace's outstanding grammar is what led me to post this in the first place.

I'd like to interact with you more on Tuesday.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,

I mentioned I’d get back to you about your comments today. Accordingly, here a few thoughts.

(1) I am curious as to why you think anarthrous pre-verbal predicates should be translated indefinitely. There are times when said constructions can be construed thusly, but overwhelmingly, the PN should be translated as definite or (more often) qualitative. In the examples you note, I’d say that John 6:70 can better be understood as monadic (John 9:17 could be interpreted similarly), and John 4:19 , 8:44, 10:33 can be understood qualitatively. John 10:1 is in apposition to 10:2, and there the anarthrous pre-verbal PN seems to be definite. 10:1 can therefore be understood similarly. I’m not saying that an indefinite nuance cannot be present in this construction, but it seems rather rare (cf. Mt 4:3, 6; 5:34, 35; 13:39; 14:33; Mk 14:70; Lk 22:59; 23:6; Jn 3:6, 29; 9:27, 28; 10:2; 12:36, 50; 13:35; 18:35; Ac 7:26, 33; 16:21; Rom 14:23; 1 Cor 2:14; 3:19; 2 Cor 11:22, 23; Phil 2:13; 1 Jn 1:5, 14; 4:8). I’m hesitant to say there’s any pattern related to indefiniteness in pre-copulative anarthrous predicates.

(2) I am also curious, how would John have otherwise said Jesus is God? Using two substantives and a copulative verb, I don’t know if there’s a clearer way he could have said as much without espousing modalism.

(3) If Jesus is “a god”, what class of beings is John referring to?

(4) John’s gospel is replete with references to Jesus as God (Jn 1:18; 8:58; 20:28, etc.). If John did not want us to draw this conclusion about Jesus, it seems he made his gospel needlessly confusing by inserting statements of Christ’s deity at climactic points in the gospel.

Thanks for the interaction


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