Friday, July 22, 2016

Cowell's Rule

Greetings again, my friends:

Today’s post was suggested by something which happened to me this past week.  Among others I do subscribe to a periodical letter which goes out by e-mail from a certain scholar who takes a similar view as mine that we really need to understand the Bible from a Hebraic point of view instead of a Western/Greek view.  He has written a book about the Gospel of John from a Hebraic view.  I noticed, though, that he apparently accepts the common translation used for its first book as authoritative.  So I wrote the author to point out the error to him.

His answer was to send me a PDF copy of the article from a scholarly journal from 1933 where Dr. Colwell outlined what has come to be known as Colwell’s Rule, a rule of Greek grammar often pointed to by people who are not current on matters of Greek Grammar to justify a misleading translation for John 1.1c.  The purpose of this post is to try and examine the issue and where the scholarship on the matter is right now as well as other evidence.

The Background

John 1:1 is a key scripture because it is often the very first verse cited by apologist for the Trinity doctrine as proof for the trinity.  Most translations since the beginning of vernacular translations in the Protestant Era translate it almost word for word like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

It seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?  And this is the standard translation used by the translators of the Bible for the most part to this day.  However, as the printing press made books so much cheaper and affordable to the masses they began to acquire New Testaments in the koine Greek they were passed down in along with Greek Grammar books, lexicons, and shortly after concordances.  As that happened some problems regarding how the translators handled various texts of the bible began to emerge.  Top of the list was John 1:1. Why?

Εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον, και θεος ην ο λογος.

In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and god was the Word.

That is John 1:1 according to all the ancient Greek manuscripts I’ve been able to get pictures, facsimiles or whatever of, they all read the same.  I’ve also added a word for word translation without the benefit of English word order.  My capitalization, or lack thereof, is deliberate by reason of Greek grammar.  The first thing to note is that both the “Word” and the first occurrence of “God” are capitalized and the second occurrence of “god” is not.  There is a reason for that.

First of all, Koine Greek preserves some Hebraisms in the Greek such as an interesting device when referring to the God of the Bible in the case of a word which could be cause confusion of adding the definite article, the word the in English to the word.  So we often find sprinkled throughout the Old Testament the word god with the definite article added to it to make it clear that it is talking about the God, Jehovah of Israel.  In practice because the indefinite article would be awkward in the English we simply capitalize the word God because it serves as a proper noun, a name. 

The same construction occurs in the New Testament and the general practice in those instances is the same.  We see that in the first instance of the word God in John 1:1 and the Word on all instances, but it is lacking in the second occurrence of the word god.  If we followed general practice, we should spell the last occurrence of god with the g in lower case since it is referring to a generic god instead of the God.  The meaning of the Greek as written becomes clearer if we insert what the ancient Greek language didn’t have to indicate the indefinite or generic, the indefinite article, thus translating the final clause as “and the Word was a god.”  In order for the verse to read as most often translated the Greek definite article has to be with the second occurrence of the word god, it’s as simple as that.  Colwell’s rule is all about that problem.

Colwell’s Rule

In 1933 a Greek scholar named Ernest Cadmen Colwell published the article A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament in a journal of the time in which he outlined a rule which essentially puts the definite article into the text of John 1:1 as being understood even though it doesn’t appear there.  To quote the scholar DonaldHartley of Southeastern Bible College, who quotes Colwell himself, the rule basically says that “Definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.”  In other words, in copulative clauses the definite article can be understood in the case of predicate nouns which precede the verb.  That’s what we find in the case of John 1:1. For sixty years that rule stood as holy writ for justifying the common translation of the final clause of John 1:1 in a Trinitarian manner.

Colwell’s Rule Reexamined

In time a scholar named Phillip Harner put the rule to the test and reexamined Colwell’s methodology, which he found weak.  As a result, he published the article “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” which found the application of Colwell’s rule to John 1:1 flawed.  In its stead he proposed that the second god in the verse should be understood as qualitative, functioning more or less as an adjective.  That would mean the clause should be translated along the lines of “and the Word was godlike.”  However, translators generally avoid that one and instead either stand by the old, or as in several cases recently, translate it as “and the Word was Divine” capitalizing the word divine to once again make an association which isn’t in the Greek.

The point is that these guys would rather swallow razor blades than admit that the verse isn’t the Trinitarian mainstay it is used as.  For many years mainstream theologians have condemned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for translating the clause in their New World Translation as “and the Word was a god,” thus removing any support for the Trinity doctrine in the verse.  To admit in the slightest that translation is the correct one for the clause is a career killer so they keep on seeking to justify anything but that.  So right now the current scholarly stand is that the word there is qualitative, much like the similar construction in 1 John 4:8 “God is love.” 


In speaking of the “last days,” Daniel the prophet was told that “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (Dan. 12:4, ESV) We believe this was a prophecy of what happened starting in the 1800s, when knowledge became so widely available, cheaply available along with an education.  Back then those in the high school grades were often expected to learn at least the basics to biblical Greek as well as Latin.  That increase in knowledge led to the wonderful standard of living we enjoy today made possible by advancing technology.

That very increase in knowledge made a very big problem for nominal religious leaders in Christendom because now the masses ad access to the bible in its original languages as well as various aids which could help anyone who wanted to understand what it’s message was better.  One of those problems was the discovery that the bible didn’t really teach in John 1:1 that Jesus is God almighty in the flesh.  In 1933 Dr. Colwell published what seemed to be the perfect answer to the problem, a way to insert the definite article into the text where it didn’t appear in the first place and solve the problem by making the text say what nominal Christians leaders say it says.

However, recent scholars have reexamined the rule and have tossed it aside altogether in respects to John 1:1 as a misuse of the rule.  Instead they propose in its place to assert the passage speaks qualitatively.  Okay, as long as we keep in mind that being divine, or godlike is not the same as being God himself in a triune relationship we have no trouble with seeing it that way.  But the bottom line is to realize that even with that nuance the verse does not say what it is often alleged to say.  John consciously separated the Word, Jesus, from God as a separate being with godlike qualities.

Until next time!

1 comment:

  1. Love this post even learned something new.