Categories
Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

A New Translation of John 1

This long-read article was written by Sixth Former Sam Cherry. It provides a new translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It concludes with a translator’s commentary.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

This long-read article was written by Sixth Former Sam Cherry. It provides a new translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It concludes with a translator’s commentary.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 1:

1 In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. 2The same was with God in the beginning. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing which has been made was made. 4In Him was a way of life, and that way of life was the light of humankind. 5And the light shines in the darkness, though the darkness did not understand it.

6There came a man sent from God, named John. 7This man went as a witness in order to testify about the light, such that all might believe through him. 8He was not that light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9There was a true light, who illuminates all people coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, though the world knew Him not. 11He came into His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12But as many as did receive Him, He gave to those who believe in His name the power to be made children of God; 13they were not born from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us, and we admired His glory: His glory as the only child begotten from the Father, filled with grace and truth. 15John testifies about Him, and cried out, saying: ‘He was the same one of whom I spoke; the one who is coming after me came before me in precedence, because He was before me’. 16And from His fullness we all received that grace in place of grace; 17because the Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but the only-begotten son, being in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known.

19And this is the testimony of John: when the Jewish Temple authorities sent priests and Levites in order to ask him ‘who are you?’ 20he confessed and agreed that ‘I myself am not the Christ,’ and did not deny it. 21So they asked him: ‘who are you then? Are you Elijah?’. And he says: ‘I am not’. ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered: ‘no’. 22They therefore said to him: ‘who are you? In order to give an answer to those who sent us, what do you say about yourself?’. 23He said: ‘I am a voice in desolation, crying out: make straight the way of the Lord, just as the prophet Elijah said’. 24But the men who had been sent were from the Pharisees, 25and they asked him and said to him: ‘if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah nor a prophet, why then do you baptise?’. 26John responded, saying: ‘I baptise in water, but in your midst stood one whom you did not know. 27He is the one who is coming after me, who came before me in precedence; I myself am not worthy to loose the strap of His sandal’.28These things came to pass in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him and He says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. 30This is the same Man of whom I said: “before me is coming a Man who came before me in precedence, because He was before me”. 31And I myself did not know Him, but, in order that He might be revealed to Israel, for this reason I went into the water baptising’. 32And John testified saying that: ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a Dove from heaven above, and it remained upon Him. 33And I did not see Him, but, having sent me to baptise in water, He told me that: “whomever you might see the Spirit descending and remaining upon is the same person who is baptising in the Holy Spirit”. 34And I recognised and testified that He is the Son of God’.

35The next day again, John was standing with two of his disciples, 36and, having seen Jesus walking, says: ‘behold the Lamb of God’. 37The two disciples heard him speaking and followed Jesus. 38But Jesus, having turned around and seeing them following Him, says to them: 49‘what do you seek?’. And they said to Him: ‘Rabbi,’ (which is to say, being translated, ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’. 40He says to them: ‘come, and you will see’. Thus they came and saw where He stays, and stayed with Him that evening; it was about the tenth hour. 41Andrew, one of the two men having heard from John, and having followed him, was the brother of Simon Peter. 42That same man finds his brother and says to him: ‘we have seen the Messiah,’ (which is to be translated ‘the Christ’). 43And he led him to Jesus. Jesus, standing, said to him: ‘you are Simon, the son of Jonah. You will be called Kephas,’ (which is to be translated ‘Peter’).

44The next day Jesus wanted to go out into Galilee. And He found Philip and says to him: ‘follow Me’. 45And Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 46Philip found Nathanael and says to him: ‘we have found Him, whom Moses and the Prophets wrote about in the law – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph’. 47And Nathanael said to him: ‘what from Nazareth can be good?’. Philip says to him: ‘come and you will see’. 48Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards Him and says about him: ‘behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit’. 49Nathanael says to Him: ‘whence do you know me?’. Jesus answered and said to him: ‘before Philip had called you, I saw you under a fig tree’. 50Nathanael responded and says to Him: ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel’. 51Jesus replied and says to him: ‘do you have faith because I said to you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. 52And He says to him: ‘truly, truly I say to you, henceforth you will see heaven above opening, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of humankind’.

Translator’s Commentary:

My source was the Koine New Testament as published in 1904 and 1942 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with later corrections by the Church of Greece. It departs ever so slightly from other versions by dividing the text into 52 verses instead of 51; what is v.48 in other editions is split into v.48 and v.49 in this text. For reference I used Strong’s Greek Concordance and Liddell & Scott’s English-Greek lexicon, both accessed online.

I have taken a largely literalist approach to the translation. This includes the preservation of the historic present, and the keeping of participles as participles, even when in English it might be more natural to use normal verbs, insofar as was possible. In order to preserve clarity, I have omitted or introduced conjunctives or pronouns in some places into the translation (e.g. v.45 & 46)[1]. All speech punctuation is editorial, as it does not exist in the original.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in my translation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, versus most other versions, lies in the very first sentence, in my decision to leave Logos (Λογος) untranslated [v.1]. What inspired me in the first place to undertake translating this passage was my dissatisfaction with the popular rendering of Λογος as ‘Word’. The Greek term has a multitude of meanings: reason, story, purpose, decree, maxim, doctrine, account etc. – the list goes on and on. Picking any single word then as a direct translation, I think, necessarily removes the nuance that comes from the multiplicity of meanings captured in ‘Λογος’. Whether that was St. John’s original intent or not, I think this obscurity, these possibilities, should be reflected in the translation as they exist in the original. The only way to do that, then, is to leave the term as it is, untranslated.

I found it difficult to find a suitable way of capturing the word ‘ζωη’ in English [v.4]. While most translators render in literally as ‘life’ (take for example the NIV, KJV or ESV) I think this translation is an oversimplification. ‘ζωη’ means more than ‘life’ in the simple biological sense (the corresponding Greek for that would be ‘βιος’), but rather the totality of the spiritual, physical and active aspects which constitute human life. My best attempt therefore was ‘a way of life’, though this still feels insufficient in my opinion.

Also in v.4, I have decided to interpret ‘των ἀνθρωπων’ in a gender-neutral sense. No doubt the word itself is masculine, and is thus often rendered as ‘mankind’ or ‘man’, but as ‘ἀνθροπος’ in is understood to refer to all humans and not just males I think ‘humankind’ is a more fitting translation. Later, in v.52 I have opted to translate ‘του ἀνθρωπου’ as ‘of humankind’ again given the context, even though it is in this case singular, as ‘the Son of human’ sounds very unnatural in English.

The word translated as ‘flesh’ (‘ἡ σαρξ’) [v.13 & 14], often has associations with human nature, and especially the human inclination to sin, alongside the terms more biological meaning. The nuance of St. John’s use of this term then in v.13 (‘the will of the flesh’) is more or less obvious, but less so in v.14. Strong suggests that ‘ὁ Λογος σαρξ ἐγενετο’ (‘the Word became flesh’) refers not only to Christ taking human form in the incarnation, but also to indicate that Christ took on human nature, with its moral weakness. While the term ‘flesh’ in English does, to an extent, have an association with carnality, I cannot find a way of communicating in English a suggestion of both physicality and weak human nature, so ‘flesh’ remains the best translation of ‘σάρξ’, if an imperfect one.

I think my choice to translate ‘ἐσκηνωσεν’ [v.14], usually translated as ‘dwelled’, instead as ‘tabernacled’ reflects the meaning of the word more accurately. Though it literally means to pitch a tent, Greek Jews reading this passage at the time would have noticed the nuance in this particular verb, as ‘σκηνη’ (meaning dwelling, tent or hut) was the term used to translate the Hebrew word for the Tabernacle (‘מִּשְׁכָּן’, ‘mishkan’) in the Septuagint. I wanted the English to reflect this, as otherwise the theological significance which resides in this unusual word (it occurs only once in the Gospels) would be lost.

St. John linguistically distinguishes between the Jewish people who supported Jesus, and those who opposed Him. Typically, he refers to those who opposed Jesus as ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ [v.19], though elsewhere in his Gospel this term is used more neutrally, including when Jesus is described as ‘βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων’ (‘King of the Jews’). Elsewhere, he uses ‘οἱ Ἰσραηλίται’ to describe Jews who are favourable to Jesus (e.g. in v.43). While it may seem obvious to translate ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘the Jews’ this is not by far an adequate translation, as it would suggest that the persecution was propagated by all Jews, as opposed to a select number of the Temple authorities. Moreover, elsewhere in the Gospel St. John uses the term interchangeably with the Pharisees or chief priests, showing the St. John was accustomed to using the term for subgroups of the Jewish people, and did not intend it to mean all Jews. In the context of the passage, with this in mind, I have thus translated ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘Jewish Temple authorities’ and not as ‘the Jews’.

I decided to translate ‘ἐν ἐρημῳ’ [v.23] as ‘in desolation’. Most literally, as a noun, it refers to a place of sparse vegetation, but adjectivally is used to describe an empty place of solace, so I think ‘desolation’ is the most accurate reflection of the meaning in context.

The word rendered as ‘heaven above’ (‘οὐρανος’) [v.32 & 52] is used to refer both to heaven in the spiritual sense, and to the sky or atmosphere. While the word ‘heaven’ in English also has this duality, it is more associated, especially in a theological context, with the spiritual meaning, and thus to translate ‘οὐρανος’ simply as ‘heaven’ neglects the nuance of the Greek. To capture both the spiritual and physical meanings, I think ‘heaven above’ is the best translation, as ‘heaven’ capture the spiritual side, but ‘above’ tempers this with a spatial and hence physical aspect.

Also in v.32 ‘upon Him’ may instead be translated as ‘in His presence’. Similarly, in v.33 ‘remaining upon’ could as be translated as ‘remaining in their presence’. This is due to the ambiguity in the precise meaning of the preposition ‘ἐπι’ in the context of the phrase ‘ἐπ’αὐτον’.

In v.43, Jesus names St. Peter, who is originally called Simon, ‘Kephas’, a transliterated Aramaic term (‘כֵּיפָא’, ‘kepha’); the corresponding Greek word is ‘Petros’ (Πετρος). Though normatively translated as ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, there is some dispute as to whether the Aramaic, and correspondingly the Greek term, should be thought to mean jewel instead. This possible translation could suggest that Peter was special or valuable, conferring a different meaning than if it were translated as ‘rock’, which is usually understood to refer to St. Peter’s reliable and strong character, and his position as the foundation of the Church (c.f. Matthew 16:18).


[1] Additionally, in v.49 the participle ‘ὀντα’ (being) was omitted for clarity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s