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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

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.

Arts & Humanities Philosophy & Theology

The Problem of Evil: A Challenge to God’s Existence?

This article, questioning whether the problem of evil is a conclusive argument against the existence of God, was written by sixth-former Sam Cherry. It won him a place on the St. Andrew’s Logos Institute Summer School.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

The problem of evil (PoE) posits that it is a logical contradiction for the omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God of theism to exist in a world that contains evil. The argument is summarised by Mackie thus: ‘God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must and cannot consistently adhere to all three’. In other words: no possible world exists in which both God and evil coexist. If this argument is sound, it is therefore a logical impossibility that the God of theism exists.

Implicitly, the argument assumes that a benevolent God could not permit the existence of moral evil. In my opinion most worthwhile counter-arguments to the PoE seek to attack this assumption. Mackie recognises this when he states that the free will defence is the only somewhat plausible reconciliation, despite him ultimately rejecting it.

It is important to note here, before further discussion, two fundamental limits to Mackie’s argument. First, it defends for only moral, but not natural evils. While Mackie admits that this line is not always clear cut, causes of suffering arguably exist that are not attributable to human actions, such as the deaths resulting from natural disasters or diseases. The free will argument does not inherently address natural evils. This question must be left to the theodicies, such as Irenaeus’, which argues that the suffering arising from natural evils might be instrumentally good in helping develop moral goodness in humans.

Second, the argument requires a libertarian or compatibilist view of free will, and if we reject this, the argument becomes nonsensical in either direction, as without free will the concepts of moral good and evil don’t make sense.

The theologian Plantinga argues that evil is the product of human free will, endowed to us by God. He argues that freedom is a ‘higher-order’ good, i.e. one that is necessary for the meaningful existence of other goods. It is more good, according to Plantinga, for there to be a world in which people freely choose to do good things (which necessitates them also being able to do evil) than one in which people cannot do evil, as if it was impossible for humans to do evil, then there would be no virtue in our not doing evil. At least superficially, I think this argument successfully reconciles benevolence with evil.  

Plantinga’s argument leads to two questions. First, why is it the case that God, if He is omnipotent, cannot create a world in which people always freely choose to do good? Second, to what extent does the existence of human free will effect God’s omnipotence?

Mackie argues that God’s omnipotence permits Him to create a world in which people could always freely choose the good, and God’s benevolence inherently predisposes him to create the least evil of all possible worlds, i.e. the one without moral evil. Mackie’s argument is as follows: when we say that a person (P) had free will when undertaking an act (X), we mean that before the act was undertaken (at t1) there were no ‘external antecedent sufficient causes’ to effect P to do X or ¬X at a later time (t2) when P actually acts. If it is the case that in any given individual act at t1, P can do X (where X is the morally ‘good’ act), it follows that it is logically possible for every P at every t2 to have always performed X without this changing the fact that at t1 P always had the possibility of performing ¬X. In this way could God create humans such that they always freely chose the good?

No. Plantinga responds by saying that a world with freedom but without the possibility of moral evil is impossible – that the notion of God being able to create humans such that they ‘always freely chose the good’ is incoherent. This is because of what he calls ‘trans-world depravity’: the concept that in every possible world where moral good exists, the possibility of for P to choose to the evil act must also exists. In all possible worlds with free will the potential to do evil exists, therefore God cannot create a possible world in which He predestines P to do one or another, as such a predestination would eliminate the free will at t1.

God could have created a world in which there was only moral good, but this would be the product of the near infinitesimally small chance that free agents always choose the good, and hence this result would still not be the product of God’s volition. If God could foresee that P would always choose good acts over evil then P’s acts would be predestined, not free. If the possibility that P could commit evil exists, it follows that this possibility might be actualised. That a world with God and no moral evil is possible is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a possible world in which both God and evil coexist. From this it follows that though in this world evil exists, this is not in conflict with the Nature of God.

Even if we accept that God couldn’t create such a world as Mackie envisions, and we agree that free will necessitates some moral evil, it may still be argued that this is only possible by radically limiting our notion of God’s omnipotence to solve the ‘inconsistent triad’. First, if humans truly have free will then God would not be all powerful, as he couldn’t interfere with P’s actions without violating P’s freedom. But moreover, Plantinga’s argument requires an all-powerful God to create something which is then outside of His control, which is a contradiction. This is analogous to the problem of whether God could create a rock so heavy He could not lift it.

These problems arise from considering God to be omnipotent in the sense that He is ‘all-powerful’ i.e. able to bring about any state of affairs. This is an incoherent notion as it leads to all sorts of paradoxes, such as making it possible for God to do the impossible -a direct contradiction. Therefore an actualised God cannot have this impossible (un-actualisable) property. In my opinion, it makes more sense to talk of God as ‘maximally-powerful’, i.e. able to bring about any possible state of affairs. A maximally powerful being cannot be overpowered, as if it could be it would not be maximally powerful, but it is still the most powerful being that can possibly exist. Because, as I have argued, it is a logical impossibility for a world to exist in which free agents always necessarily choose the good, it follows that a maximally powerful being cannot create such a state of affairs.

Similarly, if we define omniscience as knowing all that it is possible to know, this is not inconsistent with God not knowing at t1 whether P will do good or evil at t2, as God having this knowledge is inconsistent with P having free will. God can still have knowledge of all that has happened and all that could happen (which is all that can possibly be known in a world with free will), so it is not improper to describe him as ‘maximally-knowledgeable’.

Therefore, I believe that the PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God. God’s omnipotence allows him to create a state of affairs such that people have free will, but does not allow him to create the impossible state of affairs whereby everyone has free will yet is predestined to always choose the moral act. God’s benevolence requires him to maximise moral good, and as moral good cannot meaningfully exist without the higher order good of freedom, he creates a world in which there exists freedom. As a product of this freedom, people are able to commit evil. God is not able to interfere with this evil or know about it prior to it being committed, as doing so would remove their freedom. Therefore a world containing moral evil and a benevolent, maximally-knowing and maximally-powerful God is possible. The PoE is not a conclusive argument against the existence of God because it fails to conclusively disprove the possibility of this state of affairs.