The Misleading Capital on “Word”

Here is a very remarkable and informative fact: If one had a copy of an English Bible in any of the eight English versions available prior to 1582, one would gain a very different sense from the opening verses of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. All things came into being through it, and without it nothing was made that was made.”

“All things came into being through it [the word],” not “through him.” And so those English versions did not rush to the conclusion, as does the King James Version of 1611 (influenced by the Roman Catholic Rheims version, 1582) and its followers, that the word was a person, the Son, before the birth of Jesus. If all things were made through “the word,” as an “it,” a quite different meaning emerges. The “word” would not be a second person existing alongside God the Father from eternity. The result: one of the main planks of traditional systems about members in the Godhead would be removed.

There is more to be said about that innocent sentence: “In the beginning was the word.” There is no justification in the original Greek for placing a capital “W” on “word,” and thus inviting readers to think of a person. That is an interpretation imposed on the text, added to what John wrote. But was that what he intended? The question is, what would John and his readers understand by “word”? Quite obviously there are echoes of Genesis 1:1ff. here: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . . and God said [using His word], ‘Let there be light.’ ” “God said,” means “God uttered his word,” the medium of His creative activity, His powerful utterance. Psalm 33:6 had provided commentary on Genesis: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” And so in John 1:1 God expressed His intention, His word, His self-revealing, creative utterance. But absolutely nothing in the text, apart from the intrusive capital letter on “word” in our versions, turning word into a proper noun, would make us think that God was in company with another person or Son. The word which God spoke was in fact just “the word of God,” the expression of Himself. And one’s word is not another person, obviously.

The Meaning of “Word”

Sensible Bible study would require that we attempt to understand what “word” would mean in the background of John’s thinking. Commentators have long recognized that John is thoroughly Hebrew in his approach to theology. He is steeped in the Hebrew Bible. “Word” had appeared some 1,450 times (plus the verb “to speak” 1,140 times) in the Hebrew Bible known so well to John and Jesus. The standard meaning of “word” is utterance, promise, command, etc. It never meant a personal being — never “the Son of God.” Never did it mean a spokesman. Rather, word generally signified the index of the mind — an expression, a word. There is a wide range of meanings for “word” according to a standard source. “Person,” however, is not among these meanings.

The noun davar [word] occurs some 1455 times . . . In legal contexts it means dispute (Ex. 18:16, 19; 24:14), accusation, verdict, claim, transfer and provision . . . [otherwise] request, decree, conversation, report, text of a letter, lyrics of a song, promise, annals, event, commandment, plan (Gen. 41:37; II Sam. 17:14; II Chron. 10:4; Esther 2:2; Ps. 64:5, 6; Isa. 8:10), language. . . . Dan. 9:25: decree of a king; [also:] thing, matter or event. Of particular theological significance is the phrase “the word of the Lord/God came to . . . ” . . . In Jud. 3:19-21 Ehud delivers a secret message (i.e. a sword to kill him) . . . . Yahweh commands the universe into existence. Yahweh tells the truth so everyone can rely on Him. The word of the Lord has power because it is an extension of Yahweh’s knowledge, character and ability. Yahweh knows the course of human events. Similarly human words reflect human nature (“the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart/mind”). . . . Words are used for good or evil purposes (Prov. 12:6). . . . Words can cheer, correct and calm.[3]

We might add that “As a man thinks in his heart [and speaks] so is he” (Prov. 23:7). A person “is” his word. “In the beginning there was the word,” that is, the word of God. Clearly John did not say that the word was a spokesperson. Word had never meant that. Of course the word can become a spokesperson, and it did when God expressed Himself in a Son by bringing Jesus onto the scene of history. So then Hebrews 1:2 says: “God, after He had spoken long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, at the end of these days has spoken in a Son.” The implication is that God did not earlier speak through His unique Son, but later He did. There is an important chronological distinction between the time before the Son and the time after the Son. There was a time when the Son was not yet.

It would be a serious mistake of interpretation to discard the massively attested meaning of “word” in the Hebrew matrix from which John wrote and attach to it a meaning it never had — a “person,” second member of a divine Trinity. No lexicon of the Hebrew Bible ever listed “davar” (Hebrew for “word”) as a person, God, angel or man.

The Word “With God”

John’s prologue continues: “And the word was with God.” So read our versions. And so the Greek might be rendered, if one has already decided, against all the evidence, that by “word” John meant a person, the Son of God, alive before his birth.

Allowance must be made for Hebrew idiom. Without a feel for the Hebrew background, as so often in the New Testament, we are deprived of a vital key to understanding. We might ask of an English speaker; “When was your word last ‘with you’?” The plain fact is that in English, which is not the language of the Bible, a “word” is never “with” you. A person can be “with you,” certainly, but not a word.

But in the wisdom literature of the Bible a “word” certainly can be “with” a person. And the meaning is that a plan or purpose — a word — is kept in one’s heart ready for execution. For example Job says to God (10:13): “Yet these things you have concealed in your heart, I know that this is ‘with you.’ ” The NASV gives a more intelligible sense in English by reading, “ I know that this is within you.” The NIV reads “in your mind.” But the Hebrew literally reads “with you.” Again in Job 23:13, 14 it is said of God, “What his soul desires, that he does, for he performs what is appointed for me, and many such decrees are with him,” meaning, of course, that God’s plans are stored up in His mind. God’s word is His intention, held in His heart as plans to be carried out in the world He has created. Sometimes what God has “with Him” is the decree He has planned. With this we may compare similar thoughts, “This is the portion of a wicked man from with God and the inheritance which tyrants receive from Him” (Job 27:13). “I will instruct you in the power of God; what is with the Almighty I will not conceal” (Job 27:11).


[3] Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Vol. 1, 912, emphasis added.