Jehovah's Witnesses are famous for their claim that Jesus in not God, and that John 1:1 confirms this. What most Christians don't realize is that the JWs are actually correct on this point, John 1:1 does not teach Jesus is God. Before people get worried, I assure you that there is a "happy ending" to all this (though not as you might be expecting).
The following are quotes from some of the JW's most authoritative publications, specifically the areas where John 1:1 is being addressed (all red highlights by me; all other formatting is in the original; abbreviations correspond to different translations of the Bible; "NW" is the JW's own "house" translation):
Does John 1:1 prove that Jesus is God?
John 1:1, RS: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [also KJ, JB, Dy, Kx, NAB].” NE reads “what God was, the Word was.” Mo says “the Logos was divine.” AT and Sd tell us “the Word was divine.” The interlinear rendering of ED is “a god was the Word.” NW reads “the Word was a god”; NTIV uses the same wording.
What is it that these translators are seeing in the Greek text that moves some of them to refrain from saying “the Word was God”? The definite article (the) appears before the first occurrence of theos (God) but not before the second. The articular (when the article appears) construction of the noun points to an identity, a personality, whereas a singular anarthrous (without the article) predicate noun before the verb (as the sentence is constructed in Greek) points to a quality about someone. So the text is not saying that the Word (Jesus) was the same as the God with whom he was but, rather, that the Word was godlike, divine, a god. (See 1984 Reference edition of NW, p. 1579.)
(Reasoning from the Scriptures, page 212)
...verses 1, 2 say that in the beginning he was “with God.” Can one be with someone and at the same time be that person? At John 17:3, Jesus addresses the Father as “the only true God”; so, Jesus as “a god” merely reflects his Father’s divine qualities.—Heb. 1:3.
Is the rendering “a god” consistent with the rules of Greek grammar? Some reference books argue strongly that the Greek text must be translated, “The Word was God.” But not all agree. In his article “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” Philip B. Harner said that such clauses as the one in John 1:1, “with an anarthrous predicate preceding the verb, are primarily qualitative in meaning. They indicate that the logos has the nature of theos.” He suggests: “Perhaps the clause could be translated, ‘the Word had the same nature as God.’” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 85, 87) Thus, in this text, the fact that the word theos′ in its second occurrence is without the definite article (ho) and is placed before the verb in the sentence in Greek is significant. Interestingly, translators that insist on rendering John 1:1, “The Word was God,” do not hesitate to use the indefinite article (a, an) in their rendering of other passages where a singular anarthrous predicate noun occurs before the verb. Thus at John 6:70, JB and KJ both refer to Judas Iscariot as “a devil,” and at John 9:17 they describe Jesus as “a prophet.”
John J. McKenzie, S.J., in his Dictionary of the Bible, says: “Jn 1:1 should rigorously be translated ‘the word was with the God [= the Father], and the word was a divine being.’”—(Brackets are his. Published with nihil obstat and imprimatur.) (New York, 1965), p. 317.
In harmony with the above, AT reads: “the Word was divine”; Mo, “the Logos was divine”; NTIV, “the word was a god.” In his German translation Ludwig Thimme expresses it in this way: “God of a sort the Word was.” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, page 416)
AT JOHN 1:1 the King James Version reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Trinitarians claim that this means that “the Word” (Greek, ho lo′gos) who came to earth as Jesus Christ was Almighty God himself.
Note, however, that here again the context lays the groundwork for accurate understanding. Even the King James Version says, “The Word was with God.” (Italics ours.) Someone who is “with” another person cannot be the same as that other person. In agreement with this, the Journal of Biblical Literature, edited by Jesuit Joseph A. Fitzmyer, notes that if the latter part of John 1:1 were interpreted to mean “the” God, this “would then contradict the preceding clause,” which says that the Word was with God.
Notice, too, how other translations render this part of the verse:
1808: “and the word was a god.” The New Testament in an Improved Version, Upon the Basis of Archbishop Newcome’s New Translation: With a Corrected Text.At John 1:1 there are two occurrences of the Greek noun theos′ (god). The first occurrence refers to Almighty God, with whom the Word was (“and the Word [lo′gos] was with God [a form of theos′]”). This first theos′ is preceded by the word ton (the), a form of the Greek definite article that points to a distinct identity, in this case Almighty God (“and the Word was with [the] God”).
1864: “and a god was the word.” The Emphatic Diaglott, interlinear reading, by Benjamin Wilson.
1928: “and the Word was a divine being.” La Bible du Centenaire, L’Evangile selon Jean, by Maurice Goguel.
1935: “and the Word was divine.” The Bible—An American Translation, by J. M. P. Smith and E. J. Goodspeed.
1946: “and of a divine kind was the Word.” Das Neue Testament, by Ludwig Thimme.
1950: “and the Word was a god.” New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
1958: “and the Word was a God.” The New Testament, by James L. Tomanek.
1975: “and a god (or, of a divine kind) was the Word.” Das Evangelium nach Johannes, by Siegfried Schulz.
1978: “and godlike kind was the Logos.” Das Evangelium nach Johannes, by Johannes Schneider.
On the other hand, there is no article before the second theos′ at John 1:1. So a literal translation would read, “and god was the Word.” Yet we have seen that many translations render this second theos′ (a predicate noun) as “divine,” “godlike,” or “a god.” On what authority do they do this?
The Koine Greek language had a definite article (“the”), but it did not have an indefinite article (“a” or “an”). So when a predicate noun is not preceded by the definite article, it may be indefinite, depending on the context.
The Journal of Biblical Literature says that expressions “with an anarthrous [no article] predicate preceding the verb, are primarily qualitative in meaning.” As the Journal notes, this indicates that the lo′gos can be likened to a god. It also says of John 1:1: “The qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun [theos′] cannot be regarded as definite.”
So John 1:1 highlights the quality of the Word, that he was “divine,” “godlike,” “a god,” but not Almighty God. This harmonizes with the rest of the Bible, which shows that Jesus, here called “the Word” in his role as God’s Spokesman, was an obedient subordinate sent to earth by his Superior, Almighty God.
(Should You Believe in The Trinity, pages 26-27)
The JW "New World Translation Reference Bible" (Section 6a, page 1579), the JW encyclopedia "Insight on the Scriptures" (Volume 2, subject "Jesus Christ," pages 53-54), and the Watchtower (4/1/2009, pages 18-19), and many more such official JW references, all repeat or rephrase what was quoted above. (Please ask if you want these quotes!)
The following reading of John 1:1 is an example that will succinctly demonstrate what the official JW position is trying to convey in the above quotes:
In the beginning was the Son,
and the Son was with the Father,
and the Son was the Father.
With this in mind, note what the official teaching of the Catholic Church is on the Holy Trinity, in summary form:
The Church uses (I) the term "substance" (rendered also at times by "essence" or "nature") to designate the divine being in its unity, (II) the term "person" or "hypostasis" to designate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the real distinction among them, and (III) the term "relation" to designate the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 255 and surrounding)
In 'plain English', the above quote is saying the Dogma of the Trinity (which all Christians agree upon) teaches that there are Three *distinct* Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully possessing the One *nature* of Divine (or Godhood). The *categories* of "person" and "nature" are not the same - and the Church has always noted that most errors regarding the Trinity stem from failing to make the proper distinction between "person" and "nature".
If the above distinction doesn't seem to make sense, consider the following example (and though imperfect, it helps get the point across): Abraham was a distinct *person* from his son Isaac, yet both shared the *same nature* (both were humans by nature). For the JWs to explicitly and repeatedly affirm comments such as "Trinitarians claim that this means that 'the Word' who came to earth as Jesus Christ was Almighty God himself" is utterly false and inaccurate, and reveal a total misunderstanding of the *proper* understanding of the Trinity.
Over and over in JW literature, especially in the above quotes, the JW goal is to attack the notion the Father and the Son are the same person, and in doing so they *project* this incorrect meaning onto the Christian reading of John 1:1c. In short, the JW claims make sense but are ultimately misled, for they *think* that when Christians say "the Word was God" that they *mean* "the Son was the Father." While JWs are *right* to object to this meaning, they fail to realize Christians reject that meaning as well, and that's because it isn't the proper understanding of the Trinity.
Lastly, note that the JWs repeatedly quote scholars and other translations expressly denying the erroneous reading of "and the Son was the Father," and Christians should expect this, for it is an error! At the same time, note the JWs repeately quote scholars and other translations stating the Word (the person of the Son) was Divine, Theos, Godlike, etc, as a quality of the Word's *nature*.
With this in mind, the JWs are doubly exposed: first, as projecting a false understanding of the Trinity on John 1:1 and accusing Christians of teaching this; second, openly (though unknowingly) admitting the true Christian sense of John 1:1, which is that theos (god) is speaking of Divine or Godlike according to the Word's Nature. It is in this (latter) sense that Christians say "Jesus is God," and this is precisely what John is saying in Greek while excluding the error of "the Son was the Father".
When speaking with JWs, be extremely careful and don't engage them unless you really know what you're doing. Also, see my other blog articles on JWs for other arguments against them.