A Syntactical Analysis of John 1:1b

It is common for Trinitarian scholars to point to John 1:1b (“and the Word was with God”) as evidence that the Word is (1) a personal subject and (2) is a distinct personal subject from the Father who was there “in the beginning.” Since I’d like to be brief, I won’t reproduce the quotations from many scholars who say this. And, to be clear, you don’t have to be a Trinitarian to accept this: one could just as well be an Arian.

On syntactical grounds, these conclusions are probabilistic (and therefore inductive), but they seem to be a viable conclusions nevertheless. I’d like to provide what I’ve found while doing some syntax searches in both Logos (Cascadia and OpenText) and Accordance.

When we look at the BDAG entry on “with” (pros; πρός), we find the following:

③ w. acc. (pseudepigr. and apolog. throughout) marker of movement or orientation toward someone/someth. . . . ⓖ by, at, near πρός τινα εἶναι be (in company) with someone Mt 13:56; Mk 6:3; 9:19a; 14:49; Lk 9:41; J 1:1f; 1 Th 3:4; 2 Th 2:5; 3:10; 1J 1:2.
—p. 875, column b

The verb εἶναι is the infinitive (“to be”) form of εἰμί. What this part of the entry is saying is that, when this copulative verb is connected to the preposition πρός, there are instances where this means that two subjects are “in company” with one another. 

To investigate this claim, I ran a search for every verse in the NT where the verb (εἰμί) and the preposition (πρός) occur. In all there are 208 verses, where only 30 of which are worthy of our consideration because the verb (εἰμί) and the preposition (πρός) are actually connected in the same syntactical unit.

Those 30 verses are: Matthew 13:56; Mark 1:33; 4:1; 6:3; 9:19; 14:49; Luke 9:41; 23:12; 24:29; John 1:1; 1:2; 4:35; 11:4; Acts 12:5; 13:31; 22:15; 28:25; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:23; 1 Thessalonians 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:5; 3:10; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Timothy 2:24; 3:17; Titus 1:16; 3:1; Hebrews 5:14; James 4:14; 1 John 1:2.

In order to figure out which of these have any relation to John 1:1b, we have to take a look at this part of the verse a little more closely. The first thing to note is that “God” is what linguists call an animate subject.

The term “animate” is a technical linguistic one that “denot[es] entities that can act, or are perceived as acting, of their own will.”[1] To give an enumerative definition, an “animate” thing is something like gods, angels, demons, Greco-Roman heroes, human beings, and extraterrestrials (if such things exist).

Of the 30 verses above, we can eliminate 12 because the complement of the preposition isn’t animate: Mark 1:33 (“at the door“); 4:1 (“beside the sea“); Luke 24:29 (“toward evening“); John 4:35 (“white for harvest“); 11:4 (“not unto death“); Colossians 2:22 (“against the indulgence of the flesh”); 1 Timothy 4:8 (“for a little“); 2 Timothy 3:17 (“for every good work“); Titus 1:16 (“for every good work“); 3:1 (“for every good work“); Hebrews 5:14 (“for the distinguishing“); James 4:14 (“for a short time“).

We will leave Ephesians 6:12 in our list of viable instances because “flesh and blood” is clearly an idiom used to refer to human beings. The animacy of “flesh and blood” is implied where it isn’t in any of the prior cases. And even if we eliminated this occurrence in the verse, there are four of the same prepositional phrases that clearly or arguably refer to animate subjects.

Since the verses in dispute in this kind of discussion are John 1:1-2 and 1 John 1:2, let’s lay them aside for the moment. What do we find with the remaining 15 verses? In every case, whether the subject is implied by a verb or supplied explicitly in the verse, there is clearly a personal relation between the subject the object of the preposition.

So you don’t have to look them up yourself, I’ll provide the data (all from the NET with NA28 Greek):

Matthew 13:56 “And aren’t [οὐχὶ . . . εἰσιν] all his sisters here with us [πρὸς ἡμᾶς]? Where did he get all this?”

Mark 6:3 Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t [οὐκ εἰσὶν] his sisters here with us [πρὸς ἡμᾶς]?” And so they took offense at him.

Mark 9:19 He answered them, “You unbelieving generation! How much longer must I be with you [πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἔσομαι]? How much longer must I endure you? Bring him to me.”

Mark 14:49 Day after day I was with you [ἤμην πρὸς ὑμᾶς], teaching in the temple courts, yet you did not arrest me. But this has happened so that the scriptures would be fulfilled.”

Luke 9:41 Jesus answered, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you [ἔσομαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς] and endure you? Bring your son here.”

Luke 23:12 That very day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other, for prior to this they had been enemies (literally: for before they were being at enmity with one another [ὄντες πρὸς ⸁αὐτούς]).

Acts 12:5 So Peter was kept in prison, but those in the church were earnestly praying to God for him (literally: and prayer [προσευχὴ] was fervently being made by the church to God [πρὸς τὸν θεὸν] on his behalf).
—The Cascadia syntax graph for this verse makes the connection clearer than it is in English.

Acts 13:31 and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are now [εἰσιν] his witnesses to the people [πρὸς τὸν λαόν].

Acts 22:15 because you will be [ἔσῃ] his witness to all people [πρὸς πάντας ἀνθρώπους] of what you have seen and heard.

Acts 28:25 So they began to leave, [being] unable to agree among themselves [ὄντες πρὸς ἀλλήλους], after Paul made one last statement …

Ephesians 6:12 For our struggle is not [οὐκ ἔστιν] against flesh and blood [πρὸς αἷμα καὶ σάρκα], but against the rulers [πρὸς τὰς ἀρχάς], against the powers [πρὸς τὰς ἐξουσίας], against the world rulers [πρὸς τοὺς κοσμοκράτορας] of this darkness, against the spiritual forces [πρὸς τὰ πνευματικὰ] of evil in the heavens.

1 Thessalonian 3:4 For in fact when we were with you [πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἦμεν], we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know.

2 Thessalonians 2:5 Surely you recall that I used to tell you these things while I was still with you [ὢν πρὸς ὑμᾶς].

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you [ἦμεν πρὸς ὑμᾶς], we used to give you this command …

2 Timothy 2:24 And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but [to] be kind toward all [ἤπιον εἶναι πρὸς πάντας], an apt teacher, patient
—”The Lord’s slave” is the subject. The syntax here is a bit complicated, but you can see that the subject is connected to the verb in both Cascadia and Accordance.

Interestingly, if we remove all the verses where the prepositional phrase is adverbial rather than the predicate, we end up with the same list BDAG gives, only that BDAG includes the Johannine verses in dispute. Here’s just one good case study of where studying the Greek (perhaps even pedantically) shows just how reliable BDAG can be—not that anybody is really lining up to largely dispute BDAG anyway.

Without exception, the relevant syntactical structure in other verses in the New Testament allows us to make a viable probabilistic inference that the Word of John 1:1-2 and 1 John 1:2 is also an animate subject. But, to be clear, I am neither arguing for, nor advocating, a generally rule in Greek grammar. The number of instances here is too small. What somebody should investigate in greater depth is, in the relevant literature (NT, LXX, papyri, Apostolic Fathers, etc.), when we have an animate subject of the preposition πρός, whether the subject of that syntactical unit is usually animate as well.

This study alone shouldn’t convince one of the claims with which I started this post. There are other contextual factors in the prologue of John that I might discuss another time that, to my mind, point toward the same conclusions.

 


Footnotes:

[1]. P. H. Matthews, “Animate,” in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

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