Today’s reading is John 1:1-14, but let’s just look at the first five words… wow are they profound!
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
To translate this “word for word” and preserve the same word order it would be:
“in beginning was the word…”
Here’s a survey of how a few translations handle these first five words:
KJV: “In the beginning was the Word”
NKJV: “In the beginning was the Word”
ESV: “In the beginning was the Word”
NIV (2010): “In the beginning was the Word”
HCSB: “In the beginning was the Word”
NASB: “In the beginning was the Word”
CEV: “In the beginning was the one who is called the Word”
NCV: “In the beginning there was the Word”
Amplified Bible: “IN THE beginning [before all time] was the Word (Christ)”
La Bible du Semeur: “Au commencement était celui”
So most of the versions follow the Greek word order, but is this really a good translation? Here’s the thing, in Greek the word order, basically, indicates emphasis and not the function in the clause. Where as in English, our word order indicates when something is a “subject” or an “object” etc. For Greek, subject/object distinction (among other things) is determined by the spelling of the words.
So here’s the deal, ὁ λόγος is in the “nominative” case, that means that it’s the subject of the sentence. In English (usually) the subject comes first, even though that’s not true in Greek.
So, that’s why I translate it like this: “The word (already) was in the beginning.” So why do most of the other translations (mis)translate this verse the way they do?
Well, here are my thoughts.
#1 The KJV translates it that way. No other translation has had more influence over modern translations than the KJV. Even Bibles who claim to be completely independent of other translations and “straight from he Greek” are still translated by men & women who have the KJV wrapped around their brainstems. KJV casts a HUGE shadow, and the KJV is a good translation, if you like it, keep it.
#2 Many people believe (in my opinion, incorrectly) that by continuing the Greek word order into English they preserve the text. This is the more “word-for-word” philosophy. I believe it’s fairly obvious that keeping the Greek word order at the expense of the natural English word order you, ipso facto, have made a less correct translation and done more of a transliteration. In fact, the best translation would be a total paraphrase which completely captures the original sense. The problem is, with paraphrase there are more artistic/interpretive decisions, it’s easier (safer maybe?) to translate more (like a robot) word-for-word and leave the ambiguities in the text.
#3 The first two words in the LXX (or “Septuagint,” the Greek translation of the OT that the NT mostly quotes from) are ἐν ἀρχῇ. I believe it’s obvious that John is trying to draw a parallel between the beginning of the gospel and the beginning of all things in Genesis. In other words, Jesus already was in THE beginning. So, it preserves that continuity in English to keep “In the beginning” at the front of the phrase. However, this makes for a lesser translation.
The word order in Greek stresses that it is THE beginning, the very beginning of everything. This “Word” already existed, he WAS already present at the start of all things, even before the beginning of Genesis 1:1. But the subject, the main actor of this clause, is THE WORD. He is the main figure and I think it’s better to keep the natural English word order. “The Word was in the beginning.”
From that standpoint, I think The Message does best “The Word was first…”
He did not come to be, He wasn’t created, He always and forever already was, and He is of the same “stuff” as the Father, He is God.
JMHV: “The Word (already) was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was divine.”