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Why do English translations of the Bible include definite articles that are not present in the original text?
Why is it that we use the definite article "the" in Genesis 1:1 and in John 1:1 when it is not in the original. I would like to talk to someone at AIG about this. I have an earned doctorate in theology and know what I am talking about.
– L. G.
Dear L. G.,
Thanks for your question.
Regarding Genesis 1:1, the definite article is not always used in Hebrew when the definite meaning is intended. Consider the following verses in which the definite article (in bold) is absent in the Hebrew, but is found in the English. In each case, the Hebrew context clearly shows that the term is used in a definite, absolute state.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years. (Genesis 1:14)
Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.’ (Isaiah 46:10)
I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth. (Proverbs 8:23)
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? (Isaiah 40:21)
The fact that the major Bible translations include the definite article in both passages reveals that the translation committees have recognized that it is implied. There are many commentaries which defend the traditional translation of "In the beginning."1
Regarding John 1:1, the Greek definite article is not found in the phrase “In the beginning.” But, like the Hebrew examples above, the definite article is unnecessary in Greek to convey the absolute state. Here are some passages which include the definite article in English (in bold), even though it is not found in the Greek. Once again, in each case, the context makes it perfectly clear that the English translations are accurate to put “the” in those verses as that is the implied meaning in Greek.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— (1 John 1:1)
that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, (Luke 11:50)
But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ (Mark 10:6)
for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)
Regarding John 1:49, note that the context shows that “King of Israel” is definite and therefore the English translation is perfectly accurate. It would be inaccurate to say “a king of Israel.”
In John 1:1–3, the Apostle John is clearly referring to the absolute beginning in Genesis 1:1 and the creation of all things as recorded in the rest of Genesis 1.
So even though the definite article does not appear in the Greek clause—translated as “In the beginning was the Word”—it is fully justified in the English because it expresses John’s intended and implied meaning.
We hope this is helpful.
Sincerely in Christ,
Terry Mortenson, MDiv, PhD
and Tim Chaffey, MDiv.