In Watchtower’s What Does The Bible Really Teach? page 41, Who is Jesus Christ? Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that:
Jesus is Jehovah’s most precious Son—and for good reason. He is called “the firstborn of all creation,” for he was God’s first creation. (Colossians 1:15) There is something else that makes this Son special. He is the “only-begotten Son.” (John 3:16) This means that Jesus is the only one directly created by God. Jesus is also the only one whom God used when He created all other things. (Colossians 1:16) Then, too, Jesus is called “the Word.” (John 1:14) This tells us that he spoke for God, no doubt delivering messages and instructions to the Father’s other sons, both spirit and human.(2005)
Is this true? Are Jehovah’s Witnesses correct in their reasoning that Jesus is called prōtotokos (firstborn) because he is first created creature? I do not think so. In this article I would show both the understanding of the Greek term prōtotokos and how it does not follow that pre–existent Christ Jesus(Logos) is a creature regardless of which understanding of term “firstborn” one holds.
Understanding πρωτότοκος, ον(prōtotokos, firstborn)
The Greek word prōtotokos(firstborn) is found 8 times in the New Testament, mainly with reference to Christ Jesus, 131 times in LXX and 4 times in Apostolic Fathers writings. By and large this term carries two prevailing meanings, which could be divided into three sets.
Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains expound πρωτότοκος, ον(prōtotokos) as:
πρωτότοκοςa, ον: pertaining to being a firstborn child (normally in contexts speaking of people but also used in reference to domestic animals)—‘firstborn.’ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον ‘she gave birth to her firstborn son’ Lk 2:7.
In Jewish society the rights and responsibilities of being a firstborn son resulted in considerable prestige and status. The firstborn son, for example, received twice as much in inheritance as any other offspring.
The use of πρωτότοκος ‘firstborn’ does not imply in Greek that other children were also born to a woman, though in a number of languages one would never use ‘firstborn’ unless other children followed. Such an individual would be spoken of merely as ‘the only child.’ It is also frequently necessary to employ an appropriate qualifier for ‘firstborn’ in order to mark clearly the fact that it is ‘a firstborn son’ rather than ‘a firstborn daughter.’
The figurative meaning of πρωτότοκος in the messianic title πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως ‘firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1:1 may be interpreted as ‘existing before all creation’ (see [b]) or ‘existing superior to all creation’(see [c])
b. Existing before:
πρωτότοκοςb, ον: pertaining to existing prior to something else—‘existing first, existing before.’ πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως ‘existing before all creation’ or ‘existing before anything was created’ Col 1:15. It is possible to understand πρωτότοκος in Col 1:15 as ‘superior in status’ (see [c]). See also discussion at [a].
πρωτότοκοςc, ον: pertaining to existing superior to all else of the same or related class—‘superior to, above all.’ πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως ‘existing superior to all creation’ Col 1:15. For another interpretation of πρωτότοκος in Col 1:15, see [b]; see also discussion at [a].
Newman’s A Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament agrees with the three sets:
πρωτότοκος , ον first-born, first; first-born Son (of Christ); π. πάσης κτίσεως existing before all creation or superior to all creation (Col 1:15)
In the Old Testament, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint helps us see how prōtotokos(πρωτότοκος,-ος,-ον) is used in LXX:
firstborn (of pers.) Gn 10,15 (mostly rendition of בכר); id. (of Israel in a transferred sense, expressing a close relationship to the Lord) Ex 4,22; id. (of anim.) Gn 4,4; highest in rank, chief (of Israel’s king) Ps 88 (89),28; τὰ πρωτότοκα the firstborn (as well of pers. as of anim.) Nm 18,15
*1 Chr 8,38 πρωτότοκος αὐτοῦ his firstborn-בְּכֹרוֹ for MT בֹּכְרוּ Bocheru, see also 9,44; *1 Chr 26,6 τοῦ πρωτοτόκου (Ρωσαι) of his firstborn (Rosai) transl. of הממשׁלים? (followed by translit. of its syn. ראשׁי (not in MT) heads of) for MT הממשׁלים chiefs
And last, Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained adds: ““Firstborn” can also be used figuratively to denote the most or best of something. For example, the expression “firstborn of the poor,” (Isa. 14:30, NRSV) means one who is supremely poor, or the poorest of the poor.”
From this we can draw to a close two prevailing meaning of the Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos):
- first in order of time, as a first born child(e.g. Luke 2:7) and
- first in order of place,[as preeminent in rank/supreme/dearness (e.g. Davidic king in Ps 88:28 LXX (=Ps 89:27 ESV), Israel (Exodus 4:22); Ephraim(Jer. 31:9))].
How does Paul use the term in Colossians 1:15-20 & Romans 8:28-30?
I believe that the contexts to which “firstborn” is used lean more towards first in order of place than first in order of time because this passages deals with Christ Jesus’ preeminence and supremacy over all.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before[firstborn of] all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.(Col 1:15–20, ESV emps added).
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Ro 8:28–30, ESV emps added)
Paul shows that Christ Jesus is the most exalted promised Davidic king, the one in Ps 89:27 “I will also appoint him my firstborn (πρωτότοκον), the most exalted of the kings of the earth,” the Lord of all creation because all things were created through him and for him. All the passage leads us to the conclusion that “he[Christ Jesus] might be preeminent“. The Lord of all, the living and the dead(firstborn of the dead cf. Rev 1:5). Everything is his/ “for him”.
Moreover over, if we collect John 1:3 “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” and Paul’s Col 1:16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” and Rom 11:33-36 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”, we can conclude that Christ Jesus is a co-participant in the creation and not among the created beings.
It’s for these reasons I believe that Paul used the Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) in Davidic messianic sense viz. Christ Jesus’ kingdom, first in order of place.
What if it “first in time”? Would it then make pre–existent Christ Jesus a first created creature?
Even if we accept that Christ Jesus is firstborn in the sense of time, we are not warranted to conclude that pre–existent Christ Jesus (Logos) is first created creature. From Ps 89:27 “I will also appoint him my firstborn (πρωτότοκον), the most exalted of the kings of the earth,” we can see that God the Father’s Messiah is appointed firstborn.
It correct to deduce that πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) applies to the Son of God taking on flesh (John 1:14), Logos in morphē theos(in form of God) became God the Father’s appointed firstborn by pouring out (kenoō) himself through taking morphē doulos (in form of servant, Phil 2:6-7) . Therefore, the term firstborn, if used in a sense of time, has to do with Logos in flesh, in form of men and not in his form of God(theos). This understand make sense in light of “the firstborn from the dead”(Col 1:18 and Rev 1:5) and “the firstborn among many brothers.”(Rom 8:29 cf Hebrew 12:23)
So even if we accept Jehovah’s Witnesses understanding of firstborn, we are not warranted to conclude that pre–existent Christ Jesus is a first created creature.
N.B: NWT unwarrantably add “other(allos)” in Col 1:15-20 because they assume the chronological sense of “firstborn”. Moreover the idea of “a god” and “the God”, is not found in Jewish monotheism, they had “false gods” and “true God”. The devil, Baal, idols et cetera were in group of false gods(adonai).
Newman, B. M. (1993). A Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament. (157). Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies.
Lust, J., Eynikel, E., & Hauspie, K. (2003). A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart.
Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (281). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 2: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (214). New York: United Bible Societies.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)