Thursday, November 16, 2006

Trinitarian Modalist Translations

Another attempt to explain away the clear evidence that is presented by Coptic John 1:1, "the Word was a god," goes like this:

"Here's a word-by-word translation...'In the-beginning [past] the-word is, and the-word it-was-dwelling in-the-presence-of the-god, and [past] a-god is the-word.'" (My emphasis)

Very good! Excellent translation! So, what's the problem? This writer even goes on to say "when 'god' refers to the One God, it always has the definite article." (My emphasis)

Very good again! And since "god" at John 1:1c does not have the definite article, it does not refer to the One God. So again, what's the problem?

Obviously, the "problem" is not in the grammar of John 1:1c, since it is universally recognized that Coptic John 1:1c literally says, "the Word was a god."

But... and for some people, there is always the "but"... this honest and accurate reading does not fit in with certain theological presuppositions. So, the writer continues: "The Coptic use of the indefinite article...also [refers to] 'a state of.' In this latter sense, it is found with abstract nouns: 'in a-peace' (= in a state of peace), 'in a-poverty' (= in a state of poverty)." (My emphasis)

Excellent, again. But totally irrelevant for John 1:1c, since the noun here, noute, is not an abstract noun.

Nevertheless, trying to make a case for this, the writer continues: "So I would explain 'a god' in this context as meaning 'a state of being god.' So a proper English translation of John 1:1 should be something like: 'In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was dwelling with God, and the Word was God.'"

Huh? After acknowledging that the Coptic translation is indefinite, how does the standard Trinitarian modalist translation fit in here? It doesn't, and this is a clear case of more 'taking definiteness out by the front door, while sneaking it in again through the back door.'

Of course, the writer says this improper translation of the Coptic of John 1:1c is his "explanation." But it is an explanation at variance with the Coptic text. In fact, it is an "explanation" which totally ignores, twists, and flatly contradicts what the Coptic text actually says, and what the writer himself earlier admitted to by saying: "Here's a word-by-word translation...'and [past] a-god is the-word.'"

Even allowing for the so-called 'state of being god' explanation, it has to actually mean 'state of being god,' not 'state of being God,' due to the lack of the Coptic definite article in this verse. The writer has already admitted that "God," with the capital "G" requires the Coptic definite article, which is not used at John 1:1c.

However, 'state of being god' actually gives us no more than "was a god." Which is exactly what this writer confessed at the beginning.

So, why all this jumping through mental and grammatical and theological hoops to make the Coptic text say something it does not say at all? As Coptic grammarain Ariel Shisha-Halevy has said, the Coptic text of John 1:1c admits to only two categories of English translation: "the Word was a god" or "the Word was divine," or similar. Under no circumstances does the Coptic text say "the Word was God," and there is no justification for translating it that way in English. Such an "explanation" or interpretation or translation simply is not found in the Coptic text, and should not be interpolated there.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Translating The Indefinite Article at Coptic John 1:1c

Some Trinitarian apologists are trying hard to make the Coptic text of John 1:1c support a qualitative meaning rather than an indefinite one. They have to acknowledge the witness of Coptic grammarians who have said that "the Word was a god" is a perfectly legitimate translation there, because the Coptic indefinite article is clearly present.

But just like they look at YHWH in the Hebrew text of the Bible and yet come away denying that God has a unique Name, or insist that His name is Lord, they try to deny what is plainly in front of their face: Coptic has the indefinite article; the indefinite article is used at John 1:1c; and the regular translation of the Coptic indefinite article into English is "a."

'It's all so difficult to understand,' they opine. 'It will take years and years of Coptic study to fathom the "mystery" of the Coptic indefinite article'! For example, one such apologist writes:

"The grammar, alone, cannot prove that the Word was 'a god,' 'a God,' or 'had the quality of God' in the minds of the Coptic translators. Indeed, a thorough study of the Sahidic Translation, based on the published MSS, is needed to even begin such a task."

I agree that there should be a thorough study of the Sahidic translation, but not because this is needed to understand how the Coptic translators used the indefinite article. Just about any currently-present Coptic grammar book explains that quite well. Also, there is Coptic scholar Reverend George W. Horner's 1911 English translation of the Coptic text, still available, though hard to find.

In just the book of John, how does Horner's English translation render Coptic sentence constructions that are just like John 1:1c? Well, let's look at a few. The Coptic construction found at John 1:1c is the, construction: neunoute pe pSaje, with noute being the Coptic word for "god," and pSaje meaning "the word."

Look at some other constructions, translated into English by Horner:

John 8:44 neureFHetb rwme pe = “was a murderer”
John 12:6 neureFjioue pe = “was a thief”
John 18:40 neusoone pe = “was a robber.”

So why should John 1:1c, neunoute pe be rendered as anything in English other than “was a god”????

In each of the other instances of the indefinite article before the noun in the Gospel of John, Horner accurately translates the indefinite article into English as “a” and does not put any brackets around the “a, ” as he does, without any grammatical cause, at John 1:1c.

After years of insisting that the anarthrous QEOS of John 1:1c is definite, the new theory of Trinitarian apologists is that it is "qualitative." But then they try to define "qualitativeness" to mean definiteness anyway! This is a disingenuous attempt to put definiteness out by the front door, while slipping it back in through the back door, and it doesn't work.

An indefinite construction can be "qualitative" in meaning when translated into English, and to say "the Word was divine" does not actually differ from saying "the Word was a god." But it does distinctly differ from saying "the Word was God."

Therefore, whereas the Coptic sentence at John 1:1c literally reads, "the Word was a god," it would not be incorrect to convey that into English also as "the Word was divine." But this is not to be overlooked or glossed over: The Coptic of John 1:1c definitely and specifically does not say "the Word was God." Indeed, that is ruled out by the Coptic indefinite article in that verse.

And you don't need to examine any further than the rest of the Coptic Gospel of John to affirm that point. Though, of course, it is quite beneficial to 'make a thorough study of the Sahidic translation' for other insights, or for the sheer joy of doing so.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Coptic John 1:1c and Trinitarian Apologists

Recently, certain Trinitarian apologists have quoted Yale University's Dr. Bentley Layton in an attempt to deny that a correct translation of Coptic John 1:1c is "the Word was a god."

But they show that they are not really listening to what he said. They use words from Dr. Layton in conjunction with his Coptic grammar book, ie., "The indef. article is part of the Coptic syntactic pattern. This pattern predicates either a quality (we'd omit the English article in English: "is divine") or an entity ("is a god"); the reader decides which reading to give it. The Coptic pattern does NOT predicate equivalence with the proper name "God"; in Coptic, God is always without exception supplied with the def. article. Occurrence of an anarthrous noun in this pattern would be odd."

The strange thing here is that Dr. Layton is actually agreeing with what other similarly-respected Coptic grammarians have also written, and his words actually support the "Word was a god" translation. First, the Coptic noun noute, "god," is not a quality. It represents an entity, thus, as Layton says, the indefinite article before the entity, noute can be translated as "a god." (Dr. Layton confirmed the same to me by e-mail dated October 9, 2006)

Second, Dr. Layton says that "God is always without exception supplied with the definite article." But at John 1:1c, "God" does not have the definite article. Therefore, John 1:1c does not say "the Word was God." Trinitarian apologists who quote Dr. Layton should note that his words here do not support the popular translation, "the Word was God." Although Dr. Layton says "The reader decides which reading to give it," this should be on the basis of the type of Coptic noun the indefinite article qualifies.

Certain types of Coptic indefinite nouns do not need to have the indefinite article translated by "a," but the Coptic noun noute, "god" is not one of those nouns. With noute and nouns of its class, the "a" is translated, as shown by Coptic grammarian Thomas O. Lambdin's example in his grammar book, where he translates ntof ounoute pe as "he is a god." -- Thomas O. Lambdin's Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, page 18.

Some Trinitarian apologists also quote George Horner's translation "[a] God was the Word," wherein Horner puts brackets around the "a" as if the "a" is not really needed. But Horner was very inconsistent in translating the Coptic "a" into English. He put brackets around it at John 1:1c, but there are numerous examples in his translation where the exact same Coptic construction exists and he does not put the "a" in brackets. Perhaps theology, not grammar, lies behind Reverend Horner's use of brackets at John 1:1c in his English translation. The "a" belongs there, and without brackets, and Horner himself routinely uses the "a" in the indefinite construction!

Coptic researcher J. Warren Wells of the excellent, well-documented Sahidica Project is sometimes mentioned by the Trinitarian apologists as a knowledgeable person who is not sure if John 1:1c should be translated as "the Word was a god." So I asked Wells personally. Mr. Wells has 30 years in Greek studies and 20 years of Coptic study, and Wells has confirmed positively that the Coptic version of John 1:1c literally does say, "a god was the Word."

Trinitarian apologists will continue to chafe at the inconvenience for their theory that the Coptic translation provides. Here is an ancient Bible translation (2nd-3rd centuries) that confirms the very reading of the New World Translation, which the Trinitarian apologists have attacked for over 50 years. But they can't accuse the Coptic version of being translated by "Freddy Franz" or by scholars with no knowledge of Greek. Greek was a part of Coptic civilization for 500 years. So, they try to find "experts" who will blunt the impact of the Coptic reading.

But the evidence for "the Word was a god" or similar -- "the Word was a divine being," "the Word was like God," etc. -- in the Coptic version is solid.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Coptic John 1:1c, Whose Theology?

When I asked Dr. Ariel Shisha-Halevy, renowned Coptic scholar at Hebrew University in Israel, what a literal, non-theological rendering of Coptic John 1:1c would be, the candid reply was that theolological issues in this verse could not be avoided. "The Word was a god" was confirmed as the literal Coptic reading, with the other possibility being "The Word was godly/divine," according to Shisha-Halevy.

Since theological issues weigh heavily upon John 1:1 – perhaps in any language – an important question is whose theology does the verse represent? Is it the theology of Jesus himself and his disciples, including the apostle John? Or is it the theology which was developed in concert with the philosophy of later fathers and councils of the church?

What light does the entire Gospel of John throw on his thinking at John 1:1? In what manner does John call the Word, incarnate in the Lord Jesus Christ, QEOS (Greek) or noute (Coptic)? Does John speak as a Christian of Hebrew heritage, or as a Greek philosopher, or a thoroughly Hellenized Jew? What does the holy Spirit say through John’s words?

In the Gospel of John, the Savior is shown to be the Son of God who came to reveal God and do His will on earth. Repeatedly, Jesus declares that he came to do the work of the One who sent him, the One who was both his Father and his God. More than any other Gospel, John reveals the heartfelt prayers of Jesus to the One he himself called "the only true God."

Coptic John reports Jesus as saying, Mmngom anok mmoi er laay nhwb haroi mmayaat, "I can do nothing of myself." He repeatedly declared and affirmed that his goal was to honor his Father, not himself, and that the Father was the source of his own life and mission. Throughout the Gospel of John, the representation of Jesus Christ is that of an obedient, loyal, self-sacrificing Son to his Father. And at the end, after making the supreme offering of love for the salvation of humanity, Jesus declared that he must ascend to his God and ours.

The theology of John himself informs the meaning of his describing the Word at John 1:1, and makes all more certain the distinction between hO QEOS and QEOS, between pnoute and ounoute in that verse.

At Coptic John 20:31, the apostle himself sums up the rationale behind his writing: NtauseH nai de Jekaas etetnepisteue Je ihsous pecristos pShre mpnoute pe auw Jekaas eatetnpisteue etetneJi nouwnH Sa eneH Hm peFran, "These things were written so that you may actively believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that having actively believed, you may receive life forever in his name."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Coptic John 1:1c: Indefinite or Qualitative?

Certain Trinitarian apologists attempt to argue for a qualitative meaning for Coptic John 1:1c, as they do for the Greek text.

Whereas the Greek text of John 1:1c is anarthrous, creating some ambiguity, the Coptic text is different. It is unambiguous: it is indefinite. But Trinitarian apologists keep trying to find a way to make it qualitative, even to the extent of confusing it with other classes of Coptic nouns.

According to Helmut Satzinger, the Coptic articles are used in this way: Definite ("the"), indefinite ("a", "some"), and zero (generic, abstract, quality). -- "On Definiteness of the Coptic Noun," Actes du IVe congres copte, Louvain-la-Neuve, 5-10 September 1988.

But the Coptic translators wrote neunoute pe psaje (ne ounouti pe pcaji, Bohairic), using the indefinite construction.

The Coptic evidence is clear and unequivocal. Their translation was a matter of choice, and the choice they made was to render it in a way that translates into English literally as "the Word was a god." Only if they were using the word ounoute, "a god," as a derived adjective would the meaning be "one possessing the quality of god."

That could be translated to say "the Word was divine" or "the Word was like God." As professor Jason BeDuhn has pointed out, with reference to the underlying Greek text that the Coptic translates, "If the meaning of "the Word was a god" or, "the Word was a divine being" is that the Word belongs to the category of divine beings, then we could translate the phrase as "the Word was divine." The meaning is the same in either case, and is summed up well by [Philip] Harner as 'ho logos...had the nature of theos.'" -- Truth in Translation (University Press of America, 2003), p. 124, emphasis added

Understanding John 1:1c as "qualitative" in this generally-recognized sense is not objectionable, as detailed in 1984 in the New World Translation Reference Bible's Appendix 6A. What is objectionable is the attempt to philosophize or theologize "qualitative" to mean that Jesus is "fully God" or "God Himself," as some translators have done. The Coptic text does not support such a rendering.

According to Coptic grammarian Dr. Bentley Layton, the Coptic definite article represents "the most typical or essential instance of a class.... 'God' always takes p- [the definite article] when referring to the God of the Bible." -- A Coptic Grammar, with Chrestomathy and Glossary (Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2000), p. 38. However, the Coptic definite article is conspicuous by its absence at John 1:1c.

George Horner’s use of brackets around the "a" in his translation of John 1:1c is contradictory to his use of the "a" in the similar Coptic construction elsewhere in his translation. Horner even translates the "a" without brackets in places where it truly is not needed in English translation. So doing that at John 1:1c in his translation is not a matter of grammar at all, but lies somewhere else.

Concerning John 1:18, certain Trinitarian apologists state that the use of the definite article there can be translated only as "God," as George Horner does in his version. If true, then why do most versions translate that definite construction differently at Acts 7:43, where they read "god"? Although God in the Coptic Bible always has the definite article, Acts 7:43 demonstrates that not every instance of the definite article before noute refers to God.The reference to "god" at John 1:18 is anaphoric and demonstrative, referring to the same person mentioned previously at John 1:1c. And John 1:1c is indefinite in the Coptic version.

To turn the backward reasoning of the apologists around so that it makes sense, it does not follow that the Coptic translators would understand noute, god, to be indefinite at John 1:1c, which they in fact do, and then translate it with definite meaning at John 1:18.

Therefore, it merits stating again that there are solid grammatical reasons for translating Coptic John 1:1c as "the Word was a god" or "the Word was a divine being." Or less literally, but having the same meaning, "The Word was divine." That is so clear from the Coptic text that the disputing must be driven, obviously, not by grammar, but by theology of a particular stripe.

Friday, September 22, 2006

John 1:1c: The Word was "a god"?

It is becoming well-known that the primary Coptic translations of John 1:1c – the Sahidic, the proto-Bohairic, and the Bohairic – do not render it "the Word was God," as is common in many English versions, but "the Word was a god," a rendition also found notably in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.

The significance of this is remarkable. First, the Coptic versions precede the New World Translation by some 1,700 years, and are part of the corpus of ancient textual witnesses to the Gospel of John. Second, the Coptic versions were produced at a time when the Koine Greek of the Christian Greek Scriptures was still a living language whose finer nuances could be understood by the Coptic translators. Third, the Coptic versions do not show the influence of later interpretations of Christology fostered by the church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

The Greek text of John 1:1c says, KAI QEOS HN hO LOGOS, an anarthrous pre-verbal construction that can be literally rendered as, "and a god was the Word."

Likewise, the Sahidic Coptic text of John 1:1c reads, auw neunoute pe psaje ,
an indefinite construction that literally says "and a god was the Word."

Coptic grammarians agree that this is what the Coptic says literally. But the theological presuppositions of certain grammarians do not allow them to be satisfied with that reading. Just as they attempt to do with the Greek text of John 1:1c, certain scholars seek to modify the clear impact of "a god was the Word."

But whereas the Greek text allows for some ambiguity in an anarthrous construction, the Coptic text does not allow for the same ambiguity in an indefinite construction. Unlike Koine Greek, Coptic has not only the definite article, but the indefinite article also. Or, a Coptic noun may stand without any article, in the "zero article" construction. Thus, in Coptic we may find : pnoute , "the god," ounoute, "a god," or noute, "god."

The Sahidic Coptic indefinite article is used to mark "a non-specific individual or specimen of a class: a morpheme marking an element as a non-specific or individual or specimen of a class ("a man," "other gods," etc.)." – Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 1988), Dr. Ariel Shisha-Halevy, p. 268

Given these clear choices, it cannot but be highly relevant to their understanding of the meaning of John 1:1c that the Coptic translators of the Greek text chose to employ the Coptic indefinite article in their translation of it.

Were the Coptic translators looking at John 1:1c qualitatively, as has been suggested by some scholars in their analysis of the Greek text? That is not the literal reading, a qualitative rendering would be a paraphrase. Only in the sense that a god is also "divine" can an English translation on the order of "the Word was divine" be glossed from the Coptic text.

The Coptic evidence is significant given the fact that Bible scholars have roundly chastised the New World Translation for its supposedly "innovative" rendering, "the Word was a god" at John 1:1c. But this very way of understanding the Greek text of John 1:1c now proves to be, not new, but ancient, the same translation of it as given at a time when people still spoke the Greek that John used in composing his Gospel.

But what about John 1:18, where the Coptic text has the definite article before noute with reference to the only[-begotten] Son: pnoute pSyre nouwt? Certain scholars have asked, ‘Is it reasonable that the Coptic translators understood the Word to be "a god" at John 1:1 and then refer to him as "the god," or "God," at John 1:18?’

That is a logical question, but the logic is backwards. Since John 1:1 is the introduction of the Gospel, the more logical question is ‘Is it reasonable that the Coptic translators understood the Word to be God at John 1:18 after referring to him as "a god" at John 1:1c?’

No. Although the Coptic translators use the definite article at John 1:18 in identifying the Word, this use is demonstrative and anaphoric, referring back to the individual , "the one who" is previously identified as "a god" in the introduction. Thus, John 1:18 identifies the Word specifically not as"God," but as "the god" previously mentioned who was "with" ("in the presence of," Coptic: nnaHrm) God. This god, who has an intimate association with his Father, is contrasted with his Father, the God no one has ever seen.

A literal translation of the Coptic of John 1:18 is "No one has ever seen God at all. The god [who is] the only Son in the bosom of his Father is the one who has explained him."

Being closer in time to the original writings of the apostle John, and crafted at a time when Koine Greek was still spoken, the Coptic evidence weighs heavily in the direction of those who see in the Gospels a Jesus who is not God, but the Son of God, a divine being who is "the image of the invisible God," but not that Invisible God himself. This one is the Representative of his Father, who declared the Good News of salvation to mankind, and sanctified his Father’s Name.