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.