Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What's Athanasius Got to Do With It?

Another of the basically irrelevant Trinitarian objections against translating the Sahidic Coptic of John 1:1c as "and the Word was a god" -- which is clearly what it literally says -- is that the Coptic translators could not possibly have "meant" to say that.

The reason given is that the dynamic 4th century Coptic scholar, theologian, bishop and "saint" Athanasius was the staunch adherent of Trinitarianism. And the Coptic Church itself is Trinitarian.

That argument may be of some value in refuting the inaccurate charge that everything Coptic must, by definition, also be Gnostic.

But it has no bearing on positively identifying the theology of the 2nd or 3rd century Sahidic Coptic translators, and no bearing on identifying their possible theological presuppositions while translating John 1:1.

Coptic scholar and translator George W. Horner, in his classic Coptic New Testament English translation, postulates a 2nd century date for the Coptic New Testament. Other scholars, and the Anchor Bible Dictionary give a 3rd century date.

Coptic Church tradition also dates the Coptic New Testament to the 2nd century, "under the supervision of St. Pantaenus [late second century] and St. Clement [160-215]." Therefore, it is quite possible that the Sahidic Coptic translation of the Gospel of John predated Athanasius [300-373] by a couple of generations.

So, what's Athanasius got to do with it?

And as for the Coptic Church, it has not always been a Trinitarian church. Its tradition ascribes its founding the the Gospel writer "Saint" Mark, and there is nothing Trinitarian in Mark's Gospel.

Besides, there was another famous (or infamous, according to one's view) presbyter and theologian in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. His name was Arius, the noted opponent of Trinitarianism, whose doctrine "was once at least as popular as the doctine that Jesus is God." (Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, p. 7). Before Nicea (325 CE) many Coptic and other bishops considered Arius' theology to be "orthodox."

So, IF a case could be made for Athanasian Trinitarian influence upon the Sahidic Coptic translators, a similar case could be made for Arian, non-Trinitarian influence.

In point of fact, however, the Sahidic Coptic translators are anonymous. We don't know who they were. Therefore, it is impossible to state dogmatically what their theological presuppositions were, or even if their theological presuppositions influenced their translation of John 1:1.

It is just as likely that they simply made a fair, honest, and accurate translation of John's Greek as they understood it: ne.u.noute pe p.shaje, "And the Word was a god."

Attempts to link Athanasian Trinitarianism to the Sahidic Coptic translators is shown to be just another smokescreen put up by apologists for whom Coptic John 1:1 is extremely unsettling and inconvenient.

Friday, October 19, 2007

"Tertium non video"

A little over a year ago a noted Coptic scholar commented to me about the different ways in which Sahidic Coptic John 1:1c could be rendered appropriately in English. He said that the Coptic supports an indefinite English translation -- "the Word was a god" -- and less literally, an adjectival or "qualitative" one -- "the Word was godly/divine." What about the popular, traditional definite rendering, "the Word was God." Did the Coptic text support that?

"Tertium non video," this respected Coptic scholar replied in Latin. That is, "I do not see a third (possibility)."

Though Bentley Layton includes the traditional "the Word was God" in his latest grammar book, it is obvious that this is not equivalent to what the Coptic text says. Correctly, Dr. Layton renders Sahidic Coptic John 1:1c to read, "and past tense marker-a-god is the Word," or more smoothly, "and a god was the Word." This means the same as "and the Word was a god," as it would normally be expressed in standard English.

But if the indefinite phrase "and the Word was a god" is equivalent to the definite phrase "and the Word was God," then why have Christendom's apologists been accusing the New World Translation of bias all these many years???

Obviously, the Coptic's "and the Word was a god" is not equivalent to "and the Word was God."

The ancient Coptic version's indefinite grammatical syntax at John 1:1c does not support any definite translation like "the Word was God." That is not what those ancient translators saw and understood in their Greek texts.

Indeed, Tertium Non Video.

Monday, July 23, 2007

An Interesting Coptic Resource

Coptic grammarian Bentley Layton has a new book, Coptic in 20 Lessons: Introduction to Sahidic Coptic With Exercises & Vocabularies (Peeters Leuven, 2007)

In this book on page 7, Layton diagrams Coptic John 1:1c literally as:

auw ne. u.noute pe p.Saje
And past tense marker- a-god is the-Word

He also provides the traditional English rendering "And the Word was God." But the traditional English rendering is at variance with the literal Coptic translation, which is clearly "And the Word was a god."

On page 34 of his grammar, Layton observes that Coptic ou.noute pe could signal adjectively "he is divine." But when referring to entities, the translation would be "he is a god."

Therefore, Coptic John 1:1c, auw ne.u.noute pe p.Saje can be rendered authoritatively as "the Word was a god," or "the Word was divine," "the Word was a divine being," or similar, since the Coptic construction here is indefinite.

For the same reason, the Coptic version does not support a definite rendering like "the Word was God," despite this being traditional.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trinitarian Apologists Still Muddying the Waters

Trinitarian apologists still try to duck and weave and obfuscate in their attempts to deny the clear evidence of the Sahidic (and Bohairic) Coptic translations of John 1:1c. Not being proficient in Coptic themselves, they have appealed to certain experts, but have resorted to a "pick and choose" tactic in presenting the conclusions of those experts.

When it is agreed that the Coptic of John 1:1c may be rendered in more than one way, the Trinitarian apologists try to ignore the obvious: the literal translation of Coptic John 1:1c is "and the Word was a god" (or, "the Word was a divine being.")

But they then drag their theological suppositions and 'may be's into the equation to plead for a "qualitative" reading, since they can by no means get a definite meaning out of Coptic John 1:1c. They cannot make it say "and the Word was God."

For example, one such apologist quotes Coptic scholar Dr. Choat in this manner:

"For my part, I think both 'a god' and the 'qualitative' idea are special pleading; yes, there is an indefinite article there; but Greek doesn't have an indefinite article, and Coptic grammatically requires one for a construction like this; but to translate 'a god' or 'the word was divine' seems out of kilter with what the Greek looks to me to be saying."

We have three things mixed up here: Greek grammar, Coptic grammar, and what "seems" to be or "looks" correct according to Dr. Choat's presuppositions. And if he is not satisfied with either an indefinite or a qualitative reading, that leaves the definite reading, which is clearly ruled out by both the Coptic verse and a careful examination of the Greek verse at John 1:1c.

But what truly matters here is the Coptic grammar. It cannot be overlooked that in fulfilling what "the Coptic grammatically requires" at John 1:1c, the Coptic translators actually used the indefinite article, not the definite article. And, of course a Coptic indefinite meaning would naturally employ the Coptic indefinite article!

In English translation, that indefinite construction is customarily translated by an "a". There are numerous examples of this fact in the English translation of the Coptic New Testament by Dr. George Horner, as well as modern English translations of other Sahidic Coptic literature. It hardly matters here that Koine Greek does not have an indefinite article; Sahidic and Bohairic Coptic do have the indefinite article, and it is used to form an indefinite construction, not a definite construction, at Coptic John 1:1c.

This apologist apparently wants us to overlook Dr. Choat's statement that the Trinitarian qualitative argument is also "special pleading" from Choat's standpoint. And he omitted the significant first part of Dr. Choat's response, which said:

"Well, this is a really old hoary chestnut of a question; but many of the answers given over the years (or centuries?) seem more theologically driven than actual argument over the grammar. There are *many* posts on the B-Greek discussion list (archived and easily findable in Google) which deal with the issue, which you may be interested in perusing."

To those 'theologically driven answers' can be added the attempts of Trinitarian apologists to muddy the waters by trying to explain away what Coptic John 1:1 actually says. Choat refers to the grammar as the proper consideration in understanding John 1:1c. What does the grammar tell us?

The Coptic grammar is quite clear and, in fact, ordinary. It is no different from the grammar of other verses in the Gospel of John where scholars have no problem at all in rendering it as an indefinite construction, with the use of the English "a"! (See previous posts in this Blog)

Apparently, it is only at Coptic John 1:1c that the meaning of a Coptic indefinite construction is contested by Trinitarian apologists, not at any of the other verses of similar Coptic construction. Why? Because it is inconvenient for Trinitarian dogma to "hear" the verse for what it actually says, ne.u.noute pe p.Saje: "and a god [or, a divine being] was the Word."

This obfuscation and muddying of the hermeneutical waters is precisely what these apologists have done with the Greek of John 1:1c as well, as can be seen in some of the B-Greek posts that Dr. Choat mentions. So it is really no surprise that they attempt it with the Coptic. The Coptic version of John 1:1c does not support their theology, so they must bend and twist it until it comes at least close to what they want it to say.

A table of anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nouns in the Greek Gospel of John that are rendered by the indefinite construction in Coptic, and translated customarily as indefinite in many English versions also:

John 4:19: "Sir, I see that you are a prophet" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 6:70: "one of you is a devil" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 8:44: "He was a murderer from the beginning" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 8:44: "for he is a liar and the father of lies" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 8:48: "you are a Samaritan" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 9:17: "He is a prophet" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 9:24: "this man is a sinner" (NRSV); Coptic [Horner])
John 9:25: "he is a sinner" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 10:1: "anyone who. climbs in by another way is a thief" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 10:13: "a hired hand does not care for the sheep" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 12:6: "he was a thief" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 18:35: "I am not a Jew, am I?" (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 18:37a: "So are you a king? (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])
John 18:37b: "You say that I am a king." (NRSV; Coptic [Horner])

All of these verses have anarthrous nouns in the Greek text, that occur before the verb. George Horner's English translation of the Sahidic Coptic version employs the English indefinite artice "a" in these instances, and he does not enclose the "a" in brackets, as he does at John 1:1c, which should likewise be rendered: "and a god [or, a divine being] was the Word." English translations directly from the Greek also customarily employ the indefinite article "a" in the verses in the table above, and correctly so.

It is quite clear that there is no grammatical impetus to rendering Coptic John 1:1c as anything other than indefinite. This Coptic sentence is not syntactically "qualitative," nor is it definite in construction. Those who argue otherwise have the burden of proof to show where this "qualitative" or definite significance occurs elsewhere with the indefinite construction of count nouns like Coptic noute ("god") in the Coptic New Testament.

In the verbosity of some Trinitarian apologists, some important matters are glossed over. For example:

1- Not one of the scholars cited by them denies that "a god" is an accurate translation of Coptic ou noute, as at Coptic John 1:1c.

2- Not one of the scholars cited by them demonstrates by the example of New Testament verses that "a god" is an incorrect translation of Coptic John 1:1c.

3- Not one of the scholars cited by them demonstrates by the example of New Testament verses that Coptic ou noute is qualitative rather than indefinite.

Some Trinitarian apologists also resort to general statements about certain aspects of Coptic grammar that, while true in those instances, do not even apply to John 1:1c. For example, the assertion that the Coptic indefinite article does not correspond exactly with the English indefinite article. But this is irrelevant with count nouns like Coptic noute, (god) which is the specific word used at John 1:1c. Such nouns, when in indefinite construction are, indeed, customarily rendered with the indefinite article (a) in English.

The bare assertions of Trinitarian apologists cannot be accepted. If they are going to make weighty pronouncements, they should back them up with clear examples from the Coptic New Testament, not merely by what "seems" to them to be the case, "maybe."