Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Does Coptic John 1:18 contradict Coptic John 1:1?

It is clear that Sahidic Coptic John 1:1 says that "the Word was a god." But it has been remarked that Coptic John 1:18 contradicts this, because this verse uses the Coptic definite article before the common noun, noute: p.noute, with reference to the Son.

But is this reference definitizing, equating the Son with God, or is it merely anaphoric, referencing "the" god of John 1:1c?

First, an important difference between John 1:1 and John 1:18 (in Coptic and in Greek) must be noted. John 1:1 reads the same in all extant ancient Greek and Coptic textual witnesses. But John 1:18 does not. John 1:18 does not possess the textual clarity of John 1:1c. John 1:18 is a text that has three significant variants in the Greek: monogenhs theos ("an only-[begotten] god"); ho monogenhs theos ("the only-[begotten] god"); and ho monogenhs huios ("the only-[begotten] son").

As a basically Alexandrian text, "the only-[begotten] god" would be expected in the Coptic version. That is, in fact, the reading of the Coptic Bohairic version: pimonogenes nnouti, which Horner renders as "the only-begotten God" in the main text and as "the divine only-begotten" in his footnotes. However, there was obviously some support among the Sahidic Coptic translators for the "only-[begotten] son" reading also, because they combined, or conflated, the two variant readings in the Sahidic Coptic version, giving us pnoute pShre nouwt , literally, "the god, the only son." (According to Jesus as Theos: A Textual Examination, by Brian James Wright, a similarly conflated Greek variant of John 1:18, ho monogenhs huios theos, was known to Ambrose, Irenaeus, and Origen.)

By putting the definite article here, the Sahidic Coptic translators mirror the Greek's ho monogenhs theos. But does this say the Word is God? No, for the Greek here can be translated simply, "the only-begotten god."

George Horner's English translation of the Sahidic Coptic renders pnoute pShre nouwt as "God, the only Son." But this is not what the Coptic says, this is merely Reverend Horner's English version of the Coptic, perhaps revealing his own theological presuppositions. The Coptic of this verse, John 1:18, can also be translated as "the god, the only son." The use of the Coptic definite article here does not demand the translation, "God." Particularly not when such a reading fails to correspond with the context and with what has already been stated at Coptic John 1:1 in both the Sahidic and the Bohairic versions: "the Word was a god."

Horner himself shows that not every instance of p.noute means "God," but may also mean "god," in context.

For example, at Acts 7:43, the Sahidic Coptic text has the definite article bound to the word for god, p.noute. Does Horner arbitrarily translate it as "God"? Not at all. He renders p.noute at Acts 7:43 as "the god," giving us "And ye took the tabernacle of Molokh and the star of the god [Coptic, p.noute] Rephan, the forms which ye made to worship them."

Likewise, at Coptic John 1:18 we have "the god, the only son," i.e., the god previously mentioned at John 1:1c, who is the Son of God.

This is so because both John 1:1 and John 1:18 describe a contrast between God and his Son. In John 1:1, the Son or Word is "with" or "in the presence" of God. At John 1:18, God is the One Whom no one has ever seen, whereas the Son is the one who represented or revealed Him on earth. Identity of the Son with God is not the theme of either John 1:1 or John 1:18, whereas contrast is emphasized.

Sahidic Coptic John 1:18, therefore, cannot be used to contradict John 1:1, because the translation, "God the only Son" is not the only possible or contextually accurate translation of this Coptic verse in English. John 1:18 is not identifying the divine Son as being the same as God Almighty, but is actually highlighting the distinction between them.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Translating "the Word was a god," 1700 Years Ago

As the early Christians continued to carry out Jesus’ command to preach to all nations, the good news or gospel had to be translated into many languages. (Matthew 28:19, 20) “At least by the third century C.E., the first translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures had been made for the Coptic natives of Egypt.” – Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, page 1153 * Similarly, the Anchor Bible Dictionary states, “All these data point to the 3rd century as the latest terminus a quo [point of origin] for the earliest Coptic translation.” **

This earliest Coptic (from an Arabic/Greek word for “Egyptian”) translation was in the Sahidic dialect, approximately 1,700 years ago. The scribes who were translating the Gospel of John from Koine Greek into their own Egyptian language encountered an issue that still faces translators today. It is the question of correctly translating John 1:1.

The Sahidic Coptic translators rendered John 1:1 in this way:

1. c. ΑΥШ ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤЄ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ -- Sahidic Coptic text


1. a. Hn te.houeite ne.f.shoop ngi p.shaje
1. b. Auw p.shaje ne.f.shoop n.nahrm p.noute
1. c. Auw ne.u.noute pe p.shaje 1

Literally, the Sahidic Coptic says:

1. a. In the beginning existed the word
1. b. And the word existed in the presence of the god
1. c. And a god was the word

We can see at the outset that the Sahidic Coptic translators used the Coptic definite article (p) in referring to the One the Word was with or “in the presence of” (nnahrm): p.noute, “the” god, i.e., God. And we can see that in referring to the Word, the Coptic translators employed the Coptic indefinite article (ou; just “u” following the vowel “e”): ne.u.noute, “was a god.”

Many ancient Sahidic Coptic manuscripts were collated and translated into English by Coptic scholar George W. Horner. In 1911, Horner published an English translation of John’s gospel. He rendered John 1:1c as: “In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and [a] God was the word.” 2 He encloses the indefinite article “a” within brackets, which might indicate that he considered that here its translation is not required in English. However, in his own translation of the same Coptic sentence structure in other verses in John, Horner himself does render the indefinite article in English as “a”, without any brackets, which is entirely proper at John 1:1c also.

Some examples of the Sahidic Coptic indefinite article with the noun structure that Horner translates into English with an unbracketed “a” in the Gospel of John follow below. They are also verses in which most English versions of John translate the Greek pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nouns with an “a. ” :

John 4:19: “a prophet" (NRSV; Horner)
John 6:70: "a devil" (NRSV; Horner)
John 8:44: "a murderer" (NRSV; Horner)
John 8:44: "a liar " (NRSV; Horner)
John 8:48: "a Samaritan" (NRSV; Horner)
John 9:17: "a prophet" (NRSV; Horner)
John 9:24: "a sinner" (NRSV; Horner)
John 9:25: " a sinner" (NRSV; Horner)
John 10:1: " a thief" (NRSV; Horner
John 10:13: "a hired hand " (NRSV; Horner)
John 12:6: " a thief" (NRSV; Horner)
John 18:35: "a Jew" (NRSV; Horner)
John 18:37a: "a king” (NRSV; Horner)
John 18:37b: "a king." (NRSV; Horner) 3

Literally, Sahidic Coptic *ou.noute* means “a god." 4 When a Coptic noun is a common noun and refers to an entity (“man,” “god”) the Coptic indefinite article is customarily translated by the English indefinite article “a”. The Coptic indefinite article ou marks the noun as a non-specific individual or a specimen of a class. 5 When the noun refers to an abstract idea (“truth,” “happiness”) or an unspecified quantity of a substance (“water,” “some water”; “gold,” “some gold”), or is used adjectively (“wise,” “divine”), the Coptic indefinite article need not be translated by the English indefinite article “a.” 6

Thus, while it can be said that the Sahidic Coptic indefinite article does not correspond exactly in usage to the English indefinite article, it does correspond closely to it. 7 Because at John 1:1c, the Coptic indefinite article is bound to a common noun and refers to an entity, the Word, the translation “a god” is proper.

How competent were the ancient Coptic Egyptian translators to convey the sense of the Greek text of John? Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and the country was subsequently Hellenized. Greek had been a legacy of Egypt for some 500 years by the time those translators began their work, and it was still a living language. According to Coptic grammarian Bentley Layton, the Sahidic Coptic translation is “a very early indirect attestation of the Greek text and a direct indication of an Egyptian (perhaps Alexandrian) understanding of what it meant.” 8 Likely made well before Nicea (325 CE), the Coptic text tells us how early exegetes interpreted John 1:1, apart from the influence of later dogma and church tradition.

Although the third century may be the latest date for the Sahidic Coptic translation, can a date for its beginning be more clearly ascertained? Christianity may have come early to Egypt. The Bible book Acts of the Apostles lists Egyptian Jews and proselytes as being present at Pentecost, when 3,000 became Christian believers. (Acts 2:5-11) The eloquent Christian speaker Apollos was an Alexandrian and his travels may have taken him back to Egypt. (Acts 18:24-28; Titus 3:13) Coptic translator George Horner notes: “Clement of Alexandria, born about 150 [CE], speaks of the Christians spreading all over the land….The internal character of the Sahidic [version] supplies confirmation of a date earlier than the third century.” Horner favors a date closer to 188 CE as the inception of the Sahidic Coptic version 9

The value of the Sahidic Coptic text lies not only in its indication of how early scribes understood the Greek of John 1:1, but also in its value for determining the correct text of that gospel. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger wrote: “[The] Alexandrian text [is] the best text and most faithful in preserving the original….The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.” 10 Additionally, one can note readings in the Coptic text that are found in the earliest existing manuscripts of John, the p66 (Papyrus Bodmer II, middle second century CE) and p75 (Papyrus Bodmer XIV, late second century CE). 11

There is also the matter of precision in rendering John 1:1c. The Koine Greek language has only the definite article, with indefiniteness being indicated by the lack of the article (called the “anarthrous” construction). Of the other early translations from the Greek, Latin has no articles, definite or indefinite, and Syriac has only the definite determinator in its grammatical structure. The Sahidic Coptic language, however – like English – has both the definite article and the indefinite article as part of its syntactical system.

This means that when the Sahidic Coptic translators wrote ou noute, “a god,” at John 1:1c, referring to the entity that is the Word, they were being specific, not ambiguous. They could have used the definite article and written p.noute at this verse if they had meant “God,” just as they did at John 1:1b: auw p.shaje ne.f.shoop n.nahrm p.noute, “and the Word was with [literally, “in the presence of] God.”

Therefore, the Sahidic Coptic version, the earliest translation of the Greek originals into a language that contained the indefinite article, used that indefinite article at John 1:1c: “the Word was a god.”

Is “the Word was a god” the only English translation of this verse that is possible within the parameters of the Coptic indefinite article? It should be stressed that this is the literal translation. However, this semantic domain may allow, in context, English translations such as “the Word was divine” or a divine being, or “the Word was godlike.” But a translation such as the traditional “the Word was God” would require the Coptic definite article, thus falling outside of the non-specific semantic domain signaled by the Coptic indefinite article. 12

It is sometimes charged, incorrectly, that the translation of John 1:1c as “the Word was a god” is an incorrect, sectarian translation found primarily in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Yet, in rendering John 1:1c from Greek into their own native language, the Coptic scribes came to the same understanding of that Greek text some 1,700 years ago.

Translating John 1:1c literally to say “the Word was a god” is, therefore, not any innovation. Rather, it appears to be an ancient way of understanding the meaning of this text, before the ascension and formal installation of philosophical Trinitarianism.


*Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
** Volume 6, page 790

1. Wells, p. 111
2. Horner. Photocopy on Internet at http://sahidiccoptic.bravehost.com/pages/sahidic/joh_1_1.jpg
3. See also the New World Translation Reference Bible (1984) Appendix 6A, for Greek examples. Page 1579
4. Layton, pp. 7, 34; Lambdin, p. 18; Crum, p. 230
5. Shisha-Halevy, pp. 263, 268
6. Lambdin, p. 5; Layton, pp. 15, 16, 34
7. Lambdin, p. 5; Layton, p. 16
8. Layton, p. 1
9. Horner, Volume 2, pp. 398-9
10. Metzger, p. 5
11. This is the writer’s personal observation in researching the Coptic text.
12. Layton, p. 34; Shisha-Halevy, p. 268


1. Crum, Walter. A Coptic Dictionary. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1939.
2. Horner, George W. The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect. Vol. 3. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1911.
3. Lambdin, Thomas. Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983.
4. Layton, Bentley. Coptic in Twenty Lessons. Leuven: Peeters, 2007.
5. Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.
6. Shisha-Halevy, Ariel. Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy. Leuven: Peeters, 1988.
7. “Versions.” Insight on the Scriptures. Vol. 2. New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1988
8. “Versions, Ancient.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. New York: Doubleday, 1992
9. Wells, J. Warren. Sahidic Coptic New Testament. London: Bibles.org.uk, 2006

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Insight on Coptic John 1:1 from Acts 28:6

Coptic Acts 28:6 (last part of verse): ou.noute:

auktoou peJau Je ounoute pe

Greek text:

metabalomenoi elegon auton einai theon

In the Greek text we have an anarthrous theos (“god”) in the accusative, and in some Greek texts it is also pre-verbal: theon auton einai instead of auton einai theon.

I have no problem with the premise than an anarthrous theos may express quality or character rather than identity when it comes to rendering it in English qualitatively as “divine” or even “deity” rather than “a god.” But I consider this, grammatically speaking, to be a distinction without a significant difference.

Similarly, Coptic grammarians indicate that ou.noute may be used adjectivally (“divine”) or with reference to an entity (“a god”). However, I have yet to be given any examples of ou.noute actually being used adjectivally in Coptic literature. And I have yet to find any examples of such usage in the Coptic New Testament itself, where ou.noute can certainly be straightforwardly rendered into English as “a god.”

In addition, it is noteworthy that many English versions of the latter part of Acts 28:6 all say “a god” rather than “divine.”

KJV: “They changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”
NIV: “They changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”
REB: “They changed their minds and said, ‘He is a god.’”
NRSV: “They changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”
NASB: “They changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”
ESV: “They changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
NAB: They changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”
ALT: “Changing their minds, began saying he is a god.”

The Coptic of this part of Acts 28:6 says literally, “they turned themselves around, they said , ‘(He) is a god.’” The Coptic translates the Greek literally here, where metabalomenoi means they “changed sides” or “turned about” in the sense of changing their opinions or minds.

Thus, I would translate the Coptic freely to say also, “ they changed their minds and said, ‘He is a god [ou.noute pe].”

Acts 28:6 is missing in Coptic scholar George Horner's Sahidic Coptic text and English translation, but it is found in J. Warren Wells' Sahidica text. It is also found in Horner's Bohairic Coptic text, where Horner translates the comparative Bohairic ou.nouti pe into English as "he was a god."

It is telling that none of the above translators saw fit to render the anarthrous theos of the Greek text of this verse qualitatively rather than as an indefinite noun.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Coptic John 1:1 -- Ambiguous?

According to Dr. Jason D. BeDuhn, the Greek text of John 1:1 is, grammatically, not a difficult verse to translate. "It follows familiar, ordinary structures of Greek expression." (Truth in Translation, 2003, p. 132) Dr. BeDuhn would render the Greek of John 1:1c literally as "and the Word was a god," or in "a slightly polished" variant carrying the same meaning, "and the Word was divine." According to BeDuhn, the traditional, Latin Vulgate-inspired reading formalized by the King James Version, "and the Word was God," is the least accurate rendering of the Greek text, a reading that violates the grammar and syntax.

The same conclusion can be readily drawn about the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c. This is a fairly literal translation of the Greek, made in the 2nd or 3rd century of our Common Era, at a time and place where the Koine Greek of the New Testament was still a living language and widely understood in Egypt.

In regular Coptic syntax, auw neunoute pe pSaje means, straightforwardly, "and the Word was a god." And just as the Greek sentence at John 1:1c may express a qualitative force, the Coptic syntactical unit which corresponds to that Greek sentence may express an adjectival force. In other words, both may also be rendered as "and the Word was divine." (Cf. Bentley Layton, Coptic in 20 Lessons, 2006/7, pp. 7, 34) But is this ambiguity? No, for as Dr. BeDuhn states, both translations carry "the same basic meaning."

Still, some scholars are not satisfied with even their preferred "qualitative" meaning for John 1:1c, unless they can define "qualitative" as synonymous with "definite." For example, Daniel B. Wallace, in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (1996, p. 269) prefers a qualitative rendering for John 1:1c, but then goes on to say that "and the Word was God" is the simplest, most straightforward translation. That is a non sequitur.

John 1:1c is not carrying on a Greek philosophical dissertation about "persons" or "essences." But it is making an important distinction between "God" (Greek, ho theos; Coptic, p.noute) and another entity whom John describes simply with the Greek word theos (Coptic, ou.noute). The noun theos in the Greek of John 1:1c is pre-verbal and anarthrous. The noun noute in the Coptic of John 1:1c is in a regular indefinite syntactical unit. The force in both cases is the same: the Word is being distinguished from God, not identified as being God.

Further, John 1:1b emphasizes that this Word is "with" (Greek) or "in the presence of" (Coptic) God.

If, as some Trinitarian scholars assert, the idea of a qualitative rendering highlights the "nature" or "characteristics" of the Word rather than his identity, but this Word shared all the attributes and qualities that God (= the Father) has, then logically, the Word would be the Father. Yet, mainstream Trinitarians deride that idea as Sabellianism or modalism, "heresies" condemned by the church.

Is Coptic John 1:1 ambiguous? Not at all. But to be sure, it is the Trinitarian scholars who are forcing John 1:1 to be "ambiguous," not the Greek nor the Coptic text. The Greek text is not definite ("the Word was God") and neither is the Coptic text. Both the Greek and the Coptic texts agree that "the Word was a god" or "the Word was divine," which mean essentially the same thing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ΝΟΥΤЄ (Noute), Π.ΝΟΥΤЄ (p.noute), ΟΥ.ΝΟΥΤЄ (ou.noute)

The one verse, 2 Thessalonians 2:4, illustrates the three uses of the Sahidic Coptic articles: the Coptic zero article, the Coptic definite article, and the Coptic indefinite article.

This verse also illustrates the correct translation of Coptic John

In the Greek text of 2 Thessalonians 2:4 we have a)theos in the
accusative case; b) theos in the genitive, with the Greek definite article;
and c) anarthrous theos in the nominative.

Correspondingly, in the Sahidic Coptic text we have a) zero-articled
noute, where the Coptic zero-article indicates a general meaning or
characteristic: i.e., "god"; b) definite-articled p.noute, "the god" or "God"; and c) indefinite-articled ou.noute, "a god."

Transliterated, the Sahidic Coptic text reads:

pantikeimenos etjice mmof ejn ouon nim etoumoute eroou je noute houop hwste nfbwk ehoun eprpe mpnoute nfhmoos efouwnh mmof ebol je ounoute pe. (As found in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament by J. Warren Wells, 2006. Occurrences of noute, "god," emphasized by this writer)

Translated into English, the Coptic text of 2 Thessalonians 2:4 says:

"The one who is opposing and raising himself above everyone who is called 'god' or regarded with reverence, so that he goes into the temple of the god and sits down, declaring publicly that he is a god."

Being a careful translation of the Greek text, the Coptic version, properly translated into English, carries the same significance at 2 Thessalonians 2:4 as does the New World Translation and some other careful English versions. Whereas many English versions merely translate "God" wherever theos is found in the Greek text here, these careful versions bring out the grammatical differences:

"He is set in opposition and lifts himself up over everyone who is called 'god' or an object of reverence, so that he sits down in the temple of The God, publicly showing himself to be a god." -- New World Translation

"Who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is a god." -- New American Bible

"He who is in opposition to every so-called god or object of worship, so that he seats himself in God's temple, declaring himself to be a god." -- The Bible in Living English

"He rises in his pride against every god, so called, every object of men's worship, and even takes his seat in the temple of God claiming to be a god himself." -- The New English Bible

What I see here is that careful translators of the Greek text understood the Greek grammar in the same way, and translated 2 Thessalonians 2:4 into their own languages accordingly, from the 2nd century to the present day.

Therefore, in this one verse we see clearly the force of the Coptic zero, definite, and indefinite articles when used with the Coptic noun noute, "god":

ΝΟΥΤЄ (noute) = god
Π.ΝΟΥΤЄ (p.noute) = the god, God
ΟΥ.ΝΟΥΤЄ (ou.noute) = a god

And it is ΟΥ.ΝΟΥΤЄ (ou.noute), "a god" that is found in the Sahidic Coptic version of John 1:1c, in contrast with Π.ΝΟΥΤЄ (p.noute), "God," at John 1:1b.