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.


Gareth said...

Thanks again for the benefits of your research into the Coptic translations.

I always find it interesting.

Memra said...

Your comments are deeply appreciated.

I find the Bible to be its own best interpreter, and for that reason I value those translations -- ancient and modern -- that faithfully render the original texts.

SWEET TRAV said...

I just checked back in to my blog and noticed that you posted a comment about my post on the John 1:1 verse mistranslation and Dr. Mantey's refuting of the Jehovah's Witnesses referring to his work as something supporting their claims. The whole point of that post is to show that he does not agree at all with their claims, I am not necessarily arguing greek becasue I've only taken 1 semester of it and couldn't argue it if I wanted to. Having said that I would certainly say that the Jehovahs Witnesses claims to Jesus not being God in the flesh and in their view actually being Micheal the Arch Angel I would say that they are completely misguided and confused. I will make a note of your page and share it with my Greek professors and get their opinions on it.

Memra said...

Thank you for your comments. However, Mantey is on shaky ground when he "refutes" the NWT, yet says that the Greek of John 1:1 points to a quality rather than an identity.

You might also update Mantey with the same conclusions reached by Philip B. Harner and Daniel Wallace.

Of course Trinitarians do not like the NWT translation of John 1:1, because it does not support the unbiblical doctrine of the Trinity.

But the only relevant question is, Does the NWT faithfully translate the Koine Greek of John 1:1?

You might note, however, that Greek professors are not necessarily competent in Coptic. They are two separate languages.

simplybiblical said...

Lots of good information here involving translation issues on Jn. 1:1 and the ancient Coptic N.T.

Thanks for all the work Memra.

I was surprised though at your mention in this blog article that the grammar of Acts 28:6 has a pre-verbal syntax reading like Jn. 1:1c in some Greek texts.

This is the first I've heard of this.

Could you please expand on that a bit. As to what specific texts or manuscripts have this variant reading?

Memra said...

Your comments are appreciated. The pre-verbal anarthrous variant QEON AUTON EINAI rather than AUTON ENAI QEON is noted in "The Complete Biblical Library: Acts" (Springfield Missouri, USA, 1986, 1989), page 662.

This reference work cites the 4th century majiscule (large Greek letters) manuscript 01Aleph, majiscule manuscript 0201, the printed edition of Tischendorf, and texts in the Byzantine text family.

Since this is a variant, it is not the main point under discussion, just an interesting note. The main point is that in other instances of Coptic *ou.noute* in the New Testament, it is customary to render this in English as "a god," whether the Greek QEOS is pre-verbal or not.

tom sheepandgoats said...

Thanks for this. I have used Acts 28:6 before in the ministry, as a verse that is constructed in exact parallel to the wording found at John 1:1c. Of course, no one said about Paul that he was God.

But I haven't used that verse lately because I want to be sure I am portraying its grammatical construction accurately. Am I?

Yours is a real specialty - blogging on the Coptic. A much appreciated resource.

Memra said...

Thanks for your kind words. Anything closer to the time of the original writings is likely to reflect their meaning. The Coptic does this many times.

As for Acts 28:6 in the Greek texts, it corresponds to John 1:1c in that it is anarthrous, and many translations render it as "a god."

However, Acts 28:6 is a text that has variant readings. Some of the variants put "theos" before the verb "enai" (to be), making it exactly parallel to John 1:1c, where "theos" is also pre-verbal. Other variants put "theos" after the verb.

Either way the meaning is the same, but it is the variant readings that put "theos" before the verb that correspond exactly, in Greek, to the construction found at John 1:1c.

I have also bookmarked your blog. Very interesting reading.

Abernathy said...

Note that Bentley Layton, on page 34 of "Coptic in 20 Lessons," mentions the exact syntax of Acts 28:6 -
ou-noute pe

He says there are two possible meanings:
He is a god
He is divine

However, neither translation would have us believe that the natives thought that Paul was God Himself. If the natives thought that Paul was "divine" in this verse, they were thinking more along the lines of Paul being "a god-like one," one having the qualities of a god.

In no way could we derive from the text that Paul shared the same nature, essence, or substance of the true God. He was just a god, a god-like one, divine.

Those reading the Trinity into the Sahidic of John 1:1 are reading their theology into the text, because the Sahidic is only saying that the Word is a god, a god-like one, divine.

Memra said...


Excellent points. Thanks.

Some Trinitarian apologists were just too quick to write defensively about the Coptic version without actually having learned Coptic, and therefore published obvious errors.

Abernathy said...

I wasn't even thinking it when I wrote that post, but the footnote on John 1:1 in the NWT says just that:

"the Word was a god/god-like/divine."

Memra said...

Yes, translating the Greek of John 1:1 into another language honestly is a tradition that goes back 1,700 years. The NWT follows the faithful example of the Coptic translators.

As Jason BeDuhn wrote, the Greek grammar of John 1:1 is easy to understand and translate if not influenced by biased traditions.