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. a. ϨΝ ΤЄϨΟΥЄΙΤЄ ΝЄϤϢΟΟΠ ΝϬΙ ΠϢΑϪЄ
1. b. ΑΥШ ΠϢΑϪЄ ΝЄϤϢΟΟΠ ΝΝΑϨΡΜ ΠΝΟΥΤЄ
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