Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Coptic John 1:1c: What Conclusions Can Be Drawn?

Relative to Coptic John 1:1c, what conclusions can be drawn from a multi-year study of the Sahidic Coptic language, including a detailed study of the entire Sahidic Coptic New Testament?

1- That the translation of Coptic neunoute pe pSaje into standard English as "the Word was a god" is literal, accurate, and unassailable. It is simple, but not simplistic. It is what the Coptic text actually says and literally conveys. Any other translation of it amounts to interpretation or paraphrase.

2- That rendering a Sahidic Coptic common ("count") noun, like noute, god, when bound to the Coptic indefinite article, ou, into English as "a" + noun is so prevalent, as for example in Coptic scholar George Horner's 1911 English translation of the Sahidic Coptic New Testament, that this is beyond dispute.

As just the nearest example of this, after John 1:1c itself, is John 1:6. Here we have the Coptic indefinite article, ou, bound to the Coptic common noun rwme, man: aFSwpe nCi ourwme eautnnoouF ebol Hitm pnoute . In Horner's English translation we read: "There was a man having been sent from God." That is the simple, literal, and accurate translation. Likewise, "a god" is the simple, literal, and accurate translation of ou.noute at John 1:1c, the same Coptic indefinite article + common noun construction as found in John 1:6 and elsewhere. Only with respect to Coptic "mass" or abstract nouns is there no need to translate the indefinite article into English, but this is not the situation at Coptic John 1:1c, because noute, god, is a Coptic common or "count" noun.

3 - That, whereas some Coptic grammarians hold that ou.noute may also be translated into English adjectivally as "divine," they give no examples favoring this usage in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament itself. Coptic ou.noute is not used adjectivally or "qualitatively" in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament. The published works of these scholars have been heavily invested in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Coptic "gospels" like Thomas, Philip, and Judas. Perhaps translating ou.noute as "divine" fits the esoteric or philosophical context of the Gnostic "gospels." But there are no examples in the canonical Coptic New Testament that justify an adjectival translation of ou.noute as "divine," whereas a literal translation of ou.noute as "a god" works just fine. Although "divine" is not altogether objectionable, since a god is divine by definition, a paraphrase is unnecessary when an adequate, understandable literal translation is available.

4- That all the primarily Trinitarian-based objections to translating ou.noute as "a god" at Coptic John 1:1c amount to little more than presupposition or special pleading. Though such faulty, superficial objections have been cut and pasted frequently on the Internet, they are poorly researched and often misleading.

In one such apologetic, promising full disclosure of what some Coptic scholars "really said," the conclusion about ou.noute at John 1:1 remains the same, i.e., "it might mean was a god, was divine, was an instance of 'god', was one god (not two, three, etc.)"; "In Coptic, "ounoute" can mean "a god" or "one with divine nature"; "So literally, the Sahidic and Bohairic texts say "a god" in the extant mss. ... A rather clumsy reading might be: The Logos was in the beginning. The Logos was with God. The Logos was like God (or godlike, or divine) with the emphasis on his nature; not his person."

Not ONE of the scholars appealed to by Trinitarian apologists said that Coptic John 1:1 should be translated to say "The Word was God." Not one. Not one said that "a god" was incorrect. In fact, the interlinear reading for Sahidic Coptic John 1:1c in scholar Bentley Layton's Coptic in 20 Lessons specifically reads "a-god is the-Word."

The Coptic text of John 1:1c was made prior to the adoption of the Trinity doctrine by Egyptian and other churches, and it is poor scholarship to attempt to "read back" a translation such as "the Word was God" into any exegesis of the Coptic text. Such a rendering is foreign to Coptic John 1:1c, which clearly and literally says, "the Word was a god."

5- That, stated succinctly, translating Sahidic Coptic's neunoute pe pSaje literally into standard English as "the Word was a god" stands on solid grammatical and contextual ground.


Octavio said...

This is not a surprise because the "a god" rendering is implicitly shown in early church fathers as Origen and Justin contemporariers to the Coptic Bible. For instance, Origen said about the Greek of John 1:1c :
"We next notice John's use of the article in these sentences. He does not write without care in this respect, nor is he unfamiliar with the niceties of the Greek tongue. In some cases he uses the article, and in some he omits it. He adds the article to the Logos, but to the name of God he adds it sometimes only. He uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named QEOS.....all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article)."

On the other hand, Justin said:
"there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things--above whom there is no other God"

eleKtrofly said...

word was "a god" is how the jehovah's witnesses translate it and it contributes to a lot of confusing theologies.

i'm surrent;y trying to make sense of the debate between monophysitism and the coptic point of view.

Memra said...

No, there is no confusing theology here. Actually, in the context of Biblical Monotheism, there is no confusion or conflict in the rendering "a god" at John 1:1c. And it should not be forgotten that Jesus and his apostles were Hebrews whose heritage was Biblical Monotheism.

At least as far back as the year 1864, there were English versions of the Bible that had "a god" in this verse (The Emphatic Diaglott, by Benjamin Wilson). Several other translations, in English and other languages, render the anarthrous "theos" (god) here as "a god" or "divine," showing that they understand this usage to be either indefinite or qualitative.

In other words, John 1:1c is not identifying Jesus as God, but describing Jesus as being "like God." Or, as Greek grammarian Philip Harner put it, "The Word had the same nature as God." (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92,1974)

Memra said...

In addition, it must be noted that the 2nd century Coptic translators were not translating in favor of any of today's religions.

The Coptic translators were giving us their own understanding or interpretation of the Greek text(s) they were using 1,700 years ago.

When the Coptic translators encountered the Greek anarthrous construction at John 1:1c, they translated it by using their Coptic indefinite construction, giving us neunoute pe pSaje, i.e., "the Word was a god."

The use of the Coptic indefinite article with a Coptic common or count noun is customarily translate into English as "a ____". And that is precisely the usage found in Coptic at John 1:1c.

Regardless of later Coptic church theology, the translators of the Sahidic Coptic version understood John 1:1c to read differently from many modern English versions: "the Word was a god" or "the Word was divine," NOT "the Word was God."

Jehovah's Servant said...

>word was "a god" is how the >jehovah's witnesses translate it >and it contributes to a lot of >confusing theologies.

FYI - "the jehovah's witnesses" as you write, didn't write, nor translate the Sahidic Coptic manuscripts. We simply agree with it's rendering, fully confident that Jesus Christ is:

the only begotten Son of God (Heb. 1:5),
who is ruling at God's right hand (Colassians 3:1),
by God's authority, (John 5:27)
and by God's appointment (Acts 2:36),
as a reward for his obedience. (Heb. 5:8, 9)

Trinity is THE very definition of confusing. The belief that Jesus is God, and with God, and has a God, and at God's right hand, and lesser than the Father, who is also God, and the three are separate persons yet all equally God - well I'd say trinitarians win the confusion gold medal.

sdhshh said...

The Greek word Logos (lo,goj) is traditionally translated as “Word.” French translations sometimes
use “Verb” which has a dynamic quality. The English “Message” or “Expression of the Mind” may
also be appropriate attempts to convey the nuance of the Greek concept. The Jewish-Alexandrian
theologian and philosopher Philo wrote extensively about the Logos in ways that are reminiscent of
NT theology. For instance, his teaching that “For the Logos of the living God being the bond of every
thing, as has been said before, holds all things together, and binds all the parts, and prevents them
from being loosened or separated” echoes Colossians 1:17. VEn avrch/| h=n o` lo,goj( kai. o` lo,goj h=n pro.j to.n qeo,n( kai. qeo.j h=n o` lo,gojÅ This second theos could
also be translated ‘divine’ as the construction indicates a qualitative sense for theos. The Word is not
God in the sense that he is the same person as the theos mentioned in 1:1a; he is not God the Father
(God absolutely as in common NT usage) or the Trinity. The point being made is that the Logos is of
the same uncreated nature or essence as God the Father, with whom he eternally exists. This verse
is echoed in the Nicene Creed: “God (qualitative or derivative) from God (personal, the Father), Light
from Light, True God from True God… homoousion with the Father.”

Memra said...

Thanks for your comments.

However, neither Philo nor Athanasius is conclusive in understanding what the apostle John wrote at John 1:1. Both follow the lines of Greek philosophy rather than the dictates of inspired Scripture.

There is nothing in John 1:1 that posits an eternal existence of the Logos. As applied to Jesus Christ, the Scriptures show that while pre-existent, he was also "the beginning of the creation of God" and the "firstborn of all creation." (Revelation 3:14; Colossians 1:15)

sdhshh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Memra said...

sdhshh's comment was deleted because it contained a link that was merely the same outdated and convoluted special pleading for Trinitarian doctrine that can be found anywhere.

sdhshh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Memra said...

Anonymous, trash comments will not be allowed on this blog.

sdhshh's comment was deleted again because (1) it was a link that did not work; (2) the link was to a site that contains outdated, incorrect information about Coptic John 1 that is purely apologetic in nature, ignoring Coptic grammar and syntax in favor of Trinitarian dogmatism.

In short, the link has nothing of a scholarly nature to add to the discussion.

Trish said...

Thank you and how about that Greek guy who posted- no Greek Bibles ever translate this john 1:1 as God. It is a comment on the book Truth in Translation. So how many Greek Bibles are there?- and is this correct? Does anyone know the standards of Greek Bibles?? Hope they are better then our English Revised ones:). . This Greek man said none of the Greek Bibles understand John 1:1 to say God. Let me cut and add his post. for expedience, It was quite refreshing. . . Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament

158 of 171 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars It says the truth about Bible translations, January 1, 2005
Basileios Tsialas (Athens, Greece) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament (Paperback)
I am Greek, I have been raised in Greece, I have studied Classical Greek for two years in high school (Classical Greek is much more complicated than koine, or Common Greek) and I have been studding the original Greek text of the Bible for about 10 years. Having this background, I responsibly say that this book presents quite right, well documented and reliable linguistic information. Yes, its writer must be considered adequate as regards his knowledge of the Biblical Greek. So, this book sheds plenty of light about subjects of whitch the common English reader has no idea. For example: English readers often claim that NW is false in Jonh 1:1. Trinitarians in Greece have never used this specific verse to claim that the New World Translation (NW) is wrong, since all the Orthodox versions read actually the same with the greek version of the NW. And this happens because the wording of this verse is very clear for the Greek reader, and there is no place for debate. I am sorry to say this, but for a Greek it is rediculus to debate on John 1:1.

Of course, many will be disappointed by BeDunh because he proves that many of the famous Bible versions are inaccurate and mislead their readers. But face the facts! What matters is not what translators say but what Bible says!

Know I Love this Guy!!
Thank you again Memra, for this great succinctly put information!

Memra said...


Your comments are noted and appreciated.

I think what the Greek writer meant was than a native Greek person who reads John 1:1, in the Greek, would see immediately that two different entities are being described, not one.

In other words, the Word is not the same as the God Whom the Word is with, but the Word would have divine qualities, like God.

Anonymous said...

Thx. for this blog.

Memra said...

Thank you, Janos, and thanks to others who made thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

Welcome brother. You have good resources. Thx. again. How do you find it?

Bart Schuck said...

Hello Memra. I found your blog while performing a search for coptic greek. I had at one time bookmarked which had similar info but the site has since closed. My blog,, has more general interest subjects regarding scripture from the JW point of view. I'd like to join your blog but I don't see a link to do so. I can be emailed at

TheScott92 said...

In John 3:13, the words "who is in heaven" is likely original. It is the more difficult reading, appears in the majority of all manuscripts, and appears early on in all text types.
Chances are that John 3:13 onward was not spoken by Jesus but was a parenthetical remark by the evangelist.
". . . If I told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how shall ye believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" [Jesus stops speaking here]
(And no one has ascended into heaven except for the one who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven . . ."

TheScott92 said...

Scribes were confused by the words "who is in heaven" because they thought that Jesus was still speaking, so they either removed the phrase altogether or changed it to "who WAS in heaven"

TheScott92 said...

The apostle John was intending to refute the idea that the souls of dead saints have ascended into heaven.

TheScott92 said...

Obviously Jesus is not the speaker in verse 13 onward because the speaker describes Jesus' ascension as a past event.

JimSpace said...

Sadly, the blog author Memra passed away on April 13, 2013.