Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An Early Coptic Translation and John 1:1c

Prepared by Solomon Landers
(Revised March, 2006)

In harmony with Jesus’ command to them, the early Christians eagerly spread the message of the good news of God’s Kingdom far and wide. They made translations of the Koine Greek Gospels into several languages. By about the year 200, the earliest of these were found in Syriac, Coptic, and Latin. Coptic (from the Greek word for ‘Egyptian’) was the language spoken by professed Christians in Egypt, in the Sahidic dialect. That dialect was eclipsed by use of the Bohairic dialect by the 6th century and in Coptic Church liturgy by the 11th century C.E. Coptic was the last stage of the hieroglyphic Egyptian language used since the time of the Pharaohs. Under the influence of the widespread use of Koine Greek, the Coptic language came to be written, not in hieroglyphs or the cursive Egyptian script called Demotic, but in Greek letters, supplemented by seven characters derived from hieroglyphs. Coptic is a Hamito-Semitic language, meaning that it shares elements of both Hamitic (North African) languages and Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Much was made of it in the scholarly world when an apocryphal “gospel” written in Sahidic Coptic, titled the “Gospel of Thomas,” was discovered in Egypt near Nag Hammadi in December 1945. Yet, after an initial welcome, the scholarly world has been strangely silent about an earlier and more significant work, the English translation of the Sahidic Coptic canonical Gospel of John. This Sahidic version may date from about the late 2nd century C.E. This version was introduced to the English-speaking world in 1911 through the work of [Reverend] George William Horner. Today, it is difficult even to find copies of Horner’s translation of the Coptic canonical Gospel of John. Apparently, it has been largely relegated to dusty library shelves. But copies of the “Gospel of Thomas” (in English, some with Coptic text) line the lighted shelves of popular bookstores. In the book, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987), Kurt and Barbara Aland, editors of critical Greek New Testament texts, state:

“The Coptic New Testament is among the primary resources for the history of the New Testament text. Important as the Latin and Syriac versions may be, it is of far greater importance to know precisely how the text developed in Egypt.” (Page 200, emphasis added)

The Sahidic Coptic text of the Gospel of John has been found to be in the Alexandrian text tradition of the well-regarded Codex Vaticanus (B) (Vatican 1209), one of the best of the early extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. Coptic John also shows affinities to the Greek Papyrus Bodmer XIV (p75) of the late 2nd/3rd century.iii Concerning the Alexandrian text tradition, Dr. Bruce Metzger states that it “is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original.” [George William Horner, The Coptic version of the New Testament in the southern dialect, otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 1911, pp. 398, 399. iii Aland, p. 91. iv Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, United Bible Societies, 1994, page 5.]

Therefore, it is all the more strange that insight of the Sahidic Coptic text of John 1:1 are largely ignored by popular Bible translators. Might that be because the Sahidic Coptic Gospel of John translates John 1:1c in a way that is unpopular to many? The Sahidic text renders John 1:1c as auw neunoute pe pshaje, clearly meaning literally “and a god was the Word.” Unlike Koine Greek, Sahidic Coptic has both the definite article, p, and the indefinite article, ou, which may contract to u following the joined verbal prefix ne (i.e., ne ou noute becomes neunoute.) The Coptic text of John 1:1b identifies the first mention of noute as pnoute, “the god,” i.e., God. This corresponds to the Koine Greek text, wherein theos, “god,” has the definite article ho at John 1:1b, i.e., “the Word was with [the] God.”

The Koine Greek text indicates the indefiniteness of the word theos in its second mention (John 1:1c) of “god,” by omitting the definite article before it, because Koine Greek had no indefinite article. But Coptic does have an indefinite article, and the text employs the indefinite article at John 1:1c. This makes it clear that in reading the original Greek text, the ancient Coptic translators understood it to say specifically that “the Word was a god.” The early Coptic Christians had a good understanding of both Greek and their own language, and their translation of John’s Koine Greek here is very precise and accurate. Because they actually employed the indefinite article before the Sahidic word “god,” noute, the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c is more precise than the translation found in the Latin Vulgate, since Latin has neither a definite nor an indefinite article. The 6th century Coptic Bohairic version also employs the indefinite article before the Coptic word for “god.”: ne ounouti in the full form ou, because the verbal particle ne is not joined to it, reading: ne ounouti pe picaji, “a god was the Word.”

The Sahidic Coptic word neunoute (ne-u-noute) is made up of three parts: ne, a verbal particle denoting imperfect (past) tense, i.e., “was [being]…” (o)u, the Coptic indefinite article, denoting “a,”; and noute, the Sahidic word for “god.” Grammarians state that the word noute “god,” takes the definite article when it refers to the One God, whereas without the definite article it refers to other gods. But in Sahidic John 1:1c the word noute is not simply anarthrous, lacking any article at all. Here the indefinite article is specifically employed. Thus, whereas some scholars impute ambiguity to the Greek of John 1:1c, this early Coptic translation can be rendered accurately as “the Word was a god.” This is the careful way those 2nd century Coptic translators understood the Koine Greek text of John 1:1c.

According to Coptic grammarian J. Martin Plumley, the Coptic indefinite article is translated simply as “a”, as in ourwme “a man”, ouchime “a woman.” When used with abstract nouns, such as ourase “joy”, oume “truth,” it may be left untranslated. The same is true when the indefinite article is used with nouns indicating substance or material, e.g., ounoub mn-oulibanoc mnousal “gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matt. 2.11)

However, the Coptic word noute, “god,” is neither an abstract noun, nor a substance, nor a material. John 1:1b has already identified God with the definite article, p-noute. Therefore, at John 1:1c, the indefinite article (o)u before noute should be fully translated: “the Word was a god,” just as ourwme would be translated “a man.” Additionally, the Sahidic Coptic expression for “was a god,” ne-u-noute pe at John 1:1c, is of the same construction as found at John 18:40, where it says of Barabbas that he ne-u-soone pe, “was a robber,” accurately rendering the Greek original, en de ho barabbas lestes. Here the Greek word for “robber” or “thief,” lestes, is anarthrous, without the definite article: “a robber.” No English version renders this, “Barabbas was Robber,” nor “Barabbas was robber-like.” Every single one renders: “Barabbas was a robber”, or “a thief,” and correctly so. Likewise, John 1:1c should not be rendered to say, “the Word was God,” whether the text is English or Coptic. There is no grammatical justification for rendering it that way.

In George Horner’s 1910 English translation of the Sahidic text he gives this translation:
“In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and [a] God was the word.”
(It may be noted that while Horner puts the indefinite article in brackets at John 1:1c, he does not do so consistently. For example, at John 18:40, where the exact same Coptic grammatical construction appears, Horner translates, “Barabbas was a robber,” without putting the indefinite article in brackets. There is no need to do so at John 1:1c.)
In another translation made from the Coptic text in 2003 by Lance Jenott we read:
“In the beginning existed the Word, and the Word existed with God, and the Word was a God.”
It may be noted that the earliest Coptic translation, the Sahidic, was likely made before Trinitarianism gained a foothold in the churches of the 4th century. That may be one reason why the Coptic translators saw no reason to violate the sense of John’s Greek by translating it “the Word was God.” By rendering the verse to read, “the Word was a god,” the ancient Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c faithfully and accurately translated the Greek text. But since this conflicts with the traditional and popular English translation, it may be why the ancient Sahidic Coptic version of John 1:1c is largely kept under wraps in academic religious circles today. Bible translators make some note of the Coptic readings for certain other verses, but not this one. And most new English Bible translations continue to translate this verse to say “the Word was God.” But the Coptic text provides clear evidence—from about 1700 years ago—that the most accurate English rendering of John 1:1c is “the Word was a god.”

*auw ne-u-noute pe pshaje*, diagrammed:
*auw = “and”;
*ne = verbal prefix denoting past tense, i.e., “was (being)”;
*u = Coptic indefinite article, “a,” contracted from ou following joined verbal prefix ne.
*noute = god
*pe = Coptic particle meaning “is” or “this one is.”
*p = Coptic definite article, “the” *shaje = “word”

Literally the Coptic says, “and - was being- a god - (is)- the -Word.” Or more smoothly in literal English, “and the Word was a god.”

The Coptic Bohairic version also has the indefinite article, written in full form, ou before the word for “god,” at John 1:1c, i.e., “a god.” This is basically the Bible in use by the modern Coptic church, reading in Coptic: ouoh ne ounoute pe Picaji, literally, “and was a god the Word.” However, certain English translations of the Coptic Bible ignore this fact. The modern Coptic Church, following Orthodox tradition since the 4th century C.E, rather than its Bible, ignores this reading to teach Trinitarianism. Similarly, the modern Greek Orthodox Church tradition, holding to the same doctrine, “invalidates” the reading of the Koine Greek text. (Compare Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:13) Sahidic: neunoute literally, “was a god,” Bohairic: ne ounouti literally, “was a god.”

A contemporary English Translation of the Coptic Text

The Gospel of John Chapter One.
1 In the beginning the Word existed. The Word existed in the presence of God, and the Word was a divine being. 2 This one existed in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into existence through him; without him nothing that exists came to be. What came to be 4 through him was life, the life that is the light of mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overtake it. 6.There came a man who was sent out by God, his name was John. 7 This one came to bear witness, to bear witness about the light, so that everyone may actively believe through him... 8 He was not the light, but his purpose was to bear witness about the light. 9 The real light which gives light to everyone was about to come into the world. 10 He was in the world, the world which came into existence through him, but the world did not know him. 11 He came to those who were his own, yet those who were his own did not receive him. 12 but he gave authority to become children of God to those who did receive him, to those actively believing in his name. 13 The origin of these was not flesh and blood, nor human will; they were begotten from God. 14 He was made flesh and lived with us. We saw his dignity, the dignity possessed by a Father’s only son; he was filled with divine loving-kindness and truth. 15 John bore witness about him, calling out and declaring, "This was the one concerning whom I said, ‘He who comes behind me has come to be ahead of me, because he existed prior to me.’" 16 From his fullness we all received life and divine loving-kindness upon divine loving-kindness. 17 The Law was given through Moses, but the divine loving-kindness and the truth came to be through Jesus, the Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God at any time. The divine being, the only Son who is in the bosom of his father, is the one who has revealed him.
Verse 1: Literally, “and the Word was a god.” Alternatively, “and the Word was divine.”

Verse 14: Dignity. Or, “glory.”

Verses 14, 16, 17: Divine loving-kindness; or, “unmerited favor.”

Verse 18: Or, “The god [who is] the only Son in the bosom of his Father.”

*The Coptic text is based on the texts of George W. Horner and J. Warren Wells. The text of J. Warren Wells is copyright, and used by permission of the author (9/11/06).

*The Interlinear Translation and the Contemporary English translation are Copyright 2006 by Solomon Landers.

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