Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Coptic, the Choice of Article IS Significant

Some apologists have made the claim that the use of the indefinite article ou in the Coptic bound construction ou.noute ["a-god"] at John 1:1c is insignificant, that it is merely a grammatical necessity that does not change the meaning from "the Word was God" to "the Word was a god."

But that is incorrect. Whereas in the Greek New Testament, the anarthrous theos, i.e., "god" without the Greek definite article, may mean either "God" or "a god" depending on context, Sahidic Coptic grammar has both the definite and the indefinite article , and the use of either Coptic article with a common or count noun like noute, "god," does have significance.

Although the use of the Coptic definite article with noute does not always refer to God Almighty [e.g., Acts 7:43] -- since the definite article can also be used anaphorically -- when God Almighty is the specific referent, the Coptic definite article is used routinely in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament.

The Sahidic Coptic translators had a choice at John 1:1c as to which bound construction to use, a definite one or an indefinite one, in accordance with Sahidic syntax and grammar. If they understood the Greek text to say "the Word was God" they would have used the Coptic definite article bound with the count noun: p.noute. They did not have to use the Coptic indefinite article unless they understood the Greek to actually say "the Word was a god," i.e., ou.noute pe pSaje.

Therefore, the fact that they did use the Coptic indefinite article at John 1:1c is very significant.

The Egyptian theologian Origen (c. 185-254) was roughly contemporaneous with the Egyptian Sahidic Coptic translators. Origen was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and taught there for a while. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen writes that even in the New Testament Greek text of John 1:1c, the choice of the article is significant. He says:

"We next notice John's use of of the [Greek] article in these sentences. He does not write without care in this respect, nor is he unfamiliar with the niceties of the Greek tongue....He uses the [Greek definite] article when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos ["the Word"] is named God who is over all is God with the article, not without it."

Origen also distinguishes between Almighty God, whom he calls "Autotheos, God of Himself," and the Word or Logos, who 'attracts divinity to himself' by being with God in intimate association, "not possessing that [divinity] of himself, but by his being with the Father." -- Ante Nicene Fathers, volume 9, page 323

If the Sahidic Coptic translators had a viewpoint similar to that of their fellow citizen and contemporary, Origen, it is more than likely that they also 'did not write without care' with respect to John 1:1c. It was not because they had no other option that they wrote "a god" [ou.noute] as the translation of the Greek's anarthrous theos in this verse.. They did have another option. They had the option of using the Coptic definite article here if they understood the Greek to mean "the Word was God" instead.

Nor did the Sahidic Coptic translators write "the Word was a god" out of ignorance of Greek grammar and syntax. Koine Greek was still a living language when the Sahidic Coptic translators did their work, and by then Greek had been a part of Egyptian culture for 500 years. If anything, it is likely that those Coptic translators had as good or better an understanding of the living Koine Greek as do scholars today.

The conclusion: The Coptic translators rendered John 1:1c from the Greek text to say "the Word was a god" because that is exactly what they understood it to say, not because they were grammatically ignorant of Greek, or grammatically restrained by Coptic from doing otherwise.


  1. Very interesting Memra. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, while not commenting on John's Gospel, nevertheless made a similar distinction between the one true God and his (Philo's) version of the logos based on the use and disuse of the Greek article.

    "And do not pass by what is here said, but examine it accurately, and see whether there are really two Gods. For it is said: 'I am the God who was seen by thee;' not in my place, but in the place of God, as if he meant of some other God. What then ought we to say? There is one true God only: but they who are called Gods, by an abuse of language, are numerous; on which account the holy scripture on the present occasion indicates that it is the true God that is meant by the use of the article, the expression being, 'I am the God [ho theos];' but when the word is used incorrectly, it is put without the article, the expression being, 'He who was seen by thee in the place,' not of the God [tou theou], but simply 'of God' [theou]; and what he here calls God is his most ancient word [logos]." (On Dreams, 1.228-230)

    It's irrefutable that the Greek-speaking Egyptians of the first few centuries viewed a major difference between an articular theos and an anarthrous theos occurring in the same context, a difference in identity. This is reflected wonderfully in the Coptic version of John 1:1 with the use of both types of articles.


  2. Thanks for the comments and the instructive reference to Philo.

  3. If Coptic grammar "necessitates" the indefinite article, yet the meaning remains "the Word was God," then there should be other instances in the Coptic NT where this would be so.

    It is my understanding that John 1:1 would be the only instance in the Coptic NT where God is referred to using the indefinite article.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Abernathy. You are correct.

    John 1:1 would not use the indefinite article when referring to God, since nowhere else in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament do we find such a usage.

    Coptic scholar Bentley Layton has written, "in Coptic, God is always without exception supplied with the def. article." This is when it refers to the One God of the Bible, "God" with a capital "G."

    Routinely, the Sahidic Coptic word "noute" does not mean "God," but "god." It may be used without any article at all, with the Sahidic Coptic indefinite article ("a god"), or with the Sahidic Coptic definite article ("God").

    Inasmuch as the indefinite article is used at John 1:1c in Coptic, the meaning is clearly "a god."

  5. You might find this quote interesting!

    LATIN & PART GREEK TEXT: “...Suscitavit enim mihi Deus aliud semen pro Abel.” Vides, quemnam maledictis incessant, qui honestam ac moderatam incessunt seminationem, et diabolo attribuunt generationem. Non enim simpliciter Deum dixit, qui articuli præmissione, nempe ὁ Θεός dicens, significavit eum, qui est omnipotens....” - (Book III Chapter 12, The Stromata by Clement of Alexandria (153-217) Translated by William Wilson.)

    CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 153 to 217 C.E.): “...'For God has raised up for me another child in Ables place.' You see who is the target of the slanders of those who show their disgust at responsible marriage and attribute the process of birth to the devil? ( Scripture ) does not merely refer to “a god”. By application of the ( definite – article ) it indicates the almighty ruler of the universe...” - (Book III. Chapter 12:81; Page 307. Stromata in “The Fathers Of The Church” Clement of Alexandria Stromateis Books 1-3, Translated by John Ferguson 1991.)

  6. Another English version of the above:

    CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (circa. 153 to 217 C.E.): “...For God has raised up for me other seed instead of Abel." You see who is the object of the blasphemy of those who abuse sober marriage and attribute birth to the devil? The Scripture here does not speak simply of a God, but of the God, indicating the Almighty by the addition of the definite article. ...” - (Book III. Chapter 12:81. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA - THE STROMATA, OR MISCELLANIES - BOOK III TThe Library of Christian Classics: Volume II, Alexandrian Christianity: Selected Translations of Clement and Origine with Introduction and Notes by John Ernest Leonard Oulton, D.D., Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Dublin; Chancellor of St. Patrick’s and Henry Chadwick, B.D., Fellow and Dean of Queens’ College Cambridge, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1954. pages 40-92.)

  7. (ORIGEN OF ALEXANDRIA): “...There was God with the article [1:1b] and God without the article [1:1c], then there were gods in two orders, at the summit of the higher order of whom is God the Word, transcended Himself by the God of the universe. And again, there was the Logos with the article and the Logos without the article, corresponding to God absolutely and a god..." - (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, translated by: Mensies, Allan, D.D., Professor of Biblical Criticism, St. Andrews University. Appearing as vol. q0 in: The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Origens Book 2, part 2, p 324. American Reprint of the Edinburgh 2nd Edition.)

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