Monday, February 8, 2010

Coptic John 1:1, Assumptions vs. Facts

ΑΥШ ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤΕ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ -- John 1:1, Sahidic Coptic text

It has been postulated that the Egyptian Coptic translators of the 2nd-3rd centuries would not have meant to say that "the Word was a god" -- even though that is precisely what they wrote -- ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤΕ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ -- because their translation would have been informed by the theology of the great Egyptian theologians like Clement of Alexandria. As translated into English by (Trinitarian) scholars, the writings of Clement appear to promote the concept that "the Word was God."

But it is only an assumption, not fact, to suppose that the Coptic translators would have been influenced by Clement of Alexandria, who had left Egypt for Jerusalem and Antioch, Syria, by 202 AD. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 2, p. 167) Besides, Clement was a "pagan philosopher," a disciple of Socrates and Plato before adopting Christianity, and his works show his continued interest in such philosophy to the point where he has been accused of "corrupting the gospel with Greek philosophy." (Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 2, pp. 165, 166; Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, p. 216)

According to its own tradition, the Coptic Church was founded by the evangelist Mark. We need only read Mark's Gospel to see what he preached, and what the earliest Egyptian Christians would have believed. Mark's Gospel has the simplest of Christologies and there is no doctrine of the Trinitiy in the Gospel of Mark.

The Coptic translation of John 1:1c lacks the 'corruption of Greek philosophy' that found its way into the church after the death of the apostles of the Lord. And that is still another reason why the Coptic translation matters.

Coptic John 1:1c is a prime example. The Coptic translation says ne.u.noute pe p.Saje: "the Word was a god (or, divine)," not "the Word was God." That is documented evidence, a fact, not an assumption. The Coptic language has both indefinite and definite articles in its grammatical structure. If the Sahidic Coptic translators held the doctrine that "the Word was God," or if the Coptic translators understood the Greek text to say "the Word was God," the Coptic language had the grammatical tools to say so.

But they manifestly did not write "the Word was God." They wrote "the Word was a god." Unlike the assumptions, that is a fact. It is a fact that can be verified by reading the extant Coptic texts as evidence.

Facts are always better than assumptions.

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.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Conclusions Based on the Coptic Text Itself

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" is both grammatical and contextual. Although "divine" is not altogether objectionable, since a god is divine by definition or attribution, 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 theological presuppositions or special pleading. Though such faulty, superficial objections have been cut and pasted frequently on the Internet, they are poorly researched, disingenuous, and misleading. Their main purpose has been, not to explain Coptic grammar, but to support a Trinitarian apologetic.

In one such apologetic, promising full disclosure of what some Coptic scholars "really said," the conclusion that ou.noute at John 1:1 fundamentally means "a god" is not changed. Rather, we read from such scholars that "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 the 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 an incorrect translation of Coptic ou.noute. In fact, the interlinear reading for Sahidic Coptic John 1:1c in scholar Bentley Layton's Coptic in 20 Lessons (2007)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 perform eisegesis by "reading 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, syntactical, and contextual ground.