Friday, December 28, 2012

John 1:1:
“and the Word was God”
A case of inaccurate English rendering:
Either the Word was "the God"
or the Word was "a god/God".
The Sahidic Coptic NT evidence /

Ιωάννης 1:1:
“ο Θεός” ή “θεός” (ενν. θεϊκός, θεοειδής);
Η μαρτυρία της Σαχιδικής Κοπτικής ΚΔ

From ‘God’ (ΘΕΟΣ) to ‘God’ (ΝΟΥΤΕ):
A New Discussion and Proposal
Regarding John 1:1C
and the Sahidic Coptic Version
of the New Testament


Due to the antiquity of the Sahidic Coptic version of the New Testament among early versions of the New Testament, it is a significant resource for New Testament textual criticism, reception history, and the history of interpretation. This article explores the manner in which the Sahidic Coptic version translates the anarthrous nominative singular (AnNS) θεός, and its effect on a key passage regarding the understanding of Jesus’ divinity. It does so by answering two distinct but related questions: (1) Did the Sahidic Coptic translators uniformly translate the AnNS θεός? (2) How can the assessment of the Sahidic Coptic translation pattern inform the discussion of the history, transcription, and translation of John 1:1c?

I. Introduction

The Sahidic Coptic version of the New Testament is among the most important of the early versions of the New Testament. Most scholars place the Sahidic Coptic translation no later than the fourth century and as early as the second.1 Given its early date, coupled with the fact that it is highly representative of the Alexandrian form of text,2 the Sahidic Coptic version of the New Testament provides a unique window into the transmission, reception, and interpretation of the New Testament text. Furthermore, given the Coptic text's ability to reliably signify information about the Greek text3 (e.g. word order4), extant Sahidic Coptic manuscripts comprise a rich deposit of data about what that early Greek text would have looked like and how it was understood at the time of translation. With that understanding in mind, this article explores a new area of discussion concerning the Sahidic Coptic version: its translation of the anarthrous nominative singular (AnNS) θεός.

No current academic publication examines whether Sahidic Coptic translators uniformly translated θεός from their New Testament Vorlage. In fact, New Testament scholars have almost uniformly ignored the manner in which Sahidic Coptic translators used the Coptic articles with Graphic to reproduce Greek constructions involving θεός. As a result, what little information there is on the Coptic use of the article contains inaccuracies. For example, one standard Coptic grammar states: ‘Graphic always takes [the definite article] Graphic when referring to the God of the Bible.’5 Likewise, one Coptic lexicon states that Graphic always (‘toujours’) carries the equivalence of ‘ὁ Θεός’.6 These assessments, while helpful in general, are not axiomatic. For example, if we were to take a look at the 12 instances of the anarthrous Graphic, two of them (Rom. 1:21 and Rev. 16:7) plainly refer to ‘the God of the Bible’. Only four of them (John 10:35, 1 Cor. 8:4 and 5, and 2 Thess. 2:4) actually follow Layton's maxim: that is, the anarthrous Graphic refers to an entity other than ‘the God of the Bible’.7 The same type of variation exists when the converse of the rule is examined: there are two examples of Graphic occurring with the definite article that do not refer to ‘the God of the Bible’ (Acts 7:43 and 2 Cor. 4:4).

Without canvassing all the issues or opportunities previous treatments raise, we will answer two distinct but connected questions: (1) Did the Sahidic Coptic translators uniformly translate the AnNS θεός? (2) What can that uniformity (or the lack thereof) tell us about one of the earliest understandings of John 1:1c? In order to answer these two questions, we will define our database parameters, evaluate the translation pattern in the Sahidic Coptic version, and assess the results, particularly with respect to John 1:1c.

II. Main Database

The first step in building our database8 is to assess how often the nominative singular θεός occurs within the Greek New Testament. Through various analyses in individual manuscripts as well as compiled New Testament texts and modern critical texts, we were able to place that number at a little greater than 300.9 Of those roughly three hundred occurrences, fewer than 10 percent are anarthrous.10 Most importantly for this study, of those AnNS θεός, only four were transcribed with the Sahidic Coptic indefinite article: John 1:1, 1 Cor. 8:6, Eph. 4:6, and 2 Thess. 2:4. These are, in fact, four of only five times the indefinite article occurs with Graphic in the New Testament. Acts 28:6, which is translated from an anarthrous accusative θεόν, is the only other instance of this same construction. Hence, every time the indefinite article occurs with Graphic, it parallels an anarthrous form of θεός.

To be sure, one must keep in mind that the Copts would have translated from the particular manuscripts in front of them, rather than from critical texts as we do today. Therefore, it is difficult to say in some cases whether a given Coptic text differs from our Greek text because of a translational issue rather than a textual one, or vice versa.11 Consequently, in defining the set of texts to examine, we cast a wide net. We looked at all occurrences of the AnNS θεός in seven early New Testament manuscripts: P46 (2nd c.), ℵ (4th), A (5th), B (4th), C (5th), D/05 (5th), and D/06 (6th). Additionally, we examined the Robinson-Pierpont Majority text.12 In all, our searches produced 31 instances of the AnNS θεός (see Table 1).

View this table:
Table 1.
AnNS θεός in selected New Testament manuscripts

Because these texts are not uniform, it is necessary to determine which manuscripts (if any) the Sahidic Coptic New Testament follows. This requires some assumptions on our part. Our first assumption is that if there is no variant involving the article and θεός, then the Sahidic translators would have had an AnNS θεός in front of them. This holds true in 21 of the 31 cases.13 In the other ten cases, our job is not so simple. To proceed, our second assumption is that, due to the Alexandrian nature of the Sahidic Coptic text, if ℵ and B are united on a particular variant, then the translators would have had that reading in front of them. This holds true for John 1:18, John 8:54, and Phil. 2:13.14 Mark 12:32 is the exception to this rule. The Coptic text follows a θεός only present in articular form in D/05; it is anarthrous in the TR, E, W, and a few other manuscripts. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell from which form the Coptic text derives its reading, since both forms of the variants can be represented by the Coptic Graphic. This also holds true in the cases of Matt. 22:32, Mark 12:27, Gal. 2:6, and Rev. 4:11. The final two references can be sorted out on their own merits. For 1 Tim. 3:16, neither the Sahidic Coptic witnesses nor our seven Greek manuscripts above even contain Graphic/θεός; it most certainly is not translated from an AnNS θεός. On the other hand, only A even contains θεός in Rev. 21:3, making it certain that the Coptic text (which contains Graphic) followed the AnNS θεός. Therefore, our final list of 25 Coptic texts that follow Greek texts with an AnNS θεός is as shown in Table 2.

View this table:
Table 2.
Sahidic Coptic New Testament texts translated from an AnNS θεός

III. Translation Pattern

At first glance, the database for the Coptic indefinite article with Graphic can appear either insignificant or purposefully selective.15 As is mentioned above, even if one expands the search to include every other case form, there is only one other instance of the indefinite article with Graphic: Acts 28:6. This single additional reference further supports the fact that the Sahidic Coptic translators rarely used the indefinite article Graphic with Graphic, regardless of case form. What is more, we also found no other examples of this construction in the following critical texts: the Letter of Peter to Philip, the First Revelation of James, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, A Book of Allogenes, Egerton Papyrus 2: The Unknown Gospel, and Other Unidentified Gospel Fragments (i.e. P.Vindob.G 2325, P.Mert. 51, P.Oxy. 210, P.Oxy. 1224, P.Oxy. 840, and P.Berol. 11710).16 What explains this selectivity?

Further examination of the five indefinite occurrences of Graphic (see Table 3) reveals four possible scenarios regarding the Sahidic Coptic translations: (1) The indefinite article functioned as a stylistic marker. (2) The indefinite article indicated the presence or absence of the Greek definite article, without making an interpretative distinction. (3) Coptic syntax required the translators to employ the indefinite article. (4) The indefinite article allowed for an interpretative distinction between the definite, indefinite, and qualitative use of θεός: ‘God’ vs. ‘a god’ vs. ‘possessing the qualities of God [or a god]’.

View this table:
Table 3.
The indefinite article with Graphic in the Sahidic Coptic version of the New Testament

A. Stylistic Issues

Our small sample size is itself a clue to the Copts’ use of the indefinite article, or their neglect of it altogether. Of the 25 instances of the AnNS θεός, the vast majority are reflected in the Sahidic Coptic version with the definite article (21/25; 84%). Of these, the vast majority are also in reference to ‘the God of the Bible’ (20/25; 80%).17 It is no exaggeration to suggest, then, that the Coptic translators were disinclined to use anything other than the definite article when translating θεός.18 If the Coptic translators were so reluctant to use the indefinite article with Graphic, our question must not be ‘what uniformly required the translators to use the indefinite article?’ but instead ‘what individual circumstances required the use of a disfavoured construction?’

One such stylistic circumstance is narrative: specifically, the movement within a narrative from an unknown to a known entity. Layton notes instances in which the indefinite article is used to indicate an unknown entity in a story before it becomes the known entity, at which point the definite article can be utilized.19 Luke 9:34–5 represents one such example. In the transfiguration story, an unknown entity, ‘a cloud’ (Graphic), overshadows the group. Then, the group enters ‘the cloud’ (Graphic) and hears a voice from ‘the cloud’ (Graphic). As seen, the latter two references became the known entity, now definite, since the unknown entity had already been introduced.

Such an explanation is tempting in the case of our two narrative texts, John 1:1 and Acts 28:6. Unfortunately, neither matches the conditions well. For example, Graphic would need to be an ‘unknown’ entity in John 1:1; it is not. It would need to occur with the indefinite article first; it does not. Then, it would need to be followed by the definite article; it is not. And even if all those characteristics were ignored, the more likely candidate for ‘unknown to known entity’ in this verse would be ‘the Word’ (Graphic). The problem, though, is that within these four verses ‘the Word’ occurs exclusively with the definite article. The same can be said for Acts 28:6. There is no point later on in the narrative that refers to the definite Graphic. These texts, then, are simply not attempting to introduce an unknown god that subsequently becomes known.

The narrative stylistic solution, therefore, is not probable. It neither accounts for the other non-narrative texts (1 Cor. 8:6, Eph. 4:6, and 2 Thess. 2:4) nor the circumstances of the two narrative texts (John 1:1 and Acts 28:6). Though such a solution is tempting, the evidence does not support it.

B. Indicating the Presence or Absence of the Greek Article

As is stated above, of these 25 Greek New Testament passages, 21 of them are translated without an indefinite Graphic. This eliminates the possibility that the Coptic translators were systematically using the indefinite article to reflect the anarthrous θεός. That is not to say there is no value in using Coptic articles to make assumptions about the Greek text the translators would have been using. One must of course be cautious; just because the Coptic version contains a definite article does not mean its Vorlage did as well. On the other hand, it is highly probable that the Greek Vorlage lacked the article if the Coptic text attests the indefinite article. Both of these observations are especially important due to the increasing amount of Coptic MS discoveries and their use in critical Greek texts. For example, there are roughly 182 Coptic MSS of the Gospel of John in the Sahidic dialect. That number includes five complete MSS of John's Gospel (i.e. sa 505, 506, 508, 561, 600), 38 lectionaries, and three other liturgical MSS.20 This is certainly evidence that ought to be considered in assessing studies such as our own. But the preponderance of manuscript evidence does nothing to support the suggestion that the Coptic translators were using the indefinite article to indicate the presence or absence of the Greek article with θεός systematically. They simply were not.

C. Syntactical Issues

If the few occurrences of the indefinite article with Graphic cannot be explained by means of style, or by accounting for the presence or absence of the Greek article, let us examine individual syntactical issues that might require the use of the indefinite article.

1. John 1:1

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος Graphic and the word was [a] god This verse follows Layton's sixth pattern for nominal sentences (‘Entity Term Graphic Entity Term’).21 As he points out, ‘identification of predicate and subject is not signalled at the level for the individual sentence; rather, it is signalled within a larger unit of text’. In this case, the larger unit (the remainder of John 1:1–4) makes clear that Graphic is the subject. Another consideration is the converse of Lambdin's classification for nominal sentences. He notes: ‘If the subject and predicate are both definite, the normal position of Graphic is between them … Identification of subject and predicate in this case can be made only on a contextual basis.’22 In our case, the problem is not determining the subject between two definite entities, but evaluating the indefinite Graphic along with the definite subject Graphic. Either way, Lambdin's observation makes clear that the indefinite article is not required in the service of grammatical clarity in John 1:1c.

2. Acts 28:6

ἔλεγον αὐτὸν εἶναι θεόν Graphic they said he was a god The grammar of Acts 28:6 is very similar to that of John 1:1. The few differences, however, make the case against the syntactical necessity of the indefinite article even more stark. That is to say, there is no other entity necessitating differentiation of the subject from the predicate. Indeed, there is no predicate. Consequently, it is even clearer that the indefinite article is not required by the semantics.

3. First Corinthians 8:6 and Ephesians 4:6

εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ εἷς θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ
Graphic Graphic
one God, the father One God [and] father

The similar Greek constructions in 1 Cor. 8:6 and Eph. 4:6 yield similar Coptic constructions. In at least these two verses, the presence of the indefinite article can indeed be explained entirely on syntactical grounds. The indefinite article is simply functioning numerically (for ‘one’). The presence of Graphic merely strengthens the case for such an interpretation.23

4. Second Thessalonians 2:4

ἀποδεικνύντα ἑαυτὸν ὅτι ἔστιν θεός Graphic displaying himself as [a] god 2 Thess. 2:4 presents the richest single deposit for our comparisons in one of the most enigmatic sections of the New Testament (2:3–12).24 Within a span of 23 words, all three Graphic constructions occur: definite, indefinite, and anarthrous. The definite and anarthrous constructions are easily understood: the definite construction, ‘the temple of God’ (Graphic), refers to ‘the God of the Bible’ while the anarthrous construction, ‘so-called god’ (Graphic), reflects its idolatrous context. The indefinite construction proves a bit more difficult since this construction is a nominal sentence, with a single entity followed by Graphic. This follows Layton's fourth pattern for nominal sentences—unfortunately, such recognition does not make interpretation any easier.25

The Coptic text can be understood a few different ways: (1) referring to ‘the God of the Bible’ (‘displaying himself as God’ or ‘as if he were God’); (2) referring to a god other than ‘the God of the Bible’ (‘displaying himself as a god’); or (3) referring to the qualities of God (‘displaying himself as if he has the qualities of God’). Although the majority of critical commentaries translate θεός as ‘God’, they often still note something to the fact that Paul may have intended the anarthrous θεός to simply mean ‘a god’ or ‘divine’.26 We concur. Indeed, in the following section, we will outline our current understanding of John 1:1, Acts 28:6, and 2 Thess. 2:4. We believe that the best explanation for the indefinite article in the three remaining references will be one that unifies and explains them accordingly.27

D. Indicating an Interpretative Distinction

There is an accepted view that ‘the [Greek] article appears when the specific Jewish or Christian God or Lord is meant (not “a being of divine name” or “a Lord”)’.28 However, while this assertion is generally true, it is not always true. For example, θεός in Rom. 8:33 is referring to ‘the God of the Bible’, though it lacks the article. In Phil. 3:19, θεός has the article, yet it does not refer to the Jewish or Christian God.29 Furthermore, several scholars have shown that there is no firm, fine, or consistent distinction between the articular and the anarthrous θεός.30

The same accepted view and critique holds true within the Coptic language. For example, Rev. 16:7 has no Coptic article with Graphic, while clearly speaking of ‘the God of the Bible’: κύριε ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ Graphic Lord God, the Almighty On the other hand, 2 Cor. 4:4 is clearly referring to a god other than ‘the God of the Bible’, yet the definite article is attested: ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου Graphic the god of this age This assessment holds true regardless of how one takes the Greek genitive construction following it (epexegetical, objective, possessive, etc.). It is clear, then, that 2 Cor. 4:4 does not refer to ‘God’ in any canonical sense. Furthermore, ‘the God of the Bible’ is referred to as ‘the King of the ages’ (e.g. 1 Tim. 1:17; Τῷ δὲ βασιλεῖ τῶν αἰώνων), never this present age.31

With that in mind, our purpose is to examine the Sahidic Coptic evidence to see whether it suggests that the translators were attempting to make an interpretative distinction between the definite, indefinite, and qualitative use of the article. Layton describes the qualitative category this way: ‘A descriptive predicate is one that speaks of an entity by its quality but without explicitly naming (denoting) the particular entity to which it refers.’32 Rather than speaking of ‘the God of the Bible’ (definite) or some pagan god (indefinite), our three remaining references would be speaking of the qualities of whatever God or gods the speaker/author had in mind.

In the case of Acts 28:6, it is clear that ‘the God of the Bible’ is not the entity the local Maltese population means by θεόν. This reference alone adds credence to this explanation for the indefinite article. On the other hand, 2 Thess. 2:4 does not possess such contextual clarity. It is impossible to say for certain whether the Copts would have understood the final θεός of 2 Thess. 2:4 to refer to ‘the God of the Bible’ or some sort of false god; indeed, even modern commentaries differ on that interpretation. For example, Pervo states that the islanders take a more-than-180-degree turn and conclude that Paul is not simply a ‘protégé of a god, but a very god’.33 In addition, although not a critical commentary, Dunn suggests terms like ‘divine’ and ‘god-likeness’ here.34

The lack of any other clarification of the article supports the idea that its meaning must be relatively self-evident, and it must be so in all three references. However, where the explanation of using the indefinite article as a contextual marker for indefiniteness falls short, the understanding of using the indefinite article to indicate a qualitative distinction stands out. In both Acts 28:6 and 2 Thess. 2:4, it is possible to translate the indefinite Graphic as well as the AnNS θεός descriptively (i.e. ‘he possessed the qualities of a god [or of God]’).

IV. Applying the Results to John 1.1c

Over 50 years ago, Bruce Metzger explicitly rejected the rendering ‘a god’ in John 1:1c as reflected in the Jehovah's Witnesses’ own translation of the NT, The New World Translation.35 His primary argument in both noted publications congregated around Greek grammar (i.e. Colwell's Rule); it remains a popular argument today.36 But scholars have shown the need for clarification, adequately demonstrating why that argument leaves much to be desired.37 Our purpose, then, is to apply the results of our Coptic study to this debate to see how this early version sheds light on the history of interpretation and potentially helps one translate and interpret these verses.

Although we did not initially include John 1:1c due to its debated nature, it is now time to examine it in the light of our discussion above. If one accepts our arguments, then the best way to understand the Copts’ use of the indefinite article is that they were making an interpretative, qualitative distinction. This distinction was to describe the qualities of whatever god/entity was being referenced by the speaker, author, or both. Thus, the Maltese population in Acts 28:6 were simply saying that Paul had the qualities of ‘a god’ as they perceived the gods. In other words: ‘It is not that Luke intended their verdict to be taken literally: his earlier campaign against false ideas of God and of God's relation to humankind was too clear and sustained for such a conclusion to be possible … and those who speak the words are, after all, “barbarians”.’38 This fits well with how the Copts were probably understanding the text: descriptively. It is not that the ‘barbarians’ were calling Paul a ‘false god’, or a ‘lesser divine god’, but that they were describing him as one characterized as having the qualities of ‘a god’ as they understood the gods.

Likewise, the best understanding of 2 Thess. 2:4 is that the author is referring to the qualities of ‘the God of the Bible’, even though the ‘man of lawlessness’ is not meant to be understood as ‘the God of the Bible’. As Malherbe said: ‘It is therefore preferable to understand the characterization as of someone who is so self-aggrandizing that he vaunts himself against all gods whatsoever, perceived or real.’39 Again, this complements how the Copts probably understood the text: descriptively. It is not that the ‘man of lawlessness’ will exult himself as a ‘false god’, or a ‘lesser divine god’, but that he was one claiming the qualities of God (in this case, ‘the God of the Bible’).

The same category applies to John 1:1c. This qualitative/descriptive understanding makes the best sense within John's prologue. The Copts understood John to be saying that ‘the Word’ has the same qualities as ‘the God of the Bible’. On the other hand, if one disagrees with our arguments above, the only other viable interpretations given the other usages would suggest that the Copts understood ‘the Word’ to be either a ‘god of the pagans’ (cf. Acts 28:6) or some ‘usurper god’ (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). Yet, this leaves one with much wider problems.

First, there are other passages in the Coptic text which explicitly call Jesus θεός, with the definite article, even in the same chapter and book (e.g. John 1:18; 20:28; cf. Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20). It is improbable, then, that the Coptic translators would have taken the author of the Gospel of John to mean for ‘the Word’ to be a ‘pagan god’ or ‘usurper god’ in John 1:1, and then ‘the God of the Bible’ 17 verses later. Yet even if one rejects all of these texts, the manuscript evidence shows that at least at some point early in history the Copts felt comfortable ascribing Graphic to Jesus, as seen in P.11710: Graphic.40 Second, there were other Coptic words available to them to denote the idea of ‘the Word’ being merely divine, as some sort of ‘godly’ or even ‘god-like’ entity (e.g. Graphic in 2 Pet. 1:3, 4 respectively).41 Third, the overall context of the pericope, chapter, book, and New Testament decreases the probability of any interpretation other than the qualitative one. To this point, it is worth noting Sadananda in full: It is not in the title or in the abstract categories [love, light, truth], but in the text context that theological thinking enfolds and is expressed. The text context is not merely a linguistic one, it reflects the socio-cultural context. By way of exploring human experience, and understanding the concrete community context which created the ‘text contexts’, we encounter not only in the explicit theological language, but also in silent implicit symbols, ‘the God’ of the community.42 Fourth, other examples of common nouns with indefinite articles, such as ‘prophet’ or ‘spirit’, clash with either interpretation (i.e. a ‘pagan prophet/spirit’ or a ‘usurper prophet/spirit’). Compare, for example, John 4:19 and John 6:14: John 4:19:  λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· κύριε, θεωρῶ ὅτι προφήτης εἶ σύ. Graphic. The woman said to him: ‘Sir, I see that you are [one who has the qualities of] a prophet.’ John 6:14:  Οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον. GraphicGraphic. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say: ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ These four reasons alone decrease (or possibly eliminate) the likelihood that the Copts understood (or meant to use the indefinite article to suggest) ‘the Word’ to be either a ‘god of the pagans’ or some ‘usurper god’.

V. Conclusion

Coming full circle, we conclude by offering our proposal in regards to the initial two questions we posed:

A. Did the Sahidic Coptic Translators Uniformly Translate the AnNS θεός?

The answer to this question depends at least in part on what we mean by ‘uniformly’. If we mean ‘categorically, without exception’, then, no, the nominative singular θεός is not translated uniformly. As is laboured over above, there are instances where the Copts translated passages with the AnNS θεός without the article or with an indefinite article. However, ‘categorically, without exception’ is a standard that no translation, ancient or modern, is held to. Instead, ‘uniformly’ is best taken as ‘regularly’. In which case, yes, the Copts regularly translated the nominative singular θεός with the definite article.

To the question of what to do with those instances in which the Coptic translators did not use the definite article, we can start by ruling out three of the four solutions we examined: (1) There was no overriding stylistic reason that explained every occurrence. (2) It was not used merely to indicate the presence or absence of the Greek article. (3) There was no syntactical requirement that accounted for all the examples. We propose then, that the indefinite article, absent any other considerations, was used with Graphic within Sahidic Coptic grammar to indicate an interpretative distinction, categorically labelled in Coptic grammars as ‘descriptive’ (or ‘qualitative’ in Greek grammars).

B. What Can that Uniformity (or the Lack thereof) Tell Us about One of the Earliest Understandings of John 1:1c?

We propose that the best way to take the indefinite article in John 1:1c is as an attempt by the Copts to interpret the anarthrous θεός descriptively/qualitatively. As a result, they interpreted and translated John 1.1c to mean that ‘the Word’ possesses the same qualities as ‘the God of the Bible’. This interpretation best explains and complements the other passages in the Coptic text which explicitly call Jesus θεός, the other Coptic words available to them to denote something different, the specific and broader context within the book and New Testament, the other indefinite common noun references, and the history of transmission regarding this title being ascribed to Jesus.43 This solution also accounts for the similarities of syntax between the three passages, and takes into account the Copts’ apparent confidence that the indefinite article would be understood properly without any further clarification.

The other New Testament references we examined do not support the concept of some in-between category of ‘sort of god’ or a ‘lesser divine god’. To place John 1:1c in this category would require substantial arguments that have gone undetected in this work. In fact, the argument(s) would have to add enough plausibility that the Copts understood John to open his Gospel with an interpretation that appears different from anything attested elsewhere.


  • 1 For a survey of scholarly opinion, see Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 127; Arthur Vööbus, Early Versions of the New Testament: Manuscript Studies (Stockholm: Papers of the Estonian Theological Society in Exile, 1954), pp. 219–20; and Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd edn., vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1995), p. 35. Frederik Wisse (‘The Coptic Versions of the New Testament’, in The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Quaestionis [Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1995], pp. 134–6) updates the discussion and sees a three-stage development for the Sahidic translation, but still places the earliest stage of that development in the third century.
  • 2 So Vööbus, Early Versions, p. 227; Koester, History and Literature, p. 35; and Wisse, ‘Coptic Versions’, p. 127.
  • 3 Vööbus, Early Versions, p. 225. With the obvious linguistic caveats in mind, see J. Martin Plumley, ‘Limitations of Coptic (Sahidic) in Representing Greek’, in Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, pp. 141–52. For caution in scholarly usage of Coptic manuscripts for textual criticism, see Christian Askeland, ‘Has the Coptic Tradition Been Properly Used in New Testament Textual Criticism?’ (paper presented at the annual meeting of the SBL, Boston, MA, 22 Nov. 2008) and Peter J. Williams, ‘On the Representation of Sahidic within the Apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece’, Journal of Coptic Studies 8 (2006), pp. 123–5.
  • 4 Wisse, ‘Coptic Versions’, p. 132.
  • 5 Bentley Layton, A Coptic Grammar: Sahidic Dialect (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000), p. 39.
  • 6 The author understands ‘ὁ Θεός’ in the sense of the God of the Jews and Christians (‘dans le sens du Judaïsme et du Christianisme’). Werner Vycichl, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte (Leuven: Peeters, 1984) p. 145.
  • 7 In the other six instances, Coptic utilizes a multi-word phrase containing Graphic to translate a single Greek term: Graphic for θεοστυγεῖς in Rom. 1:30 (‘God-haters’), and Graphic for εὐσέβειαν in 1 Tim. 6:5, 2 Pet. 1:3, 1:6–7, and 3:11 (‘godliness’).
  • 8 For the Greek New Testament, Accordance 8.4.6 produced the statistics and was cross-checked with Bibleworks 8. For the Sahidic Coptic version, we examined The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect, Otherwise Called Sahidic and Thebaic, with Critical Apparatus, Literal English Translation, Register of Fragments and Estimate of the Version, ed. George W. Horner (7 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911–24); Hans Quecke, Das Johannesevangelium saïdisch: Text der Handschrift PPalau Rib. Inv.–Nr. 183 mit den Varianten der Handschriften 813 und 814 der Chester Beatty Library und der Handschrift M569 (Barcelona: Papyrologica Castroctaviana, 1984); The Coptic Version of the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles in the Sahidic Dialect, ed. Herbert Thompson (Cambridge, 1932); David Kneip, ‘The Text of Romans in Sahidic Coptic’ (M.Div. thesis, Abilene Christian University, 2004); and the Sahidica 2010 text compiled by J. Warren Wells, available at <>.
  • 9 Within the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland text (NA27), for example, the nominative singular θεός occurs 309 times in 287 New Testament verses. The Westcott-Hort New Testament has 296 occurrences in 279 verses. The Textus Receptus (TR) has 316 occurrences in 291 verses.
  • 10 See Table 1 for details.
  • 11 Karlheinz Schüssler examines the vagaries of such a study (i.e. moving between modern eclectic texts and ancient MSS) for the Gospel of John in particular (‘Some Pecularities of the Coptic (Sahidic) Translations of the Gospel of John’, Journal of Coptic Studies 10 [2008], pp. 41–62).
  • 12 The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, compiled and arranged by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (Southborough, MA: Hilton Book Publishing, 2005).
  • 13 Luke 20:38; John 1:1; Acts 15:8; Rom. 8:33, 9:5; 1 Cor. 3:7, 8:4 and 6; 2 Cor. 1:3 and 21, 5:5 and 19, 6:16; Gal. 6:7; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 2:5; 2 Thess. 2:4; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 3:4, 11:16; Rev. 21:7. Notice that all four of our special cases (those translated into Coptic without the definite article) appear on this list. To satisfy the reader's curiosity, let it be known that Acts 28:6 (the only other occurrence of Graphic without the definite article) also lacks any variants having to do with θεός.
  • 14 John 1:18 and 8:54 can both be validated independently of this assumption, lending it credence. In the case of John 1:18, A and the Majority text have ὗιος instead of θεός. Additionally, P75 and a corrector of ℵ add the article in front of μονογενὴς. But the original hand of ℵ and our other manuscripts overwhelmingly support the AnNS θεός. For John 8:54, while it does have a variant (among others, P66 and L are articular), our manuscripts are entirely united on the AnNS θεός.
  • 15 Indeed, we understand what a small database this is. Nevertheless, one must not dismiss the discussion for two reasons: (1) As is demonstrated above, it is a substantive database nonetheless. (2) Taken as a whole, these references do present us with a coherent answer. Therefore, we contend that this small yet justifiable database yields legitimate results/conclusions.
  • 16 Cf. Andrew E. Bernhard, Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts (New York: T & T Clark, 2007); April D. DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (New York: T & T Clark, 2006); Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008).
  • 17 John 1:1, John 1:18, and Rom. 9:5 refer to Jesus. 1 Cor. 8:4 and 2 Thess. 2:4 are ambiguous.
  • 18 To belabour this point just a bit more, of these particular 25 references, there are only two occurrences in which the referent of θεός is clearly ‘the God of the Bible’, yet is translated without the definite article: 1 Cor. 8:6 and Eph. 4:6. In both cases, the indefinite article paired with Graphic functions numerically.
  • 19 Bentley Layton, Coptic in 20 Lessons (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), p. 15.
  • 20 Schüssler, ‘Some Pecularities’, p. 42. His recent MS calculation helps explain the now ‘1057 Coptic citations of John's gospel in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece’ (Askeland, ‘Coptic Tradition’, p. 1).
  • 21 Layton, A Coptic Grammar, §268.
  • 22 Thomas Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983), p. 15.
  • 23 Layton, A Coptic Grammar, §158b.
  • 24 James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem (vol. 2 of Christianity in the Making [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009]), p. 717.
  • 25 Layton, A Coptic Grammar, §267.
  • 26 See, among others, Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 283. In that same vein, though, it is necessary throughout this discussion to keep in mind the different levels of meaning, interpretation, and understanding happening in translation. The discussion that follows regarding the best understanding of 2 Thess. 2:4 and what its author would have meant is a separate one from how the Copts would have understood the text, which even still is a separate discussion from how the text is understood today. Nevertheless, we do not think ‘a god’ or ‘divine’ is the most probable translation.

    In our opinion, the (1) scriptural context (e.g. referring specifically to ‘the man of lawlessness / son of destruction’), (2) grammatical constructions (e.g. the use of ναός with combined definite articles; τὸν ναὸν τοῦ θεοῦ), (3) OT allusion(s) (e.g. Isa. 14:13–14; Ezek. 28:2; Dan. 11:36–7), (4) semantic range (e.g. the main verb of this phrase [ἀποδείκνυμι] means ‘to show forth the quality of an entity’ [BDAG 108]), and (5) authorial intent (e.g. translating it qualitatively ‘is preferable as representing not what a pagan or apostate might say [“I am a god or am divine”] but rather the claim of a Christian writer [a usurper declares: “I am God”]’), (Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995], p. 329) significantly increase the probability of understanding/translating θεός qualitatively.
  • 27 It is already the case that these three references utilize the same syntax for nominal constructions (all three are simple nominal sentences).
  • 28 Friedrich Blass, Albert Debrunner, and Robert Walter Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and ed. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 133.
  • 29 Cf. Acts 7:43 and 2 Cor. 4:4 (the latter is discussed below).
  • 30 See, among others, Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), p. 29; Daniel Rathnakara Sadananda, The Johannine Exegesis of God: An Exploration into the Johannine Understanding of God (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), p. 177.
  • 31 The distinction between ‘ruler/king of this age’ and ‘ruler/king of the ages’ was also consistently maintained after the New Testament, e.g. in the Apostolic Fathers (cf. among others Ign. Magn. 1.3 and 1 Clem. 61.2).
  • 32 Layton, A Coptic Grammar, p. 227.
  • 33 Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Minneapolis, MN; Fortress, 2009), p. 674. His assessment is contra the majority of other critical commentaries. See also F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1988), p. 499; Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 2007), p. 744.
  • 34 Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, pp. 999, 1001, n. 195.
  • 35 Bruce M. Metzger, ‘On the Translation of John i.1’, ExpTim 63 (1951–2), pp. 125–6; id., ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ’, ThTo 10 (1953), pp. 65–85.
  • 36 See e.g. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), p. 49; Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in his Day and ours (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), p. 473; J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) p. 48. n. 10.
  • 37 Matthew P. Morgan, ‘The Legacy of a Letter: Sabellianism or Scribal Blunder in John 1:1c?’, in Daniel B. Wallace (ed.), Revisiting the Corruption of the NT: Manuscript, Patristic and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, forthcoming). Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 257–62; id., ‘The Implications of an Indefinite Θεός in John 1.1c’ (paper presented at the annual meeting of the ETS, Danvers, MA, 18 Nov. 1999).
  • 38 James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Peterborough: Epworth, 1996), p. 347. Furthermore, Luke did not attempt to portray Paul as a θεῖος ἀνήρ (C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2 [New York: T & T Clark, 1998], p. 1224). Cf., among others, Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 499; Bock, Acts, p. 744; Acts Thom. 106.
  • 39 Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 420.
  • 40 Bernhard, Other Early Christian Gospels, p. 127.
  • 41 Walter E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), p. 231. See also Horner, Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect, pp. 67, n. 3, 68–9, n. 4.
  • 42 Sadananda, The Johannine Exegesis of God, p. 11.
  • 43 See n. 40.

* Brian J. Wright & Tim Ricchuiti,
From ‘God’ (ΘΕΟΣ) to ‘God’ (ΝΟΥΤΕ):
A New Discussion and Proposal Regarding John 1:1C
and the Sahidic Coptic Version of the New Testament
Journal of Theological Studies Vol./Τόμ. 62, Issue/Τεύχος 2,
pp./σσ. 494-512.
[English/Αγγλικά, PDF, HTML]

* See also: / Βλέπε επίσης:



* Also: / Επίσης:

Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche
Volume 103, Issue 1, Pages 142–145, ISSN (Online) 1613-009X, ISSN (Print) 0044-2615,
DOI: 10.1515/znw-2012-0008, February 2012.


Memra said...

The problem with the authors' conclusion is that it relies on a particular view of what "qualitative" means. Like Daniel Wallace, they take "qualitative" to mean, essentially, grammaticaly definite, by saying that at John 1:1c it means that the Word is God in every respect that "the God of the Bible" is God. In other words, "the Word was God."

This leads to the false assumption that the 2nd/3rd century Copts "must" have understood John 1:1 only in the same way that Trinitarians since the 4th century have understood it.

It also enshrines the false assumption that in Scripture, "god/God" (elohim, theos) can refer only to the God of the Bible or to pagan deities:

"On the other hand, if one disagrees with our arguments above, the only other viable interpretations given the other usages would suggest that the Copts understood ‘the Word’ to be either a ‘god of the pagans’ (cf. Acts 28:6) or some ‘usurper god’ (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4)."

But it is not true that "theos" at John 1:1c must apply either to the true God or to some false God;
that is modern Western usage, not Semitic, Biblical usage.

Thus, it cannot be legitimately denied that John used the anarthrous "theos" at John 1:1 to say that the Word was a god, as understood in the Semitic world of which John himself was a part, and that the Coptic translators, who ware also familiar with the "Old Testament," understood the text in the same way.

(Intentionally?) disregarded is the fact that there is a third, legitimate usage for that term (theos) in Scripture: divine beings like angels and even men to whom divine authority has been delegated.

Therefore, the Bible gives credence to a natural translation of the Coptic indefinite phrase OYNOUTE as "a god" or "a divine being," not just qualitative "God" as "qualitative" is defined by Trinitarians.

The simplest and clearest understanding of Coptic John 1:1: "the Word was a god (or, divine)
is obfuscated by the typical verbosity of this essay, no doubt because it does not fit the theology of the authors.

See also:

digiSapientia said...

They say:
"These four reasons alone decrease (or possibly eliminate) the likelihood that the Copts understood (or meant to use the indefinite article to suggest) ‘the Word’ to be either a ‘god of the pagans’ or some ‘usurper god’."

If I am not missing a point, the "indefinite" character of the Johannine phrase implies a qualitative meaning. That is, the Word have superb qualities that belong to the Father.

They also say:
"[Copts] interpreted and translated John 1.1c to mean that ‘the Word’ possesses the same qualities as ‘the God of the Bible’". This is also true. Word's qualities belong primarily to the Father. So, the ontological argument concerning the co-substantiality of the Son with the Father is not related in any way with this Bible reference.

If I am missing something, I would like to underline it to me.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

As I said on another forum, when I first saw the reference to the subject article I was hopeful that a scholarly analysis might be found in the Oxford Journal, but my impression now, after heaving read it, is that this is Countess-Harner-Hartley-Dixon in a cheap tuxedo.

Like Countess, the authors focus solely on uses of QEOS/NOUTE, rather than taking a broader approach in attempting to determine how the Coptic indefinite article is generally used in the NT when attached to bounded nouns in PNVS, SVPN, and other types of clauses. Thus, the flawed methodology begins at the very beginning.

As I read I kept scratching my head; I kept thinking that these guys were obviously apologists; that the 'logic' they employed was so oddly familiar; it was so seemingly strained; it was so, well, so bizarre. Then I got to the end where I saw that the entire argument was in relation to the NWT, and I experienced what Tom Wolfe describes as the "Aha! phenomenon" (The Painted Word), p. 6.

I quickly scrolled back up to the top and there it was, right below the authors' names. How did I miss that before? I could have spared myself so much perplexity had I only paid better attention. I could have avoided increasing the creases between my eyebrows from scrunching them together in that "Huh, how's that?" expression. I could have spared myself the 20 minutes or so that it took to read this presuppositionally nuanced piece of pop-orthodox apologetics. To quote Tom Wolfe again: "The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshots, and Murine agonies fell away!" (The Painted Word), p. 6

Yes, there it was, as I say, right below the authors' names: Dallas Theological Seminary!

As just one example of the "logic" that guided this "analysis", to wit:

"The same category applies to John 1:1c. This qualitative/descriptive understanding makes the best sense within John's prologue. The Copts understood John to be saying that `theWord' has the same qualities as `the God of the Bible'. On the other hand, if one disagrees with our arguments above, the only other viable interpretations given the other usages would suggest that the Copts understood `the Word' to be either a `god of the pagans' (cf. Acts 28:6) or some `usurper god' (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). Yet, this leaves one with much wider problems." (Subject article, p. 509).

So, these guys would have us believe that if the Coptic indefinite article was used at John 1:1c to identify the LOGOS as "a god" (indefinite), then "the only...viable interpretations" would be that the Coptics took the LOGOS to be either a 'god of the pagans' or a 'usurper god'.

Yes, surely Coptic grammar/syntax dictates this, agreed? (Sarcasm alert)