Coptic John 1:1 makes it into the Watchtower.

by slimboyfat 75 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • Leolaia

    slimboyfat....This is a very interesting development. Do you have a scan of the article or would be willing to quote the interesting parts? I am curious of the specific claims that are made. I think you highlighted the most important aspect of the story -- the fact that attention to the (Sahidic) Coptic rendering of John 1:1 was drawn first (and recently) by JW apologists on the internet. I see no previous mention of this subject in the WT CD-ROM, and the Society went to some great lengths to find support for their translation (e.g, Johannas Greber and Belsham's unitarian revision of Archbishop Newcome's translation), and yet never once presented what may be construed as support from an ancient version (and Franz was familiar with the critical apparatus of the NT, at least insofar as the footnotes of the NWT in its 1950, 1971, and 1984 editions show).

    I am curious to see if the Society acknowledges that the Coptic rendering is ambiguous (i.e. it allows both qualitative and indefinite readings, not indefinite alone) and that Coptic usage of the indefinite article differs from English, or whether they take a simplistic view that interprets the Coptic rendering as exclusively supporting an indefinite "a god" interpretation of John 1:1. Do they also mention that the same version refers to the Word as "God" (p-noute, with the definite article) in John 1:18, or that v. 16 uses the indefinite article with "life" and "grace" (i.e. "[a] life and [a] grace" if the usage of the indefinite article is indicated, but "life and grace" in usual English)?

  • wobble

    Well done Leolaia,

    Straight to the heart of the problem as usual,those are the things I found on-line,that the use of "a" in the Coptic translation is no justification for putting it in an english tranlation. As you rightly ask it would be interesting to see the WT article alongside the original scholarly source, why would I not be surprised to find selective,edited quotes?



  • dozy

    Interesting find. The WTS seems to allow researchers to read material that they would be very unhappy if the R&F had access to.

  • slimboyfat

    Scanning is beyond my technological capabilities but just for you Leolaia I copied it out:

    Was the Word “God” or “a god”?

    That question has to be considered when Bible translators handle the first verse of the Gospel of John. In the New World Translation, the verse is rendered: “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” (John 1:1) Some other translations render the last part of the verse to convey the thought that the Word was “divine,” or something similar. (A New Translation of the Bible, by James Moffatt; The New English Bible) Many translations, however, render the last part of John 1:1: “And the Word was God.” – The Holy Bible – New International Version; The Jerusalem Bible.

    Greek grammar and the context strongly indicate that the New World Translation rendering is correct and that “the Word” should not be identified as the “God” referred to earlier in the verse. Nevertheless, the fact that the Greek language of the first century did not have an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) leaves the matter open to question in some minds. It is for this reason that a Bible translation in a language that was spoken in the earliest centuries of our Common Era is very interesting.

    The language is the Sahidic dialect of Coptic. The Coptic language was spoken in Egypt in the centuries immediately following Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the Sahidic dialect was an early literary form of the language. Regarding the earliest Coptic translations of the Bible, The Anchor Bible Dictionary says:”Since the [Septuagint] and the [Christian Greek Scriptures] were being translated into Coptic during the 3d century C.E., the Coptic version is based on [Greek manuscripts] which are significantly older than the vast majority of extant witnesses.”

    The Sahidic Coptic text is especially interesting for two reasons. First, as indicated above, it reflects an understanding of Scripture dating from before the fourth century, which was when the Trinity became official doctrine. Second, Coptic grammar is relatively close to English grammar in one important aspect. The earliest translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures were into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. Syriac and Latin, like the Greek of those days, do not have an indefinite article. Coptic, however, does. Moreover, scholar Thomas O. Lambdin, in his work Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, says: “The use of the Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English.”

    Hence, the Coptic translation supplies interesting evidence as to how John 1:1 would have been understood back then. What do we find? The Sahidi Coptic translation uses an indefinite article with the word “god” in the final part of John 1:1. Thus, when rendered into modern English, the translation reads: “And the Word was a god.” Evidently, those ancient translators realized that John’s words recorded at John 1:1 did not mean that Jesus was to be identified as Almighty God. The Word was a god, not Almighty God.

  • Leolaia

    Thanks, slimboyfat! You get a gold star!

    It looks very much like the Society took the apologists' word for it, without doing any original research of their own. Their use of Thomas G. Lambdin's grammar is wholly misleading because Coptic usage of the indefinite article differs from English usage precisely in a way that affects interpretation of John 1:1. If you look at Lambdin original statement, he is clear that the usage is not the same but that abstract nouns and nouns of substance may have indefinite articles where they would not occur in English:

    And later on p. 59, Lambdin shows that unlike English, the indefinite article is required with predicate adjectives:

    This latter grammatical rule affects the way the usage of the indefinite article in John 1:1 is interpreted because in Coptic, predicate nouns can be used in a qualitative sense -- just as in the Greek. Had the Society examined the recent Coptic grammar by Bentley Layton (Coptic in 20 Lessons: Introduction to Sahidic Coptic [Leuven: Peeters, 2007]), or even Layton's older Coptic grammar, they would have known that noute "god" is one of the nouns that could be used qualitatively to mean "divine", which would have an indefinite article in predicate position:

    The Watchtower article is thus wrong about Coptic grammar and does not acknowledge that the Coptic rendering in John 1:1 is actually ambiguous between an indefinite "The Word was a god" and a qualitative "The Word was divine". Both options would require the indefinite article in Coptic and thus the use of the indefinite article in the Sahidic text does not by itself favor an English rendering with an indefinite article versus one with a qualitative expression. The value of the Coptic version is rather in confirming the linguistic findings of Harner and subsequent writers that the theos in John 1:1 is not to be understood as definite (although cf. John 1:18 where the Coptic uses a definite expression p-noute "God" to refer to Jesus, a fact not mentioned in the Watchtower article).

  • slimboyfat

    I also thought it was interesting that the article quotes The Anchor Bible Dictionary to show the Coptic was based on an early Greek text. But of course John 1:1 presents a translation problem, not a textual problem.

    What you write is interesting Leolaia, but I think you run the danger here of disallowing JWs from using any evidence in their favour. Surely the wording of the Coptic version lends some support to their view of how John 1:1 should be translated and interpreted. A useful question may be: if you are unhappy with how they presented the evidence in favour of their translation/interpretation, then how could they have presented it as supporting their view?

    As regards why the WT has not drawn upon the Coptic version as evidence before - well there was the theory among Witness apologists that Trinitarian scholars had suppressed this version precisely because of how it reads in John 1:1.

    Penton also notes in Apocalype Delayed that the WT has curiously never drawn upon Origen (his comment on the Word being deuteros theos) in support of their view of John 1:1, the apparent explanation being that they are simply unaware of it.

  • Leolaia
    What you write is interesting Leolaia, but I think you run the danger here of disallowing JWs from using any evidence in their favour.

    Not at all, I have taken care in my posts above not to imply this. I did not say that the Coptic rendering could not be interpreted as indefinite, for it easily can. I said that it could equally be treated as qualitative and that the Coptic rendering of John 1:1 does not decisively point to one or the other, as the Watchtower article implies. The article actually nowhere mentions the qualitative option for Coptic, although it does mention the qualitative as one of the options alongside the indefinite and definite in English translations of the Greek. The quote mining of Thomas O. Lambdin also leaves the erroneous impression that the usage of the Coptic indefinite article is the same as that in English.

    I do not think this misrepresentation is due to any dishonesty; it seems rather clear that the writer did not research the matter very well and essentially accepted what WT apologists have said on the internet.

    Surely the wording of the Coptic version lends some support to their view of how John 1:1 should be translated and interpreted. A useful question may be: if you are unhappy with how they presented the evidence in favour of their translation/interpretation, then how could they have presented it as supporting their view?

    I actually indicated the answer to this in my last post. The Coptic translation is valid evidence against the interpretation of the anarthrous theos as definite, i.e. "The Word was God". The Watchtower article came to a similar conclusion but (grossly) oversimplified the issue by portraying the use of the indefinite article in Coptic as itself meaning that the Word was "a god". I think it would be fine to cite it as evidence against translating theos én ho logos as "The Word was God" but the writer should then note that the actual meaning of ne.u.noute pe pshaje is ambiguous and could be understood as "the Word was a god", or "the Word was divine", or "the Word was (of the nature of the lexical class of) noute", etc. In other words, the Coptic rendering could just as much be evidence against translating "the Word was a god" as it could be evidence for it.

    As an aside, it is worth pointing out that the Society has at times cited qualitative translations of the anarthrous theos in the Greek (such as Moffatt's translation) as support for their indefinite rendering, but the two are not the same; the qualitative is similar to the indefinite only in being options different from the definite (i.e. "God", via Colwell's rule). The indefinite entails a lesser form of divinity in "a god" compared to "God" (or "Almighty God" as it is in the article), but there isn't such an implication in the qualitative. As Harner shows in his JBL article, the linguistic evidence from usage points to a nuance closer to this: "the Word is divine in the same sense that ho theos is divine", i.e. the Word has the same nature as God, or "what God is, the Word is" (with the anarthrous predicate noun in 1 John 4:8 being a nice parallel, "what love is, God is").

  • Leolaia

    FWIW, here is what a seminary student wrote about the passage in a conference presentation:

    "Sahidic Coptic manuscripts, generally considered fairly decent representatives of the Alexandrian text (Frederik Wisse, “The Coptic Versions of the New Testament,” 137), offers an intriguing clue to the textual certainty in John 1:1c. In short, Sahidic has both an indefinite and definite article. What gives this fact significance is that John 1:1c has the indefinite article in the Sahidic MSS: auw neunoute peshaje. It should come as no surprise, then, that the occurrence of the indefinite article (ou; which has contracted) before “God” (noute) in this passage suggests that the Coptic translator was looking at a Greek Vorlage with an anarthrous theos. My main point is this, the fact that theos was not translated into Sahidic (or Bohairic; which was a new Coptic translation from the Greek) as a definite noun indicates that the translator was not translating a text that had the article (ho theos) in it. Cf. Bruce Metzger, “The Early Versions of the NT” (1977), 132-37.

    "To flesh this out a little more, Horner translates John 1:1c into English as follows: "... and [a] God was the Word" (George Horner, The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911-1924]). The critical apparatus defines the use of square brackets as implying "words used by the Coptic and not required by the English" (Ibid. 376). Here lies the potential interpretive problem. How can the presence of the indefinite article in the Sahidic require no English equivalent? The answer rests in the usage of the Sahidic indefinite article. Let me explain.

    "Unlike English, the Sahidic indefinite article is used with abstract nouns [e.g., truth, love, hate] and nouns of substance [e.g., water, bread, meat] (Thomas Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. Macon, GA: Mercer, 1983, 5. Cf. Bentley Layton. A Coptic Grammar: Sahidic Dialect. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000; Clifford Walters, An Elementary Coptic Grammar of the Sahidic Dialect, Oakville, CT: David Brown Book Company, 1999). An example of this can be seen in Horner’s translation of John 1:16: “all of us took [a] life and [a] grace in place of [a] grace” (cf. John 1:33; 3:6). None of the words in brackets are necessary in English but are still noted by Horner due to their presence in the Coptic manuscript. The second issue pertains to the qualitative potential of the indefinite article. Wallace summarizes, "A qualitative noun places the stress on quality, nature or essence. It does not merely indicate membership in a class of which there are other members (such as an indefinite noun), nor does it stress individual identity (such as a definite noun)" (Wallace, Greek Grammar, 244. Cf. Layton, A Coptic Grammar [Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000]). In other words, the Coptic supports the interpretation that the anarthrous theos can be qualitative rather than definite. Third, John 1:18 in Sahidic has the definite article. For what reason, then, would the translator have designated the Word as "a god" in John 1:1 and “the God” in John 1:18? Instead, I propose that his use of the definite article in v. 18 makes more sense if we understand John to be ascribing the qualities of deity to the Word in John 1:1c. At the end of the day, my short summary shows that the indefinite article in Sahidic does not necessarily mean that the Coptic translator understood John to have written “a god” (contra the New World Translation). Rather, as I have argued, the scribe understood John to be using theos (from a Greek Vorlage containing an anarthrous theos) in a qualitative sense."

    I am not sure if I would go so far as to say that the evidence favors a qualitative interpretation of the Coptic wording than an indefinite one (the two Coptic scholars I have seen weigh in on the subject characterize the wording as ambiguous), although the point about John 1:18 (where theos was anarthrous in the Greek Vorlage but not a predicate noun) is a very interesting one and may suggest that the translator understood the Word as noute in the same way that p.noute "God" is noute.

  • jehovahsheep

    how can a only-beggotten son be the same as the one who begotten him?

  • Midget-Sasquatch

    Hi Jehovahsheep,

    The child of a human parent is itself human in nature (barring any weird transgenic experiments).

    With the indefinite form in the Coptic, one possible reading is that the Word, being a direct child of God is itself divine in nature.

    Thats a huge sore point for at least one other Abrahamic faith. They argue that God is unique in his nature, and to say God has a son is to lower him to creatures which reproduce.

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