Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Scholarly Misunderstanding of Sahidic John 1:1

The Sahidic Coptic translation of the New Testament is of great interest to seekers of the truth. It sheds much insight on an early Christian understanding of the Scriptures - one that pre-dates the Council of Nicea of 325 CE. Of particular interest is John 1:1. The Sahidic literally translates into English as "and a god was the word." This translation was made over 1700 years ago when Koine Greek was a living spoken language, and it is in sharp contrast to the traditional rendering found in most English versions - the definite rendering ". . . and the Word was God." (For more information on the Sahidic Coptic translation, see here and here. For the definite meaning of the traditional rendering of John 1:1, see here.)

Of course, Trinitarian apologists do not like the obvious implications of the Sahidic rendering, and try to explain it away. Since they assume that the Sahidic translators must have been Trinitarian, and since most Trinitarians do not know Sahidic - they make obvious blunders when trying to show that when the Sahidic said "the Word was a god," it really meant "the Word was God."

Coptic scholar George Horner produced a translation of the Sahidic NT in the early 20th century. His rendering of John 1:1c is "and [a] God was the Word." Many Trinitarian apologists have jumped on the fact that Horner chose to put the word "a" in brackets. They say this means the "a" in Sahidic John 1:1 is not a necessary translation in English. I have run across this argument several times, which has prompted me to write this post.

As a premier example of this argument, note this excerpt from the article "Jesus as Θεός: A Textual Examination," by Brian James Wright:

Horner translates John 1.1c into English as follows: “. . . and [a] God was the Word.”49 The apparatus, however, states, “Square brackets imply words used by the Coptic and not required by the English, while curved brackets supply words which are necessary to the English idiom.”50 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).51 An example of this can be seen in Horner’s translation of John 19.34b (where there are no Greek articles, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ): “. . . and immediately came out [a] blood and [a] water.”52 None of the words in brackets are necessary in English but are still noted by Horner due the presence of the indefinite article in the Coptic MSS.
49 Ibid. [George W. Horner ed., 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, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1911-1924), 3.2.], Sahidic, 3.3.
50 Ibid., 3.376 (italics mine).
51 Thomas Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1983), 5. Cf. also Bentley Layton, A Coptic Grammar: Sahidic Dialect (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000).
52 Horner, Sahidic, 3.307. A few other examples from the Gospel of John include: 1.16, 26, 33; 3.5, 6; 5.39; 6.10; 16.33.

There are two problems with the argument in this quotation:
1) Horner is saying that the word "a" in brackets is not needed in the English translation of the Sahidic John 1:1, which would effectively make his translation mean "and God was the Word" in proper English.
2) The author compares the count noun "God" with abstract nouns (such as truth, love, hate) and nouns of substance (such as water, bread, meat).
We will deal with issue #2 first.

Comparing Sahidic Count Nouns with Nouns of Substance
Mr. Wright says that the "a" in brackets in Horner's translation of John 1:1 is not necessary in English. He shows an example - John 19:34b - where the "a's" in brackets obviously are not needed in English. However, the author's argument is irrelevant. "God" is not an abstract noun or a noun of substance, it is a count noun. How Sahidic uses the articles with abstract nouns or nouns of substance do not have a bearing on the count noun "god."

Though the author's argument is flawed, the biblical example he provides as a comparison is fundamentally flawed in another way - it actually disproves his point. The Greek of John 19:34b is καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ. The English translation of the Greek would be ". . . and immediately blood and water came out." In Greek, the nouns blood and water lack the Greek article. The Sahidic translation of this verse is:
A literal interlinear translation into English is:
"and immediately came out namely a blood and a water."
In Sahidic, the indefinite article is used to show that some water and blood - not all water and blood - came out. In English, it is not required for us to state the indefiniteness in a sentence such as this - it is implicitly understood. However, we can state such indefiniteness in an English translation of the Sahidic of John 19:34b. We could translate the Sahidic into proper English as:
"and immediately some blood and some water came out."
Here we translated the Sahidic indefinite article with the English word "some." In English, "some" is not used as an indefinite article, but it can be used to show the indefiniteness of a substance, as our English translation shows. We can therefore accurately render into English the indefinite articles of Sahidic John 19:34b, with no need to drop out bracketed words.

In fact Bentley Layton's "Coptic in 20 Lessons," on page 15, gives an example of a Coptic noun of substance with the indefinite article. Interestingly, he uses the English word "some" as a translation for the Sahidic indefinite article. He even uses one of the words found in John 19:34b. He says:
"ΟΥ-ΜΟΟΥ = some water"
If we apply this to Horner's translation of John 1:1c, we get:
". . . and [some] God was the word."
Obviously this doesn't work because "god" is a count noun, not a noun of substance. Therefore, how the Sahidic uses the indefinite articles in John 19:34b and how this relates to English translation has absolutely no bearing on the use of the indefinite article in John 1:1c and its English translation. Sahidic treats count nouns, abstract nouns, and nouns of substance differently in terms of article usage. Like I said before, the comparison is irrelevant.

The argument actually disproves the author's point, because "blood" and "water" have the indefinite article in the Sahidic, and a good English translation implicitly retains the indefiniteness - we understand that "blood and water came out" means that some blood and water came out. We can't count them because they are nouns of substance, but we get the sense that an indefinite amount of those substances came out.

Now we will deal with the first problem of the quote.

Dropping Horner's Bracketed Words
The first problem contained in Mr. Wright's quote above is that Horner says the "a" in brackets of his translation of John 1:1c is not needed in English. It is easy to prove that Horner, although a Coptic scholar, is in fact wrong about this when dealing with John 1:1c.

If Horner is right about John 1:1c, and if "a" is not needed in English, then his translation rendered properly into English would be:
"and God was the word."
We discarded the [a] because, according to Horner, it is not needed in English. Horner's full translation of John 1:1 would be:
"In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and God was the word."
Now we will show how this works using the two verses used in Mr. Wright's quotation.

1) John 1:1c as it stands -
". . . and [a] God was the word."
2) John 1:1c dropping the bracketed indefinite article -
". . . and God was the word."
3) John 19:34b as it stands
". . . and immediately came out [a] blood and [a] water."
4) John 19:34b dropping the bracketed indefinite articles -
". . . and immediately came out blood and water."
Note that whereas in translation #4, blood and water remain implicitly indefinite in English, translation #2 becomes implicitly definite in English. Comparing these two verses is not a fair comparison at all.

As my post about the English word "God" showed, "God" with a capital G is inherently definite in meaning in English. With the implied definiteness in blue, and dropping the "a" in brackets, we have:
"and (the) God was the word."
Horner's complete translation of John 1:1 with the brackets removed, and with the implied definiteness would therefore be:
"In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with (the) God, and (the) God was the word."
Here is a clear case of a controvertible proposition, with both "Gods" in John 1:1 being one and the same. That is, "God was the Word" = "The Word was God," and the Word who is God in John 1:1c is the same God as the God the Word was with in John 1:1b. This is what Horner's English translation is saying if the bracketed "a" is truly not needed in English.

Also consider that most biblical Greek scholars believe that the "god" of John 1:1c is possibly definite in meaning, though most now consider this unlikely (See Daniel Wallace, GGBB, pgs. 259-269). They say it is more probable that "god" is qualitative in meaning, but the Greek does have some ambiguity. However, it is impossible for the Sahidic "god" of John 1:1c to be definite in meaning. Yet that is basically what Horner is saying. For if we drop the "a" in brackets, we are left with a capitalized "God," which is definite in English and not distinguishable from the God the Word was with.

With the above facts available to us, it is clear that Horner was not making an unbiased scholarly translation of John 1:1c, but was in error.

Other Coptic scholars do not believe that the "a" of Sahidic John 1:1c should be left untranslated. One example is the translation by Coptic scholar Lance Jenott. Basing his translation on Horner's text, he renders John 1:1 as:
In the beginning existed the Word, and the Word existed with God, and the Word was a God.

(From: http://depts.washington.edu/cartah/text_archive/coptic/coptjohn.shtml)

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that Sahidic John 1:1c can most certainly be translated as ". . . and the Word was a god." There is absolutely nothing wrong with this translation from the standpoint of translating the Sahidic text. An alternate valid translation would be ". . . and the Word was divine." This would be taking "god" in the verse as an adjectival predicate. On page 34 of  Bentley Layton's "Coptic in 20 Lessons," he has:
This matches part of the syntax of Sahidic John 1:1c. He says there are two possible meanings:
He is a god
He is divine
One who is "divine" could be thought of being "a god-like one," one having the qualities of a god. In no way could it be said that the Word shared the same nature, essence, or substance of the God mentioned earlier. Such cannot be drawn from the Sahidic text. We are not dealing with a Greek anarthrous pre-verbal predicate nominative. This is Sahidic, and it tells us that the Word was just a god, a god-like one, divine. He is either a god or adjectivally divine. Those who say that the Word was more than simply "a god" or "divine" in Sahidic John 1:1c are working with a Trinitarian understanding of the Greek John 1:1c, and not with the Sahidic text itself. Those reading the Trinity into the Sahidic of John 1:1 are reading their theology into the text, because the Sahidic is only saying that the Word is a god, a god-like one, divine.


  1. What you wrote is accurate, to the point, and consistent with authentic Coptic scholarship.

    In trying to press their case, Trinitarian apologists have unfortunately confused the issue, because the Sahidic Coptic version does not fit their theology.

    However, the Sahidic Coptic version does fit well with the rest of the Scriptures.

  2. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, theological bias sometimes makes inroads into exegesis. Sahidic John 1:1 just can't be made to fit with modern Trinitarian theology.

    Frankly, I'm surprised they even try.

  3. It is so interesting how polarized the academic and layman worlds are with John 1:1, and ONLY John 1:1.

    If the scholarly world declares that the Sahidic version of John 1:1 is to be accurately translated as "...and [a] God was the word" then so be it.

    Many non-Trinitarian and anti-Trinitarian groups are quick to champion the Sahidic version of John 1:1. However, John 1:1, if translated as "...and the Word was God," is just one of MANY verses that substantiate the Deity of Jesus. It is a misconception to think that the entire Trinitarian doctrine, or doctrine of Jesus' Divinity, hinges on that singular verse.

    If those who champion the Sahidic translation as true and accurate, then they must champion the entire Sahidic translation and support the verses bellow; otherwise they would be inconsistent and be charged with "picking-and-choosing" what they wish to believe.

    From "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect Otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, Volume III" by Oxford (MCMXI)

    John 1:18
    "God did not any see ever; God, the only Son, he who is being in the bosom of his Father, that (one) is he who spake of him."

    NOTE: God is called "the only Son."

    John 5:18
    "Because of this therefore more were seeking for him the Jews to put him to death; because not only was he breaking the sabbath, but he was saying also, My Father is God, equalizing himself with God."

    NOTE: As in the Greek versions, Jesus is equal with God (the Father).

    John 8:57-58
    "[57] Said they therefore to him the Jews, Thou art not yet fifty years (old), and Abraham saw thee. [58] Said Jesus to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham became, I, I am being."

    NOTE: Here is the account of Jesus using the Divine Name (Exodus 3:14), as in the Greek versions. It is also interesting to note that it says Abraham saw Jesus. The Greek versions have the Jews saying it was Jesus who saw Abraham. Nonetheless, the spirit of the text is preserved as it is in the Greek, Jesus invoking the Divine Name to himself.

    John 20:28
    "Answered Thomas, said he to him, My Lord and my God."

    NOTE: Just as in the Greek versions, it is inescapable what the Apostle John recorded what the Apostle Thomas said: that Jesus is Lord and God.

    In the light of these texts, we must somehow reconcile the MEANING of John 1:1 with them. Ok, the Sahidic version of John 1:1 translates into "...and [a] God was the word." We got it. So what does that mean in panoply of Scripture? The above texts are not pro-Trinitarian eisegesis, but are exactly as they are rendered in the translation. Putting aside all biases (anti-, non-, and pro-Trinitarian views), how do we explain these verses and reconcile them together? Read them for yourselves, and pray to God about what it is he is trying to tell us.

    More verses from the Sahidic that demonstrate the Deity of Jesus:

    Hebrews 1:8
    "...but to the Son, Thy throne, God, is being unto age of the age;..."

    NOTE: As in the Greek versions, God (the Father) calls the Son (Jesus) God.

    Titus 2:13
    "...expecting the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of the great God and our savior the Christ Jesus;..."

    NOTE: As in the Greek, Jesus is labeled as God. And, just as in the Greek, the definite article ("the") is used before the word for "God" in both.

    Philippians 2:5-6
    "[5] This think in yourselves, (namely), that (thought) which (is) also in the Christ Jesus: [6] this (one), being in form of God, reckoned it not for a robbing to make himself equal with God,..."

    NOTE: The power of this verse is preserved as it is in the Greek versions: Jesus has the form of God, and since he has that nature he is already equal with God; and therefore, he is not trying to "rob" God (the Father) because he already possesses the equality and nature of God (or Deity).

  4. Carl,

    This blog post did not claim that Trinitarian doctrine rises or falls with John 1:1 only. Nor is it claimed that the Sahidic is "true and accurate," so that any and all Sahidic renderings must be accepted as true by the author. Rather, as it was pointed out in the introduction, the Sahidic provides a revealing glimpse at an early Christian (pre-Nicean) understanding of the NT. No more, no less.

    As for the verses you cite from the Sahidic, it appears to be from Horner's early 20th century translation, which is notoriously out of date. It uses an inferior Sahidic text base, and the translation is woodenly literal to an extreme, while making use of outdated language.

    This is not the place to go over each verse. But I will mention that the Sahidic John 8:58 was probably not viewed as a claim to deity by the Sahidic translators. Two lines of evidence point to this. First, the Sahidic of Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58 do not match. In other words, Sahidic John 8:58 is not a quotation of Sahidic Exodus 3:14.

    Second, whereas many point to the various "I am" statements in the gospel of John, culminating in John 8:58, the Sahidic does not equate the "I am" of John 8:58 with the other "I am" statements in John. Sahidic John 8:58 says anok TSoop - "I am existing." The other "I am" statements in John say anok pe - "I he." Sahidic John 8:58 deals with existence, not identity.

  5. "Rather, as it was pointed out in the introduction, the Sahidic provides a revealing glimpse at an early Christian (pre-Nicean) understanding of the NT. No more, no less."

    There are earlier manuscripts that transmit a different reading, and so the likelihood of the Sahidic ancestor manuscript having erred is higher (generally-speaking) than that only one later variant tradition gets things right on John 1:1. The same argument is legitimately made today against the Jehovah's Witness scriptures.
    Even so, antiquity doesn't indicate orthodoxy. The apostles were fighting heresy in their time; they were fighting not just wrong understanding of the OT, but also of their own scriptures (2 Peter 3).

    "... Horner's early 20th century translation, which is notoriously out of date. It uses an inferior Sahidic text base, and the translation is woodenly literal to an extreme, while making use of outdated language."

    If you can legitimately level this charge about this translation, why couldn't it be leveled against the Sahidic source itself, especially in the places where it is unlikely to be faithful? And given the paucity of manuscripts, how can we have a trustworthy "tradition" to speak of, when even the writings of the gnostics are more-attested? (Or should we just all turn gnostic? Hah.)

    "First, the Sahidic of Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58 do not match. In other words, Sahidic John 8:58 is not a quotation of Sahidic Exodus 3:14."

    Jesus never used it as a quote, either. It would not even have been remarkable if there had been no reference to Abraham. It is not a quote; it is a reference to Divine (pre-)existence given the reference to Abraham's existence. At any rate, there follows an attempt to execute Jesus for blasphemy, even in the Sahidic.

    "Sahidic John 8:58 deals with existence, not identity."

    Yes; Divine existence, to be precise.