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.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reading the English "God" into the Greek Text

"Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν." - John 1:1, 2

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." - NIV and most others
The way the word “god” is used in English is distinct from how the word “god” is used in Koine Greek. As we will see, if one brings the unique English sense of “God” to the Greek text – perhaps unconsciously – it helps favor Trinitarian interpretations of John 1:1.

In Koine Greek, the word for “god” is θεός [theos]. The English word “God” is distinct from θεός in three ways:

1) God with a capital “G” in English is exclusive and refers to one individual, whereas the Greek word θεός isn't exclusive.

2) English capitalizes God when referring to the one true God of Christianity. The Greek θεός is not capitalized and could refer to God, or anything called a “god.”

3) English God with a capital “G” inherently carries a definite meaning, whereas Greek θεός is not inherently definite.

Let's go over these one by one.

God with a capital “G” in English is exclusive and refers to one individual, whereas the Greek word θεός isn't exclusive.

From a Christian perspective in English, God with a capital "G" refers only to one being:
1. the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe. - Dictionary.com, 2010
Other gods have a lowercase "g," and can refer to false gods. Other gods would be a human or object - not divine - that is considered by some worthy of exceeding value. Examples of false gods abound in the Old Testament. An example of a human or object of exceeding value would be a sports professional so skilled he is called "a god."

In English, strictly speaking, humans or angels are not considered "gods" to Christians. To suggest that they are is considered polytheism and idolatry. Such is the nature of the English word "god."

However, the biblical writers had a different understanding of their words for "god." As a background, we will first consider the Hebrew words for "god," since the book of John, though written in Greek, is highly semitic.

Here is an abridged listing for אֵל [el], one of the words for "god" in Hebrew, from the Brown/Drivers/Briggs Hebrew Lexicon:
II. אֵל [El]
god, but with various subordinate applications to express idea of might
1. applied to men of might and rank, mighty one of the nations, mighty men, mighty heroes, mighty hero, or divine hero (as reflecting the divine majesty)
2. angels
3. gods of the nations, God of gods
4. Ēl
5. as characterizing mighty things in nature
6. God, the one only and true God of Israel
7. אֵל strength, power

Here is an abridged listing for אֱלֹהִים [elohim], another word for "god" in Hebrew, from the Brown/Drivers/Briggs Hebrew Lexicon:
1. pl. in number. a. rulers, judges, either as divine representatives at sacred places or as reflecting divine majesty and power b. divine ones, superhuman beings including God and angels c. angels d. gods
2. Pl. intensive. a. god or b. godlike one c. works of God, or things specially belonging to him
3. הָאֱלֹהִים [HaElohim] the (true) God

As we can see, the Hebrew words for "god" had a wider range of meaning than the English word for "god." The Hebrew words for "god" may refer to the true God and to false gods, like in English. But they may also refer to humans and angels, either as "mighty ones" - the basic meaning of "god," or to those who are acting as God's representatives.

As for the Greek, here is an abridged listing for θεός [theos], from the BDAG Greek Lexicon:
Θεός [theos]
1. In the Gr-Rom. world the term θεός primarily refers to a transcendent being who exercises extraordinary control in human affairs or is responsible for bestowal of unusual benefits, deity, god, goddess
2. Some writings in our lit. use the word θ. w. ref. to Christ (without necessarily equating Christ with the Father, and therefore in harmony w. the Shema of Israel Dt 6:4; cp. Mk 10:18 and 4a below), though the interpretation of some of the pass. is in debate. In Mosaic and Gr-Rom. traditions the fundamental semantic component in the understanding of deity is the factor of performance, namely saviorhood or extraordinary contributions to one’s society.
3. God in Israelite/Christian monotheistic perspective, God the predom. use, somet. with, somet. without the art.
4. that which is nontranscendent but considered worthy of special reverence or respect, god
a. of humans θεοί (as אֱלֹהִים) Jn 10:34f (Ps 81:6; humans are called θ. in the OT also Ex 7:1; 22:27)
5. of the devil ὁ θ. τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου 2 Cor 4:4

The Greek word for "god" is similar in meaning to Hebrew's words for "god." The false dichotomy that many English speaking Christians have in their minds - that "god" can be either the true God or a false god - simply didn't exist in the minds of the Old and New Testament writers.

English capitalizes God when referring to the one true God of Christianity. The Greek θεός is not capitalized and could refer to God, or anything called a “god.”

This isn't a difficult concept to understand. We may just note that English differentiates God from other gods by capitalizing the "G." In Hebrew or Greek, this was done by the addition or omission of the articles, or by context.

Bottom line: English reserves a capitalized God for the one true God, whereas Greek completely lacked that distinction.

English God with a capital “G” inherently carries a definite meaning, whereas Greek θεός is not inherently definite.

In English, if we wish to make a noun grammatically definite, we use the definite article "the." If we do not wish to bring such specificity to the noun, we usually use the indefinite article "a." For example:

I saw a cat - not a specific cat

I saw the cat - a specific cat

For most nouns, we use "a" for something not specified, and "the" for something specific. However, in English some titles function as proper names, which do not take a definite article, yet are still definite in meaning. God is such a title that functions as a proper name. For example:

I saw a dog - not a specific dog

I saw the dog - a specific dog

I saw a dad - not a specific dad

I saw dad - a specific dad, the dad of the speaker

I saw a Paul - not a specific Paul

I saw Paul - a specific Paul

I saw a god - not a specific god

I saw God - a specific God: the true God

For "dad," "Paul," and "God," a definite article is not required because the definiteness is implied in English. "God" is capitalized when referring to the true God, but not capitalized when referring to a god. (In English, we would usually say "I saw someone named Paul" instead of "I saw a Paul" when not referring to a specific Paul. Nevertheless, this sentence would still convey indefiniteness.)

The differences, then, between the English word "god" and the Greek word θεός are: 1) The meaning of English "god" is more limited than Greek θεός. 2) "God" is capitalized in English when referring to the true God, whereas the Greek θεός is not. 3) The English word “God” with a capital “G” exclusively refers to a specific definite entity - the Christian God - and functions like a proper name, like John or Paul. In Greek θεός is not a proper name, and often takes the article to express definiteness. All three of these points can cause problems when interpreting the Greek text of John 1:1.

Now we will put our focus on how exactly English speakers bring the unique English meaning of "God" to the text of John 1:1, and read a meaning into the text that is not there.

Eisegesis - Putting an English Meaning into a Greek Text

Here is the Greek text of John 1:1-2, with an interlinear translation. The definite articles in Greek and in the corresponding English are highlighted in red:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος
In beginning was the word

καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
and the word was towards the god

καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος
and god was the word

οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν
this-one was in beginning towards the god

Next is the standard literal translation of John 1:1-2 into English, putting the unspoken implied definiteness of the English word "God" into brackets. The bracketed words are there to explicitly mark the definiteness that is only implied in English. The bracketed words should not be read, only noted. Because of the differences of relating definiteness between the two languages, we will use color codes:

Red marks explicit English definiteness that is explicit in the Greek
Blue marks implied definiteness in English that is explicit in the Greek
Purple marks explicit definiteness in English that is implied in the Greek
Green marks implied definiteness in English that is not implied in the Greek

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with [the] God,
And the Word was [the] God.
This one was in the beginning with [the] God.
Let’s walk through it:

  • “In the beginning” has the in purple because it is an implied definite phrase. The Greek lacks the article, but prepositional phrases often lack the article in Greek. (See Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, by Daniel Wallace, pg. 247)
  • “Was the Word” has the in red because the definite article is explicit in both Greek and English.
  • “And the Word was” has the in red because the definite article is explicit in both Greek and English.
  • “With [the] God” has [the] in blue with brackets because it has an implied definite sense in English, whereas the Greek is explicitly definite.
  • “And the Word” has the in red because the definite article is explicit in both Greek and English.
  • “Was [the] God” has [the] in green with brackets because the English has an implied definite sense, whereas the Greek lacks a definite sense.
  • This one was” has This one in red because both the Greek and English are explicitly definite.
  • “In the beginning” has the in purple because it is an implied definite phrase.
  • “With [the] God” has [the] in blue with brackets because it has an implied definite sense in English, whereas the Greek is explicitly definite.
Of the nine bullet points above, only the sixth - "Was [the] God” - does not accurately reflect the meaning of the Greek, which is qualitative, not definite. This is because of the unique sense of the English word "God" bringing a definite force that is not there in the original Greek.

Interlinears don't help 

Many who are unfamiliar with Koine Greek use interlinear translations to "get the sense" of the original text. Unfortunately, the English word "God" causes the same problems for interlinear translations that it does for the standard translation. In this interlinear translation, implied definiteness is marked with brackets. Red marks English definiteness found in the corresponding Greek. Green marks English implied definiteness not found in the Greek:

Interlinear translation:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος
In beginning was the word

καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
and the word was towards the god

καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος
and [the] god was the word

οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν
this-one was in beginning towards the god

To someone unfamiliar with Greek, the interlinear English translation of John 1:1c, “and god was the word,” has the meaning of a definite, specified God – naturally the God mentioned in John 1:1b. (Please note that this is what the English interlinear translation implies, not necessarily the Greek.) English readers unfamiliar with Greek do not read “and [unspecified] god was the word,” or "and [having qualities of] god was the word," rather, they read “and [the] god was the word.” Since “God” functions as a proper name in English – which is definite in meaning – readers will unconsciously apply a definite mean to the “god” of “and god was the word” – affectively identifying the Word with The God, the one previously mentioned. Or, at the very least, they take John 1:1c to be referring to an identity - that the Word is identified as God - and not to a quality.

Examining other translations of John 1:1

Now we will apply what we know about the English word for "God" to other, non-standard translations of John 1:1.

In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. This one was in the beginning with God. - John 1:1-2, NWT

Here, the NWT renders θεός of John 1:1c as "a god." This is not a definite translation like the standard rendering is. It also does not capitalize "god," which would indicate that θεός is either an identity or title in this verse. Modern English Christians are inclined to cry "polytheism" with this translation, but as we have seen the Hebrew and Greek words for "god" allowed human and angels - mighty ones and God's representatives - to be referred to as gods. This may sound strange to a modern Western English reader, but it is consistent with biblical monotheism.

Whether "a god" is the best translation - an indefinite rendering versus a more qualitative rendering - is a topic for another post.


In the beginning the Word existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was divine. It was he that was with God in the beginning. - John 1:1-2, Edgar Goodspeed

Goodspeed renders θεός in John 1:1c as divine, which is a qualitative rendering that does not bring a definiteness to the text that the standard translation does. A common caveat to this translation is that "'divine' is acceptable only if it is a term that can be applied only to true deity." (So Wallace, GGBB, pg 269) However, this criticism seems to spring from #1 of our distinctions between English "God" and Greek θεός: that English "God" is reserved for one being, yet we have shown that θεός had a much wider range of application. It could be that θεός of John 1:1c is directly comparing the Word with the God previously mentioned, but it could also be that John 1:1c is saying the Word has qualities of "θεός" in a wider sense, one offered by our Hebrew and Greek lexicons. Bringing a limited English concept of "God" to the text will favor only the first interpretation. Acknowledging that θεός has wider usage in Greek opens up the second interpretation.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. - John 1:1-2, NET

This is an interesting translation in that it has been regarded by many modern Evangelical biblical scholars to be a superior rendering to the standard translation. It is said by some to best capture the qualitative meaning of John 1:1c. Ironically, it is decidedly definite in meaning, since the reader still brings an English understanding of "God" to the passage. This is clearly seen by bringing out the implied definiteness:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [the] God, and the Word was fully [the] God. The Word was with [the] God in the beginning.

The blue [the] marks where it is definite in the Greek, whereas the green [the] marks where the definiteness is brought with an English bias, which is not in the Greek. This new rendering remains definite in meaning, not qualitative.


What God was, the Word was - John 1:1c, NEB

The New English Bible's rendering is also touted by some as being very close to the meaning of the Greek. Although better than the NET's rendering because it doesn't bring a definiteness to the phrase, thereby identifying the Word as God, it still brings our distinction #1 into the interpretation of the passage. That is, it assumes the Word is being described with the qualities of the God previously mentioned, because in English "God" refers to one individual. However, as already shown, θεός in Greek had a wider sense. The verse could be saying that "what God was, the Word was," or it could be saying that "what [unspecified] "θεός" is [with its wider meaning], the Word was." English bias favors only the first interpretation.

Another problem with this translation, if the first interpretation is favored, is that in English it still seems to say that Jesus was God, that is, it could be read as "what God was [in his entirety], the Word was [in his entirety]. However, the Greek does not describe the two as equals. That is theological embellishment not found in John 1:1.