An Early Coptic Translation and John 1:1c

Prepared by Solomon Landers
January, 2006

 

Sahidic Coptic John#

Hn tehoueite nefSoop n[i
psaje
auw psaje nefsoop nnahrm pnoute

auw neunoute pe psaje

Transliteration

1:1a Hn tehoueite nefshoop nci
pshaje

1:1b Auw pshaje nefshoop
nnahrm pnoute

1:1c Auw neunoute pe pshaje

In harmony with Jesus' command to them, the early Christians eagerly spread the message of the good news of Jehovah's Kingdom far and wide. They made translations of the koine Greek Gospels into several languages. By about the year 200, the earliest of these were found in Syriac, Coptic, and Latin.1 Coptic was the language spoken by Christians in Egypt, in the Sahidic dialect, until replaced by the Fayyumic and the Bohairic dialects in Coptic church liturgy in the 11th century C.E.

Coptic itself was the last stage of the Egyptian language spoken since the time of the Pharaohs. Under the influence of the widespread use of koine Greek, the Coptic language came to be written, not in hieroglyphs or the cursive Egyptian script called Demotic, but in Greek letters supplemented by seven characters derived from hieroglyphs. Coptic is a Hamito-Semitic language, meaning that it shares elements of both Hamitic (north African) languages and Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

Much was made of it in the scholarly world when an apocryphal gospel written in Coptic, titled the "Gospel of Thomas," was discovered in Egypt near Nag Hammadi in December 1945. Yet, after an initial welcome, the scholarly world has been strangely silent about an earlier and more significant find, the Sahidic Coptic translation of the canonical Gospel of John, which may date from about the late 2nd century C.E.2 This manuscript was introduced to the English-speaking world in 1911 through the work of [Reverend] George William Horner. Today, it is difficult even to find copies of Horner's translation of the Coptic canonical Gospel of John. It has been largely relegated to dusty library shelves, whereas copies of the "Gospel of Thomas" (in English with Coptic text) line the lighted shelves of popular bookstores.

In the book, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987), Kurt and Barbara Aland, editors of critical Greek New Testament texts, state:

"The Coptic New Testament is among the primary resources for the history of the New Testament text. Important as the Latin and Syriac versions may be, it is of far greater importance to know precisely how the text developed in Egypt." (Page 200, emphasis added)

The Sahidic Coptic text of the Gospel of John has been found to be in the Alexandrian text tradition of the well-regarded Codex Vaticanus (B) (Vatican 1209), one of the best of the early extant Greek New Testament manuscripts. Coptic John also shows affinities to the Greek Papyrus Bodmer XIV (p75) of the late 2nd/3rd century.3 Concerning the Alexandrian text tradition, Dr. Bruce Metzger states that it "is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original."4

Therefore, it is all the more strange that insights of the Sahidic Coptic text of John 1:1 are largely ignored by popular Bible translators. Might that be because the Sahidic Coptic Gospel of John translates John 1:1c in a way that is unpopular in Christendom? The Sahidic text renders John 1:1c as auw neunoute pe pshaje, clearly meaning literally "and was a god the Word."**% Unlike koine Greek, Sahidic Coptic has both the definite article, p, and the indefinite article, u. The Coptic text of John 1:1b identifies the first mention of noute as pnoute, "the god," i.e., God. This corresponds to the koine Greek text, wherein theos, "god," has the definite article ho- at John 1:1b, i.e., "the Word was with [the] God."

The koine Greek text indicates the indefiniteness of the word theos in its second mention (John 1:1c), "god," by omitting the definite article before it, because koine Greek had no indefinite article. But Coptic does have an indefinite article, and the text employs the indefinite article at John 1:1c. This makes it clear that in reading the original Greek text, the ancient Coptic translators understood it to say specifically that "the Word was a god."

The early Coptic Christians had a good understanding of both Greek and their own language, and their translation of John's koine Greek here is very precise and accurate. Because they actually employed the indefinite article before the word "god," noute, the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c is more precise than the translation found in the Latin Vulgate, since Latin has neither a definite nor an indefinite article. Ancient Coptic translations made after the Sahidic, in the Bohairic dialect, also employ the indefinite article before the Coptic word for "god."

The Coptic word neunoute (ne-u-noute) is made up of three parts: ne, a verbal prefix denoting imperfect (past) tense, i.e., "was [being],"; u, the Coptic indefinite article, denoting "a,"; and noute, the Coptic word for "god." Grammarians state that the word noute, "god," takes the definite article when it refers to the One God, whereas without the definite article it refers to other gods. But in Coptic John 1:1c the word noute is not simply anarthrous, lacking any article at all. Here the indefinite article is specifically employed. Thus, whereas some scholars impute ambiguity to the Greek of John 1:1c, this early Coptic translation can be rendered accurately as "the Word was a god." This is the careful way those 2nd century Coptic translators understood it. The Coptic expression for "was a god," ne-u-noute pe, is the same Coptic construction as found at John 18:40, where it says of Barabbas that he ne-u-soone pe, "was a robber," accurately rendering the Greek original, en de ho barabbas lestes, wherein the word for "robber" lestes, is anarthrous: "a robber." No English version renders this, "Barabbas was Robber." Likewise, John 1:1c should not be rendered to say, "the Word was God," whether the text is Greek or Coptic, but "the Word was a god." In Horner's 1911 English translation from the Coptic, he gives this translation: "In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and a God was the word."

It may be noted that the earliest Coptic translation was likely made before Trinitarianism gained a foothold in the churches of the 4th century. That may be one reason why the Coptic translators saw no need to violate the sense of John's Greek by translating it "the Word was God." In a way, then, the ancient Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c was the New World Translation of that day, faithfully and accurately rendering the Greek text.

That very point may give some indication as to why the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c is largely kept under wraps in academic religious circles today. Most new English translations continue to translate this verse to say "the Word was God." But the Coptic text provides clear evidence €” from very ancient times €” that the New World Translation is correct in rendering John 1:1c as "the Word was a god."




Footnotes:
1. Aland, p. 68
2. George William Horner, The Coptic version of the New Testament in the southern dialect, otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 1911, pp. 398, 399
3. Aland, p. 91
4. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, United Bible Societies, 1994, page 5

Other References:
Egyptian Grammar, 3rd edition, by Sir Alan Gardiner (Griffith Institute, 1957)
The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, (with Coptic text) by Marvin Meyer (Harper Collins, 1992)

Websites:
http://www.integlogic.com/sahidica/pages/sahidicpaper1990.html
http://depts.washington.edu/cartah/text_archive/coptic/coptjohn.shtml
http://www.worldscriptures.org/pages/copticsahidic.html


#You will likely need to download the 'CS Coptic Font' package to your machine to properly view the Coptic text appearing on this page. This can be downloaded for free at copticchurch.net.

**The translation of the Sahidic Coptic version of John 1:1c into English can be diagrammed as:
auw neunoute pe psaje
auw ne-u-noute pe pshaje

auw = "and"
ne = verbal prefix denoting past tense, i.e., "was (being)"
u = Coptic indefinite article, "a"
noute = "god"
pe = Coptic particle meaning "is" or "this one is"
p = Coptic definite article, "the"
shaje = "word"

Literally the Coptic says, "and - was being- a god - is- the -Word." Or more smoothly in literal English, "and the Word was a god."

%The text of the Coptic Bohairic version also has the indefinite article before the word for "god," at John 1:1c, i.e., "a god":

Sahidic: neunoute
Bohairic: ne ounout

John 1.1 files

pages index