Tuesday, October 17, 2006

John 1:1 in the Sahidic Coptic Translation

Several Jehovah's Witness apologists have claimed that the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1 fully supports the rendering of the New World Translation (NWT): "and the Word was a god."

I have written on this topic here.

Recently, Witness apologist Solomon Landers and an anonymous blogger calling himself "Memra" have created several blogs and websites touting the Sahidic Coptic translation. One would think that two apologists (assuming Memra is not Solomon) would only need to bring up two sites, but perhaps they are trying to create the impression of 'buzz' on the Internet.

In any event, both apologists have attempted to respond to my comments. I have no doubt that others may soon jump on board, as Witnesses see the Sahidic translation - a translation dating back to at least the 3rd Century - as vindication of the NWT in a big way.

Solomon and I exchanged several posts on Robert Bowman's Evangelicals and JWs discussion board, the transcripts of which appear in the Mars Hill section of my website. But, in an attempt to shore up their side of the argument, Memra has gone beyond what Solomon posted to me on Rob's board. While I don't think his additional points warrant a response on my website, I will post some quick thoughts here.

Memra writes:

"Recently, certain Trinitarian apologists have quoted Yale University's Dr. Bentley Layton in an attempt to deny that a correct translation of Coptic John 1:1c is 'the Word was a god.'

But they show that they are not really listening to what he said."

He goes on to argue that Layton's comments actually support "a god" as the proper translation.

First, let's review what Layton says and see who is not listening. Here's what Layton's Coptic Grammar says:

"Indefinite Article
one specimen of the lexical class of ... ;
one specimen having the quality of the lexical class of ... "

Memra says that 'noute' in Sahidic means "an entity not a quality." This is simply begging the question. Layton says the indefinite article: "predicates either a quality (we'd omit the English article in English: 'is divine') or an entity ('is a god'); the reader decides which reading to give it." Now, if one determines that 'noute' in John 1:1c refers to an entity, then the indefinite article will be translated with the English indefinite article: "a God." (The original Sahidic, like Greek, was written in all capital letters, so it is an unwarranted imposition on the text to render "God" with a lower-case "g"). But notice that, according to Layton, the indefinite article can also predicate the quality of 'noute' - as he says in his grammar, "one specimen having the quality of the lexical class."

Layton's additional comments in personal email regarding "divine" were specifically referring to 'noute' in John 1:1c. He says that the indefinite article can predicate either an entity or a quality. Memra is assuming that 'noute' in John 1:1c refers to an entity, and so - of course - Layton would agree (as he apparently did in email to Memra or Solomon) that "a god" is the proper translation. However, he says that 'noute' with the indefinite article in this verse can also predicate quality, and nothing Memra has written disproves this point. Memra, apparently, does not understand the concept of predication when he makes the statement "noute is an entity not a quality," or - at the very least - he is not "really listening" to what Layton is saying.

Memra goes on to summarize an email he received from Coptic scholar Ariel Shisha-Halevy, but this scholar also says that the indefinite article may be used qualitatively ("godlike/divine"). This point has also been made to Solomon Landers in personal email from J. Warren Wells of the Sahidica Project: ""The idea in this context to me is that the Word was like God. The literal text simply doesn't say the degree to which he was like God; be it partly or absolutely" (quoted on Rob's discussion board).

Shisha-Halevy and Wells both have pointed out (the former in the email summarized by Memra, the latter in email to me) that it is impossible to avoid bringing theology into this discussion. The grammar, alone, cannot prove that the Word was "a god," "a God," or "had the quality of God" in the minds of the Coptic translators. Indeed, a thorough study of the Sahidic Translation, based on the published MSS, is needed to even begin such a task.