Wednesday, October 25, 2006

John 1:18 in the Sahidic Coptic Translation

"God the only Son"

This is how George Horner translates 'pnoute pShre nouwt' in the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:18. A literal translation would be: "the God the Son only." The nouns "God" and "Son" are in apposition, both preceded by the definite article.

I have written about this translation and its relationship to John 1:1c here. Basically, I argue that if we have an ambiguous situation in John 1:1c, where it is possible to render 'noute' as either an indefinite or qualitative noun, John 1:18 lends strong support for the latter, in that the Coptic translators would hardly have called the Word "a god" in 1:1c and "the God" just 18 verses later. It is far more likely that they understood 'noute' in 1:1c to signify that the Word had the quality of God.

Jehovah's Witness apologist Solomon Landers has posted several responses to my argument on the Internet. I will briefly interact with them here.

First, Solomon suggests there are text-critical reasons why the Coptic translators included the definite article. On B-Greek, Solomon said that the translators likely were working from a Greek MS like P75 which reads HO MONOGENHS QEOS hO WN KTL. On Rob Bowman's Evangelicals and JWs board, Solomon argued that the translators had two MSS in front of them, one reading hO MONOGENHS hUIOS and the other reading MONOGENHS QEOS and simply conflated the two into a combined reading.

I would first note that J. Warren Wells, in his hypothetical Greek text on the Sahidica website, believes the correct source to be MONOGENHS QEOS. Coptic scholar P.J. Williams agreed with this conclusion in private email to me. Second, the Greek word MONOGENHS contains the idea of "son" or "child" within its meaning (i.e., "only child" or "one and only Son" - cf., Paul R. McReynolds, "John 1:18 in Textual Variation and Translation," in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger, Epp and Fee, eds, 1981, Oxford: Clarendon Press; Gerard Pendrick, "MONOGENHS," NTS, 41). Third, a number of Greek scholars have argued that MONOGENHS QEOS should be understood as two nouns in apposition: "The only one/son, God" (e.g., Burton, du Plessis, de Kruijf, Finegan, Theobald, Fennema, Beasley-Murray, Carson, McReynolds, BAGD, Westcott, R.E. Brown, William Loader, Feuillet, Lagrange, Cullmann, Lindars, E.A. Abbott, Barnard, Rahner, J.A.T. Robinson, W.F. Howard, and the translators of the NIV and ESV). It is true that George Horner suggested that the Sahidic reflects a conflated text, but he did not have the benefit of more recent linguistic studies that demonstrate that there is no need to do so, if MONOGENHS contains "only son" within its semantic range (c.f. John 1:14 NWT). It is significant that in all three NT examples of MONOGENHS used absolutely (Luke 9:38, John 1:14, and Hebrew 11:17), and where this is virtually no possibility of a conflated text, the Sahidic translators included a form of 'Shere,' ("son" or "child").

But even if we grant Solomon his textual speculations (either version), this really amounts to a red herring when it comes to translation and exegesis. The Coptic translators - regardless of the MSS they were working from - called the Son "pnoute" ("the God") in John 1:18, and they would hardly have done so, had they understood Him to be "a god" in the sense Solomon and other JWs want.

Next, Solomon notes that 'noute' with the definite article need not refer to the true God, citing Acts 7:43. He states categorically: "the grammatical rule is simply that if it ['noute'] does refer to GOD, it must have the definite article." But, he says, if it does have the definite article, it need not refer to the true God. This is special pleading. Acts 7:43 places 'pnoute' in apposition to a personal name - it literally names a god other than the true God; it would be begging the question to say the same is true in John 1:18. Indeed, the overwhelming use of 'noute' with the definite article in the Sahidic NT refers to the true God (well over 900 examples). There are also several cases where 'noute' without the definite article also refers to the true God (Romans 1:21, 30, 15:9; Revelation 16:7).

In an article found here, Solomon quotes me as asking "Is it reasonable that the Coptic translators understood the Word to be a god at John 1:1 and then refer to him as the God, or God, at John 1:18?"

He responds:

"That is a logical question, but the logic is backwards. Since John 1:1 is the introduction of the Gospel, the more logical question is 'Is it reasonable that the Coptic translators understood the Word to be God at John 1:18 after referring to him as 'a god' at John 1:1c?' No."

Solomon begs the question. Coptic scholars tell us the use of the indefinite article with 'noute' in John 1:1c is either indefinite or qualitative. There are two possibilities - either one or the other - and the translator must decide on the basis of context which one best represents the original intention of the Coptic scribes. Thus, it is not logically defensible to assume that it is indefinite and then argue on that basis that it must govern the translation of John 1:18. My position, of course, is that John 1:18 is part of the immediate context, is not ambiguous, and thus lends strong support to 'noute' in John 1:1c being qualitative.

Solomon continues:

"Although the Coptic translators use the definite article at John 1:18 in identifying the Word, this use is demonstrative and anaphoric, referring back to the individual , 'the one who' is previously identified as 'a god' in the introduction. Thus, John 1:18 identifies the Word specifically not as 'God,' but as 'the god' previously mentioned who was 'with' ... God. This god, who has an intimate association with his Father, is contrasted with his Father, the God no one has ever seen."

Of course "the God" in 1:18 refers back to the Word in John 1:1, but it is - again - begging the question to assume that the Word was "a god."

Solomon cites "a modern translation" as follows:

"'No one has ever seen God at all. The god who is the only Son in the bosom of his Father is the one who has explained him,'as found at"

He neglects to tell his readers that this "modern translation" is his own.

[NOTE: I see that Landers has now refined his translation somewhat, perhaps in response to this blog. When I originally posted this, his translation on the CopticJohn blog read exactly as I have stated, above.]

More importantly, Solomon misuses a gloss used to help identify nouns in apposition ("who is"). Apposition in Coptic is identical to apposition in Greek and English (cf., Layton, Coptic Grammar, Section 149). Wallace's Greek Grammar defines "apposition" as follows:

"Simple apposition...the appositive does not name a specific example that falls within the category named by the noun to which it is related. Rather, it simply gives a different designation that either clarifies who is the one named or shows a different relation to the rest of the clause than the first noun by itself could display. Both words thus have the same referent, though they describe it in different terms" (GGBB, p. 96).

Let's look at Solomon's translation: "the god who is the only Son." The gloss "who is" does not occur in the original Coptic. But it can be added for clarity between to nouns is apposition (c.f., GGBB, p. 95, where he suggests the gloss to help clarify the genitive of apposition). For example, "The man, the plumber, is talking to me." 'Man' and 'plumber' are nouns in apposition. They both refer to the same person. We could rephrase as follows: "The man, who is the plumber, is talking to me." Both nouns, standing on their own, refer to the same man.

You will notice the presence of the comma before "who is." The comma indictes that the "who" clause is a non-restrictive relative clause. A non-restrictive relative clause functions identically to nouns in simple apposition. It provides additional information about the head noun. The head noun and the subject of the relative clause independently refer to the same person.

But in English usage, there is a significant change in meaning if the comma is removed: "The man who is the plumber is talking to me." In this case, the relative clause ("who is...") becomes restrictive. A restrictive clause helps identify the head noun. We are no longer merely adding information about the same referent; we are restricting the referent to "the plumber." Indeed, we can only fully indentify the referent by including the restrictive clause. This situation, obviously, does not yield the same meaning as a non-restrictive clause.

See here for more information on restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses.

The important point is that the gloss "who is" for nouns in apposition can only be non-restrictive - that is, can only be used with a comma - to properly reflect the sense of nouns in apposition. Using the gloss without the comma - as a restrictive clause - is not conveying the same meaning as two nouns in apposition.

Solomon's translation lacks a comma. He is using the gloss as a restrictive clause, which does not accurately reflect the meaning of the appositional construction 'pnoute pShre nouwt.' What his translation does reflect is Solomon's theological convictions that "the God" and "the only Son" cannot refer to the same referent, even though that's what the grammar of John 1:18 in Sahidic Coptic implies.

A similar appositional construction occurs 11 times in the Sahidic NT: "pnoute peiwt" ("God the Father"), and while we may paraphrase this as "the God, who is the Father," we cannot do so with: "the god who is the Father."

I have asked several Coptic scholars if they would translate 'pnoute pShre nouwt' any differently than Horner, and none have said that they would. If we use the "who is" gloss properly, and if we translate 'pnoute' as it is in 900+ examples in the Coptic NT, we get the correct sense: "God, who is the only Son..."

A final point: The Sahidic translation (not just in John 1:18, but also 1:14 and Hebrews 11:17) supports most Greek scholars who understand the Greek MONOGENHS to mean "only" or "only Son," as opposed to "only-begotten," the rendering in the NWT, and thus dogmatically supported by JW apologists. It has been suggested by some JW apologists that Sahidic lacked a term for "only-begotten," but if this were the case, the Sahidic translators could simply have translitered MONOGENHS, as they did with many other Greek terms for which there was no Coptic equivalent (e.g., SARX). This is precisely what the Bohairic translators did a hundred or so years later, after which time MONOGENHS had become 'fixed' as a theological term. Also, Sahidic contains words meaning both "only" (see Crum for "mise," and "ouwt") and "begotten" (see Crum for "mate," "meeue," and "Jpo"), so it seems there were several ways for the translators to have expressed the idea of "only-begotten," had they understood MONOGENHS to have such a meaning.

In conclusion, then, the translation of Coptic John 1:18 in English is most probably "God, the only Son." And this translation suggests that the Sahidic translators understood the Son to be fully divine, and this was the sense they were conveying in their translation of John 1:1c. I suspect this conclusion will be further supported as investigation into other Christologically significant verses in Sahidic translations of John's writings continues.