Wednesday, February 14, 2007

John 8:58 in the Sahidic Coptic Translation

Recently, Jehovah's Witness apologists have put a great deal of effort into promoting the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c, because they see it as an important early NT witness that supports the New World Translation's "the Word was a god." I have responded to their claims here.

I have said that we really cannot draw firm conclusions about how the Coptic translators understood John's Christology until we have examined other important Christological texts in the fourth Gospel. I have previously blogged on John 1:18 here, where I demonstrate that the Witnesses cannot point to this verse as supporting the NWT's translation, or its understanding of Christ.

I will now focus on another Christologically significant text: John 8:58. In the NWT, this verse reads: "Before Abraham was born, I have been." The Sahidic Coptic translation reads:

empate abraHam Swpe anok TSoop

Horner translates this: "Before Abraham became, I, I am being."

Horner understands 'anok' as being emphatic (Plumley, Section 46) - "I, I....", which follows the Greek text. The Coptic noun 'Soop' ('Swpe') is defined in Crum's Coptic Lexicon as, "Be, exist." The ti ("T") prefix signifies present tense.

So, right off the bat we see a dramatic disconnect between the Sahidic and the NWT. Witnesses - and others - who follow McKay in understanding EGO EIMI in this verse as a Greek Present of Past Action (PPA) find no support from the Sahidic translators.

Furthermore, the usual pattern for copulative sentences in Sahidic Coptic is to use the copulative pronoun 'pe.' If the Sahidic translators had understood EGO EIMI to be a copulative sentence with an implied predicate ("I am he"), they most likely would have used 'anok pe,' as for example they did in John 8:24.

Instead, the translators used the existential Soop. This choice - which was apparently not followed by the Bohairic translators a century or so later - cannot be without significance. It may be that the translators wished to echo Exodus 3:14, which in the Sahidic reads:

anok pe petSoop'...Je petSoop' pe ntaFtnno oyt' Sarwtn

"I am He who is...This is He who is who has sent me to you."

Exodus 3:14 in Sahidic is a fairly literal translation of the LXX: "EGO EIMI hO WN." The Greek 'hO WN' ("the one who is") = Sahidic 'petSoop' (Soop, prefixed by the definite article 'p' and the relative pronoun 'et,' ["who"]). This is the same word used by the translators at John 8:58, albeit with a different prefix.

Whether the Sahidic translators understood a connection with Exodus 3:14 or not, it is clear that they did not understand 'EGO EIMI' to be either a PPA or a copulative. They translated it as an existential present, in agreement with an overwhelming number of Greek scholars and commentators down through the ages, signifying the eternal existence of the Son.

Thus, while Witnesses may use the Sahidic translation to support the NWT's version of John 1:1c (at least to some extent), it does not appear that they can do so with 8:58. Further, if Coptic scholars are correct, and the Sahidic indefinite article in 1:1c can denote a qualitative meaning ("The Word had the same nature as God") or an indefinite one, the more verses we find in which the Deity of Christ is upheld (as it is in 1:18 and 8:58), the more likely the qualitative meaning becomes.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Biblical Agency and Exodus 3

From a prominent Unitarian Website:

I know it appears to our western minds that the one in the bush who says, “I am what I am” is Jehovah Himself. However, Stephen in Acts 7:30 identifies the speaker as “an angel.” And in verse 35 Stephen again speaks of “the angel who appeared to him [Moses] in the thorn bush.”

Thus we have the inspired interpretation of these OT passages from one who was filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom and faith. His understanding was that the Being who confronted Moses was not Jehovah Himself, nor the Son of God existing before his birth.

The same is true of Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai. Stephen says it was “the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai” (v. 38). Yet again, when we read the Old Testament account the impression given is quite clearly that God Himself was the speaker. Hebrews confirms the presence of a divine agency when it states categorically that Israel received the Law through “angels” (Heb. 2:2).

These are classic instances of the principle of Jewish “agency.” When God commissions and sends a subordinate to speak and act for Himself, the subordinate is treated as though he is in fact God Himself. To oppose the “sent one,” God’s commissioner, is truly to oppose God Himself.

There is, indeed, a biblical tradition of 'agency.' It is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the parable of the evil vine-growers (Mark 12:1-9). The "beloved son" sent by the father is the father's agent par-excellance: "The will respect my son." Why will they respect the son? Because he is not only his father's agent (as were the servants sent before him), but also his son, his heir in all his estate, deserving of honor equal to his father.

It is important to note that the evil vine-growers recognize the son: "This is the heir!" In indisputable examples of Biblical agents, whether they are OT prophets, NT apostles, or angels, the agents are recognized as agents; they are never confused with God. The prophets never once called themselves "God." The inspired text never describes them as God (unless the two passages described above are the lone exceptions). The apostles carefully avoided any confusion on this point (Acts 10:25-26), as did angels (Rev 19:10, 22:9).

Now, let's turn to the passages discussed on the Unitarian website:

"I know it appears to our western minds that the one in the bush who says, “I am what I am” is Jehovah Himself. However, Stephen in Acts 7:30 identifies the speaker as 'an angel.'"

The reason our western minds understand the speaker to be God, is because the text explicitly identifies the speaker as God, "God called to him from the midst of the bush" (Ex 3:4). The speaker identifies himself by saying, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Yes, the figure in the bush is earlier described as the "Angel of the LORD," but the speaker is described as God. In fact, in this entire passage, it is God who is said to be speaking, not the angel.

But what of Acts 7:30? Careful examination reveals that here, too, the figure in the bush is identified as "an angel," but the speaker is God: "The voice of the Lord" (v. 31). Exodus 3 does not portray the angel as speaking on the Father's behalf, and neither does Acts 7:30. Both passages confirm that God was speaking, in close association with (or perhaps equated with) the Angel of the LORD.

The Unitarian website continues:

"The same is true of Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai. Stephen says it was 'the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai' (v. 38)....categorically Israel received the Law through 'angels' (Heb. 2:2)."

As the website admits, "when we read the Old Testament account the impression given is quite clearly that God Himself was the speaker." Yes, indeed! The account does not merely "give the impression," it states without amibiguity that God was the speaker, that he "passed before" Moses, and that the Tablets were inscribed with his "finger."

Hebrews 2:2 simply acknowledges that formerly, God spoke His word through angels. In that sense, He used angels as agents or intermediaries. But it is not logical to conclude that He also did not speak directly Himself, particularly when the sacred text so teaches.

In short, Biblical Agency does not preclude God from acting and speaking on His own behalf. It also does not preclude the Angel (Hebrew ma'lak: "Messenger") of the LORD from being at once distinguised from God, and yet God Himself.

Going back to the parable of the evil vine-growers, the agent par excellance is the son. This parable is meant to picture the sending of the Son of God into the world, and the world's violent rejection of Him. The Son of God is the agent par excellance of His Father. This does not mean that He was simply a man, or perhaps an angel. Such beings, indeed, could be called the Father's agents, but there are no clear cases in Scripture where such agents are described as God.

Indeed, if agents can be described as God, can identify themselves as God, can be stand-ins for God, there is simply no way to determine when God is speaking anywhere in the Bible, and when it is an agent. The Gnostics and Neo-Platonists invented a series of intermediaries through whom their god had to act in the 'lower' world of material things. But that is not the God of the Bible, for whom the the physical universe (as He originally created it) was "very good," and who lovingly and sovereignly intervenes in human history, causing "all things to work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Movie Review - "The Perfect Stranger"

Back in 1981, the must-see arthouse film was "My Dinner with Andre." Starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, almost the entire movie took place in a New York restaurant, where Shawn and Gregory dined and conversed about a wide-range of philosophical topics. It was a strangely compelling film, with Gregory weaving weird tales about Buddhist monks, experimental theater, being buried alive, and trips to the Sahara and Tibet, and Shawn desperately trying to manufacture conversational seques to bring the conversation back to reality.

When I first heard about "The Perfect Stranger," I thought, OK, it's "My Dinner with Andre" for Christians: "My Dinner with Jesus." And it is - but it is far more than that.

Pamela Brumley plays Nikki, a housewife and mother with a strained marriage and trouble at work. Brumley seems stiff in the early scenes, constrained by a script that - perhaps because it is based on a novel - has a few too many one-liners and sarcastic ripostes for my taste. But her performance becomes more and more compelling as the film progresses, and at the end, I found myself deeply moved. Her character progresses from hard-edged attorney to adoring child of God - an emotional range few actresses have been asked to protray, and Brumely does a superb job.

Jefferson Moore plays the Perfect Stranger. His performance is critical; if he's not 100% believable, the film falls flat on its face. Fortunately, Moore is up to the task. His character is charming, witty, loving, and wise.

But what makes this film so much more than "Andre" is the content. It contains one of the most attractive and winsome presentations of the Gospel I have ever seen. All the "Big Objections" to Christianity are woven into the dinner conversation - from "Aren't all religions basically the same," to "how can a Good God allowing suffering," to "how can Christians be so arrogant as to think that they have the only way to God?" Each question and objection is gently and clearly responded to by the Stranger. And as he does so, he is slowly opening Nikki's heart to the truth, healing years of doubt and pain.

The film, ultimately, is a apologetic for Christ in a pluralistic and secular world. Its message is as old and as true as the Gospel itself, but its presentation is refreshingly new.

I highly recommend this film to all.

For more information click here.