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.