[B-Greek] NWT: Is it an accurate translation of the Greek?
Harold R. Holmyard III
hholmyard at ont.com
Thu Feb 23 12:57:45 EST 2006
>In the post by Dave Smith some interesting points were made about the Latin
>translation of the Greek of John 1:1c. In a similar vein, I would like to
>make some points about an often overlooked ancient translation of that same
>verse in the Sahidic Coptic version.
>Coptic is more like English (and unlike Greek and Latin) in that it has both
>an indefinite article and a definite article. The Sahidic Coptic version
>was translated in late 2nd or early 3rd century C.E. and is of the
>text variety as found in codex Vaticanus and codex Sinaiticus, two
>well-regarded ancient Greek codices.
>So, how did this early version that employed both articles translate the
>Greek of John 1:1b, KAI hO LOGOS HN PROS TON QEON? By using the
>article, *p* before both the Coptic word for Logos (*shaje*) and for God
>(*noute*) i.e.: "the Word (*pshaje*) was with the God (*pnoute)."
>What about the contested John 1:1c? The Coptic version uses its indefinite
>article, *ou* (contracted to *u* following verbal *ne*) to render the
>anarthrous QEOS in KAI QEOS HN hO LOGOS. In Coptic we read, *auw neunoute pe
>The Coptic translators had a good command of Greek. It was their liturgical
>language and the Coptic language itself is written in mostly Greek letters.
>In plain English the Coptic translation says, "and a God was the Word."
>It was similarly translated in the English version of the Coptic Sahidic
>made by Reverend George W. Horner and published between 1911-1924 in
>of his _The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect_
>(Oxford: Clarendon Press): "In the beginning was being the word, and
>the word was
>being with God, and a God was the word."
>Practically the same translation of the Sahidic Coptic John 1:1c was made by
>Lance Jenott in 2003, as found at this web site:
>As far as I know, neither the ancient Coptic translators nor the Reverend
>Horner, nor Lance Jenott were members of the NWT translation committee. But
>in translating John 1:1c into another language they arrived at
>Different Greek scholars see different things in John 1:1c. Thus, they may
>differ as to what is "accurate." But the NWT was neither the first nor the
>last to render QEOS in John 1:1c as indefinite.
HH: Here is a note about George Horner's translation of John 1:1,
taken from the following website:
Horner, George William, The Coptic Version of the New Testament,
1911: "[A]nd (a) God was the word."
Here is what one expert has to say on the matter:
"The is of interest because, in Coptic versions, John 1:1b is
commonly translated "the word was with God and the word was a God"
using the Coptic indefinite article; with some variation in word
order" (J. Warren Wells, "IMPORTANCE OF THE SAHIDIC LANGUAGE: IN
RESEARCH AND TRANSLATION."
[HH: The error at the start of the quotation above sent me looking
for the source. Probably the above is from another version of the
paper, but as far as I can tell, the quotation from Wells should be:
The reason this is significant is that, in Coptic versions, John 1:1b is
commonly translated "the word was with God and the word was a god" using
the Coptic indefinite article.]
This reference is to an English translation of John 1:1c in the
Coptic dialect known as Sahidic. One of the unique elements of the
Sahidic dialect is the fact that it has, in addition to a definite
article, an indefinite article. It is thus closer to English than
Greek in this regard. The quotation from Mr. Wells is from a
section of his paper called "Note on Christology in the Coptic
Versions of John." Though he does not say directly, he implies that
the use of the indefinite article in the Sahidic translation
indicates that the Coptic translator understood the anarthrous theos
in his Greek original of John 1:1c to be indefinite (that is, "a
If an early translator (third Century or earlier) understood John to
have written "and the Word was a god," this would appear to be
evidence in favor of the NWT's rendering. But, as we shall see,
appearances can be deceiving.
The full citation of Horner's Coptic New Testament is as follows:
The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect
otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 4 Volumes (Oxford, 1911).
Horner's English translation of John 1:1c is as follows:
"...and [a] God was the Word."
Horner's critical apparatus defines the use of square brackets as
follows: "Square brackets imply words used by the Coptic and not
required by the English" (p. 376).
How can Horner say that the indefinite article, while present in the
Sahidic original, is not required in English?
The answer lies in the usage of the Sahidic indefinite article
itself. We may first note that, unlike English, the indefinite
article is used in Sahidic with abstract nouns and nouns of
substance (Walters, CC, An Elementary Coptic Grammar of the Sahidic
Dialect, p. 12). An example of this usage may be found in John
1:16, which Horner translates:
Because out of fulness we all of us took [a] life and [a] grace in
place of [a] grace.
More importantly, the indefinite article does not always denote
class membership. It can also used to attribute qualities or
characteristics (what in Greek grammars is called a "qualitative
usage" [e.g., Wallace, p. 244]):
one specimen of the lexical class of ... ;
one specimen having the quality of the lexical class of ... (Layton,
Bentley, A Coptic Grammar With Chrestomathy and Glossary - Sahidic
Dialect, 2nd edition, p. 43, "..." in original).
Dr. Layton explains further:
The indef. article is part of the Coptic syntactic pattern. This
pattern 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. The Coptic pattern does NOT
predicate equivalence with the proper name "God"; in Coptic, God is
always without exception supplied with the def. article. Occurrence
of an anarthrous noun in this pattern would be odd.3
So, the use of the indefinite article in the Sahidic does not
necessarily mean that the Coptic translator understood John to have
written "a god." He was not equating the Word with the proper name
God, but he could have understood John to be using theos in a
qualitative sense, as many Greek scholars have argued. Dr. Layton
says it is up to the reader to decide, but is there any indication
in the immediate context to help us?
I believe there is significant evidence in favor of a qualitative
reading. In the Sahidic version of John 1:18b, the anarthrous theos
in the Greek is translated with the definite article. Horner's
translation reads as follows:
"God, the only Son."
It would seem unlikely in the extreme that a translator would
understand John to have designated the Word "a god" in John 1:1 and
"the God" in John 1:18. Instead, his use of the definite article in
verse 18 would make more sense if he understood John to be ascribing
the qualities of Deity to the Word in John 1:1.
More information about the B-Greek