[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

Dear Solomon,

>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 
>Coptic  definite
>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 
>volume III
>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 
>similar results.
>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 

[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]):
Indefinite  Article
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.

Harold Holmyard

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