[B-Greek] Sahidic Coptic Version (was "Another example of a qualitative Q...

Harold Holmyard hholmyard at ont.com
Mon Jul 10 21:54:34 EDT 2006

Dear Kelton,

>But I thought that an indefinite article in Coptic was used with both with abstract nouns and nouns of substance.  I'm no expert but I thought that the indefinite article does not always denote class membership.  It can also used to attribute qualities or characteristics.

HH: Yes, you're right. Here, again, are a few comments in response to 
Mr. Wells:

This  reference is to an English translation of John 1:1c in the Coptic  
dialect known as Sahidic.  One feature of Sahidic that makes it 
interesting in terms of understanding the meaning of the underlying  
Greek is that it has both an indefinite and definite 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 god").

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

>>I agree that the Sahidic Coptic version is very valuable. According to J. 
>>Warren Wells of the Nova Sahidica Project, both Bruce Metzger and the Alands 
>>highly praise the Coptic text as an aid to understanding the GNT and for 
>>critical studies of it. Wells notes also: 
>>"Coptic was the first language the New Testament was translated into that 
>>has the indefinite article; and the only language with the indefinite article 
>>that was produced during the Koine Greek period. 
>>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. 
>>In the proto-Bohairic version (Papyrus Bodmer III, the text of which was 
>>partially reconstructed by Rodolphe Kasser) the first occurrence of "God" in 
>>John 1:1 is in the Nomina Sacra form, whereas the second occurrence is spelled 
>>out. In John 1:18 the word "God" (which no one has seen) is in the Nomina 
>>Sacra form, while the word "God" (only-begotten) is spelled out."

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