Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sahidic Coptic John 8:58 and Sahidic Coptic Exodus 3:14

Does the similarity between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14 in the Greek text or Sahidic Coptic version identify Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity or as God?

Those who say Yes point to the rendering egw eimi, "I am" at both John 8:58 and the Septuagint Greek translation of Exodus 3:14.

But the Septuagint's version of Exodus 3:14 is not so much a translation of the Hebrew text's ehyeh asher ehyeh, as a philosophical interpretation of it. The LXX has egw eimi ho Wn as God's title: "I am the Being," or "I am He Who Exists." Moses is to tell the children of Israel that ho Wn, "He Who Exists" -- NOT egw eimi -- "I Am" -- is the one who is sending Moses to them to deliver them from Egyptian slavery. (Exodus 3:14, LXX)

So first of all, it is not as "I Am" that God identifies himself to Israel, but as "He Who Exists." Therefore, there is no correspondence between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14. The fact that Jesus says "I am" -- egw eimi -- at John 8:58 does not identify him as the God who, in the LXX, titled himself ho Wn, not egw eimi.

Just a chapter later, in John 9:9, a formerly blind man also uses the expression egw eimi. It was just a normal way of saying "I am (he)," and is no marker of divinity. Otherwise, the formerly blind man would also be claiming Godship. Furthermore, at 1 Corinthians 15:10, the apostle Paul said "I am what I am," which resembles Exodus 3:14 in the Hebrew text. The King James and other versions translate this Hebrew phrase, ehyeh asher ehyeh, into English as "I am that I am." The mere use of a similar expression did not mean that Paul was claiming Godship.

Nor does the Hebrew text identify God as "I Am." The Hebrew word ehyeh is better translated "I will be," as even the King James Version does at Exodus 3:12. The following Bible translations (and others) render ehyeh properly as "I will be" or similar: The Anchor Bible (William H.C. Propp), The Five Books of Moses (Everett Fox), The Stone Tanach (Artscroll/Mesorah), The Five Books of Moses (Robert Alter), Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, James Moffatt's translation.

And what about John 8:58? "I am" is not necessarily the best translation of egw eimi in this verse, although that is literal, because it is preceeded by the Greek word prin. As Greek scholar Kenneth L. McKay has demonstrated, this construction, prin abraam genesthai egw eimi, represents an "extension from past" and is best translated into English as "I have been in existence since before Abraham was born." (A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, pp. 41, 42)

Therefore, the context of John 8:58 is not a proclamation of Jesus' Godship, but an affirmation of his pre-existence in heaven before coming to earth.

The claim is made that Sahidic Coptic's anok pe petSoop at Exodus 3:14, which is a fairly literal translation of the Greek Septuagint's rendering, egw eimi ho Wn, identifies Jesus as God, since in the Sahidic Coptic of John 8:58, Jesus says empate abraHam Swpe anok TSoop.

Not so, because, like the Septuagint, the Coptic of Exodus 3:14 calls God "the Being," or "the One Who Exists." In the Coptic of John 8:58, Jesus says, "Before Abraham existed, I am existing." Or as Coptic scholar George W. Horner renders it, "Before Abraham became, I, I am being." In standard, contemporary modern English, it would be rendered, "I existed before Abraham existed."

Because the Coptic sentence begins with empate, ("before"), which corresponds to the Greek text's prin, when translated into English the significance is the same: "I existed before Abraham." This says nothing about Godship. It is a statement about pre-existence. Jesus was alive in heaven, as God's Word and Son (John 1:1-4) before Abraham was born.

In the Sahidic Coptic of John 8:58, Jesus does not call himself "THE Being," petSoop, as God does in the Coptic translation of Exodus 3:14, but merely someone existing or being in existence. Soop.

The Sahidic Coptic translators did not render the Greek egw eimi at John 8:58 by the usual way of saying "I am," i.e., anok pe. Rather, they used the word Soop prefixed by the Coptic first person personal pronoun T. This means they used the qualitative or stative form of the Coptic word that means "to come into existence," Swpe. In the stative from, Soop, this means "(is) in existence." This shows that the Coptic translators correctly understood that at John 8:58 Jesus is talking about (pre)-existence, not about ontological identification with God.

The title applied to God Almighty in the Sahidic Coptic Old Testament at Exodus 3:14, i.e. petSoop, means literally, "the (one) who exists." It may also be rendered as "The Existing One" or "The Being," corresponding to the Greek ho Wn. This title of God is also found in the New Testament book of Revelation in the Sahidic Coptic version, at Revelation 1:4, 8; 4:8; ll:17, accompanied with the additional specific designation, "the Almighty."

So, even in the Sahidic Coptic the correspondence is not the same, and the meaning is not the same. Sahidic Coptic Exodus 3:14, therefore, cannot be linked to Sahidic Coptic John 8:58 to state or imply that Jesus is God Almighty. Jesus is clearly subordinate to the Almighty. (1 Corinthians 11:3; 15:27, 28; John 14:28)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Extent to Which Coptic John 1:1c is "Qualitative"

The proper Coptic terminology for this function is really “Adjectival.” Some Coptic nouns can be used in predicate constructions that serve as adjectives, since Coptic has few true adjectives. Usually, this is done by prefixing the Coptic linking n- to the noun, but it may also be accomplished in noun predicates by prefixing the Coptic indefinite article, ou-. That is the situation found at Coptic John 1:1c, according to Coptic grammarians like Bentley Layton. This would lead to two possible “qualitative” or adjectival readings: “The Word was a god” or “the Word was divine.” (Coptic in Twenty Lessons, p. 34) However, it may be noted that in Layton’s interlinear translation of John 1:1 found on page 7 of the same book, he renders the Coptic's neunoute pe pSaje in the regular way for a common noun bound with the Coptic indefinite article: “And past tense marker-a-god is the-Word.” This would be translated simply into English as “And the Word was a god.”

When some Greek scholars use the term “qualitative” for the Greek construction found at John 1:1c, they want to move it toward a “qualitative-definite” category rather than a “qualitative-indefinite” category. Furthermore, they would define the term “qualitative” far and above its ordinary lexical meaning at John 1:1c, to the point where a translation like “the Word was divine” would have to mean that the Word “had all the attributes and qualities that ‘the God’ (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person.” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 269)

The translators of the Sahidic Coptic version lived and worked at a time when Koine Greek was still a living language and a substantial part of the Egyptian cultural and linguistic heritage. They thus had an advantage that Greek scholars today do not possess. Another advantage they possessed was the lack of Trinitarian baggage and the need to conform their translation to the dictates of Trinitarian philosophical theology.

It is interesting that the Coptic version holds to an indefinite or “qualitative-indefinite” understanding of John 1:1c, since the only translations possible in the Coptic construction are “the Word was divine” (“divine” without the special pleading of added philosophical concepts not found elsewhere in the New Testament) or “the Word was a God.” The Coptic’s ounoute simply cannot be bent toward a “qualitative-definite” meaning. It cannot be made to say “the Word was God.” That would specifically require the use of the Coptic definite article, as found at Coptic John 1:1b. That would require the use of pnoute rather than ounoute.

That the two are contrasted grammatically in John 1:1, in both the Greek and the Coptic texts, is strong evidence that John is not identifying the Word as God. (John specifically says “the Word was with God,” not, as Trinitarians want to interpret it here, “the Father.”) The context is clearly not making the Word part of some Triune God. In John 1:1c, the Word is distinguished from the only One who is God, while highlighting the Word’s own ontological uniqueness and intimate association with that One true God. (Compare John 17:3)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Re-inventing verses Vs. Coptic Conservatism

Some modern translations appear to be so intent on preserving or promoting a particular theology, that they have changed the meanings of the verses, or pressed too far in theologizing the verses. A case in point is John 1:1. Not content even with the translation "the Word was God," at least one translation has "the Word was God Himself." (The New Testament, translated by Charles B. Williams, 1937) There is neither grammatical nor contextual authority for that. Far more in the spirit of what the apostle John actually wrote is a translation of John 1:1 similar to that by William Barclay (Westminster John Knox Press, 1968): "the nature of the Word was the same as the nature of God."

The beauty and significance of the Sahidic Coptic version is its general literalness and faithfulness to the context and spirit of the underlying Greek text(s). Below, we will consider several other Coptic renderings:

Romans 9:5 After mentioning Christ, does the sescond part of this verse refer to Christ as Almighty God, or does it have a second Being in view? The Coptic has pnoute etHiJn ouon nim petsmamaat Sa nieneH Hamhn. Interestingly, petsmamaat is the relative particle ( -) + the qualitative form of the Coptic verb smou (bless, praise), i.e., smamaat which means "be blessed." (Richard Smith's Coptic Dictionary, p. 27) Therefore, it could best be translated as a separate sentence referring, not to Christ, but to his Father: "God, who is over all, (is) the one who is blessed for ever." Whereas the Coptic text of Romans 9:5 has some ambiguity, it appears to be less so than the Greek, and points clearly to two entities -- Christ and God -- not to one God who is also Christ. (Compare the similar readings in the New American Bible and the Revised English Bible, i.e., "...from them by natural descent came the Messiah. May God, supreme over all, be blessed forever. Amen.")

Colossians 1:15. Some modern Bible translators don't like the concept of Christ being part of the creation by God, though that is what the Greek indicates literally. So, in their versions they change "firstborn of" to "supreme over" or "having primacy over" all creation. Colossians 1:15 in Coptic has no such mistranslation. It definitely and literally uses a Coptic term that unmistakably means "first-born," i.e. pSrp mmise, comprising the Coptic words for "first" and "born," or "generated." It customarily means "first born child." (Smith's Dictionary, p. 15) Coptic scholar George Horner's English translation of the Sahidic text correctly reads: "the firstborn of all creation" at Colossians 1:15. And the Coptic text specifically says "of" all creation, not "over" all creation.

What is a "Godhead"? This word at Colossians 2:9 (KJV, etc.) gives the wrong impression of some kind of three-faced god united in one head, as is found in some depictions of the Trinity in medieval church artifacts or paintings. The Sahidic Coptic version has tmntnoute, which simply means "divinity" in Coptic. (i.e., noute, "god," + the abstract prefix t.mnt-).

What about some of the various New Testament terms for Hell? Usually the Greek word hades is translated in the Sahidic Coptic version by the old Egyptian word amnte , meaning literally, "the west" (i.e., the place of sunset darkness; death). The Greek term gehenna is usually transliterated in the Coptic New Testament. The Copts had a 500-year influence of Greek to go by, and Greek was so well understood that some Greek words were naturalized in the text, rather than translated. For tartarus at 2 Peter 2:4 the Coptic version has p.noun, which signifies "the abyss, a deep place." The Bible associates neither conscious life nor torment with "Hell." The parable of the rich man in Hades was just that, a parable. And Gehenna was literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem where fires were kept burning, to consume totally anything dead that was thrown there, not to torment it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Coptic Version and Theological Questions

It has been asked, "What was the theological outlook of the 3rd century Sahidic Coptic translators?" While that cannot be known with absolute certainty, it is clear that many doctrines, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, had not yet been formulated or adopted by the churches, particularly the Egyptian churches. The most likely influence, if any, might have been Egypt's scholarly Origen, who wrote an early Commentary on the Gospel of John. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 9). Also see:

Not laboring under the burden of later doctrines developed by the church, it is interesting to find insights from the Sahidic Coptic version on theologically significant New Testament verses. For example:

Luke 23:43. Did Jesus say, "Today you will be with me in paradise," or "I tell you today, You will be with me in paradise"? The best Sahidic texts, as found in Warren Wells' Sahidica text, have the Coptic particle je after its word for "today." (For information on the Sahidica text, see):

This is the equivalent of a comma after "today," giving the translation, "Truly I say to you today, You will be with me in paradise." This harmonizes with the Scriptural fact that "today" -- that day -- Jesus was not to be in paradise, but in the grave.

John 8:58. "I am." Sahidic Coptic finishes the statement, rending the Greek egw eimi here as anok tishoop, "I am existing." Since the Coptic sentence begins with empate, "not-yet," comparable to the Greek's prin, the sentence has the force of what Greek scholar Kenneth L. McKay titles the "Extension from Past." (A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, 1994, p. 42) Therefore, both the Greek and the Coptic of John 8:58 may be rendered this way: "I have been in existence since before Abraham was born." Jesus is here addressing the matter of prior existence, not Godship. Equating John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14, where God calls himself "I Am" in the King James and other versions, stands on poor scholarship, since the Hebrew term used in Exodus, Ehyeh really means "I will be." Even the King James Version translates Ehyeh as "I will be," not "I Am," just two verses prior, at Exodus 3:12. So do the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate.

Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. These verses are said in some circles to represent the "Granville Sharp Rule" that two nouns connected by kai (Greek, "and") and only the first noun has the definite article, it denotes unity or equality. Thus, in these verses, "the God and Savior Jesus Christ," applies to Christ the titles of both God and Savior. Was this the understanding of the Sahidic Coptic translators?

No. At Titus 2:13 the Sahidic Coptic text reads noute. mn penswthr ihsous pecristos, "God, and our Savior Jesus Christ." Thus, two Persons are in view, not one and the same. The Coptic translators did not know of a "Granville Sharp Rule."

And as for 2 Peter 1:1, the Coptic translators apparently had before them another Greek text, which read "Lord" instead of "God": "Our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior." (For example, "Lord" instead of "God" is found in the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century, and also the Harclean Syriac version.)

Revelation 3:14. Is Jesus "the beginning" of God's creation, or as some modern versions say, "the Beginner" or "the Ruler" of God's creation? The Sahidic Coptic version has houeite as a translation of the Greek's arche, which only means beginning, first. (W. E. Crum, A Coptic Dictionary, p. 738) The Coptic translators made no effort to embellish the meaning of arche in order to serve a (non-existent at the time) Trinity apologetic.

By and large, the Coptic translators were literal and faithful expounders of the Greek texts they used.