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)