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.