Sunday, August 22, 2010

Does Sahidic Coptic John 8:58 Say Jesus is God?

Koine Greek text: πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί


ΜΠΑΤЄ = "It expresses a present based description of the past in terms of what has not happened up to now and expresses the expectation that it can or will eventually occur; 'before.'" -- Bentley Layton, A Coptic Grammar, p. 261

ϢШΠЄ = "To become, come into existence." -- Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, p. 315

ϢΟΟΠ = "(Is) in existence." -- Ariel Shisah HaLevy, Coptic Grammatical Chrestomathy, p. 248

The standard concept is that the Greek text's ἐγὼ εἰμί, “I Am,” is a reference to Exodus 3:14, where according to the Latin Vulgate and many English versions, God says “I am what I am.” Of course, this is not what the Hebrew text says, or what the Greek Septuagint says. The Hebrew is better translated to say “I will be who I will be,” signifying purpose rather than ontology. The Septuagint says “I am the Being,” which is not a literal translation of the Hebrew text, but a philosophical one. The ancient Greek translations of Aquila and Theodotion restored the meaning of the Hebrew text by using ἔσομαι, “I will be,” rather than εἰμί at Exodus 3:14.

The Koine Greek of John 8:58 literally says “Before Abraham to become, I am.”

The Sahidic Coptic of John 8:58 literally says, “"Before Abraham comes into existence, I (am) in existence.”

Since the Coptic text of John 8:58 closely mirrors the Greek text, what Greek scholar Kenneth L. McKay says about the syntax of the Greek text applies also to the meaning of the Coptic. The Coptic itself indicates this by not leaving ἐγὼ εἰμί to merely say, “I am,” but “I (am) in existence.”

McKay sees the construction of John 8:58 as representing an “extension from past”: “When used with an expression of either past time or extent of time with past implications…the present tense signals an activity begun in the past and continuing to present time.” McKay would thus render ἐγὼ εἰμί at John 8:58 to say: “I have been in existence before Abraham was born.” -- A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek, p. 42

This is not really new. The ancient Syriac/Aramaic translators, who used a language similar to that of Jesus himself, also rendered the ἐγὼ εἰμί of John 8:58 with past reference:

"Before Abraham was, I have been." -- Sinaitic Palimpsest

"Before ever Abraham came to be, I was." -- Curetonian Version

"Before Abraham existed, I was." -- Peshitta Version

"Before Abraham was born, I was." -- George M. Lamsa’s English version

But many people existed before Abraham did.

By specifically indicating that existence was implied in the Greek of John 8:58, the Sahidic Coptic version’s ΑΝΟΚ ϯϢΟΟΠ , “I (am) in existence” puts matters in the proper perspective:. The question asked of Jesus was not, if he were God, but whether he had seen Abraham. (John 8:57) Jesus replied that he pre-existed Abraham, as God’s Son in heaven. Neither in Greek nor in Coptic does he say “I am God.”


  1. Does coptic have 'extension from the past' so 'I am existing' includes the past [like Greek], or is the indicative verb: 'am' or 'was' supplied by the reader (you have it in parenthesis) according to context [ie. by ΜΠΑΤΕ]? Also, anything worth noting on the Holy Spirit? [ie. Acts 8:15,17-19]

  2. The "extension from the past" is a grammatical construct that is not limited to Greek, and can be translated as such in other languages. The Coptic's ΜΠΑΤΕ before a present tense sentence would therefore function the same as the Greek's
    πρὶν, in English translation.

    ϯϢΟΟΠ in Coptic is a present tense durative conjugation: "I exist." The copula "and" is not expressed in a simple Coptic sentence (nor in Hebrew), but it is understood, and supplied in English translation: "I (am) existing." It could also be written without the parenthesis: "I am existing." The meaning is the same.

    Acts 8:15, 17-19 is a literal translation of the Greek text. What point specifically about the Holy Spirit did you have in mind?

  3. whether they received 'a' holy spirit or 'the' Holy Spirit, or in 10:38 whether Jesus was annointed with 'holy spirit' or 'the Holy Spirit' (see ch. 12 Truth in Translation)

  4. Thanks for the clarification. At Acts 8:15, where the Greek text is anarthrous, the Coptic text has ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΕϤΟΥΑΑΒ, called in Coptic a "zero article" construction, which Horner's English version of the Coptic translates simply as "holy spirit."

    At Acts 8:17, the Greek text is again anarthrous, but the Coptic text gives the definite article here -- which may be anaphoric, since the spirit is already mentioned previously: ΠΕΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΕϤΟΥΑΑΒ, "the holy spirit (previously mentioned)." In verse 18, where the Greek text has the Greek definite article, the Coptic does also, employing the Coptic definite article ΠΕ- : ΠΕΠΝΕΥΜΑ, "the spirit." In verse 19, where the Greek text is anarthrous, the Coptic text has the Coptic definite article, "the holy spirit."

    At Acts 10:38, "spirit" in Greek is in a dative construction, so it could be grammatically definite or indefinite. However, the Coptic translators evidently saw "spirit" here as indefinite, since the Coptic specifically employs its indefinite article ΟΥ-, reading ΟΥΠΕΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΕϤΟΥΑΑΒ. Horner's English translation is "with holy spirit." [Literally in the Coptic, "with a spirit of holiness."]

    Generally, the Coptic text apparently renders "holy spirit" when it is without the definite article in the underlying Greek text, unless the reference to the spirit is anaphoric and "the" holy spirit could be expected. And generally, the Coptic text has "the" holy spirit when the Greek text also has the Greek definite article.

  5. Would I be right to assume that there is no plausible connection to the ani hu sayings of Isaiah either? Im assuming this because ΑΝΟΚ ϯϢΟΟΠ’: ‘I (am) in existence’ is quite different from ΑΝΟΚ ΠΕ: ‘I am [he]’ which is how [I presume] ani hu is translated in Isaiah.

  6. You are correct. If John 8:58 were meant to connect with Isaiah's *ani hu* expression, the correct Coptic words would be ΑΝΟΚ ΠΕ, but this is not what is found at that verse.

  7. Some claim the Etheridge translation of the peshitta supports "I AM" but it is worth noting the verbless expression 'ani hu' in no way connects to Exo. 3:14.

    And as an aside, contrary to some the claims of '', seeing ego eimi as an extension from the past is not a "view of John 8:58 that was never advocated before the 20th century" nor was "John 8:58 was the ultimate passage that Arius simply could not answer". In fact they likely had a similar interpretation. And no JWs are not the 1st to "ever argue that the contrast in John 8:58 [eimi to genesthai] is anything less than that of a created vs. eternal being". For one created and eternal are not antonyms, second this is patently untrue, In fact Ambrose had to make special apologies for such an interpretation: "In its extent, the preposition “before” reaches back into the past without end or limit, and so “Before Abraham was, I am,” (John 8:58) clearly need not mean “after Adam,” just as “before the Morning Star” need not mean “after the angels.” But when He said “before,” He intended, not that He was included in any one's existence, but that all things are included in His, for thus it is the custom of Holy Writ to show the eternity of God."

  8. I agree, since 4th century Syriac versions, as noted, also say "Before Abraham existed, I was."

    Thanks for the additional comments.

  9. The claims of '' seem a little off. Athanathius - the one taking the Trinitarian lead around 325 CE, never seemed to make a connection between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14. He seemed to think it was just referring to Jesus' pre-human existence.

    "Again, when our Saviour said, 'Before Abraham was, I am,' 'the Jews took up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:58-59).' And 'going through the midst of them, He went His way,' and 'so passed by (Luke 4:30).'" - Apologia de Fuga

    "And, 'Before Abraham was, I am (John 8:58).' - Discourse 1 Against the Arians

    "Accordingly, though He thus speaks, yet He taught also that He Himself existed before this, when He said, 'Before Abraham came to be, I am (John 8:58);' and 'when He prepared the heavens, I was present with Him;' and 'I was with Him disposing things. ' And as He Himself was before Abraham came to be . . . " - Discourse 2 Against the Arians

    "Again, whereas the Jews said, 'Is not this the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then is it that He says, Before Abraham was, I am, and I came down from heaven ?'" - Discourse 3 Against the Arians

    In the first quote, Athanasius was only discussing Jesus' flight, without commenting on the meaning of John 8:58

    In the second quote, he was discussing Jesus' ancient existence, which he declared was eternal (based on his understanding of other scriptures, not John 8:58).

    In the third quote, he seems to emphasize the meaning of John 8:58 as Jesus existing before Abraham, and not as Jesus claiming God's name.

    In the fourth quote, he seems to refer to the Jews' disbelief that Jesus had a pre-human existence.

    Not once did Athanasius attempt to connect John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14. His use of John 8:58 had to do with Jesus' pre-human existence, and not to his identity.