Sunday, November 21, 2010

Overview: Sahidic Coptic NT and Textual Criticism and Interpretation

“The Coptic New Testament is among the primary resources for the history of the New Testament text. Important as the Latin and Syriac versions may be, it is of far greater importance to know precisely how the text developed in Egypt.” –The Text of the New Testament, Kurt and Barbara Aland (Eerdmans, 1987), p. 200

“Coptic” means Egyptian, specifically of or relating to Egyptian Christians. There was a sizeable Jewish community in 1st century Egypt, and a school in Alexandria under the famed Jewish philosopher Philo. There were also Egyptians associated with Christianity from its earliest days (Acts 2:10; 18:24), although the date of the origins of the Egyptian Gentile church are less certain. Tradition assigns the founding of that church to the evangelist Mark.

The term “Sahidic Coptic Version” of the New Testament does not refer to the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in December, 1945 (the “gospels” of Thomas, Philip and Judas). Those “gospels” were also translated into and are primarily extant in Sahidic Coptic. But “Sahidic Coptic Version” of the New Testament means the Egyptian translation of the Greek canonical writings of the New Testament.

The Sahidic Coptic version is represented in the scholarly Nestle-Aland Greek critical text (NA27, comparable to UBS4) by the symbol “sa.” The usefulness of “sa” to New Testament critical scholars is attested in the numerous times it is referenced in Bruce M. Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition ( Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) and the Greek critical text Novum Testamentum Graece.

In the English Introduction of the NA27, Novum Testamentum Graece (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993) we read: “In the present scholarly manual edition of the Greek New Testament the principal emphasis is on the Latin, Syriac and Coptic versions. These versions were unquestionably made directly from the Greek and at an early period. They are also the most fully studied. And finally, their value as witnesses to the textual tradition of the Greek New Testament, which is our concern at present, has become increasingly clear through decades of debate.” – p. 63

Although numerous papyrus and parchment Greek manuscripts were discovered in the 20th century, “the versions still enjoy an important role in critical decisions because they represent Greek witnesses of an early period.” – ibid, p. 64.

Modern textual scholars group the various early textual witnesses into types or “families.” The Alexandrian text (so named from Alexandria in Egypt) is considered by many to be “the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original…The Sahidic and Bohairic [Coptic] versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings” and the Sahidic Coptic version is generally classed as an Alexandrian witness although containing some readings found in other text types as well. – Metzger, pp. 5, 15

Extant Sahidic Coptic Biblical manuscripts date to “about A.D. 300,” indicating that the actual translation of the Christian Bible into Coptic took place some time prior to that. --Bentley Layton, A Coptic Grammar, 2nd Edition (Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2004), Introduction, p.1. The Coptic Orthodox Church gives a traditional date of about 200 AD for the composition of the Coptic New Testament, and grammarian George W. Horner, who also translated the Coptic New Testament into English from 1911 – 1924, gives a date as early as sometime after 180 A.D. Dates for such early texts cannot be exact, but are based largely on “external and circumstantial factors” such as the style of writing and the place where they were found. – The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, edited by Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett (Tyndale House, 2001), p. 20

The value of the Sahidic Coptic version lies also in its being a witness or additional witness to several theologically important verses in the New Testament. For example, it supports the deletion of the Pericope Adulterae at John 7:53-8:11. Also, the Coptic reading ΠΑΙ ΝΤΑϤΟΥШΝϨ ЄΒΟΛ ϨΝ ΤСΑΡΞ , “this one who was manifested in the flesh,” supports the reading of the best Greek texts which say “he” or he who” [ὃς ] rather than “God” [Θεὸς ] was manifested in the flesh, at 1Timothy 3:16.

Significantly, the Sahidic Coptic version also sheds light on how certain Greek grammatical constructions were understood by people who spoke Greek and who were part of a living culture of the Koine Greek language, which was true of the Coptic translators. For example, at Titus 2:13, the Coptic translators understood the Greek text’s μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as a reference to two persons rather than one. Instead of a possible “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” the Coptic has as ΜΠΝΟϬ ΝΝΟΥΤЄ ΜΝ ΠЄΝСШΤΗΡ ΠЄΧΡΙСΤΟС ΙΗСΟΥС i.e., "the great God, and our Savior Jesus Christ"

Perhaps a most outstanding example of this aid to interpretation, as understood by these early Christian translators, is found at John 1:1c, the meaning of which has filled a plethora of volumes over many centuries.

Unlike the other two ancient textual witnesses, the Latin and Syriac texts, the Sahidic Coptic version was composed in a language that has both the definite and indefinite grammatical articles. The Coptic usage of the articles is similar to English, varying with respect to abstract nouns. But there are no abstract nouns at John 1:1c, only common nouns, so this difference between the Coptic usage of the articles and the English use does not apply to this verse.

The Coptic form of John 1:1c does not support a definite reading for καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος , such as “the Word was God.” The Coptic translators could have written ΝЄ ΠΝΟΥΤΕ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ, “the Word was God,” if that is what their understanding of living Koine Greek dictated. But they did not write that. Rather, they translated the Greek of John 1:1c to say ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤЄ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ, i.e. “the Word was a god.”

Whereas a Coptic noun in the predicate can also have descriptive (adjectival) significance, the essential meaning of Coptic John 1:1c would not change. Descriptively, Sahidic Coptic ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤΕ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ can be translated as "the Word was divine" or "the Word was a divine one." Denotatively, Sahidic Coptic ΝЄΥΝΟΥΤЄ ΠЄ ΠϢΑϪЄ can be translated as "the Word was a god," and this is the general sense of Coptic predicate common nouns.

Note that whether descriptive or denotative, the Sahidic Coptic common noun with the indefinite article can be rendered into standard English with the English indefinite article: "a divine one; a god." -- Bentley Layton, A Coptic Grammar, 2nd Edition (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004), page 227.

Therefore, whether for textual criticism or textual interpretation, the Sahidic Coptic version is of significant value to both students and scholars of the Bible.