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.


  1. Memra, Can we get more information on Mark the long ending? Does the Oldest Coptic have this in its pages? Please comment on this if you have time. And thank you for all your scholarly work left for us to read in these Blogs.
    We love to see all this deeper information when we have time.

    Thank you again.

  2. Thank you for your comments..

    There are 4 different "endings" to Mark's Gospel that are found in ancient Greek manuscripts, and some Coptic manuscripts reflect this confusion. However:

    The earliest and most accurate Sahidic Coptic manuscripts end Mark 16 at verse 8. A few manuscripts contain one additional "verse" in which Jesus appears to send the disciples out to proclaim everlasting salvation. A certain few Coptic manuscripts also contain the disputed verses 9-20.

    All this would depend on what was in the Greek manuscripts that the Coptic translators used, and whether such manuscripts carried an earlier or later tradition of the transmission of those verses.

    Many Greek NT scholars consider the long ending to be a later addition to Mark's Gospel, and the earliest Coptic manuscripts appear to agree. But the matter was apparently not settled at the time, accounting for differnt endings in different Coptic manuscripts.

  3. It is so interesting how polarized the academic and layman worlds are with John 1:1, and ONLY John 1:1.

    If the scholarly world declares that the Sahidic version of John 1:1 is to be accurately translated as "...and [a] God was the word" then so be it.

    Many non-Trinitarian and anti-Trinitarian groups are quick to champion the Sahidic version of John 1:1. However, John 1:1, if translated as "...and the Word was God," is just one of MANY verses that substantiate the Deity of Jesus. It is a misconception to think that the entire Trinitarian doctrine, or doctrine of Jesus' Divinity, hinges on that singular verse.

    If those who champion the Sahidic translation as true and accurate, then they must champion the entire Sahidic translation and support the verses bellow; otherwise they would be inconsistent and be charged with "picking-and-choosing" what they wish to believe.

    From "The Coptic Version of the New Testament in the Southern Dialect Otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, Volume III" by Oxford (MCMXI)

    John 1:18
    "God did not any see ever; God, the only Son, he who is being in the bosom of his Father, that (one) is he who spake of him."

    NOTE: God is called "the only Son."

    John 5:18
    "Because of this therefore more were seeking for him the Jews to put him to death; because not only was he breaking the sabbath, but he was saying also, My Father is God, equalizing himself with God."

    NOTE: As in the Greek versions, Jesus is equal with God (the Father).

    John 8:57-58
    "[57] Said they therefore to him the Jews, Thou art not yet fifty years (old), and Abraham saw thee. [58] Said Jesus to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham became, I, I am being."

    NOTE: Here is the account of Jesus using the Divine Name (Exodus 3:14), as in the Greek versions. It is also interesting to note that it says Abraham saw Jesus. The Greek versions have the Jews saying it was Jesus who saw Abraham. Nonetheless, the spirit of the text is preserved as it is in the Greek, Jesus invoking the Divine Name to himself.

    John 20:28
    "Answered Thomas, said he to him, My Lord and my God."

    NOTE: Just as in the Greek versions, it is inescapable what the Apostle John recorded what the Apostle Thomas said: that Jesus is Lord and God.

    In the light of these texts, we must somehow reconcile the MEANING of John 1:1 with them. Ok, the Sahidic version of John 1:1 translates into "...and [a] God was the word." We got it. So what does that mean in panoply of Scripture? The above texts are not pro-Trinitarian eisegesis, but are exactly as they are rendered in the translation. Putting aside all biases (anti-, non-, and pro-Trinitarian views), how do we explain these verses and reconcile them together? Read them for yourselves, and pray to God about what it is he is trying to tell us.

    More verses from the Sahidic that demonstrate the Deity of Jesus:

    Hebrews 1:8
    "...but to the Son, Thy throne, God, is being unto age of the age;..."

    NOTE: As in the Greek versions, God (the Father) calls the Son (Jesus) God.

    Titus 2:13
    "...expecting the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of the great God and our savior the Christ Jesus;..."

    NOTE: As in the Greek, Jesus is labeled as God. And, just as in the Greek, the definite article ("the") is used before the word for "God" in both.

    Philippians 2:5-6
    "[5] This think in yourselves, (namely), that (thought) which (is) also in the Christ Jesus: [6] this (one), being in form of God, reckoned it not for a robbing to make himself equal with God,..."

    NOTE: The power of this verse is preserved as it is in the Greek versions: Jesus has the form of God, and since he has that nature he is already equal with God; and therefore, he is not trying to "rob" God (the Father) because he already possesses the equality and nature of God (or Deity).

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  5. Hello Memra, I just have to ask are you one of Jehovah's Witnesses?
    Also I've noticed you seem to have a knowledge of MSS & Coptic and I love truth too, almost anywhere I can get it.
    So I have to ask what do you have in your personal library to know what you know on MSS & the Coptic? Please & Thank you!

  6. Hello, yes the author of this blog is one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Sadly, he passed away from natural causes on April 14, 2013.

    1. How sad, can you tell me about him?

    2. He was Solomon Landers, a true gentleman!

  7. Carl S above fails to take into account that Biblical monotheism is monolatrism, the consistent worship of only one divine person in the divine/supernatural realm inhabited by divine/supernatural persons. The one divine person who receives full devotion and worship is the almighty creator.

    This is explained further at my blog:

    Thus, having an Almighty God in the divine court is obviously not polytheism, but is the arrangement of monolatrism.

    Interested persons can also read on my blog how Trinitarianism is an anathematic misrepresentation of Biblical monotheism.

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  9. Well said Jim. Jesus had someone God to him at every stage of his life. He cannot be the God he worships. The Almighty God worships no one.

  10. Well said Jim. Jesus had someone God to him at every stage of his life. He cannot be the God he worships. The Almighty God worships no one.