Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is Coptic John 1:1c primarily qualitative?

A recent article in The Journal of Theological Studies (volume 62, October 2011), continues the trend of some New Testament scholars to view John 1:1c in the Greek text as qualitative. This particular article gives attention to the Coptic version of John 1:1c also, proposing that "the best way to take the indefinite articles in John 1:1c [Coptic]" is also "qualitatively," meaning that the Word "possesses the same qualities as the 'God of the Bible.'"

Viewing the Greek of John 1:1c as qualitative has gained currency since Philip B. Harner's 1973 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature. To be sure, it is an improvement on trying to view the verse as definite, i.e., "the Word was God."

However, the JTS article, in focusing on what it imagines to be a qualitative construction in the Coptic, does not go far enough in exploring the much more obvious indefinite uses of the Coptic indefinite article at John 1:1c. A more careful and objective research of the use of the Coptic common noun NOYTE ("god") with the Coptic indefinite article in the Sahidic Coptic New Testament would show that there is no grammatical reason to prefer a qualitative reading over an indefinite one in the vast number of its Coptic NT occurrences, including John 1:1c. The only reasons that are presented in the paper for Coptic John 1:1c as being "qualitative" are essentially theological ones, not grammatical ones.

And the weakness of many such dissertations is the attempt to tweak qualitativeness back to a definite reading for this verse.

As Thomas O. Lambdin notes in his Coptic grammar book, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, “the use of the Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English, only exceptions to this general correspondence will be noted.” (page 5) Throughout the Sahidic Coptic New Testament, even as reflected in Horner’s English translation, the default and normal rendering of the Coptic indefinite article plus common noun (e.g., NOYTE, “god,” as at Coptic John 1:1c) is “a” something, and only in special circumstances (i.e., other classes of nouns such as abstract nouns or substances like water) would this not be the case.

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 indefinite predicate common nouns.

There are no compelling grammatical reasons to view Coptic John 1:1c as qualitative rather than indefinite.

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.

The authors of the JTS article, from Dallas Theological Seminary, present their conclusions as proposals, not as the end of the matter. Still, in wanting to see the verse as "qualitative," they have ignored a great corpus of verses in the Coptic New Testament, including John 1:1c, that are clearly indefinite in significance.

Certain theologies attempt to blur the Biblical distinction between God Almighty and His Son, upon whom He has conferred dignity and lordship. But that distinction is unalterable in the Scriptures and efforts to manipulate the grammar of either Greek or Copic do not succeed in nullifying that distinction.

See also in the Links at right

"Scholarly Misunderstanding of Sahidic John 1:1"