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"


  1. Are they correct when they claim that "there are other passages in the Coptic text which
    explicitly call Jesus QEOS, with the definite article, even in the same chapter and book (e.g. John 1:18; 20:28; cf. Titus 2:13;
    1 John 5:20)" (pages 509-10).

    Is the Coptic clear in referring Titus 2:13 and 1 John 5:20 as further references to Jesus QEOS/NYOUTE? More so than the Greek? What about Romans 9:5, 2 Peter 1:1, etc.?

  2. No, they are incorrect in saying that these verses refer to Jesus as God. John 1:18 has the definite article, reflecting some Greek texts which also have the definite article here. But this use of the definite article is anaphoric, referring back to the entity described in John 1:1 without the definite article and can be translated simply and adequately as "the god" previously referred to.

    As for John 20:28, this also reflects the Greek usage, where the definite article is part of the possessive context: "My God" equals "the god of me." Grammar calls for the use of the definite article here, and whether "My Lord and my God" in this verse is a statement of Jesus' godship or just an interjection, is a matter of theological interpretation and debate.

    Titus 2:13, in Coptic, is not speaking about Jesus. The Coptic text here, unlike the Greek, expressly adds the Coptic word "and" [MN], which makes this a reference to two entities, not one: "The manifestation of the glory of the Great God, and of our Savior Jesus Christ."

    Contextually, 1 John 5:20 refers to God (the Father), mentioned in verse 19, and not to Jesus. Thus, "the true God" of 1 John 5:20 is the God who begets Christians to sonship, the Father. (1 John 5:18, 19)

    Whereas NOYTE has the Coptic definite article at Romans 9:5 and 2 Peter 1:1, the Coptic text indicates that this refers to the Father, not to Christ. For example, at Romans 9:5 the Coptic text has a period after the word for "flesh," making "God who is over all be blessed forever" a separate statement.

    And the Sahidic Coptic text of 2 Peter 1:1 does not have NOYTE ("god") at all, but follows a variant Greek text, reading "Lord": "The righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior."

    In short, the only times the Coptic text has the definite article before NOYTE in reference to Jesus are when the Greek text does so for grammatical reasons (anaphoric or possessive article). These usages do not signal that Jesus is God.

    In the other occurrences, the Greek text is ambiguous and the Coptic text more readily makes the reference apply to God, the Father, rather than to Jesus. And the Sahidic Coptic text of 2 Peter 1:1 says "Lord" rather than "God."

    See also: