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Translating Sahidic Coptic John 1:1

Translating Sahidic Coptic John 1:1

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Published by Memra
A detailed essay on translating Sahidic Coptic John 1:1
A detailed essay on translating Sahidic Coptic John 1:1

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Memra on Jan 20, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Translating “the Word was a god” – 1700 Years AgoAs the early Christians continued to carry out Jesus’ command topreach to all nations, the good news or gospel had to be translated intomany languages. (Matthew 28:19, 20) “At least by the third centuryC.E., the first translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures had beenmade for the Coptic natives of Egypt.” – (
 Insight on the Scriptures
,Volume 2, page 1153) Similarly, the Anchor Bible Dictionary states,“All these data point to the 3
century as the latest
terminus a quo
[pointof origin] for the earliest Coptic translation.” **This earliest Coptic (from an Arabic/Greek word for “Egyptian”)translation was in the Sahidic dialect, approximately 1,700 years ago.The scribes who were translating the Gospel of John from Koine Greek into their own Egyptian language encountered an issue that still facestranslators today. It is the question of correctly translating John 1:1.The Coptic translators rendered John 1:1 in this way (Transliterated):1. a.
 Hn te.houeite ne.f.shoop ngi p.shaje
1. b.
 Auw p.shaje ne.f.shoop n.nahrm p.noute
1. c.
 Auw ne.u.noute pe p.shaje
1Literally, the Coptic says:1. a. In the beginning existed the word1. b. And the word existed in the presence of the god1. c. And a god was the wordWe can see at the outset that the Coptic translators used the Copticdefinite article (
) in referring to the One the Word was with or “in thepresence of” (
, “the” god, i.e., God. And we can seethat in referring to the Word, the Coptic translators employed theCoptic indefinite article (
; just “
” following the vowel “
, “was a god.”Many ancient Coptic manuscripts were collated and translated intoEnglish by Coptic scholar George W. Horner. In 1911, Hornerpublished an English translation of John’s gospel. He rendered John1:1c as: “In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being
with God, and [a] God was the word.” 2 He encloses the indefinitearticle “a” within brackets, which might indicate that he consideredthat here its translation is not required in English. However, in his owntranslation of the same Coptic sentence structure in other verses inJohn, Horner himself does render the indefinite article in English as“a”, without any brackets, which is entirely proper at John 1:1c also.Some examples of the Coptic indefinite article with the noun structurethat Horner translates into English with an unbracketed “a” in theGospel of John follow below. They are also verses in which mostEnglish versions of John translate the Greek pre-verbal anarthrouspredicate nouns with an “a. ” :John 4:19: “a prophet" (NRSV; Horner)John 6:70: "a devil" (NRSV; Horner)John 8:44: "a murderer" (NRSV; Horner)John 8:44: "a liar " (NRSV; Horner)John 8:48: "a Samaritan" (NRSV; Horner)John 9:17: "a prophet" (NRSV; Horner)John 9:24: "a sinner" (NRSV; Horner)John 9:25: " a sinner" (NRSV; Horner)John 10:1: " a thief" (NRSV; HornerJohn 10:13: "a hired hand " (NRSV; Horner)John 12:6: " a thief" (NRSV; Horner)John 18:35: "a Jew" (NRSV; Horner)John 18:37a: "a king” (NRSV; Horner)John 18:37b: "a king." (NRSV; Horner
) 3
Literally, Sahidic Coptic *
* means “a god.: 4 When a Copticnoun refers to an entity (“man,” “god”) the Coptic indefinite article iscustomarily translated by the English indefinite article “a”. The Copticindefinite article
marks the noun as a non-specific individual or aspecimen of a class. 5 When the noun refers to an abstract idea(“truth,” “happiness”) or an unspecified quantity of a substance(“water,” “some water”; “gold,” “some gold”), or is used adjectively(“wise,” “divine”), the Coptic indefinite article need not be translated bythe English indefinite article “a.” 6
Thus, it can be said that the Coptic indefinite article does notcorrespond exactly in usage to the English indefinite article, but doescorrespond closely to it. 7 Because it modifies a noun referring to anentity, the Word, at John 1:1c, the translation “a god” is proper. How competent were the ancient Coptic Egyptian translators to conveythe sense of the Greek text of John? Egypt was conquered byAlexander the Great in 332 BCE and the country was subsequentlyHellenized. Greek had been a legacy of Egypt for some 500 years by thetime those translators began their work, and it was still a livinglanguage. According to Coptic grammarian Bentley Layton, the Coptictranslation is “a very early indirect attestation of the Greek text and adirect indication of an Egyptian (perhaps Alexandrian) understandingof what it meant.” 8 Likely made well before Nicea (325 CE), theCoptic text tells us how early exegetes interpreted John 1:1, apart fromthe influence of later dogma and church tradition.Although the third century may be the latest date for the Sahidic Coptictranslation, can a date for its beginning be more clearly ascertained?Christianity may have come early to Egypt. The Bible book Acts of theApostles lists Egyptian Jews and proselytes as being present atPentecost, when 3,000 became Christian believers. (Acts 2:5-11) Theeloquent Christian speaker Apollos was an Alexandrian and his travelsmay have taken him back to Egypt. (Acts 18:24-28; Titus 3:13) Coptictranslator George Horner notes: “Clement of Alexandria, born about150 [CE], speaks of the Christians spreading all over the land….Theinternal character of the Sahidic [version] supplies confirmation of adate earlier than the third century.” Horner favors a date closer to 188CE as the inception of the Sahidic Coptic version 9The value of the Coptic text lies not only in its indication of how earlyscribes understood the Greek of John 1:1, but also in its value fordetermining the correct text of that gospel. New Testament scholarBruce Metzger wrote: “[The] Alexandrian text [is] the best text andmost faithful in preserving the original….The Sahidic and Bohairicversions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.” 10Additionally, one can note readings in the Coptic text that are found inthe earliest existing manuscripts of John, the p66 (Papyrus Bodmer II,

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