Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Coptic Translation

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their organization commonly called The Watchtower, have published a book they call The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. In it, they have John 1:1c saying “the Word was a god.” All other versions of John 1:1 have “the Word was God” or something similar, such as “the Word was divine” or “of a divine kind.” This is an important issue, for it helps determine if Jesus is the one true God or a lesser god. In dealing with this question, many publications have been written by a lot of people over a long period of time. We have posted several times about related issues, and you can find more by putting Jehovah’s Witnesses in the search bar to this blog.

In trying to support their position on calling Jesus ‘a god,’ the Watchtower followers have brought up a version of the Bible written in Coptic, a language from Egypt. The Coptic language has both definite and indefinite articles (“the book” compared to “a book”) which is at the heart of the question on John 1:1c. The argument from the Watchtower supporters seems to be that 1) since Coptic uses an indefinite article in John 1:1c, they are justified in using it in the NWT, 2) the Copt translation was from the Biblical period when Koine Greek was spoken, therefore they should be an excellent source of how to translate Greek, 3) the Coptic translation was made before the doctrine of the Trinity became popular in the 4th century, so it is an unbiased version, while all subsequent translations are biased. We will show that all these points are decidedly incorrect.

First, Coptic is not English. Though this is basic and obvious, it seems to be missed in the argument. Whether or not Coptic translates a passage a certain way does not necessarily mean the English should. Just because both languages include definite and indefinite articles does not mean they both operate the same or have the same grammatical structure. While it is true that language scholars learn things by comparing translations, comparing English and Coptic in this one phrase does not give necessary conclusions. Instead, we must depend on the language scholars that have published the grammar texts.

Second, we have no guarantee of the degree of accuracy of the original Coptic translation from the Greek. Yes, they lived at the time that Koine Greek was spoken, but this does not reflect on the capabilities of the individual translator. For example, we live at a time where Spanish and English are commonly spoken, but any given modern Spanish-English translator may generate trash or treasure, depending on the effort and skill of the person.  Supporting something merely due to age is a chronological fallacy.

Third, we have some indication that the Coptic may be inconsistent. In Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, edited by Daniel Wallace, in the chapter titled “Jesus as Theos” we find the following from Brian Wright:

The question we must now answer is, did Coptic translators uniformly translate the nominative singlular theos? To answer this, I examined every occurence of the nominative singular theos in every potential Johanine writing (i.e., John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation). This examination revealed that John 1:1c was the only time the nominative singular theos (articular or anarthrous) was translated with a Coptic indefinite article. Putting this in further perspective, of the five NT books examined, there were only four other anarthrous  uses of theos (if one includes the textual variant in Rev. 21:3). (Ch.6, emphasis in original)

Later he goes on to show exactly how many times theos appears, and how many have the definite article and how many are indefinite (anarthrous).

So these authors have counted every instance of theos, and if there is any pattern of translation, it is against the Watchtower’s position. While this is not an exhaustive study of all instances of definite and indefinite articles in Coptic, it does raise serious questions about whether we can use the Coptic version of John 1:1c to help us translate to English — it would appear the Coptic is inconsistent. At a minimum, there is not enough evidence to be confident of the Coptic version of John 1:1c.

Fourth, the Watchtower’s position about the Coptic-English translation of John 1:1c flies in the face of almost the entire language community. To use the Coptic to cast doubt on the way the Greek is translated to English says, in effect, that every language scholar on every translation committee is wrong, while the Watchtower is right; that every Greek grammar book is wrong, while the Watchtower is right. It would also seem to be saying that the Watchtower has found something that full-time language scholars have missed for two millenia. The idea is beyond credulity. Still further, the Watchtower supporters strongly imply that the Copts knew Greek better than the entirety of the scholarly community today, which is unproven. Modern scholars have libraries full of Greek writings and the benefit of modern communication to compare notes, while the translator of the Coptic is unknown. Again, just because they lived at the same time does not prove they knew the language perfectly.

Fiflth, further doubt is cast on the Watchtower’s Coptic-to-English argument when we consider that the translator of the Coptic into English specifically tells us that articles in Coptic are not always needed in English. (A Coptic Version of the New Testament, by George Horner, p.376)

Sixth, the point brought up by the Watchtower is dealing with the English version of the Coptic, which is itself a translation from Greek. It therefore gets entangled with the distinctions between the grammar in all three languages. Again, just because Coptic might require an indefinite article (and as we saw above, we are not even sure of this in John 1:1), it does not necessarily follow that we can use a Coptic translation to make conclusions about English. The languages are distinct.

Seventh, the Coptic grammar scholars do not seem to agree with the Watchtower, as shown here, and here.

Eighth, regarding the dating of the Coptic version and the Trinity doctrine, the Watchtower supporters have quoted the Coptic church as saying the translation was made about 200 AD. The implication by the Watchtower is that the Trinity did not “become popular” until the 4th century, after the council of Nicea in 325. However, this too falls apart, for there are numerous Christian writers who describe the Trinity earlier than the 4th century, which you can find here. The earliest is Theophilis of Antioch, who wrote between 169 – 183, mentioning the Trinity in a sense that indicates the term was widespread and in common use by that time. So the church held to the Trinity from the days of the apostles, with the doctrine being widely taught in the second century, well before 200.

In conclusion, we have no indication that the Coptic version of John 1:1 should change any English translation, and we have good evidence that it should not. We also have further support of the Watchtower’s weak historical position on translation. They are attempting to use poor arguments from relatively obscure sources to cast doubt on the solid translations from mainstream Greek scholarship. Even if the Coptic translation were to give us any indication of the Trinity, it does not predate the widespread support of the Trinity by Christians many years before the Coptic translation.

The only doubt that is cast is on the doctrine, methods, and theology of the Watchtower. When we consider that the Watchtower has no published language scholars, we can be confident that their position on translations can be dismissed, whether it be Greek, Coptic, or English. The Christian would be wise to avoid Watchtower teachings.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Coptic Translation

  1. JohnOneOne says:

    Dear humblesmith,

    Furthermore, regarding your assesment of the early Coptic translation of John 1:1, the following might also be of interest:

    “Coptic John 1:1-18″
    [link removed]
    Agape, JohnOneOne.

    • humblesmith says:

      We’ll have to wait and see about any new publications from the Watchtower. The historical precedent is not on their side, however, especially with poor publications such as “Should You Believe In the Trinity?” which plays sleight-of-hand games with source references, does not give citations, and is guilty of logical fallacies. If the Watchtower were truly interested in scholarship, they would pull such poorly sourced publications. If they still stand behind such publications, the scholarly community will continue to have a low opinion of the organization. See more here:

      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/jehovahs-witnesses-and-the-trinity/

  2. Solomon Landers says:

    There are so many obvious, but frequently repeated, errors in this blog. First, it depends on research from the apologetic website, “For An Answer,” whose authors at the time knew little Coptic and who misused the Coptic sources they had, all in an attempt to push the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Neither time nor space will allow more than a short reply, nevertheless, a reply that goes to the fundamentals of the errors repeated here. Foremost, the New World Translation never depended on the Coptic translation of John 1:1c, and the resources cited for this rendering when the NWT was translated do not include Coptic John. The NWT rendering of John 1:1c is based on Greek scholarship, including the scholarship of some writers who are Trinitarians but who realize the possible qualitative nature of the Greek in this verse.

    Therefore, the NWT rendering “the Word was a god” is consistent with other translators who have “the Word was divine.” It is the popular translation, “the Word was God” that is not qualitative and therefore, disagrees with modern scholarship about anarthrous Koine Greek nouns in the pre-verbal or “fronted” position.

    Most of what you wrote about the Coptic translation is also in error, following the outdated, apologetic stuff in “For An Answer.” For better information on the Coptic translation, see:

    [link removed]

    Repeating biased Trinitarian objections to the Coptic version is useless. Even so, the Coptic version was not used or referenced by the New World Translators in its rendering of John 1:1c, rather, they used the work of recognized, competent Greek grammarians and scholars.

    Perhaps you should actually get a copy of the New World Translation Reference Bible and read it for yourself, if you want to be unbiased and accurate in what you post.

    • humblesmith says:

      As for the links to “for an answer” this was merely one point of my argument, and I linked there because they did a decent job of citing the other authors and scholars. The bulk of that websites comments were from the scholars, not original material. The bulk of my post did not come from there. It is a misrepresentation to dismiss the several points I made as all coming from there.

      Next, if I had claimed the NWT depended on the Coptic for its translation, your comment would have been relevant. The Watchtower supporters do, however, refer to the Coptic to support their position, which was the point of the post.

      Anyone can write a book explaining language….some know what they are talking about, some don’t. If we limit our references to those who write grammars or texts used to teach Greek at accredited schools, then the scholarly community is completely and totally in disagreement with the Watchtower’s position. You cite none of these scholars in support of your view because there are none who support this view.

      The rest of my post remains unchallenged.

      Lastly, I’m afraid I’m going to pull rank and not allow these links. I am providing reasonable (but not unlimited) space for anyone to show their views, but this is not a discussion board, and the majority of the content on the links had nothing to do with this post. The little that did could have been stated here in a shorter space than the comment that was given.

  3. gold price says:

    reason that the indefinite article in the Coptic translation, of John 1:1, has a qualitative meaning. Many such occurrences for qualitative nouns are identified in the Coptic New Testament, including 1 John 1:5 and 1 John 4:8 . Moreover the indefinite article is used to refer to God in Deuteronomy 4:31 and Malachi 2:10 .

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