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.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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9 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:
      https://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.

      • NickHawaii says:

        Solomon Landers is right about the Coptic translation of John 1:1.

        It is typical of Trinitarians to suggest that “theos” at John 1:1c must apply either to the true God or to some false God, but that is modern Western usage, not Semitic, Biblical usage.

        Thus, it cannot be legitimately denied that John used the anarthrous “theos” at John 1:1 to say that the Word was a god, as understood in the Semitic world of which John himself was a part, and that the Coptic translators, who ware also familiar with the “Old Testament,” understood the text in the same way.

        The only real problem is that Trinitarians do not want to let go of the definite translation, “the Word was God.” Because even when they argue for John 1:1c being “qualitative,” they go on to define qualitative as being, for all intents and purposes, really definite in meaning: the Word was God in every respect that the Father was God.

        If they would accept the usual and simple meaning of “qualitative” there would be no problem, but that does not suit their theology.

        • humblesmith says:

          As I have said on this blog, every Greek scholar holds to “the word was God” and denies “the word was a god.” If we hold language scholars as those who have published a Greek text or Greek grammar that is used in an accredited school anywhere, then the scholars are in 100% agreement with “the word was God.”

          As to whether John 1:1 refers to the one true God or a false one, there are no “in between” gods that are not the true God but still a god. Isaiah 43:10 makes that abundantly clear, for it leaves no room for any God but one and only one in existence anywhere.

          Everything else is just opinion.

          • NickHawaii says:

            That’s a good one. “EVERY GREEK SCHOLAR?” A very bold but misinformed statement. In the book “Truth In Translation-Accuracy and Bias In English Translations of the New Testament,” Koine Greek Professor Jason BeDuhn had this to say:

            “If John had wanted to say ‘the Word was God,’ as so many English translations have it, he could have very easily done so by simply adding the definite article ‘the’ (ho) to the word ‘god’ (theos), making it ‘the god’ and therefore ‘God.’ He could have simply written ho logos en ho theos (word-for-word: ‘the word was the god’), or ho logos ho theos en (word-for-word: ‘the word the god was’). But he didn’t…Others have argued that theos does not require the definite article to be definite, and that there are examples of article-less (‘anarthrous’) theos used definitely in the New Testament. While this may be true of anarthrous theos in the genitive or dative case, two forms that freely dispense with the article in a number of uses, it is not the case for anarthrous theos in the nominative case, the form used in John 1:1c. The nominative case is much more dependent than other Greek cases on the definite article to mark definiteness.” (Truth in Translation, pp. 115-117)

            Regarding Isaiah 43:10, it says: “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen; that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” (American Standard Version)

            In Isaiah we see that Jehovah is talking about how there were no man-made gods that could rival Him or equal His power. The Israelites often looked to other gods for help and Jehovah was letting them know there were not other gods that could help them. They were figments of their imagination, manifested in man-made idols. Go back and read the entire two chapters and you will get the sense of what Jehovah was telling his fickle people.

            Something also noteworthy is Jehovah also told them, “besides me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:11) Did Jehovah raise up “other saviors” in the Bible? Besides, Jesus Christ who is obviously God’s means of salvation in saving mankind . Yes, he has! If you read the book of Judges, Othniel, Ehud and others were “saviors” or”deliverers” because they represented Jehovah and did so in a temporary sense. This would not make them false “saviors” would it?

            The Scriptures make clear that God is the Savior in the highest and most vital sense. He is the ultimate source of salvation. But there are still others who God himself describes as saviors, those whom God is pleased to use as the agents of is salvation. In the same way that Jehovah is our only “Savior,” yet others are still called, “saviors,” Jehovah is still, at the same time, the only “God,” yet others are nevertheless appropriately called “gods” based, most significantly, on Jehovah’s own decision to call them such.

  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 .

  4. humblesmith says:

    NickHawaii: First, you have conveniently ignored the post where I quote the man who has counted every single instance of the grammar used in John 1:1c and compared it to the Coptic. This is not opinion, but fact. Bringing in what ought to be flies in the face of what actually is done in the Coptic and Greek versions. In the post are eight points that make a case. You have ignored them all and posted personal opinions that do not line up with the facts given by publishers of Coptic and Greek language texts.

    Second, Jason Debuhn has graduate degrees in history and comparative religions, not in languages of any sort. Anyone can publish a book and make any claim, and can use terms that sound scholarly. But when we go to the field of languages and translations, the only true reference we have are the published grammar texts, the lexicons, and the versions of the scriptures that have been published and used in the accredited schools. If we say that the grammars are wrong, and the lexicons are wrong, we have lost all ability to make objective claims about the language. The texts define the rules that make up the language. They ARE the language. As I said before, and I now say again, there is 100% agreement in the publishers of Greek texts, grammars, and lexicons. Every last one of them agrees that John 1:1 should say “the Word was God.” There are none that disagree. Zero, zip, nada, none. They all disagree with you: Mantey, Robertson, Wallace, (do a search in this blog and you’ll find the citations where they specifically disagree). You have not quoted an author of a lexicon or grammar because there are none to quote. The best you can do is a professor of history and comparative religion, Debuhn.

    Lastly, sure, when you take “savior” and change senses of the term, why then you can find other uses of the word. This is not the case when we take God to mean God.

    Per my comment policy, this is now repetitive and is not dealing with the post as given. It does not appear that you read it. So we will stop here.

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