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.
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.