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John 1:1c in the Sahidic Coptic Translation

What the Scholars Really Said


Robert Hommel


Several Jehovah's Witness apologists have claimed that the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1 fully supports the rendering of the New World Translation (NWT): "and the Word was a god."

In defense of these claims, one Witness apologist alludes to emails that he has exchanged with several Coptic scholars:

"a god was the Word" or "the Word was a god."

That is the *literal* translation of Coptic John 1:1c, as agreed upon by noted Coptic grammarians Bentley Layton and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, as well as Greek-Coptic scholar Jason BeDuhn and Coptic researcher J. Warren Wells of the Sahidica Project.

But this apologist is not telling the whole story about what these scholars have written.  Let's let them speak for themselves:

Bentley Layon

"The indef. article is part of the Coptic syntactic pattern. This pattern predicates either a quality (we'd omit the English article in English: "is divine") or an entity ("is a god"); the reader decides which reading to give it. The Coptic pattern does NOT predicate equivalence with the proper name "God"; in Coptic, God is always without exception supplied with the def. article. Occurrence of an anarthrous noun in this pattern would be odd."1

"Don't worry about the indefinite article of John 1.1 in Coptic; it might mean was a god, was divine, was an instance of 'god', was one god (not two, three, etc.). The range of meanings of the Coptic indef. article does not map nicely onto English usage, nor Greek. Once you learn Coptic you will know all of this."2

Ariel Shisha-Halevy

"In Coptic, "ounoute" can mean "a god" or "one with divine nature". In the passage you refer to, I would suggest that the latter interpretation is best, qualifying "the Word" as "divine" or "godly". This is not the case in the original Greek, for in this Greek you have no indefinite article, and "theos" does not mean "godly".3


Jason BeDuhn

I have not contacted Dr. BeDuhn on this matter, nor am I aware of anyone else who has (other than the Witness, quoted above).  Given BeDuhn's beliefs about the NWT in general, and specifically about John 1:1 (see here), I would expect him to agree that a "literal" translation of the Coptic is "a god," but that it is also possible to understand "god" with the Coptic indefinite article to mean "divine."  It should be noted that BeDuhn has argued here that there is no meaningful semantic difference between "a god" and "divine."  Interested readers can determine for themselves whether BeDuhn makes his case or not.


J. Warren Wells

"To answer your questions: On my website I state "Coptic was the first language the New Testament was translated into that has the indefinite article; and the only language with the indefinite article that was produced during the Koine Greek period. "The is of interest because, in Coptic versions, John 1:1b is commonly translated "the word was with God and the word was a God" using the Coptic indefinite article; with some variation in word order. "In the proto-Bohairic version (Papyrus Bodmer III, the text of which was partially reconstructed by Rodolphe Kasser) the first occurrence of "God" in John 1:1 is in the Nomina Sacra form, whereas the second occurrence is spelled out. In John 1:18 the word "God" (which no one has seen) is in the Nomina Sacra form, while the word "God" (only-begotten) is spelled out." So literally, the Sahidic and Bohairic texts say "a god" in the extant mss. In a similar way translations of the Greek "pneuma ho theos" (spirit the god") at John 4:24 usually say either "God is spirit" or "God is a spirit" where both give the same sense of "what" God is, not who he is. Here the Sahidic says literally "a spirit is the God" (P.Palau Rib 183) as does the Proto-Bohairic (Bodmer III). To me, the sense of the passage in John 1 is likewise a description of what the Logos was in relation to God. A rather clumsy reading might be: The Logos was in the beginning. The Logos was with God. The Logos was like God (or godlike, or divine) with the emphasis on his nature; not his person."4




The logical fallacy known as "Suppressed Evidence" or "Stacking the Deck" may be defined as follows:


When presenting a case, omitting important evidence that would hurt one's own case.5

Stating that Coptic grammarians and scholars "agree" that "the Word was a god" is the "literal" translation of John 1:1c in the Sahidic NT is simply not telling the entire story.  Witness apologists making such claims are guilty of stacking the deck.  Taking their full comments into consideration, the scholars in question (with the possible exception of Jason BeDuhn) "agree" that the indefinite article in the Sahidic dialect is not the equivalent of either the English indefinite article, or the Greek noun without the article.  It can convey a range of meanings, and in the case of John 1:1c, probably signifies the nature or quality of the Logos, not his membership in a class of secondary 'gods.' 6

It is also significant that several scholars (Layton, Choat, and P.J. Williams) have said that an article is a grammatical requirement of a phrase like John 1:1c.  As Williams explains:

We can observe how Coptic avoids nouns without articles. In consequence in such a predication you either add the definite article ‘the god is the love’ (1 John 4:8; PNOUTE PE TAGAPH) or the indefinite as in John 1:1.7

Thus, the Sahidic translators were faced with having to use either the definite article - which would have predicated the proper name "God" to the Logos (and possibly been conducive to some form of Modalism) - or the indefinite article, which predicates either class membership or the nature of God to the Logos.  The anarthrous construction, apparently, was not an option.

Greek grammarians have classified nouns that denote nature or quality as "qualitative nouns," and many understand theos in John 1:1c to be a qualitative noun.  P.B. Harner suggests "the Word had the same nature as God" as perhaps the most accurate way to render the meaning of qualitative theos in this verse into English (see the extended discussion, here).  If the Sahidic noute ("G/god") in John 1:1c refers to the nature of the Logos, it provides evidence that translators working as early as the 3rd Century A.D. understood theos in John 1:1c to have a qualitative meaning; that is, that the Logos was with God, and shared His nature.

I have written further on the Sahidic Coptic translation and its use by Witness apologists here.



1Bentley Layton to Robert Keay, quoted in private email from Robert Keay to Robert Hommel 1/12/2006.

2.  Bentley Layton to Andrew, posted here: January 10, 2007.

3.  Ariel Shisha-Halevy to Andrew, posted here: January 10, 2007.

4.  J. Warren Wells to Andrew, posted here: January 10, 2007.

5.  From the online Encyclopedia of Fallacies,

6.  Shisha-Halevy actually questions whether the Sahidic translation correctly translates the Greek.  His suspicions are shared by Malcolm Choat, lecturer in Coptic Studies, MacQuarie University:

For my part, I think both 'a god' and the 'qualitative' idea are special pleading; yes, there is an indefinite article there; but Greek doesn't have an indefinite article, and Coptic grammatically requires one for a construction like this; but to translate 'a god' or 'the word was divine' seems out of kilter with what the Greek looks to me to be saying (Malcolm Choat to Andrew, quoted here:,  post #3869, Oct 11, 2006.

7. P.J. Williams to Robert Hommel, Feb 12, 2007.