Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Johannine Prologue, 1:1-18

There are many interesting facets to the Sahidic Coptic translation of John's Koine Greek text at chapter 1, verses 1-18.

In verse one, it has been noted that the anarthrous Greek text's KAI QEOS HN hO LOGOS is rendered with the Sahidic Coptic indefinite article. This is significant, because the Coptic could have left the text without any article, or could have used the definite article, if the translators had so understood the verse. While a noun without any article is infrequent in Sahidic Coptic, there are examples of this in the Nag Hamadi corpus of works. It is to be observed, therefore, that the Coptic translators found that verse one did not identify the Logos with the Person hO QEOS. Rather, the Logos is qualitatively QEOS.

Verse fourteen is a strong affirmation in both the Greek and the Coptic texts that the Logos was incarnate in the man Jesus Christ. This was a refutation of some of the Gnostic teachings of that time. The heavenly Word, Logos, did become human, "flesh," and lived among mankind in order to perform his salvific work.

Verse eighteen is the subject of various theories. Coptic scholar and translator George W. Horner suggested in 1911 that in this verse the translators combined the variant readings of the Greek texts at their disposal. Others have suggested that they may possibly have used only one Greek text, perhaps one that read hO MONOGENHS QEOS (as in p75 or some mss. of Sinaiticus), where both QEOS and hUIOS can be adduced -- hUIOS by implication from -GENHS. The later Bohairic version of verse eighteen reads closer to that found in p66 and Vaticanus, and in many modern critical texts. But the Sahidic Coptic translators lived and worked at a time -- the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. -- when believers wished to grasp the meaning of the Logos as both QEOS and hUIOS.

The Johannine Prologue expresses the primitive faith that the one known as the Lord Jesus Christ was divine in his origin, even as he was human in his work. In Jesus, divine intervention reached into the human situation and transformed it anew, producing a regeneration, a re-creation, finally opening the way for God's loving-kindness to manifest itself fully in the world.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Translation and Theology

Issues in Translation: The Sahidic Coptic Text of 2 Corinthians 4:4

At the time the Sahidic Coptic translation was being produced, leaders in the church were combating a brand of "Christian" Gnosticism called Marcionism. Marcion (died about 154 CE) was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144, after which he formed his own church. His teachings became widely disseminated all over the Roman empire by the year 150

Among other things that conflicted with orthodox belief, Marcion taught the Gnostic idea that the Creator God of the "Old Testament" was a separate, inferior God to the God of the "New Testament," and that this inferior God was the one responsible for all the evils of the world.

Irenaeus and other leaders of the church fiercely combated this view of two Gods, so much so that Irenaeus did not accept that the "God of this world" mentioned at 2 Corinthians 4:4 could be other than God himself. In Against Heresies book 3, chapter 7, he writes: "The true contained in the expression, "God hath blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world."....For Paul does not say, "the God of this world," as if recognising any other beyond Him; but he confessed God as indeed God. And he says, "the unbelievers of this world," because they shall not inherit the future age of incorruption. I shall show from Paul himself, how it is that God has blinded the minds of those that believe not."

This effort to combat Gnostic Marcionism and "the intolerable absurdities of Gnosticism" (ANF, volume 1, page 310) appears to be behind the rendering of 2 Corinthians 4:4 that is found in some texts of the ancient Syriac Peshitta and Sahidic Coptic versions. The Peshitta according to George Lamsa’s Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: "To those in this world whose minds have been blinded by God, because they did not believe, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the likeness of God, should shine on them." (Emphasis added)

The Sahidic Coptic text of 2 Corinthians 4:4 says: "Therefore, God has closed the minds of the unbelievers of this world , so that they might not see the light of the glorious Good News of the Christ, who is the image of God." (Emphasis added)

It is not known if there is any Greek text that reads this way. Most versions of 2 Corinthians 4:4 appear to be based on a Greek text that says: "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers."

However, 14th century English translation made by John Wycliffe, based on the Old Latin version reads similarly, linking "of this world" with the unbelievers or "unfaithful men," and linking God with the blinding or closing of their minds or "souls": "In whiche god hath blende the soulis of vnfeithful men of this world, that the liztnynge of the gospel of the glorie of crist, whiche is the ymage of god schyne not." In more modern English, Wycliffe’s translation says: "In which God has blinded the souls of unfaithful men of this world, that the lightings of the gospel of the glory of Christ, which is the image of God, shine not." For a scan of Wycliffe's original in Old English, see:

It appears that the Coptic translators wished to clarify the truth of a verse of Scripture that was currently being misinterpreted by Gnostics. Perhaps like Irenaeus, they believed that in so doing, they had the support of other verses in the Bible. For example, 2 Thessalonians 2:11 indicated that God "allowed" spiritual blindness to occur on the part of unbelievers. John 12:39, 40 stated that God had "hardened" the hearts and "pasted together" the ears of others who rejected truth.

The Coptic translators obviously rejected the Gnostic Marcionite interpretation that some God other than the true God was responsible for creating and ruling the world, that this God in turn was evil, and the Coptic translators apparently translated 2 Corinthians 4:4 with this anti-heretical purpose in mind.

We may appreciate now that Satan is the "god of this world" only God’s allowance until he is defeated decisively by the victorious Jesus Christ. But the Coptic translators were reacting to a widespread heresy of their times, to which they did not wish to give any inadvertent aid, or any interpretation to twist. At the same time, this particular translational curiosity is helpful in positively dating the Sahidic Coptic version to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE.

Likewise today, translators often make decisions on the basis of what they perceive to be not only the grammar of a text, but also the intent and purpose of the text. In modern critical texts, translators have sometimes rearranged (emended) whole sentences according to their best estimate of what the text was or should be saying. In such cases, judgment calls are made, the validity of which can sometimes be assessed only by the passing of time.

"If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." –- Coptic John 8:31, 32

The Coptic Text

"The Coptic New Testament is among the primary resources for the history of the New Testament text. Important as the Latin and Syriac versions may be, it is of far greater importance to know precisely how the text developed in Egypt. The Alexandrian and Egyptian text types are not only of the greatest importance by far, but the special climatic conditions of Egypt have also preserved for us nearly 100 percent of all the known witnesses to the New Testament text from the period up to the fourth century." –– Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987), page 200

Modern translators know the value of having a good text from which to translate. The New Testament versions found in newer Bibles are based on Greek texts that have been constructed on the basis of the earliest known Greek manuscripts available, as well as insights from early translations into other languages, such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic.

The Coptic text also indicates that its translators were skilled textual critics. They had variant readings from several different Greek texts before them, and some of these they incorporated into their master text. There are readings in the Coptic text that give evidence of knowledge of readings presently preserved in ancient Greek manuscripts such as p66 (P. Bodmer II, 2nd century), Sinaiticus (4th century), Alexandrinus (5th century), Ephraemi (5th century) and Bezae (5th century), among others. These are considered to be among the most accurate of the early witnesses to the New Testament text.

Consider, for example, John chapter 8. At verse 38, many translations follow a Greek text that read: A EGW EWRAKA PARA TW PATRI LALW KAI hUMEIS OUN A HKOUSATE PARA TOU PATROS POIETE. However, the Coptic text follows a Greek text that read: A EGW EWRAKA PARA TW PATRI LALW KAI hUMEIS OUN A EWRAKATE PARA TOU PATROS POIETE. The Coptic text follows the reading of the earliest extant witness to John's Gospel, that found in p66.

There are many such gems of early textual criticism to be found in the Coptic text of John, making it a fascinating subject for further research.