Wednesday, April 23, 2008

James Moffatt and Coptic John 1:1, 18

Dr. James Moffatt (1870-1944) was a notable scholar of Biblical Greek and translator of the 1934 Bible version which bears his name. I've had him on the shelf for some time and recently looked at his translation of John 1:1 and John 1:18.

What interested me is that Moffatt's English translation of the Greek text(s) was quite close to what an accurate English translation of the Sahidic Coptic text would say, the Coptic text itself being based upon ancient Greek texts.

In other words, it appears that Moffatt took a similar message from those Greek texts that the Coptic translators did when they rendered their Greek texts into their own Egyptian Coptic language.

At John 1:1 Moffat renders:

The Logos existed in the very beginning, the Logos was with God, the Logos was divine.

The Sahidic Coptic text, with my 2006 Contemporary Translation:

Hn teHoueite neFSoop nCi pSaJe auw pSaJe neFSoop nnaHrm pnoute auw neunoute pe pSaJe
In the beginning the Word existed. The Word existed in the presence of God, and the Word was a divine being.

At John 1:18 Moffatt renders:

Nobody has ever seen God, but God has been unfolded by the divine One, the only Son, who lies upon the Father's breast.

The Sahidic Coptic text, with my 2006 Contemporary Translation:

pnoute mpelaau nau eroF eneH. pnoute pShre nouwt petSoop Hn kounF mpeFeiwt petmmau pe ntaFSaJe eroF
No one has ever seen God at any time. The divine being, the only Son who is in the bosom of his Father, is the one who has revealed him.

I was translating the Coptic, Moffatt was translating the Greek, but this similarity is amazing. Perhaps it is simply that both Moffatt and the Coptic translators were concerned with grammatical accuracy in these verses or had the same understanding of their meaning in the context of John's Gospel as a whole.

It is worth noting that, unlike John 1:1, the ancient Greek texts for John 1:18 exist in a number of variants, the notable ones being 1) monogenhs theos; 2) ho monogenhs theos; 3) ho monogenhs huios, i.e., "only [- begotten] god," "the only [- begotten] god," and "the only [- begotten] son."

Translators today usually put their preferred rendering in their main text and others in their footnotes. However, it appears that the Coptic translators did not footnote the variants, but conflated them. Perhaps they believed there was equal weight for both the "son" and the "god" readings found variously in manuscripts or papyri like the Vatican 1209, p66, p75 ("god") and Alexandrinus, Ephraemi Rescriptus, etc. ("son").

It is less likely that they postulated "son" from monogenhs alone, since this Greek term appears in the New Testament along with huios, which would give a redundant reading, something like "only-son son." At any rate, what is known for sure is that both the "son" and the "god" readings are attested in the ancient Greek manuscripts, and those manuscripts or their predecessors were likely available to the 2nd/3rd century Sahidic Coptic translators.