No one doubts the Sahidic Coptic version is among the most important of the early translations of the original Greek New Testament. Most scholars place the Sahidic Coptic translation no later than the fourth century and as early as the second (the same century of our earliest existing Greek manuscript of the New Testament: P52).
As such, the Sahidic Coptic manuscripts comprise a rich deposit of empirical evidence. They tell us what the early Greek texts might have looked like. They tell us how the Copts understood the text at the time of translation. In fact, the Sahidic Coptic translation was primarily intended to proclaim the gospel throughout Egypt where the Copts lived. This, then, was the text some of the earliest Christian missionaries used to first share the gospel in Egypt.
Fortunately, knowledge of this Sahidic Coptic evidence is not new. Unfortunately, popular-level access to legitimate New Testament scholarship on it is new. In fact, 2011 marks the first year a major academic publisher—Oxford University Press—published a work devoted solely to the Sahidic Coptic version’s varying uses of the Coptic word for “god.”
Therefore, the majority of resources available for mass consumption are limited to forums, blogs, and websites. Disappointingly, these sources are not academically peer-reviewed, scrutinized, or published. Thus, we are left wondering: are there other academic options circulating? Do the JWs have the only or best solution?
POSSIBLE ACADEMIC SOLUTIONS
One of three scenarios will help us answer the question of how the Copts were using the indefinite article with “god.” What are the three options?
The Copts intended the indefinite article to indicate a stylistic distinction.
The Copts intended the indefinite article to indicate a grammatical requirement.
The Copts intended the indefinite article to indicate an interpretive distinction.
To reiterate, it is possible to understand each of these five texts in its own particular way, but a solution that accounts for all of the texts is preferable to a solution that accounts for only one. Put another way: one solution is better than five.
The Coptic indefinite article can indicate various stylistic distinctions. For example, in narrative passages, the Coptic indefinite article can indicate the movement of an unknown entity to a known one. The transfiguration is one such instance. In Luke 9:34–35, “a” cloud comes to Jesus, Moses, Elijah, James, John, and Peter. Then, having been introduced already, “the” cloud overshadows them, and they hear a voice from “the” cloud.
Does this solution work for our five passages?
It is tempting to think the indefinite article somehow indicates this stylistic consideration. Two of the five texts— John 1:1c and Acts 28:6—occur within narrative material. Nevertheless, the passages themselves do not fit the pattern at all. In neither passage does “god” have the definite article anywhere. In fact, the one entity in John 1:1 we might expect to go from unknown to known entity (“the word”) has the definite article throughout the passage. Furthermore, as noted, only two of the five texts are narrative. As a result, the stylistic solution fails to solve the mystery.
A grammatical solution would be some grammatical reason requiring the indefinite article in the text. Interestingly, two of our five texts have just that. First Corinthians 8:6 and Ephesians 4:6 have similar constructions, both speaking of “one God.” One of the ways Coptic expresses the numerical idea of “one” is with the indefinite article. Therefore, the indefinite articles are functioning numerically in these two texts.
What about the remaining three verses?
Nothing in our other three passages requires (or really even allows) this numerical idea (“one God”). Grammatical considerations, however, do help us narrow our focus. First, we have removed two of the five texts from consideration. Second, the grammar of the three remaining passages reveals a pattern: the sentences have “god” near the end of the sentence (called the “predicate” position). What looks like the subject shifts to the end of the sentence. Usually, this is done when two things are being equated, such as in the sentence “He is a welder” (so, he = welder). This further supports our contention that the best solution of the indefinite article’s use will be the one that best explains all three texts.
In general, the New Testament text refers to the Christian God when the Greek article appears with the word “god” (that is, such a construction does not merely mean “divine” or “godlike”). We say “in general,” because this does not always hold true. For example, “God” in Romans 8:33 refers to the Christian God, even though it lacks the article in Greek: “It is God who justifies.” Conversely, in Philippians 3:19, “god” has the Greek article, though it does not refer to the Christian God: “their god is the belly.”
But what about Coptic?
Similar circumstances hold true. Usually, Coptic pairs the definite article with noute to refer to the Christian God. Again, however, there are exceptions. Revelation 16:7 has no Coptic article with “God,” while clearly speaking of the Christian God: “Lord God over all.” On the other hand, 2 Corinthians 4:4 is not referring to the Christian God, yet has the definite article: “the god of this age.”
Since references to the Christian God are not universally conducted with the definite article, and since the indefinite article in John 1:1, Acts 28:6, and 2 Thessalonians 2:4 cannot be explained by either stylistic or grammatical means, what is left?
The only viable option is an interpretive distinction. The Copts were distinguishing between the definite, indefinite, and qualitative use of the article.
To flesh this out a little bit more, definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a” or “an”) are categories you are already familiar with. You may be less familiar with the qualitative category, on the other hand. One standard Coptic grammar describes the qualitative nouns as those speaking of an entity by its quality.1 In other words, rather than indicating “the” Christian God (definite) or “a” god (indefinite), the article would indicate “the qualities” of whatever god (or gods) the speaker/author imagined.
How does this category apply to our three texts?
In the case of Acts 28:6 (“they changed their minds and said he was a god”), the local Maltese population does not understand “god” as the Christian God. But neither do they understand their own conception of “god” to be an inferior one. One well-known scholar says the islanders take a more- than-180-degree turn and conclude that Paul is not a “protégé of a god, but a very god.”2 In other words, the indefinite article signifies the qualities of whatever god(s) the population imagined.
On the other hand, 2 Thessalonians 2:4 lacks such contextual clarity: “displaying himself as God.” Even though some modern commentators differ, most agree that Paul means God with a capital G. As shown above, since the Coptic indefinite article does not have to mean indefiniteness (a god), always using the indefinite article as a contextual marker for indefiniteness falls short. Instead, using the indefinite article to indicate a qualitative distinction makes better sense of the passage: “displaying himself as [one who possesses the qualities of] God.” This would satisfy the commentators who think it is God with a capital G and those who think it is God with a little g.
In both Acts 28:6 and 2 Thessalonians 2:4, the most probable understanding of the indefinite article alongside “god” is descriptive/qualitative.
What about our controversial text, John 1:1c? So far, the best way to understand the Copts’ use of the indefinite article is that they were making an interpretive, qualitative distinction. This distinction was to describe the qualities of whatever god/entity was being referenced by the speaker, author, or both. Thus, the Maltese population in Acts 28:6 were saying Paul possessed the qualities of “a god.” This fits well with how the Copts were probably understanding the text: descriptively. The population was not calling Paul a false god or a lesser divine god. Instead, the population was describing him as one characterized as having the qualities of “god” as they understood the gods.
Likewise, the best understanding of 2 Thessalonians 2:4 is that the author is referring to the qualities of the Christian God, even though the “man of lawlessness” is not the Christian God. As one scholar put it, “It is therefore preferable
to understand the characterization as of someone who is so self-aggrandizing that he vaunts himself against all gods whatsoever, perceived or real.”3 Again, this complements how the Copts probably understood the text: descriptively. The “man of lawlessness” will not exult himself as a false god or a lesser divine god, but as one claiming the qualities of “god” (in this case, the Christian God).
The same category easily applies to John 1:1c. This qualitative/descriptive understanding makes the best sense within the opening of John’s Gospel. The Copts understood John to mean “the Word” possesses the same qualities as the Christian God. If one rejects our arguments above, however, the only other viable interpretation, given the other usages, would suggest the Copts understood “the Word” to be a “god of the pagans” (cf. Acts 28:6) or some “usurper god” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4). If that is the case, “Houston, we have a problem!” Such an interpretation leaves us with much more difficulty.
First, other passages in the Coptic text explicitly call Jesus “God” with the definite article. We do not even need to leave John’s first chapter! In the same chapter and book, there are clear references to Jesus as God (e.g., John 1:18; 20:28). Or look elsewhere in the New Testament (Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20). It is improbable the Coptic translators took the author of the Gospel of John to mean Jesus was a “pagan god” or “usurper god” in John 1:1c, and then the Christian God 17 verses later. Yet, even if one still rejects all those passages, the manuscript evidence shows the Copts feeling comfortable ascribing “god” to Jesus—with the definite article!—early in their history. Look at what one of the earliest Coptic manuscripts, labeled P.11710 reads: “Jesus Christ, who is God.”4
Second, other Coptic words were available to express the idea of Jesus being merely divine, godly, or godlike if they desired, but they clearly did not.
Third, the overall context—chapter, book, and New Testament—all decrease the probability of any interpretation other than the qualitative one.
Fourth, other examples of common nouns with Coptic indefinite articles are available to compare. For example, take the word “prophet” in John 4:19: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are [one who has the qualities of] a prophet.’” The other two solutions would clash with this example—a pagan/usurper prophet. In contrast, the “interpretive distinction” solution works well.
These four reasons decrease the likelihood that the Copts used the indefinite article to suggest that “the Word” was either a god of the pagans or some usurper god.