Do Ancient Coptic Manuscripts Vindicate Jehovah's Witnesses at John 1:1?

by Luke Wayne
08/21/2019

One of the most commonly discussed (and easily refuted) changes that Jehovah's Witnesses made to the Bible when they produced their New World Translation (NWT) is their rendering of John 1:1. While virtually every reputable English translator from any religious background and in any era has rendered the verse:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," (John 1:1).

The NWT changes the phrase "the Word was God" to "the word was a god." Though the Jehovah's Witnesses literature loves to publish baseless, self-congratulatory statements like "Greek grammar and the context strongly indicate that the New World Translation rendering is correct,"1 this is simply untrue. The fact is that the grammar and context of the passage itself as well as the biblical and cultural background both plainly affirm the traditional rendering that "the Word was God." Indeed, even a close reading of the NWT itself proves this. At best, the NWT's rendering represents the kind of simplistic error a student might make in first-year Greek before they have learned any of the rules of grammar and syntax. At worst, it is a willful alteration of the text to prop up their denial of the deity of Christ. Either way, the NWT is simply incorrect here.

Yet, the Watchtower Society (the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses) finds all kinds of creative ways to try and defend their translation of this verse. Perhaps the most interesting of their arguments is an appeal to ancient Coptic translations of John 1, which they claim support their position. As we will see, this too is not the case.

The Argument

The Watchtower argument is basically this: unlike Greek and many other ancient languages, the Coptic language had an indefinite article (the equivalent of the English word "a"). Thus, a Coptic translation could more clearly express the idea of "a god." They explain:

"Coptic grammar is relatively close to English grammar in one important aspect. The earliest translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures were into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. Syriac and Latin, like the Greek of those days, do not have an indefinite article. Coptic, however, does. Moreover, scholar Thomas O. Lambdin, in his work Introduction to Sahidic Coptic, says: 'The use of the Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English.'"2

They then claim that some Coptic manuscripts of John 1:1 use the indefinite article and thus are identical to the NWT's rendering of "the word was a god." They contend that this is important because, since Coptic translations are believed to have been made as early as the third century:

"it reflects an understanding of Scripture dating from before the fourth century, which was when the Trinity became official doctrine."3

Thus, they conclude, these Coptic manuscripts must:

  1. Represent the earliest and most accurate understanding of John 1:1
  2. Agree with the NWT
  3. Prove that the NWT is correct

In fact, none of these three claims follows from the actual data.

John 1:1 and Early Christian Readers

Important to the JW argument here is the claim that if some Coptic manuscripts contain an indirect article before the word "God" then this must represent a pre-fourth-century interpretation of the Greek. They base this assumption on the fact that some scholars date the first Coptic translations of the New Testament to third century AD, a time before the debates that lead to the Trinitarian decrees at the councils of Nicea, Chalcedon, etc. Yet, this is not quite correct. As the prominent textual scholar Bruce Metzger explains:

"Translations into various Coptic dialects were first made in the third or fourth century of the Christian era and subsequently revised. Several fragmentary manuscripts of the gospels dating from the fourth century survive."4

Some of the New Testament may or may not have been translated into Coptic in the third century. We honestly don't know. Starting in the fourth century, we have some small fragmentary pieces from the gospels, but we don't have any substantive copies until after that time, and they differ from one another in form and dialect in such a way that there is significant debate as to which form of the Coptic is original or even how many different times the Greek might have been translated into Coptic by different people over the centuries. Thus, while there may well have been Coptic translations in the third century, one cannot assume that any specific reading we find in our copies today is a third-century reading rather than a subsequent revision or even a later translation. The Coptic texts are useful in a variety of important ways, but they do not guarantee us a third-century interpretation of any particular text.

Even if we did have good reason to think that a third-century Coptic translator existed and that he originally used an indefinite article before "God" in John 1:1, that would not guarantee that the Coptic translator was especially knowledgeable of Greek grammar or skilled at Coptic translation. Bad translations existed in the ancient world just as they do in the modern world. What's more, even if we somehow knew enough about the translator to say with certainty that he was intentionally trying to say exactly what the NWT says, that still would not give us the earliest understanding of John 1:1. We actually have copies of even earlier writings which explain exactly what earlier Christians understood this verse to mean.

Back in the second century, Clement of Alexandria wrote:

"Nothing, then, is hated by God, nor yet by the Word. For both are one—that is, God. For He has said, 'In the beginning the Word was in God, and the Word was God.'" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 8).

Clement explains from this verse that both the Word and God are one, that is that they are both God. The phrase "a god" doesn't fit the bill here. Clement's successor, Origen, likewise said in the early third century:

"John, however, with more sublimity and propriety, says in the beginning of his Gospel, when defining God by a special definition to be the Word, 'And the Word was God, and He was in the beginning with God,'” (Origen, On First Principles, Book 1, Chapter 2).

Again, Origen is clear that John is defining God to be the Word. "A god" is not a possible reading in this context. Elsewhere, the late second/early third-century writer Tertullian stated: 

"Is that Word of God, then, a void and empty thing, which is called the Son, who Himself is designated God? 'The Word was with God, and the Word was God.' It is written, 'Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain,'" (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 7).

The Jehovah's Witness might at first argue that this is a mistranslation and that Tertullian actually meant that the Word (i.e., the Son) was designated "a god" rather than "God," but this doesn't work. Tertullian completes the thought by arguing that, in saying that the Word is God, John is specifically calling the Word the God (i.e., Jehovah) and thus, if the Word were not really God in substance from the beginning that he would be taking God's name in vain! Tertullian clearly understood the text to say, "The Word was God."

To look at just one more example, the third-century writer Hippolytus of Rome thoroughly explained in robust and Trinitarian fashion: 

"These things, brethren, are declared by the scriptures. And the Blessed John, in the Testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy and acknowledges this Word as God when he says, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.' If, then, the Word was with God and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two gods? I shall not indeed speak of two gods, but of one; of two persons, however, and of a third; the grace of the Holy Ghost. For the Father indeed is one, but there are two persons, for there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit. The Father decrees, the Word executes and the Son is manifested, through whom the Father is believed on. The economy of harmony is led back to one God, for God is one. It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys, and the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: The father is above all, the Son is through all, and the Spirit is in all. And we cannot otherwise think of one God but by believing in the truth of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit," (Hippolytus of Rome, Against the Heresy of one Noetus, Chapter 14).

All of this and more was written before any Coptic translation even theoretically existed. Thus, even if we take the manuscripts we have now and extrapolate from them what the earliest Christian readers understood when they read John 1:1, the evidence clearly points to an early and widespread understanding that the Greek means "the Word was God," which, of course, concurs with the plain rules of grammar.

Does the Coptic Agree with the NWT?

The Watchtower writers seem to take for granted that the mere presence of an indefinite article proves that the Coptic text means the same thing  that the NWT means, i.e., that the Word was "a god." They try to substantiate this by pointing to Lambdin's words about the close correspondence between the Coptic and English usage of the indirect article, but they do not quote him fully. He actually said:

"Because the use of Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English, only exceptions to this general correspondence will be noted in the following lessons."5

Thus, while he does note a significant overlap between how the English and Coptic languages use the article, he devotes multiple lessons to various ways in which they are different. Lambdin was not granting blanket permission to assume that every indirect article implies in Coptic exactly what it would mean in English. Indeed, he is careful to show that this is not the case. When translating Greek documents like the New Testament books, Coptic translators used the indirect article in a variety of different ways which varied from one translator to another. For example, the first words in John 1:1, "in the beginning," are actually the two Greek words "Ἐν ἀρχῇ," the word for "in" and the word for "beginning." The Coptic translators render this in two different ways. Some Coptic versions render the precise meaning of the phrase by adding the definite article just as we do in English, "in the beginning." This communicates exactly what the Greek means. But because the Greek word for "the" is not actually present in the text, other Coptic translators tried to reflect the form of the Greek text rather than the meaning. Yet, leaving the phrase with no article at all (i.e., "in beginning") makes as little sense in Coptic as it does in English, so the Coptic translator supplied an indefinite article to mark the fact that no article was present in the Greek. This would be like translating it "in a beginning."6

This latter approach does not actually reflect a different understanding of the verse. The translator was not trying to imply a different meaning. They simply had a different philosophy of translation. They were less concerned with what the words meant and more concerned with the exact form and order of the words. Thus, the translation "in a beginning" should not be understood to preserve some earlier understanding of John whereby his gospel was speaking of just one beginning among many other beginnings. That's not how the indefinite article was being used here. It was meant merely to preserve in Coptic the fact that the Greek phrase did not technically contain the definite article. The concern in this instance is form, not meaning. The same is almost certainly true of Coptic manuscripts that place the indefinite article before "θεὸς" (i.e., "God") in the same verse. This is why Metzger observes:

"Although Coptic possesses both a definite and an indefinite article, their presence or absence in a sentence or phrase must not be taken to imply that the same was the case in the original Greek text."7

Thus, while some Coptic manuscripts may have an indefinite article before "God" in John 1:1, that doesn't actually imply what the Jehovah's Witnesses think it does. It doesn't change what the Greek says or even provide us any new information on what it means. It is simply an example of the varying translation methods used among Coptic translators.

Would it Prove the NWT Correct?

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that there really were third-century Coptic scribes who believed that Jesus was a lesser sort of god and interpreted John 1:1 in that fashion. After all, we know that there were Gnostic heretics at that time who, influenced by Greek philosophy, believed that Jesus was one of many gods. Indeed, they believed He was a higher god than the one who created the physical world (though lower than their ultimate god, who was said to be Jesus' father). What if such groups produced their own translations of John's gospel and understood John's words to agree with them that Jesus was "a god"? Would the existence of such versions make the Gnostics right? Would it prove that this was really what John meant? Of course not.

In the end, even if there were an ancient translation that demonstrably asserted Jesus to be "a god" and not God almighty, we would still have to ask whether that translation was accurate. We would still have to go back to proper Greek grammar and syntax, and we would still land in the place that scholars have come back to again and again for all of Christian history. John's words mean that the Word was God. If we are to believe the Bible, we have no right to reject that.

  • 1. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20081101/was-the-word-god, (accessed 8/20/2019)
  • 2. ibid
  • 3. ibid
  • 4. Bruce Metzger, The Bible in Translation (Baker Academic, 2001) 36
  • 5. Thomas Lambdin, Introduction to Sahidic Coptic (Mercer University Press, 1983) 5
  • 6. Christian Askeland, John's Gospel: The Coptic Translations of Its Greek Text (De Gruyter, 2012) 56
  • 7. Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations (Oxford University Press, 1977) 148