Coptic John 1:1 & New World Translation

Hi I am Jasonjason_familyI was recently shown a YouTube clip which apparently proves the legitimacy of the New World Translations rendering of John 1:1 “a god”.

The video can be viewed here at the Link below

The Watchtower apologetic claims:

“Greek grammar and the context strongly indicate that the N.W.T. rendering is correct and that the word should not be identified as The God.”

While I am no Greek scholar I will present my assessment of the material in the Video and offer further reading for those academically minded.


Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other groups claiming to be Christian deny the deity of Christ viz. Christ is Yahweh incarnate. They claim the doctrine is a 4th century invention emanating out of platonic philosophy.

In an attempt to prove their rendering of John 1:1 and thus disprove the deity of Christ a recent appeal to scholarship has been attempted. The YouTube clip endeavours to use a third century document, written in the Sahidic dialect of Coptic to prove that 1st century Christians did not view Jesus as God.

Let us examine as simply as possible the plausibility of this claim using the Sahidic Coptic version. Our first port of call is to investigate the original sitz-im-laben (life setting) of the author and readers of this document.


The earliest N.T. Sahidic Coptic translation was probably completed around 200 C.E. in southern (upper) Egypt where Greek was not universally understood. The earliest extant fragments available date from the 3rd & 4th centuries. Please note we do not have extant copies of the original Sahidic Coptic translations. We must rely on older copies to reconstruct the original document.

So what was life like at the time of these translators; was Christian doctrine unified throughout the known world? Did a unity exist between the different Christian schools of thought? Could the Egyptian Coptic version hold keys to understanding first century Jewish-Christian doctrine in relation to the deity of Christ?

On all counts the answer is a categorical NO. Even before the Apostles died, false teachers were appearing. As Christianity spread various belief systems sprang up that did not always reflect correct interpretation. One notorious school in which allegory was the primary hermeneutical tool was the Alexandrian School in Egypt. For centuries the region had been influenced by Platonic philosophy which had been mixed firstly with Jewish thought (Philo) then later with heretical Christian thought viz. Gnosticism.

Far from being a simple translation from Greek to Sahidic dialect of Coptic the translation process is always subject to the authors personal presuppositions.  If as the J.W. apologists insist the Coptic translators believed Jesus not to be God, then from a historical analysis the author automatically aligns himself with the Gnostic School which separated the O.T. God Jehovah from the N.T. Jesus[1].

Confirming the aberrant teaching of the Egyptian Gnostic’s was the discovery in 1945 of codices[2] dating from the 3rd & 4th centuries all of which reflect aberrant Christian teachings. The point of highlighting the Historical setting helps us understand the production of the Sahidic Coptic translation in the light of known heresies[3] which the Patristic father’s record in their voluminous works.

Consequently from an interpretive viewpoint how valuable are the Coptic versions? Scholar Philip W. Comfort notes;

“The…Coptic versions add indirect evidence, although translations are not always clear witnesses in technical details. Use of such versions enables scholars to do comparative philology…”[4]


In the YouTube video the narrator states regarding the N.W.T. rendering of “a god”:

“The fact that the Greek language of the first century did not have an indefinite article ‘a or an’ leaves the matter open to question”

The narrator then presents the Sahidic Coptic as evidence of the true meaning of the original Greek text. He does not argue against the Greek text but over the exegesis. We must be clear here that the narrator is not attempting to exegete the Greek pericope but rather to imbue the Greek text[5] with a meaning the original language does not permit.[6]

The argument is not over semantics but theology. In this video a 3rd century document is appealed to in order to support a heretical position viz. Arianism.

The producer goes on to introduce the hypothesis that the Trinity doctrine was a 4th century invention which the Sahidic Coptic exposes as false.[7]

Next the narrator suggests that the English language and the Sahidic Coptic are comparable in the use of the definite article. Scholar Thomas O’Lamden[8] is then quoted to elevate the Coptic use of the definite article.[9]

However Scholar G. Horner translated the Sahidic Coptic this way;

“In the beginning was being the word, and the word was being with God, and [a] God was the word.”[10] 

“the use of the indefinite article in the Sahidic does not necessarily mean that the Coptic translator understood John to have written “a god.”  He was not equating the Word with the proper name God, but he could have understood John to be using theos in a qualitative sense, as many Greek scholars have argued.”[11] 

The final assumption by the narrator is that the Coptic translation proves that early Christians did not believe Jesus to be Mighty God Jehovah, but simply a lesser god. Here again the YouTube producer superimposes his personal bias upon the text and all scholarly arguments are ignored.[12]


The Sahidic Coptic version while helpful in comparative philology cannot supersede the Greek text. The suggestion that the Sahidic dialect of Coptic version better explains John 1:1 is scholastically misleading.

While theological presuppositions are inevitable with reference to translating John 1:1 either as “a god” or “God” we must never divorce the authors sitz-im-laben (life setting) from the hermetical process. Why? because the historical setting sheds light on the correct interpretation.

For example; the Apostle John was a Jewish believer writing an apologetic against the Gnostic’s, using a Hebraic hermeneutic, specifically Pesher[13] interpretation in which John parallels the prologue to his book with the Genesis account viz. “In the beginning” – this in itself adds weight to John’s understanding that Jesus was indeed God incarnate.

While we cannot be dogmatic we must at least admit the possibility that the Egyptian translator had his own presuppositions based on ethnographic and theological bias. Had the Coptic translator been influenced by Gnosticism then divergent understanding surrounding the deity of Christ would have been unavoidable. Perhaps this is one logical explanation?

Secondly having established the Historical setting we can begin analysing the semantics, grammar and linguistics. Finally we can bring to bear on the exegesis the remainder of God’s Word viz. inter-textuality. We can also examine Church tradition and witnesses to early Church history. Only by using all the available evidence can we draw an informed objective conclusion.

Divorce any one of these hermeneutical processes and you get stuck in circular reasoning. I hope my limited explanation of the Sahidic dialect of Coptic version goes some way to helping those encountering this argument. I would recommend further reading, especially the website links. The deity[14] of our LORD Yeshua is under tremendous attack; our being prepared is vital (Eph. 6:10-18)

For more information on the deity of Christ on go to:

ANSWER TO A JEHOVAH’S WITNESS: “How Can Anyone Believe Jesus is God?”


[1] Gnostic dualism reduced Jehovah to the demiurge, and Jesus to Sophia (the Word).

[2] Coptic Gnostic texts in the Coptic Museum at old cairo Vol.I. Ex. Nag Hammadi.

[3] Cf. Valentinus vrs Tertullian and the Gnostic Gospel of truth, also the Ebionites, Docetism and Arianism.

[4] Comfort, Philipo W., “Essential Guide to Bible Versions“ Tyndale 2000, pg. 40-41.

[5] Interesting the earliest fragment of the Gospel of John viz. Rylands library papyrus P52 was found in Egypt and written in Greek NOT coptic, dated 50-150 C.E.

[6] “The NWT’s case for translating θεός as ‘a god’ is based upon the premise that anarthrous nouns are indefinite (or qualitative, yet translated as indefinite) and articular nouns are definite. In John’s prologue, there are eight occurrences of θεός, in various cases and constructions. The NWT renders the two which are articular (vv. 1-2) as ‘God’. It translates four of the six anarthrous occurrences of θεός ‘God’, one ‘a god’ (v. 1), and one ‘the [only-begotten] god’ (v. 18). Therefore, the translators concretely applied the rule they espoused in only one of eight occurrences. This inconsistency is magnified by the fact that all eight examples occur with the same noun in the space of just eighteen verses (John 1:1-18). For their inconsistency to be justifiable, John would need to have used θεός with a remarkable degree of variability. Such variable usage is unattested to by the body of published comment on the prologue. Wallace suspects a controlling theological bias as the basis of this inconsistency”. Baumgarten Kenneth J. “An examination of the Consistency of the N.W.T. with the stated philosophy of the translators” Conseptus Journal Sept. 2008.

[10] Horner, George William, The Coptic Version of the New Testament, 1911.

[12] Mars Hill presents an in-depth debate between pro-N.W.T scholar Dr Jason BeDuhn and Robert Hommel. on the subject of John 1:1.

[13]Richard N. LongeneckerCan We Reproduce The Exegesis Of The New Testament? Tyndale bulletin 1970.

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