Weißt-du was “messy” bedeutet? On Coptic words of Greek Origin

September 10, 2011

A couple years ago I had the pleasure of meeting James Swanson, a lexicographer of the Greek NT, at a table he was manning at the book exhibition of the SBL conference.  We began to discuss the possibility of restoring a Greek text from a Coptic translation.  If a Greek word appears in the Coptic text, does that mean that that exact word was used in the original Greek?  Swanson responded, “Does the Coptic speaker even know that it is a Greek word?”  Coptic is a language with many loan words from Greek and it is highly possible, after hundreds of years or even a few years, that Coptic speakers were frequently unaware of the etymological origin of any given term.  Coptologists, such as my colleague on the Acta Pauli, Pierre Cherix, are acutely aware of this issue, and Cherix once took issue with me in a meeting of AELAC in Bex, Switzerland, when I suggested that a meaning of a certain Greek word in the Bodmer XLIX must have corresponded with Paul’s use of the term.

A friend of mine, Brigette, who has lived in Canada since her childhood, returned to her native Germany to visit family.  Her cousin brought her into her Schlafzimmer with an apology that her room was “sehr messy”.  Then, she turned to Brigette and said in all earnestness, “Brigette, weißt-du was “messy” bedeutet?”  Well, Brigette found this very funny since her cousin knew that she was fluent in English but somewhat rusty in German, having been in Canada so long, yet the cousin was apparently unaware that “messy” is a German word of English origin.  Of course, when and how the word “messy” entered the German language, I am unable to tell.

As a student of Coptic trying to do exegesis of Coptic texts, I find it a pity that Coptic dictionaries do not list Greek words.  For that one is forced to know the Greek language.  But this can lead to lexical errors, as a specialist like Cherix would be quick to point out.  Imagine if a grade school pupil looking up the word “preservative” in English, and it wasn’t in the dictionary.  The confused child approaches the teacher and says, “Teacher, I can’t find this word!”  The teacher then says, “Oh you have to look that one up in Le Petit Robert because it is a French word.”  So the little child goes to Robert and finds the following (s.v., “préservatif, ive”):

Capuchon en caoutchouc, en plastique très souple qui s’adapte au pénis, employé comme moyen de protection contre les maladies sexuellement transmissibles ou comme contraceptif. [i.e., a condom]

Unfortunately, we need a comprehensive dictionary of the Coptic language that also provides possible meanings for Coptic words of Greek origin.


The translation of ΑΥϪΠΑΥ ΝΕΥ in Acts of Paul IX, 13

June 21, 2011

In the 1997 French edition of the Écrits apocryphes chrétiens (ed. Bovon and Geoltran), Rodolphe Kasser translated a phrase from the Coptic Bodmer XLI of Acts of Paul IX, 13 (p. 1155), “les hommes ont contracté ces pestes” (“the humans acquired these plagues”).  It would be another seven years before Kasser would publish the editio princeps of Bodmer XLI, and he now translates this phrase (R. Kasser and P. Luisier, Le Muséon 117 [2004]):  “les (hommes) se les ont acquis” (“the (humans) acquired them for themselves”);  ΑΥϪΠΑΥ ΝΕΥ (literally: “they acquired them for themselves”).

It would appear that Kasser’s “pestes” (plagues) represents “all the things that were mentioned above” through which the humans have died.  What are these things?  Gold, silver, precious stones, fornications, adulteries and drunkeness.  Yet the neither the Coptic nor the Greek texts name these things “plagues”, as Kasser has interpreted.  It would be inaccurate since the created world for the Acts of Paul is good and so even though the lust and acquisition of the first three, gold, silver and precious stones, leads to death, it is not caused by the created things themselves but by the sin of humanity against the Creator.  The Acts of Paul is an anti-gnostic text, and it should not be translated in a manner which leads the reader to think that the text would denigrate created matter.


Does ΜΝΤΡΜΝϨΗΤ translate προαίρεσις in Acts of Paul IX, 13?

June 11, 2011

Now that the Bodmer Coptic of the Acts of Paul has finally appeared in print (R. Kasser and P. Luisier, Le Muséon 117 [2004] 281-384), we can attempt to verify the multitude of ingenious readings that the German scholar Carl Schmidt made in his 1936 edition of the Greek Hamburg Papyrus.  The Bodmer MS beautifully preserves an elegant handwriting.  The Hamburg Papyrus, by contrast, is fragmentary and was copied by a non-professional scribe, making it impossible to be certain how many letters are missing from the numerous lacunae.  Today, one has to marvel at Schmidt’s incredible ability to ferret out a text from faded letters and in many cases to restore the text where there are only holes in the papyrus.  Yet with the advent of the Coptic text, it is necessary to review each of Schmidt’s suggestions, because with the Bodmer MS, we stand before a more certain and complete text.

As I work on my translation of the text into English, I’ve decided to use the following princple:

The Greek text is very lacunose, but constitutes the original language of the text. The Bodmer Coptic is, however, beautifully preserved, but it is a translation of the original. Therefore, it seems best to prefer the Greek text when the reading clear and to reconstitute the Greek text from the Coptic where it is deficient. However, when there is a conflict between Schmidt’s reconstitution of  the Greek, and the Bodmer Coptic, it seems best to prefer the latter–even when the text that Schmidt reconstitutes includes letters with under-dots, indicating that he was unable to be certain of the reading, for it seems better to prefer the Coptic which is perfectly readable over a guess based upon barely decipherable letters.

Now to our case in point, in IX, 13, Paul says to the governor and the crowd, “Make a good judgement” — λ[ά]βετε [προαίρ]εσιν ἀγαθὴν.  The Coptic has .  ϪΙ ϬΕ ΝΗΤΝ ΜΝ[ΤΡ]ΜΝϨΗΤ ΕΝΟΥΝC (“take therefore for yourselves good understanding”).  ΜΝΤΡΜΝϨΗΤ normally is translated wisdom or understanding, and is not necessarily a bad translation for προαίρεσις.   ΜΝΤΡΜΝϨΗΤ is a common translation for σύνεσις (“understanding”) in the Sahidic New Testament.  There is however the case of the post-positive οὖν, which is the equivalent for ϬΕ.  So we could leave the text as suggested by Schmidt or restore it λ[ά]βετε [οὖν σύν]εσιν, and that gives us the same number of letters as Schmidt’s suggestion.  The particular combination of λαμβάνω and σύνεσις occurs in the Shepherd of Hermas, Sim. 9.2.6:  ἀλλʼ ἐρώτα τὸν κύριον, ἵνα λαβὼν σύνεσιν νοήσῃς αὐτά (Holmes).   It should be born in mind that προαίρεσις is probably still within the realm of possibility, though it seems better in this case to turn to the more common synonym in Greek, σύνεσις,  for ΜΝΤΡΜΝϨΗΤ.


Heidelberg Papyrus – Schmidt 1904

March 20, 2009

Carl Schmidt,  Acta Pauli (1904),  transcription of  Coptic Heidelberg papyrus, (pdf 5.2 mb) pp. 1-80 including the glossary of Coptic words with German equivalents.  Access to the photos of this papyrus is found here.