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Rather than the more traditional “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” Jehovah’s Witnesses use the New World Translation, which gives John 1:1 as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”

In asking what support there is for the Jehovah’s Witness position, this question is not about whether the New World Translation is correct and is not seeking a hermeneutical response, which is already provided here. I am looking for biblical or historical texts that could support the Jehovah’s Witness translation.

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For information on how the Greek grammar supports the New World Translation, there are some related answers over on Biblical Hermeneutics to the question:

In addition to an Appendix article of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—With References edition, the Study Edition of the New World Translation also supports John 1:1 saying:

the Word was a god: Or “the Word was divine [or, “a godlike one”].” This statement by John describes a quality or characteristic of “the Word” (Greek, ho loʹgos; see study note on the Word in this verse), that is, Jesus Christ. The Word’s preeminent position as the firstborn Son of God through whom God created all other things is a basis for describing him as “a god; a godlike one; divine; a divine being.” Many translators favor the rendering “the Word was God,” equating him with God Almighty. However, there are good reasons for saying that John did not mean that “the Word” was the same as Almighty God. First, the preceding clause and the following clause both clearly state that “the Word” was “with God.” Also, the Greek word the·osʹ occurs three times in verses 1 and 2. In the first and third occurrences, the·osʹ is preceded by the definite article in Greek; in the second occurrence, there is no article. Many scholars agree that the absence of the definite article before the second the·osʹ is significant. When the article is used in this context, the·osʹ refers to God Almighty. On the other hand, the absence of the article in this grammatical construction makes the·osʹ qualitative in meaning and describes a characteristic of “the Word.” Therefore, a number of Bible translations in English, French, and German render the text in a way similar to the New World Translation, conveying the idea that “the Word” was “a god; divine; a divine being; of divine kind; godlike.” Supporting this view, ancient translations of John’s Gospel into the Sahidic and the Bohairic dialects of the Coptic language, probably produced in the third and fourth centuries C.E., handle the first occurrence of the·osʹ at Joh 1:1 differently from the second occurrence. These renderings highlight a quality of “the Word,” that his nature was like that of God, but they do not equate him with his Father, the almighty God. In harmony with this verse, Col 2:9 describes Christ as having “all the fullness of the divine quality.” And according to 2Pe 1:4, even Christ’s joint heirs would “become sharers in divine nature.” Additionally, in the Septuagint translation, the Greek word the·osʹ is the usual equivalent of the Hebrew words rendered “God,” ʼel and ʼelo·himʹ, which are thought to convey the basic meaning “Mighty One; Strong One.” These Hebrew words are used with reference to the almighty God, other gods, and humans. (See study note on Joh 10:34.) Calling the Word “a god,” or “a mighty one,” would be in line with the prophecy at Isa 9:6, foretelling that the Messiah would be called “Mighty God” (not “Almighty God”) and that he would be the “Eternal Father” of all those privileged to live as his subjects. The zeal of his own Father, “Jehovah of armies,” would accomplish this.—Isa 9:7.

TL;DR: It states that the grammar of John 1:1c is in stark contrast to the surrounding verses which use a definite article ("the god"). The particular formulation used in John 1:1c is used in Greek to indicate a quality of the subject. It describes the nature of "the Word" and not the identity. It, therefore, emphasizes the mightiness that "the Word" possesses. This is further supported by the early Sahidic Coptic translation which uses an indefinite article in John 1:1c to form "a god," emphasizing the qualitative nature of the clause.

For an extremely thorough examination of the Greek grammar of John 1:1 that also examines bias in several common Bible translations (including the KJV, NIV, and NWT), read Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament by Jason D. BeDuhn. Chapter 11 focuses on John 1:1, and comes to the conclusion that the New World Translation is the only translation he discusses that captures the qualitative distinction given to "the Word". He argues that the best translation of John 1:1c would be, "And the Word was divine." (The NWT puts "divine" as an alternate rendering of "a god" in the footnote for John 1:1c.) Professor Jason BeDuhn also refutes several common arguments that translators use for translating "the Word was God," including the misapplication of Colwell's Rule.

In Philip Harner's scholarly article on Greek grammar, "Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1," published in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92, Philadelphia, 1973, p. 85, he suggests John 1:1 would be best translated as "the Word had the same nature as God." He criticizes the RSV and The Jerusalem Bible for translating "the Word was God" because "the English reader might not understand exactly what John was trying to express." Philip Harner establishes his grammatical observation in his conclusion (emphasis mine):

In interpreting clauses of this type it is important to recall that Greek writers also had other types of word-order available. If a writer simply wished to represent the subject as one of a class, he could use an anarthrous predicate noun after the verb. If he wished to emphasize that the predicate noun was definite, he could supply the article. The availability of these other types of word-order strengthens the view that in many instances we may look primarily for a qualitative emphasis in anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb.

A summary of reasons why "a god" is appropriate in John 1:1 can also be found on Wikipedia.

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    I realize that the question specifically doesn't ask for a hermeneutical analysis of the text, but I've included it because it seems there isn't much discussion of why the NWT uses this translation, and the reasons are relevant for establishing the biblical justifications for translating John 1:1 using "a god."
    – user32540
    Jan 5, 2018 at 0:17
  • Do you not find it strange that of the 9 times Almighty is found in the New Testament...8 of them are in the book of "The Revelation of Jesus Christ"? I think non trinitarians are willfully blind to this fact.
    – Adam
    Feb 3 at 17:49
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The early translation into the Sahidic dialect is important because it was a language spoken close to the time that Jesus lived and before the declaration in 381, which would become known as the Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed, when the Trinity as generally understood today became an official belief and teaching.

A Watchtower article from November 2008 takes up the Sahidic Coptic language angle in support of the way the New World Translation renders John 1:1.

Greek grammar and the context strongly indicate that the New World Translation rendering is correct and that “the Word” should not be identified as the “God” referred to earlier in the verse. Nevertheless, 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 in some minds. It is for this reason that a Bible translation in a language that was spoken in the earliest centuries of our Common Era is very interesting.

The language is the Sahidic dialect of Coptic. The Coptic language was spoken in Egypt in the centuries immediately following Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the Sahidic dialect was an early literary form of the language. Regarding the earliest Coptic translations of the Bible, The Anchor Bible Dictionary says: “Since the [Septuagint] and the [Christian Greek Scriptures] were being translated into Coptic during the 3d century C.E., the Coptic version is based on [Greek manuscripts] which are significantly older than the vast majority of extant witnesses.”

The Sahidic Coptic text is especially interesting for two reasons. First, as indicated above, it reflects an understanding of Scripture dating from before the fourth century, which was when the Trinity became official doctrine. Second, 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.”(Emphasis added)

Hence, the Coptic translation supplies interesting evidence as to how John 1:1 would have been understood back then. What do we find? The Sahidic Coptic translation uses an indefinite article with the word “god” in the final part of John 1:1. Thus, when rendered into modern English, the translation reads: “And the Word was a god.” Evidently, those ancient translators realized that John’s words recorded at John 1:1 did not mean that Jesus was to be identified as Almighty God. The Word was a god, not Almighty God.

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Confusion as to the intended meaning of John 1:1 arises because the Koine Greek in which the Gospel was written did not have an indefinite article (a, an) and translators have to decide whether to insert one in English versions of the Bible. One factor in making that decision is the Trinitarian theology, that sees Jesus as one person in God, therefore making the indefinite article an incorrect translation.

Jehovah's Witnesses claim support for their position from an early Sahidic Coptic text, that does have the indefinite article in John 1:1. This appears to show that quite early in Christian history, some Christians believed that the author of John's Gospel intended the ending to be "...a god." However, Brian J. Wright and Jim Ricchuiti (Christian Research Journal, Vol 35, number 3) say that the Coptic text's usage of the indefinite article can be explained as making an interpretive, qualitative distinction. Unfortunately, Wright and Ricchuiti rely heavily on modern theology which they read back into the text, thereby weakening their thesis.

In orthodox Christian understanding of John's Christology, the concept that Jesus Christ is the Word (Logos) has been important in establishing the doctrine of Jesus' divinity, as well as that of the Trinity. But many scholars are aware that the synoptic gospels did not see Jesus as God. For example, Rhoads, Dewey and Michie say in Mark as Story, page 104, that in Mark, Jesus is the son of God, but not by virtue of a special birth or a divine nature - he becomes God's son at his baptism and is neither God nor a divine being. As the first New Testament gospel to be written, Mark presents us with a Christology that is even further removed from orthodox Christian understanding than any reading of John's Gospel.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the son of God by virtue of a special birth, but he is not yet God (*). Of the four New Testament gospels, it is only in John's Gospel that Jesus is fully divine. John's Gospel represents a further evolution in early Christology, so that, if correct, the reading "a god" could be considered somewhat less evolved than the reading "God." Either way, the evidence of the synoptic gospels points to belief in the divinity of Jesus evolving over the early decades of Christian thought. It then becomes a moot point whether one reading of John 1:1 is correct, or the other.


(*) See for example A World Full of Gods, page 302, by Keith Hopkins.

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    "many scholars are aware that the synoptic gospels did not see Jesus as God" You mean, 'many scholars are of the opinion.' Aware means you are conscious of some fact. But that begs the question. Many people see the Synoptics as showing Jesus' divinity—i.e. it just wasn't the focus of their Gospel like John's was. Jan 4, 2018 at 14:23
  • I would urge anyone who is swayed by the Coptic argument in support of NWT to study who the coptics actually we're. These people were pagans...the reason a god was inserted was because they believed in many God's...so the true God was originally thought of by them as, another God! It's a complete fallacy to give the Coptic argument any credibility irrespective of any claim the JWs make to the contrary. Whilst you are at it, study up on Sabellism...because this is the doctrine the Coptic argument promotes and even for new, that is heresy!
    – Adam
    Feb 3 at 17:53
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What support is there for the Jehovah’s Witnesses Translation of John 1:1?

The 2013 New World Translation Study Bible offers the following support for its translation of John 1:1. The Study Bible supports its translation “and the Word was a god” by observing that “theos” without the article in John 1:1 attaches to the Word (or Logos) exclusively, while “theos” with the article, i.e. “o theos”, is used to designate God Almighty. The 2013 NWT Study Bible commentary on John 1:1 explains: "there are good reasons for saying that John did not mean that 'the Word' was the same as Almighty God....the Greek word the·osʹ occurs three times in verses 1 and 2. In the first and third occurrences, the·osʹ is preceded by the definite article in Greek; in the second occurrence, there is no article....When the article is used in this context, the·osʹ refers to God Almighty. On the other hand, the absence of the article in this grammatical construction makes the·osʹ qualitative in meaning and describes a characteristic of 'the Word.'” This would appear to suggest that “o theos” fundamentally signifies “the God” or “God Almighty” in John‘s Gospel, while “theos” signifies “a god”, as far as the 2013 NWT Study Bible is concerned.

However, that is not in fact the case, for the 2013 NWT Study Bible comments upon the use of “o theos” in another verse within John’s Gospel, namely, at John 20:28, where the term is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ, and here we find a somewhat different interpretation with respect to the meaning of “o theos" which has relevance to its translation of John 1:1.

The NWT Study Bible explains in its commentary on John 20:28 that when the Apostle Thomas responds to the Risen Christ's admonition that he should be believing, and not unbelieving, and declares unto Jesus that he is "My Lord and My God" (my "o theos"), "He viewed Jesus as being 'a god' though not the almighty God."

It would appear, then, that the Watchtower Society’s support for translating John 1:1 as "the Word was a god" comes down, in the end, to the following distinction which is made within its 2013 NWT Study Bible’s very own commentaries on John 1:1 and John 20:28, that on the one hand the word “theos" with the article, (i.e. “o theos”), signifies "the God" or “God Almighty”, and the word “theos” without the article signifies “a god”, in respect to John 1:1, while on the other hand the term “o theos” properly signifies "a god" when it is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ in John 20:28. In other words, both “theos” and “o theos” properly signify “a god” whenever they are applied to the Son of God in John’s Gospel.

The Watchtower Society’s very own distinctive hermeneutics, drawn as they are from their very own Biblical commentaries, constitute the chief support undergirding the Watchtower Society’s 2013 New World Translation Study Bible rendering of "theos" and "o theos" within these two closely related Biblical passages.

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    Kris, I reworked my answer before I read your post, but my answer to the question of which texts support the NWT translation of John 1:1 is essentially that the 2013 NWT Study Bible commentaries on John 1:1 and John 20:28 constitute the chief support for the 2013 NWT's translation of John 1:1. Aren't these commentaries 'historical texts'? If not, why not? Indeed, the first answer above begins with a long quotation from the "Study Edition of the NWT". I'm doing the very same thing, showing how the NWT Study Bible commentaries on John 1:1 & John 20:28 support the NWT translation of John 1:1. Oct 20, 2019 at 3:42
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    I stand by my answer, as constituting the true basis of support for John 1:1c NWT, although I will not be surprised if it is removed. Oct 20, 2019 at 15:41
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The reasons and arguments in the other answers can be complemented with the following:

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which is a screenshot of the Interlinear Bible translation from biblehub.com of John 1:1.

Although in the above Greek text minuscule and capital Greek letters are rendered, Greek was written in what we would now call all capitals until the 9th. Century A.D. Therefore the oldest Greek manuscripts do not have any distinction between 'God', 'god' or 'a god'. Differences and distinctions in the meaning of those in writing, are dependent on the transcribers and translators' interpretation and target language. The Greek however some times uses the definite article (e.g. ho and ton) in combination with the word theos. See for the example above in John 1:1 and the translation of the first part of 2 Corinthians 4:4,

enter image description here

a and in the last part of Acts 28:6:

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The point of these examples is that derivatives of the word theos without the definite article are in most translations sometimes translated as 'God' (John1:1) and other times as 'a god' (Acts28:6). Even with the definite article theos is sometimes translated as 'the god' (2 Corinthians 4:4) and sometimes as "God". When which translation is used is not so much a matter of language, but more of interpretation. If the translation 'a god' in Acts 28:6 is valid from a language point of view, it can also be used in the last part of John 1:1 as "and the word was 'a god'". It is a matter of interpretation of the context, by the translator and like this bias can be forwarded to the readers of the translation.

Maybe the most objective would be a translation without the use of capital letters in this case: translating theos as 'a god' when the Greek manuscripts did not use the definite article, and 'the god' with the definite article was used in the Greek text. This would leave the interpretation to the reader instead of forwarding the bias of the translator.

John 1:1 would then read:

In a beginning was the word and the word was with the god and a god was the word.

I guess that most people would not like this translation, but its ugliness exposes and emphasizes the interpretations of either translation.

For more example scriptures with different translations of 'God', 'god' and 'a god' this might be an interesting read.

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I think the JW-defense may be summarized as follows:

With God

Both John 1:1b and John 1:2 explicitly state that “the Word” was “with God.” If He was “with God,” He cannot be God Himself.

No article

The Greek word theos occurs three times in John 1:1-2. Both the first and last occurrences say that the Word was in the beginning with God and, in both instances, the Greek word theos, which may be translated as “God” or as “god,” is preceded by in Greek definite article. This would appear to suggest that, in John‘s Gospel, “o theos” (the theos) fundamentally signifies God Almighty. In contrast, in the second occurrence of theos, there is no article before theos. This must be significant and implies that this does not identify God Almighty.

Origen on the missing article

Origen of Alexandria, a teacher in Greek grammar of the third century, discusses the presence or absence of the article in Commentary on John, Book II, chap, 2. He states that John uses the article when theos refers to “the uncreated cause of all things” and “all beyond the very god is made god by participation in his divinity.”

(In these quotes, I changed all capitals to lower case letters because, when Origen wrote, people did not yet distinguish between upper- and lower-case letters. That practice only developed many centuries later. Consequently, “the word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link))

In other words, what Origen wrote, is that the Logos is named theos without the article because He is NOT “the uncreated cause of all things.” He only participates in the divinity of the Father.

Qualitative in Meaning

The translation, “the Word was God,” seems to identify the Word as God but the scholarly consensus is that this is not the meaning of the Greek of John 1:1c. That phrase has a special grammatical construction in which theos is qualitative in meaning and describes a characteristic of “the Word.” It describes the nature of "the Word" and not His identity. For this reason, and because English uses the word “God” as a proper noun (a name for one specific Being), the translation “the Word was God” is misleading.

The following are examples to show the scholarly consensus:

[It] is clear that in the translation "the Word was God", the term God is being used to denote his nature or essence, and not his person. But in normal English usage "God" is a proper noun, referring to the person of the Father or corporately to the three persons of the Godhead. Moreover, "the Word was God" suggests that "the Word" and "God" are convertible terms, that the proposition is reciprocating. But the Word is neither the Father nor the Trinity … The rendering cannot stand without explanation." (Harris, Murray J., Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus, 1992, Baker Books, pub. SBN 0801021952, p. 69 – my emphasis)

“It is necessarily without the article (theós not ho theós) inasmuch as it describes the nature of the Word and does not identify His Person. (B. F. Westcott quoted by C. F. D. Moule (Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek. Cambridge: University Press. p. 116. ISBN 9780521057745.)

Philip Harner (Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1, published in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 92, Philadelphia, 1973, p. 85) concluded: “In many instances we may look primarily for a qualitative emphasis in anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb.” He suggests John 1:1 would be best translated as "the Word had the same nature as God." He criticizes the "the Word was God"-translation because "the English reader might not understand exactly what John was trying to express."

Professor Jason BeDuhn (Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament) argues that the best translation of John 1:1c would be, "And the Word was divine" (Chapter 11).

What John 1:1c says, therefore, is that the Son is of the same nature as God. This is interpreted by the Trinity doctrine as that the Word is God Himself, but that is directly opposed to the statement in John 1:1b and 1:2 that the Word was “with God,” which means that the Word is distinct from God.

An alternative interpretation is the one presented by the Logos-Christology of the second to fourth centuries which regarded the Word as part of the substance of God that was emitted from God to become a separate Being. In this view, the Word is of the same uncreated substance as God but ontologically subordinate to the Father because He is only part of the substance of God. (For an explanation of Logos-Christology, see Real Issue.)

Still another possible interpretation is that the Word’s nature is similar to God’s nature. This was one of the views during the fourth-century Arian Controversy, namely the homoiosios view.

Subordinate

By saying that the Word was “with God,” John implies that the Word is subordinate to God; not only after He became a human being, but also in His pre-existence. John repeats this principle when he says that God created all things “through” the Word (John 1:2), for that implies that the Father is the ultimate Source of Creation. We also must read John 1:18 as an extension of John 1:1-2, which describes the Son as the only-begotten. That He was begotten by God identifies Him as God’s only true family, but still describes Him as subordinate to the Father, who is the “the uncreated cause of all things,” to use a phrase from Origen.

That He is of the same nature as God (John 1:1c) may imply that He is ontologically equal with the Father but, functionally, He is subordinate to the Father.

This begins a general theme in this gospel. Over 30 times John states that the Father sent Jesus Christ. Such statements also imply that Jesus Christ was subordinate to the Father in His pre-existence. So, contextually, it would be out of place to call Jesus God in John 1:1c.

Acts 28:6

Acts 28:6 has a similar grammatical construction (anarthrous predicate nouns that precede the verb) but is translated, “he (Paul) was a god.”

Interpretation

Theos without the definite article is sometimes translated as “God” (John 1:1) and other times as “a god” (Acts 28:6). Theos with the definite article is also sometimes translated as “god” (e.g., 2 Corinthians 4:4). In other words, how theos is translated is as much a matter of interpretation as it is a matter of grammar. Beduhn in Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament chapter 11 states:

This applies to all possible translations of John 1:1c.

"Translators of the KJV, NRSV, NIV, NAB, New American Standard Bible, AB, Good News Bible and LB all approached the text at John 1:1 already believing certain things about the Word...and made sure that the translations came out in accordance with their beliefs.... Ironically, some of these same scholars are quick to charge the NW translation with "doctrinal bias" for translating the verse literally, free of KJV influence, following the sense of the Greek. It may very well be that the NW translators came to the task of translating John 1:1 with as much bias as the other translators did. It just so happens that their bias corresponds in this case to a more accurate translation of the Greek."

Scholars

Certain non-JW scholars, although they oppose that translation, express some sympathy for the NW translation:

Dr. Jason BeDuhn (of Northern Arizona University) in regard to the Kingdom Interlinear's appendix that gives the reason why the NWT favoured a translation of John 1:1 as saying the Word was not "God" but "a god" said: "In fact the KIT [Appendix 2A, p.1139] explanation is perfectly correct according to the best scholarship done on this subject."

Murray J. Harris has written: "Accordingly, from the point of view of grammar alone, [QEOS HN hO LOGOS] could be rendered "the Word was a god …" -Jesus As God, 1992, p. 60

C. H. Dodd says: "If a translation were a matter of substituting words, a possible translation of [QEOS EN hO LOGOS]; would be, "The Word was a god". As a word-for-word translation it cannot be faulted."

Other Translations

A number of Bible translations in English, French, and German render the text in a way similar to the New World Translation, conveying the idea that “the Word” was “a god; divine; a divine being; of divine kind; godlike.” See the Wikipedia article on John 1:1 for a list. For example:

"and the Word was a god" – The New Testament in Greek and English (A. Kneeland, 1822.)

The Ancient Coptic Translation

The earliest translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures (before the fourth century Arian Controversy) were into Syriac, Latin and Sahidic Coptic. But the Sahidic Coptic text is especially interesting because Syriac and Latin, like the Greek of those days, do not have an indefinite article while Coptic 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.” Since the Sahidic Coptic translation uses an indefinite article with the word “god” in John 1:1c, when rendered into modern English, the translation reads: “and a God was the Word” (See, Sahidic Coptic text). This translation highlights a quality of “the Word” and shows how John 1:1 would have been understood back then. They did not equate him with his Father; the almighty God.

I would be eager to hear from JWs whether I understand their theology correctly.

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  • What I find interesting, apart from the ignorance of the Coptic argument (coptics were pagans with many god's), one must ask themselves...what is the significance of a god dying for the sins of his creation? Compare that with God dying for the sins of His creation and we now have something far more significant. "a god" dying doesn't really make the cross significant...that could have simply been baal or dagon, or the Egyptian god ra could it not? I mean even the JW's throw in the mix that earthly king's are god's...could not king David have simply died for the sins of many?
    – Adam
    Feb 3 at 18:06
  • @Adam I am not sure what relationship you see between the Coptic polytheism and the translation of the Scriptures into Coptic. See Kris' answer for more detail. With respect to the atonement theory - yes, the traditional Christology justifies itself by saying that only an infinite Person can suffer for infinite sins. However, there are various atonement theories. For example, during the first three centuries, the church believed simply that Christ came to overcome evil. Therefore, other Christologies do not rely on the traditional theory of the atonement.
    – Andries
    Feb 4 at 4:53

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