The Comma Johanneum as a Textual Problem
The phrase “Comma Johanneum” is the name given to a short clause of a sentence found in 1 John 5.7-8 which has become a famous problem in textual criticism. The word “comma” as it is used here just means a short clause of a sentence and “Johanneum” refers to the writings of the Apostle John.[i] The phrase “Comma Johanneum” thus refers to a short clause of a sentence (comma) which has some relevance to the writings of John (Johanneum). The Comma Johanneum can be found in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
1 John 5:7-8 (KJV)[ii]
Since this passage pertains to the doctrine of the Trinity it initially appears to be of some great importance to Christian theology. Additionally the KJV is quite familiar to people since so many of them were raised on the popular translation. The apparent significance of these verses coupled with the popularity of the KJV and respective wide-spread familiarity with this particular reading makes this text problem a rather famous one that serves as an excellent introduction to text criticism.
1 John 5.7-8 In The KJV
The passage at 1 John 5.7-8 as quoted from the KJV refers to there being “three…in heaven.” If there is any doubt that the “three” is a reference to the Trinity the very next part of verse 7 names the three in heaven as being “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” Not only are the three Persons of the Trinity identified by name, but the last part of verse 7 tells us that “these three are one.” So 1 John 5.7 as it appears in the KJV tells us that there are three in heaven, the Father, Word, and Holy Ghost, and that these three are one. This is clearly meant to be a description of the Trinity. However it is worth noting that the text is not as clear as it could be regarding the Trinity. While the passage is certainly not unorthodox it does not explain in what respect the three are also one. Additionally the three are said to bear witness in heaven, but given the context of the passage this is problematic as will be explained below in the discussion on verse 8.
Verse 8 in the KJV appears to build upon verse 7 in explaining that just as there are three that bear witness in heaven so also there are three that bear witness in earth. The Spirit, water, and blood testify on earth analogously to the three Persons who testify in heaven. Additionally the three witnesses on the earth are said to” agree in one.” This agreement is a numerically similar idea to the one expressed in verse 7. However, there is a massive difference between three being one and three agreeing in one. Any attempt to fix this problem will result in affirming only the agreement of the three in heaven as opposed to their actually being one in order to match the agreement between the three witnesses in earth or it will result in affirming the three in earth being one in order to match what is said of the three in heaven when in fact the three in earth are clearly distinct entities and cannot be said to share in oneness in the same way that the three witnesses in heaven do.
Versions of the Bible other than the KJV do not read very much like the KJV at all in 1 John 5.7-8. Note the passage as it is found in the English Standard Version.
For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. 1 John 5:7-8 (ESV)[iii]
It should be clear that the difference between the KJV and the ESV at this passage has very little to do with actual translation. Rather, the underlying Greek texts which have been translated differ from one another and this observation leads into the text problem. Translations such as the ESV are from sources that are like the text in the Nestle-Aland 27th Edition (NA27) whereas the KJV is translated from the Textus Receptus (TR).[iv] Note the similarities and differences in the passage in question as it is found in the NA27 and TR.
7ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες, 8τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν (NA27) [v]
7ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες [ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. 8 καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ] τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν. (TR) [vi]
The TR differs a great deal from the text found in the NA27. In the TR a phrase appears after μαρτυροῦντες [. The phrase is “ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. 8 καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ].” Note that the addition of this phrase affects both verse 7 and verse 8. Thus in the apparatus of the NA27 verse 7 and 8 are listed together.[vii]
Context and Theology The aforementioned reading of 1 John 5.7-8 that is found in the TR and provides the basis for the text of the KJV can be rather quickly evaluated in regards to its intrinsic probability. The consideration of the significance of the passage does not directly pertain to intrinsic probability, but it does appear to be the case as already noted that the reading is significant insofar as it so forthrightly describes the Trinity. While the exegetical concerns mentioned before should be kept in mind the reading in question can nevertheless be evaluated as being orthodox and true. Concerning intrinsic probability Metzger finds it sufficient to note that “the passage makes an awkward break in the sense.”[viii] It is difficult to disagree with Metzger’s observation and John Stott makes a similar point. Stott rather persuasively argues that this reading is, “not a very happy one, as the threefold testimony of verse 8 is to Christ; and the biblical teaching about testimony is not that Father, Son and Holy Spirit bear witness together to the Son, but that the Father bears witness to the Son through the Spirit.”[ix] Verses 5 and 6 refer to “[t]his” which is “he who”. The “this” and “he who” clearly refer to “Jesus Christ” and the “Spirit…the Spirit…the truth” testifies to Jesus Christ. Stott’s point is correct and serves as evidence in favor of rejecting the Comma Johanneum.
Grammar In The King James Only Controversy James White responds to an argument made by KJV Only advocate Kevin James. Kevin James contends in his book The Corruption of the Word: The Failure of Modern New Testament Scholarship that there is a “grammatical” problem with the passage in question since “three” is masculine. He notes an inconsistency with the genders of Spirit, blood, and water. Easily dismissing this attempt at an argument for the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum White explains that, “three almost always appears in the NT as a masculine when used as a substantive, the one exception being 1 Corinthians 13:13, where it appears as a neuter, though here referring to a list of feminines.”[x] Apparently this is a merely stylistic matter.
Daniel Wallace also comments on the grammar of the passage in question. Wallace acknowledges that the masculine participle in the passage that refers to all neuter nouns is taken by some to be “an oblique reference to the Spirit’s personality” citing especially I.H. Marshall.[xi] However, Wallace believes that, “the fact that the author has personified water and blood, turning them into witnesses along with the Spirit, may be enough to account for the masculine gender.”[xii] He writes:
This interpretation also has in its behalf the allusion to Deut 19:15 (the necessity of “two or three witnesses”), for in the OT the testimony only of males was acceptable. Thus, the elder may be subtly indicating (via the masculine participle) that the Spirit, water, and blood are all valid witnesses.”[xiii]
Wallace’s speculation is interesting whether or not one decides to accept it.[xiv] There does not appear to be any reason in the category of intrinsic probability for accepting the reading in question. Everything discussed here has indicated that the passage is more than likely not a part of the original text.
Recall that upon comparison of the text of the NA27 and the text of the TR it may be observed that the Comma Johanneum is wholly absent from the text of the NA27. If the reading in question were original then it obviously had to have dropped out of Greek manuscripts at some point. Metzger uses this fact to launch into a powerful argument against the passage contending that, “if the passage were original, no good reason can be found to account for its omission, either accidentally or intentionally, by copyists of hundreds of Greek manuscripts, and by translators of ancient versions.”[xv]
In the context of meeting the challenge posed by KJV Onlyists who defend the Comma Johanneum since it appears in the only English version they believe to be the inspired Word of God James White likewise emphasizes this point along with the consequences of accepting the passage. White writes:
“[W]e need to note what is really being said by AV Alone defenders. If indeed the Comma was a part of the apostle John’s original writing, we are forced to conclude that entire passages, rich in theological meaning, can disappear from the Greek manuscript tradition without leaving a single trace. In reality, the KJV Only advocate is arguing for a radical viewpoint on the New Testament text, one that utterly denies…tenacity…Even “liberal” scholars admit the outstanding purity of the New Testament text and the validity of the belief in that text’s tenacity. Here we find otherwise very conservative people, the KJV’s defenders, joining arms with the most destructive critics in presenting a theory regarding the NT text that, in reality, destroys the very basis upon which we can have confidence that we still have the original words of Paul or John. Surely this is not their intention, but in their rush to defend what is obviously a later addition that entered into the KJV by unusual circumstances, they have had to adopt a position that does this very thing.”[xvi]
White’s argument pertains to internal probabilities, but it will become much clearer and more powerful in light of the external evidence which is to follow. Having examined internal probabilities including intrinsic probability and transcriptional probability it must be concluded that there are no obvious reasons to accept the passage in question as original and that there are in fact serious problems with accepting it as such. Internal probabilities strongly favor the reading of the NA27 quoted earlier rather than the reading of the TR. The external evidence paints a similar picture.
Metzger notes that the earliest place we find the Comma cited as an actual part of the text of the Epistle of 1 John is in Liber apologeticus by either Priscillian or Instantius.[xvii] Liber apologeticus is a fourth-century Latin document.[xviii] Nobody really knows how the passage ended up being in this treatise the way that it appears, but even in English one can speculate how it may have happened. Someone could have read over the passage and heard in “Jesus Christ”, “Spirit”, and “there are three” an allusion to the doctrine of the Trinity even though as already discussed there is no such allusion. Metzger thinks that the gloss came to be through an understanding of the passage as symbolizing the Trinity in the three witnesses of the Spirit, water, and blood and that the interpretation could have just been jotted down as a marginal note and later on written into the text.[xix] It could have been an allegorical exegesis of the three witnesses.[xx] Stott writes, “Some tidy-minded scribe, impressed by the threefold witness of verse 8, must have been made to think of the Trinity and so suggested that there was a threefold witness in heaven also.”[xxi] Whatever the reason that the reading was introduced to the text it was quoted by Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy in the fifth century and subsequently added to the manuscripts of the Old Latin and Vulgate from the sixth century on.[xxii]
However, the passage is not in any manuscripts of the ancient versions except the Latin and even then is not in the earlier form of the Old Latin or Jerome’s Vulgate meaning that it does not appear in the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, codex Fuldensis, codex Amiatinus or Alcuin’s revision of the Vulgate.[xxiii] Additionally there appear to be variants within what Latin is available and the Latin reads opposite the Greek.[xxiv] Turning to the Greek; none of the Greek Fathers quote the passage even though they would have had every reason to in the Trinitarian controversies involving Sabellius and Arius.[xxv] The passage appears for the very first time in 1215 in a Greek version of the Latin Acts of the Lateran Council.[xxvi]
According to Metzger there are four Greek manuscripts that have the Comma Johanneum written later as a variant in the margin.
88v.r.: a variant reading in a sixteenth century hand, added to the fourteenth-century codex Regius of Naples.
221v.r.: a variant reading added to a tenth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
429v.r.: a variant reading added to a sixteenth-century manuscript at Wolfenbuttel.
636v.r.: a variant reading added to a sixteenth-century manuscript at Naples.[xxvii]
Apart from these there are only four other Greek manuscripts that contain the passage. One is 629.[xxviii] Two others listed by Metzger are 918 and 2318.
918: a sixteenth-century manuscript at the Escorial, Spain.
2318: an eighteenth-century manuscript, influenced by the Clementine Vulgate, at Bucharest, Rumania.[xxix]
Manuscript 61 is known as Codex Montfortianus and dates from the early sixteenth century.[xxx] Montfortianus is housed at Trinity College, Dublin.[xxxi] It is a manuscript of the entire New Testament and is of interest because it likely played the crucial role in our ending up with the questionable passage in the TR and thus also the KJV.[xxxii] The manuscript appears to have been written around 1520 in Oxford by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy). Froy included the passage in question by taking it from the Latin Vulgate. The remainder of the codex was copied from a tenth-century manuscript. There are also other insertions in the text which have been retroverted from the Latin text. The tenth-century document at Lincoln College, Oxford that was copied did not have these inserted readings. [xxxiii] This is the earliest Greek manuscript discovered which contains the highly questionable reading of the Comma Johanneum.[xxxiv] Metzger explains that, “The manuscript, which is remarkably fresh and clean throughout (except for the two pages containing 1 John 5, which are soiled from repeated examination), gives every appearance of having been produced expressly for the purpose of confuting Erasmus.”[xxxv]
Adding up the manuscripts described above makes a total of eight Greek manuscripts which do not serve as particularly good witnesses to the passage in question. There is no other Greek manuscript known that contains this passage, and the eight Greek manuscripts described appear to have simply been translated from a “late recension of the Latin Vulgate.”[xxxvi] All the rest are in favor of the reading found in the text of the NA27.
Explanation of Inclusion
Some of the speculation as to how this reading originated in the Latin has been presented already, but how did it ever manage to find its way into the Greek? Metzger notes in speaking of Montfortianus that, “It was on the basis of this single, late witness that Erasmus was induced to insert this certainly spurious passage into the text of 1 John.”[xxxvii] The first edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament in the early sixteenth century (1516) did not contain the Comma Johanneum and neither did the second edition.[xxxviii] An editor of the Complutensian Polyglot named Stunica apparently criticized Erasmus’s work at this very point.[xxxix] Erasmus wrote an explanation.
If a single manuscript had come into my hands in which stood what we read (sc. in the Latin Vulgate) then I would certainly have used it to fill in what was missing in the other manuscripts I had. Because that did not happen I have taken the only course which was permissible that is I have indicated (sc. in the Annotationen) what was missing from the Greek manuscripts.[xl]
Erasmus did include the Comma in his 1552 (3rd) edition and according to Metzger he likely did so because the Montfortianus was produced to refute him.[xli]
Erasmus…had not found any Greek manuscript that contained these words…In an unguarded moment, Erasmus may have promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length, such a copy was found – or was made to order![xlii]
Most sources pertaining to the Comma Johanneum include a similar story about how the clause got into the work of Erasmus, but upon closer inspection the story turns out to be a rather dubious account.
It is naturally exceptionally difficult, if not impossible in principle to furnish conclusive proof that someone did not say something. Yet in my opinion there is sufficient reason to assume that Erasmus, when he chose to insert the Comma Johanneum, did not feel himself constrained by any promise. He explained on several occasions what had led him to include this passage in his third edition. He did so “so that no one would have occasion to criticise me out of malice”…It should be borne in mind that Lee had written that the omission of the Comma Johanneum brought with it the danger of a new revival of Arianism.[xliii]
H.J. De Jonge has provided strong arguments in line with the above quote to support his case that the story as it is usually told most likely did not actually happen. It is curious and unfortunate that textual critics and others continue to circulate the story even while on occasion noting the work that De Jonge has done on the subject. The first appearance of the traditional tale is in the work of T.H. Horne in 1818 and there is no other trace of it in experts of the history of the New Testament text in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[xliv] Erasmus did write, “Let Lee produce a Greek manuscript in which is written the words lacking in my edition, and let him prove that I had access to this manuscript, and then let him accuse me of indolence.”[xlv] He also wrote, “Although I suspect this manuscript, too, to have been revised after the manuscripts of the Latin world…”[xlvi] Neither of these passages contains anything like the promise described in the traditional account. De Jonge makes a good case that Erasmus simply wanted to avoid the trouble of having his person or work accused of any sort of heresy like Arianism and thus included the passage, but even this is speculative.[xlvii] It may simply be that it cannot be known why Erasmus included the passage but only that he did.
It has already been demonstrated that while it is not exceedingly clear with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity the text in question is nevertheless unproblematic insofar as its orthodoxy is concerned. The inclusion of the text does not have any effect upon the doctrine of the Trinity. The exclusion of the text likewise does not have any effect upon the doctrine of the Trinity. Metzger notes, “in 1897 the Holy Office in Rome, a high ecclesiastical congregation, made an authoritative pronouncement, approved and confirmed by Pope Leo XIII, that it is not safe to deny that this verse is an authentic part of St. John’s Epistle.”[xlviii] However, this ruling appears to have been made, “In view of its inclusion in the Clementine edition of the Latin Vulgate” and not for any particular theological reason pertaining to the Trinity.[xlix] Wayne Grudem lists 1 Peter 1.2 and Jude 20-21 as texts which explicitly mention all three persons of the Trinity before stating that, “the KJV translation of 1 John 5:7 should not be used in this connection” and then explaining the textual problem that has been discussed in detail here.[l] The doctrine of the Trinity neither “stands” nor “falls” upon the basis of 1 John 5.7-8. It is taught throughout the other parts of Scripture. It is worth noting that in apologetic encounters especially with cults and Christian heresies that deny the Trinity this passage may be brought up as supposedly the only passage teaching the Trinity and then shown through textual criticism to not belong in the text. Additionally those denying the teaching of the Bible may use this well-known textual problem that seemingly carries so much weight due to its Trinitarian nature in order to attempt to dismiss the reliability and/or trustworthiness of the Bible as a whole or in general.
Upon the basis of sound textual criticism evaluating internal and external probability it can be determined that the aforementioned Comma Johanneum does not belong in the text of the New Testament. Metzger writes, “That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain.”[li] James White quotes Griesbach who wrote, “If so few manuscripts are sufficient to establish such illegitimate readings, one can oppose so many and weighty things (both of evidence and of arguments), that obviously nothing will be left in the serious matter of a true and false standard, and the text of the New Testament in general will be entirely uncertain and doubtful.”[lii] Similarly James White writes, “If the reading of 1 John 5:7 can be considered original, then the entire textual history of the New Testament is, in essence, up for grabs.”[liii]
Baugh, S.M. A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999.
Comfort, Philip W. New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the variant readings of the ancient New Testament manuscripts and how they relate to the major English translations. Carol Streams, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2008.
De Jonge, H.J. “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum,” in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses t. 56, fasc. 4, pp. 381-389, 1980.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: IVP, 1994.
Maynard, Michael. A History of the Debate Over 1 John 5:7-8. Tempe, AZ: Comma Publications, 1995.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: Second Edition. D-Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.
Metzger, Bruce M.; Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration; Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford Press, 2005.
Nestle, Eberhard et.al. Novum Testamentum Graece. New York: American Bible Society, 1993.
Rummel, Ericka. Biblical Humanism and Scholasticism in the Age of Erasmus. vol. 9 of Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition. Boston: Brill, 2008.
Stott, John R.W. The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary. ed. Leon Morris. vol. 19 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. USA: IVP, 2009.
The Holy Bible King James Version: Large Print Compact Edition. Nashville, TN: Holman, 2000.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1999.
White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Second Edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2009.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Bruce M. Metzger; Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration; Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford Press, 2005, 146 n. 21.
[ii] The Holy Bible King James Version: Large Print Compact Edition. Nashville, TN: Holman, 2000.
[iii] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[xi] Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996, 332n.44.
[xii] Ibid. 332 n.44.
[xiii] Ibid. 332 n.44.
[xiv] The passage Wallace references is as follows: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Deuteronomy 19:15 (ESV)
[xxii] Metzger, Commentary, 648.
[xxiv] Nestle, Testamentum. Dr. John Polhill pointed this out to me. One might make an additional argument based upon this feature of the Latin text since it means that there is not even as much evidence for the Comma Johanneum as one might initially think due to the existence of some Latin witness since that witness has problems of its own and does not match the Greek text, but the emphasis of this paper is upon Greek and other text criticism and hence there will be no more discussion pertaining to the Latin.
[xxxi] Metzger, Text, 88.