The Johannine Comma

The Johannine Comma And Other “Problems” – A Closer Look

What is the Johannine Comma? Why is its inclusion in the Holy Bible such a controversy? Is there more like it?

In the intricate tapestry of biblical scholarship and translation history, few topics have stirred as much intrigue and debate as the Johannine Comma. This short passage in 1 John 5:7-8, concerning the explicit mention of the Trinity, stands at the crossroads of doctrinal belief and textual criticism, illuminating the complex processes behind the translation of the King James Bible. The inclusion of the Johannine Comma in the Textus Receptus, and subsequently in the King James Version, has been a focal point for discussions on the authenticity of biblical texts and the theological implications of translation choices. This blog post aims to explore the fascinating journey of the Johannine Comma through the lens of historical context, the pivotal role of Desiderius Erasmus, and the broader implications for biblical translation practices. Join us as we delve into the depths of one of the most intriguing chapters in the history of biblical scholarship, unraveling the mysteries behind the words that have shaped centuries of Christian thought.

The passage and the “Johannine Comma.”

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

This passage, particularly the portion mentioning the three in heaven, is known as the Johannine Comma, a highly debated textual variant that has intrigued scholars for its implications on the doctrine of the Trinity and its presence in early manuscript traditions.

The Johannine Comma, alternatively referred to as the Comma Johanneum, is a sequence of additional words that was included in early printed editions of the Greek New Testament in 1 John 5:7-8. The following passages are included in these editions (backticks are used to indicate additional words):

“ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιv 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.”

Based on these editions, the King James Version provides the subsequent translation:

“For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

In general, these additional elements are not found in the Greek manuscripts. Indeed, their presence is restricted to the text of four late medieval manuscripts. It appears that their inception occurred as a marginal note appended to specific Latin manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Over time, this note was integrated into the text of the majority of subsequent Vulgate manuscripts. The verses appeared in the Clementine edition of the Vulgate in the following format:

“Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium dant [in caelo: Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres unum sunt. 8 Et tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra:] spiritus, et aqua, et sanguis: et hi tres unum sunt.”

The Comma appears to have been translated into Greek and incorporated into a limited number of late Greek manuscripts and printed editions of the Greek text, according to the Vulgate. It is deemed erroneous by all scholars and is therefore omitted from contemporary critical editions of the Greek text or their derived English versions. The English Standard Version, for instance, reads:

“Because three things attest to this, namely the Spirit, water, and blood, all three of which are in agreement.”

The remarks of Dr. Bruce M. Metzger regarding 1 John 5:7-8 are provided in the following section, taken from his book, “A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament,” 2nd edition (Stuttgart, 1993).

After μαρτυροῦντες the Textus Receptus adds the following: 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. The veracity of these statements and their inadmissibility in the New Testament is unequivocally established in light of the subsequent factors.

Outside evidence

With the exception of eight known Greek manuscripts, which contain the passage in what seems to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate, the passage is absent from all other manuscripts. The passage is present in four out of the eight manuscripts as a marginal reading that was subsequently appended to the manuscript. The eight manuscripts consist of the following:

  • 61: Montefrianus codex, which was created in the early sixteenth century.
  • 88: an additional variant reading added to the Regius of Naples codex in the fourteenth century by a sixteenth-century hand.
  • a variant reading appended to a manuscript from the tenth century housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford: 221.
  • A variant reading of 429 was appended to a Wolfenbüttel manuscript from the sixteenth century.
  • 629: a manuscript from the fourteenth or fifteenth century housed in the Vatican.
  • A variant reading of 636 was appended to a manuscript from Naples in the sixteenth century.
  • 918: a manuscript from the sixteenth century discovered at the Escorial in Spain.
  • An eighteenth-century manuscript from Bucharest, Rumania, numbered 2318, was influenced by the Clementine Vulgate.

None of the Greek Fathers cite the passage; had they been aware of it, they would have undoubtedly utilized it in the Trinitarian controversies (Sabellian and Arian, to name a few). In 1215, it was introduced into Greek through a Greek translation of the Lateran Council Acts (Latin).

With the exception of the Latin manuscript, the passage is non-existent in all ancient versions (Slavonic, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Syrian), excluding the Old Latin; furthermore, it is not encountered in (a) the early form of Old Latin (Tertullian Cyprian Augustine), (b) the Vulgate as issued by Jerome (codex Fuldensis [copied a.d. 541-46] and codex Amiatinus [copied before a.d. 716]), or (c] Alcuin’s revision (first hand of codex Vallicellianus [ninth century]).

The earliest known citation of the passage as part of the Epistle’s text can be found in Liber Apologeticus (chap. 4), a Latin treatise from the fourth century. This treatise is attributed to either the Spanish heretic Priscillian (died around 385), or to his disciple Bishop Instantius. It appears that the annotation originated from the interpretation that the original passage represented the Trinity (via the three witnesses mentioned: the Spirit, the water, and the blood). This interpretation may have originated as a marginal note and was subsequently incorporated into the text. Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy incorporated glosses into the text of epistles as early as the fifth century. Beginning in the sixth century, glosses began to appear more frequently in manuscripts of Old Latin and the Vulgate. There are several distinctions in the phrasing of the passage among these diverse witnesses. (Other intrusions into the Latin text of 1 John are illustrated in 2.17, 4.3, 5.6, and 20.)

Internal Probabilities

(1) With respect to the probability of transcription, in the event that the passage is authentic, there is no plausible explanation to explain its omission by copyists of numerous Greek manuscripts or translators of ancient versions, whether unintentionally or deliberately.

(2) With regard to intrinsic probability, the passage abruptly changes meaning.

See any critical commentary on 1 John or Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 101 f., for the account of how the erroneous words were inserted into the Textus Receptus; also see Ezra Abbot, “I. John v. 7 and Luther’s German Bible,” in The Authorship of the Fourth Gospel and Other Critical Essays (Boston, 1888), pp. 458-463.

Desiderius Erasmus 

Desiderius Erasmus was a renowned scholar, theologian, and humanist of the Dutch Renaissance who analyzed the Greek and Latin New Testament texts critically. His contribution to the Textus Receptus, a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, is pivotal in comprehending the manner in which the King James Bible incorporated the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8) and the subsequent impact that it had on Protestant theology.

Process of Compiling the Textus Receptus

Early in the sixteenth century, Erasmus compiled the Textus Receptus with the intention of producing a consolidated Greek text of the New Testament through the comparison of numerous available Greek manuscripts and the incorporation of elements from the Latin Vulgate. Published for the first time in 1516, this edition was special in that it was the first to feature the Greek New Testament. Erasmus’s work underwent numerous editions and revisions, with each iteration enhancing its textual foundation and precision.

Constraint regarding the Johannine comma

Particularly compelling is the account of how the Johannine Comma was incorporated into the Textus Receptus. The overwhelming majority of ancient Greek manuscripts containing the New Testament lack the comma. Primarily found in later Latin Vulgate manuscripts does it manifest. Erasmus omitted the Johannine Comma from the earliest editions of his Greek New Testament, primarily because he was unable to locate it in any of the Greek manuscripts he examined.

Historiographic accounts indicate that Erasmus encountered pressure to incorporate the Johannine Comma, which was utilized to support the doctrine of the Trinity and was present in the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus, according to legend, reluctantly consented to include it in his Greek New Testament in exchange for the discovery of a Greek manuscript containing it. The Comma was subsequently discovered or included in a Greek manuscript, and Erasmus incorporated it into his third edition (1522) and subsequent editions. Numerous scholars consider the authenticity of this manuscript to be dubious; it was most likely translated from the Latin Vulgate into Greek in order to satisfy Erasmus’s requirement.

Erasmus’s Legacy

Erasmus’s work had a profound impact on Christian theology and the Protestant Reformation. The Textus Receptus became the textual basis for many early Protestant translations of the New Testament, including the German Luther Bible and the English King James Version. Despite the controversies surrounding certain passages like the Johannine Comma, Erasmus’s contributions to biblical scholarship, humanism, and the advancement of critical thinking in theological contexts remain significant.

His approach to textual criticism and his efforts to return to the original sources of Christian scripture helped pave the way for modern biblical scholarship and contributed to the broader Renaissance emphasis on ad fontes (“to the sources”). Erasmus’s work underscores the complex interplay between textual scholarship, theological doctrine, and the practical realities of religious reform and translation.

Were there other instances where a “Johannine Comma” occurred in the creation of the King James Bible?

The term “Johannine Comma” specifically refers to the textual variant found in 1 John 5:7-8, concerning the explicit mention of the Trinity. This particular passage is unique in its historical and textual controversy regarding its inclusion in the Textus Receptus and, subsequently, the King James Bible. While there are no other instances that bear the name “Johannine Comma” or exactly parallel the situation of 1 John 5:7-8, the translation and compilation of the King James Bible did involve numerous decisions about textual variants, interpretation, and translation practices that reflected the challenges of early 17th-century biblical scholarship.

Textual Variants and Translation Choices

In the course of translating the King James Bible, the translators examined various sources, including earlier English translations, the Latin Vulgate, the Textus Receptus, and other available Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Their work necessitated making choices among textual variants and interpreting ambiguous passages. Although the Johannine Comma is the most famous instance related to doctrinal implications and textual evidence, other verses and passages also presented challenges:

  • Variations in the Synoptic Gospels: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain parallel accounts of many events in the life of Jesus, with slight differences in wording and detail. The translators had to consider these variations in their work, striving for consistency and clarity across the texts.
  • Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: The New Testament writers often quoted the Old Testament, sometimes from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament) and other times from Hebrew texts. The translators had to decide which source to follow when there were differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic Text.
  • Hebrew Text Variants: The Old Testament, written primarily in Hebrew, also presented textual challenges. The translators relied on the Masoretic Text but had to make judgments about the correct reading when faced with variations or ambiguities in the Hebrew.

Scholarly Rigor and Theological Considerations

The King James translators were aware of the theological implications of their choices and sought to produce a translation that was both faithful to the original texts and doctrinally sound according to the beliefs of the Church of England. While the Johannine Comma is a distinct and notable case, the translation process as a whole required careful consideration of textual scholarship, theological doctrine, and the linguistic art of translation.

In summary, while there are no other “Johannine Comma” instances in terms of a direct parallel with the specific controversy over 1 John 5:7-8, the creation of the King James Bible involved numerous decisions and judgments on textual variants and translations that reflect the complexities of biblical scholarship and the interplay of faith and textual evidence.

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