The 1 John 5:7 controversy

Experience has taught me that one cannot mention differences between the Textus Receptus and critical texts of the New Testament without addressing the 1 John 5:7 controversy regarding the Comma Johanneum. After all, the Comma Johanneum—that is, the clause of John—is the perfect proof text when defending the Holy Trinity.

Translated from the Greek text that would later become the Textus Receptus, the King James Version reads:

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)

The same verses, however, in most modern versions of the Bible read, For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement (1Jn 5:7, 8). According to the underlying texts of modern translations—the Novum Testamentum Graece, for example—that seemingly vital phrase concerning the oneness of the Father, Word, and Holy Spirit is missing, leading some people into the realm of conspiracy theory. Persuading men to remove the Comma,” they claim, is the same tactic Satan used in the Garden of Eden. Cause someone to question God’s word, and apostasy will soon follow.”

While I would otherwise agree with this principle, I don’t believe the Comma is part of a conspiracy to undermine Scripture. If it were, the conspirators failed miserably because they forgot to remove every other biblical reference to the Trinity. In a few passages, critical texts and modern translations are clearer about the Trinity than the Textus Receptus and King James Version.

Even so, any student of the Bible has reason to ask, Why is the Comma missing from modern translations?” Yet that question is fundamentally flawed because it presumes the Comma belongs in the first place. Instead, we should be asking, What did John originally write?” And the honest answer is, we don’t know. The only way to be absolutely certain is to read John’s original autograph, which we don’t have, prompting us to ask the inevitable follow-up question, how can we determine what he most likely wrote?

For the answer, we must turn to the evidence.

The manuscripts

If we were to lay every Greek manuscript of 1 John 5 on a table from the oldest to the newest, we’d see that eight of them contain the Comma just as we read in the King James Version. The first manuscript in which it appears is from the 10th century, approximately 800 years or so after John wrote his epistle. Strangely enough, though, the Comma is not in the text of Scripture. It’s a note in the margin that appears to have been added only after the manuscript was first written. Moving down the table, we don’t find the Comma again until we reach 16th-century manuscripts, and three of them also have the Comma in the margins.

The 1 John 5:7 controversy arises primarily from the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible used by Catholics throughout history. Like Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the Vulgate was hand-copied for many, many years. A standard printed text used by everyone didn’t exist, so the manuscripts often contained variants from copy to copy. More to the point, the earliest editions of the Vulgate lacked the Comma Johanneum as did its Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic counterparts. The Comma doesn’t make an appearance in any manuscript of any language until 6th-century copies of the Vulgate.

To be clear, I’m exclusively talking about manuscripts still available to us. We can’t possibly know what lost copies of 1 John said, though we can and should consider extra-biblical sources as well. Whether or not our early Christian forefathers quoted the Comma and considered it Scripture may provide additional evidence regarding John’s original wording.

Extra-biblical sources

As for our Greek-writing ancestors in the faith, they never cite the Comma despite their strenuous efforts to combat 3rd-century Trinitarian heresies such as Arianism and Sabellianism. If they knew the Comma and believed it to be the inspired word of God, why didn’t they employ it against those who denied the Trinity? The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Cased closed.

Relatively early Latin writers are another story. A 4th-century treatise titled, Liber Apologeticus, quotes the Comma as does a handful of other Latin sources in the 5th and 6th centuries. There is a small problem, though. They don’t exactly agree about the wording, which leads many scholars to believe they are citing not 1 John 5:7 from an actual manuscript of John’s epistle, but a popular interpretation of 1 John 5:8—the Spirit, the water and the blood.

Reviewing the evidence

Are you still with me? In case you’re confused, let’s have another look at the evidence table.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Comma is nowhere to be found. Beginning in the 4th century, it shows up in a handful of Latin writings outside of the Bible. In the 6th century, it makes its way into later editions of the Latin Vulgate. In the 10th century, it appears in its first Greek text as a margin note. Then, in the 16th century, it reappears in seven Greek manuscripts of 1 John as either a margin note or part of the biblical text itself.

You tell me. Does the Comma Johanneum belong? Keep in mind, we don’t want to add words to Scripture anymore than we want to remove them.

Desiderius Erasmus

About the time the Comma begins popping up more frequently in Greek manuscripts—that is, the 16th century—things get even more interesting thanks to a Catholic scholar by the name of Desiderius Erasmus. In AD 1512, Erasmus began work on a fresh translation of the Vulgate, which required him to first compile a handful of Greek manuscripts. To the source” was his mantra, meaning he wanted to translate from the New Testament’s original language. The result was both a new Latin translation as well as a new edition of the New Testament in Greek. The Comma, however, was not present.

As you might expect, lifelong readers of the Vulgate were troubled to find that beloved Trinitarian clause missing. Edward Lee, in particular, accused Erasmus of deliberately omitting the Comma despite its presence in the Greek manuscripts from which Erasmus worked. Erasmus replied:

Let Lee produce a Greek manuscript which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach. Only then can he reproach me with negligence in sacred matters.

According to Erasmus, not one of the Greek manuscripts available to him contained the Comma. But eventually, someone showed him a manuscript which did include it—a manuscript dated no earlier than AD 1520, four years after Erasmus published his first edition. Even so, he added it to his third edition, stating:

I have restored the text … so as not to give anyone an occasion for slander. … But to return to the business of the reading: From our remarks it is clear that the Greek and Latin manuscripts vary, and in my opinion there is no danger in accepting either reading.

Erasmus’s work is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it became the foundation for the KJVs New Testament and the Textus Receptus. Second, it may help explain why the Comma suddenly appeared in 16th-century Greek manuscripts of 1 John.

Does the Comma Johanneum belong?

I’ll ask again. Does the Comma Johanneum belong in the text of Scripture? Today, most Bible scholars and translation committees have concluded the evidence says no. That is why you won’t find it in modern translations of the Bible. Then again, what if a stream of manuscripts once existed that did, in fact, contain the Comma? What if the KJVs reading of 1 John 5:7, 8 is correct? What if the evidence on our table can’t give us the whole picture? Frankly, we can’t answer these questions.

Whether or not we accept the Comma as inspired Scripture is determined by whether or not we accept the available evidence. If we exclude the Comma, the evidence is on our side. If we include it, we do so by faith despite the evidence, but lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean we’re wrong. We just can’t know.

Personally, I agree with Erasmus. I don’t see any danger in accepting either reading” and won’t fault anyone else for their preference.

The 1 John 5:7 controversy

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