ADDING TO THE SCRIPTURES: The Story of I John 5:7b,8a
I John 5:7,8- “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.” (KJV)
This passage of Scripture, commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum (hereinafter, the Comma) in critical documents, has created consternation for textual scholars for almost five centuries. The passage was not in Erasmus’ 1516 first Greek edition of what would become the Textus Receptus. Its sudden surfacing in a subsequent sixteenth century Greek text that was “probably made to order”1 may have motivated Erasmus to insert it into his third edition of the Greek text. Reports indicate that he may also have felt pressure from Francisco Ximenes, a Spanish Catholic priest and contemporary publisher of biblical texts and versions that included the Comma, accommodating the credibility of the Latin Vulgate, which had been including it for several centuries without sufficient Greek manuscript evidence. Only a handful of late MSS of various types also included it, if only in the margin, demonstrating its lack of authenticity.
The words in question, shown underlined above, are almost universally acknowledged to be an interpolation, although it still appears in some English Bibles printed today, if not in the text then in a footnote. It is often referred to as one of the two key scriptures supporting the Trinitarian theory of God. This is a glaring example of how the KJV translators insisted on following the Erasmus text/Textus Receptus regardless of the authenticity of certain verses. This obvious scribal addition to the sacred text is one in defense of which virtually no credible scholar will risk his reputation. It found its way into the stream of manuscripts that became known as the Textus Receptus and thus into the KJV, appearing in every edition printed since 1611.
Perhaps the Comma is one of the reasons that the Codex Vaticanus was suppressed so long by the Roman Catholic Church—this important ancient manuscript did not contain the I John 5:7,8a passage. The Codex Vaticanus (B) was known to exist in the fifteenth century when it showed up on the inventory sheet of the Vatican Library, but silence shrouded it for centuries afterward. A few scholars saw it, but the church hierarchy would not even permit a reproduction of the MSS to be made until 1889-90. They knew that textual critics would discover that it did not match the Latin Vulgate at this verse, and they desperately wanted the Vulgate reading to be left in every edition of the Scriptures since it was one that could be called on to support the doctrine of the Trinity.
In 1897 a papal decree was signed by Pope Leo XIII forbidding the faithful to doubt the Comma Johanneum.2 Pope Leo, in 1902 re-established a commission to study the Comma more closely. Because the report was unfavorable to the earlier decree it had to be put aside, but the pope continued to be worried by the situation right up to his death. Some Roman Catholic scholars began to ignore the decree. Dr. Heinrich Vogels omitted the text from his Greek Testament published in 1920. Others were at first more cautious. In the Roman Catholic Westminster Version of the New Testament published in 1931, the footnote to I John 5:7, 8, after calling attention to its omission in the original text, continues, “Until further action be taken by the Holy See it is not open to Catholic editors to eliminate the words from a version made for the use of the faithful.” But in the same version republished as one volume in 1947 the interpolation is omitted, editor Cuthbert Lattey citing the Greek text published by Jesuit scholar Augustin Merk, which also omits it.” So, it has been a troublesome textual matter for Catholic scholars since its release, with some of their versions containing it and others omitting it.
The well-known nineteenth-century textual critic and KJV text translator, F. H. A. Scrivener, provides his assessment of how the Comma Johanneum became a part of the text: “We need not hesitate to declare our conviction that the disputed words were not written by St. John: that they were originally brought into Latin copies in Africa from the margin, where they had been placed as a pious and orthodox gloss on ver. 8: that from the Latin they crept into two or three late Greek codices, and thence into the printed Greek text, a place to which they had no rightful claim.”3 The consensus among scholars seems to be that it is unfortunate that this passage is still being included in current editions of the Bible.
In the comments of Bible expositor John MacArthur on the passage, one can see how difficult it is for Trinitarians to give it up as a proof text for their position: “These words are a direct reference to the Trinity and what they say is accurate. External manuscript evidence, however, is against them being in the original epistle. They do not appear in any Greek MSS dated before ca. tenth century A.D. Only eight very late Greek MSS contain the reading, and these contain the passage in what appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate. Furthermore, four of those eight MSS contain the passage as a variant reading written in the margin as a later addition to the manuscript. No Greek or Latin Father, even those involved in Trinitarian controversies, quote them; no ancient version except the Latin records them (not the Old Latin in its early form or the Vulgate). Internal evidence also militates against their presence, since they disrupt the sense of the writer's thoughts. Most likely, the words were added much later to the text. There is no verse in Scripture which so explicitly states the obvious reality of the Trinity, although many passages imply it strongly.”4 See why Trinitarians hate to give it up?
Let us address this issue from the perspective of three basic questions:
1) Are they authentic apostolic words?
2) If they are not, how do we account for their inclusion in the body of inspired Scripture?
3) How did they get into the Greek text that ultimately became the Textus Receptus and thus into the KJV?
First, are they authentic apostolic words?
With the thousands of textual witnesses available to us today, it is fairly simple to determine with some degree of qualified certainty the original scriptural wording. There is more manuscript evidence for the Bible than for any other ancient work. Three hundred of these extant Greek MSS contain the Book of I John5 giving us very solid support for the remainder of the book.
To be considered as “authentic” apostolic words, they would have had to appear in a manuscript dating to a period quite early in the Christian era. These words, however, appear in no Greek manuscript dating to that time. They appear in only four Greek manuscripts, the earliest dating to the fourteenth or fifteenth century (miniscule 629), and none of them gives the Greek text exactly as it appears in printed Greek NTs. Additionally, all four MSS give clear evidence of having been translated into Greek from Latin. Four additional MSS (88 221 429 636, dating from the 12th, 10th, 16th, and 15th centuries, respectively) have the disputed copied in the margins by much later writers.6 There seems to be a disparity between the supporters of the Comma as to how early the scribes began to copy it into the Greek MSS and lectionaries.
One of the primary reasons that the words are unlikely to have come from the pen of John is that the passage is never appealed to in the intense discussions on the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Neither the Arians nor those in the camp of Athanasius called upon them. Had they appeared in a Greek manuscript of the times, they certainly would have been. The words are not found in any of the ancient translations of the NT made from the 2nd to the 10th centuries except Latin, and not in the earliest of the Latin MSS.7 This suggests that they were introduced into the Greek from Latin by priestly scribes of the Eastern or Western branches of Catholicism sometime in the late Middle Ages, and therefore not from the pen of John.
Adam Clarke comments: “For if a few dubious, suspicious, and modern evidences, with such weak arguments as are usually adduced, are sufficient to demonstrate the authenticity of a reading, then there remains no longer any criterion by which the spurious may be distinguished from the genuine; and consequently the whole text of the New Testament is unascertained and dubious.”8
Second, how do we account for their inclusion in the body of inspired Scripture?
Whoever was responsible for the Comma’s inclusion in the Latin version of the Scriptures was probably drawing an analogy between the three witnesses of v. 8b and the growing perception of the three persons of the Trinity, composing his idea in the margin of the text. A later scribe evidently inserted the words from the margin into the text (not an unusual occurrence), and it gradually spread to other documents that were composed in Latin, and later from there into some Greek documents.
Strong supporters of the “perfect” KJV say that Cyprian in the third century referred to the verse; therefore, it must have been extant in his day. Were this true, he would effectively be the earliest known writer to quote the Comma. However, he did not quote the verse but used words similar to those that would later appear in the Vulgate, and assumptions were made about his reference.
On the matter of Cyprian’s reference, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, revered textual and biblical languages expert, supplies some background for us:
“Thus, a careful distinction needs to be made between the actual text used by Cyprian and his theological interpretations. As Metzger says, the Old Latin text used by Cyprian shows no evidence of this gloss. On the other side of the ledger, however, Cyprian does show evidence of putting a theological spin on I John 5:7. In his De catholicae ecclesiae unitate 6, he says, ‘The Lord says, ‘I and the Father are one’; and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, ‘And these three are one.’ What is evident is that Cyprian’s interpretation of I John 5:7 is that the three witnesses refer to the Trinity. Apparently, he was prompted to read such into the text here because of the heresies he was fighting (a common indulgence of the early patristic writers). Since John 10:30 triggered the ‘oneness’ motif, and involved Father and Son, it was a natural step for Cyprian to find another text that spoke of the Spirit, using the same kind of language. It is quite significant, however, that (a) he does not quote ‘of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit’ as part of the text; this is obviously his interpretation of ‘the Spirit, the water, and the blood.’ (b) Further, since the statement about the Trinity in the Comma is quite clear (‘the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit’), and since Cyprian does not quote that part of the text, this in the least does not afford proof that he knew of such wording. One would expect him to quote the exact wording of the text, if its meaning were plain. That he does not do so indicates that a Trinitarian interpretation was superimposed on the text by Cyprian, but he did not change the words. It is interesting that Michael Maynard, a TR advocate who has written a fairly thick volume defending the Comma (A History of the Debate over 1 John 5:7-8 [Tempe, AZ: Comma Publications, 1995] p.38), not only quotes from this passage but also speaks of the significance of Cyprian’s comment, quoting Kenyon’s Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1912), p. 212: ‘Cyprian is regarded as one ‘who quotes copiously and textually.’” The quotation from Kenyon is true, but quite beside the point, for Cyprian’s quoted material from 1 John 5 is only the clause, ‘and these three are one’—the wording of which occurs in the Greek text, regardless of how one views the Comma. Further, one of the great historical problems of regarding the Comma as authentic is how it escaped all Greek witnesses for a millennium and a half. That it at first shows up in Latin, starting with Priscillian in c. 380 (as even the hard evidence provided by Maynard shows), explains why it is not found in the early or even the majority of Greek witnesses. All the historical data point in one of two directions: (1) This reading was a gloss added by Latin patristic writers whose interpretive zeal caused them to insert these words into Holy Writ; or (2) this interpretation was a gloss, written in the margins of some Latin MSS, probably sometime between 250 and 350, that got incorporated into the text by a scribe who was not sure whether it was a comment on scripture or scripture itself (a phenomenon that was not uncommon with scribes).”9
The Comma does not appear in Jerome’s original Latin translation. As F. F. Bruce explains: “This passage is absent from the original Vulgate, but later found its way into the Latin text [in the 9th century] and is present in the Clementine edition.”10 In the Eastern Church (Orthodox/Byzantine) where Greek was still being used, not one manuscript had the Comma. The Spanish Complutensian edition in the sixteenth century included the Comma because it found it in the Vulgate, not because of Greek manuscript evidence.
About 400 existing Greek manuscripts contain the book of I John. Of these manuscripts, only four (manuscript numbers 61, 629, 918, 2318) contain the disputed words of v.7. Four additional manuscripts (88, 12th century; 221, 10th; 429, 16th; 636, 15th) have the disputed words copied in the margin by much later writers, and the disputed words were all but certainly copied from printed editions, and therefore give no independent testimony.
Textual scholar Doug Kutilek explains: “In the fourth century C.E., in a Latin treatise, an overzealous advocate of the newly framed Trinity teaching evidently included the words ‘in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the holy spirit; and these three are one’ as if these were a quotation from 1 John 5:7. Later that passage crept right into a Latin Bible manuscript. It appears in cursive MSS No. 61 (16th century) and No. 629 (in Latin and Greek, 14th to 15th century) and Vgc (Latin Vulgate, Clementine recension). All are very late manuscripts and none gives the Greek text exactly as it appears in printed Greek NTs, and all four manuscripts give clear evidence that these words were back-translated into Greek from Latin. No Greek-speaking Christian writer or document before the year A.D. 1215 shows any knowledge of the disputed words. Not once are these words quoted in the great controversy with the Arians (over the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity) in the 3rd and 4th centuries; this passage certainly would have been quoted if it had existed in any Greek manuscript of that period.”11
In The Interpreter’s Bible which can be found in about any county
library, the following is stated concerning I John 5:7ff: “This verse in the KJV is to be rejected. It appears in no ancient Greek ms nor is it cited by any Greek fathers; of all the versions only the Latin contained it, and even this in none of its most ancient sources. The earliest MSS of the Vulg. do not have it. As C. H. Dodd (Johannine Epistles, p. 127n) reminds us, ‘It is first quoted as a part of I John by Priscillian, the Spanish heretic, who died in 385, and it gradually made its way into MSS of the Latin Vulgate until it was accepted as part of the authorized Latin text.’ The mention in the true text (vs. 8) of the three witnesses which agree naturally led to an interpretation along trinitarian lines, and this occasioned the present gloss which appears in various forms in MSS and quotations from the fifth century onward.”12
Author Robert M. Grant makes this comment about I John 5:7,8:
“To this mysterious but not theologically useful passage, a Spanish Pricillianist in the late fourth century added explicitly trinitarian language so that it would mention three witnesses ‘on earth’ and end thus: ‘And there are three witnesses in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one.’ The addition is suitable in a Johannine context, for it refers to the Logos as John does and is ultimately based on ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30). Unfortunately it is not genuine, since it appears in no old manuscript or versions or in any early [church] fathers.”13
One more witness as to the MSS containing the Comma: “Among the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the NT examined since the time of Erasmus, only three others are known to contain this spurious passage. They are Greg. 88, a 12th century manuscript which has the Comma writen in the margin in a 17th century hand; Tisch. w 110, which is a 16th century manuscript copy of the Complutensian Polyglot Greek text; and Greg. 629. dating from the 14th century or, as Riggenbach has argued, from the latter half of the 16th century.”14
Third, how did they get into the Greek text that ultimately became the Textus Receptus?
Again, Dr. Daniel Wallace, in an online article titled “Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible Is the Best Translation Available Today,” explains:
“The Greek text which stands behind the King James Bible is demonstrably inferior in certain places. The man who edited the text was a Roman Catholic priest and humanist named Erasmus.15 He was under pressure to get it to the press as soon as possible since (a) no edition of the Greek New Testament had yet been published, and (b) he had heard that Cardinal Ximenes and his associates were just about to publish an edition of the Greek New Testament and he was in a race to beat them. Consequently, his edition has been called the most poorly edited volume in all of literature! It is filled with hundreds of typographical errors which even Erasmus would acknowledge. Two places deserve special mention. In the last six verses of Revelation, Erasmus had no Greek manuscript (=MS) (he only used half a dozen, very late MSS for the whole New Testament any way). He was therefore forced to ‘back-translate’ the Latin into Greek and by so doing he created seventeen variants which have never been found in any other Greek MS of Revelation! He merely guessed at what the Greek might have been. Secondly, for 1 John 5:7-8, Erasmus followed the majority of MSS in reading “there are three witnesses in heaven, the Spirit and the water and the blood.” However, there was an uproar in some Roman Catholic circles because his text did not read “there are three witnesses in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” Erasmus said that he did not put that in the text because he found no Greek MSS which had that reading. This implicit challenge—viz., that if he found such a reading in any Greek MS, he would put it in his text—did not go unnoticed. In 1520, a scribe at Oxford named Roy made such a Greek MS (codex 61, now in Dublin). Erasmus’ third edition had the second reading because such a Greek MS was ‘made to order’ to fill the challenge! To date, only a handful of Greek MSS have been discovered which have the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7-8, though none of them is demonstrably earlier than the sixteenth century.
That is a very important point. It illustrates something quite significant with regard to the textual tradition which stands behind the King James. Probably most textual critics today fully embrace the doctrine of the Trinity (and, of course, all evangelical textual critics do). And most would like to see the Trinity explicitly taught in 1 John 5:7-8. But most reject this reading as an invention of some overly zealous scribe. The problem is that the King James Bible is filled with readings which have been created by overly zealous scribes! Very few of the distinctive King James readings are demonstrably ancient. And most textual critics just happen to embrace the reasonable proposition that the most ancient MSS tend to be more reliable since they stand closer to the date of the autographs. I myself would love to see many of the King James readings retained. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) has always been a favorite of mine about the grace of our savior, Jesus Christ. That Jesus is called God in 1 Timothy 3:16 affirms my view of him. Cf. also John 3:13; 1 John 5:7-8, etc. But when the textual evidence shows me both that scribes had a strong tendency to add, rather than subtract, and that most of these additions are found in the more recent MSS, rather than the more ancient, I find it difficult to accept intellectually the very passages which I have always embraced emotionally. In other words, those scholars who seem to be excising many of your favorite passages from the New Testament are not doing so out of spite, but because such passages are not found in the better and more ancient MSS. It must be emphatically stressed, however, that this does not mean that the doctrines contained in those verses have been jeopardized. My belief in the deity of Christ, for example, does not live or die with 1 Timothy 3:16. In fact, it has been repeatedly affirmed that no doctrine of Scripture has been affected by these textual differences. If that is true, then the ‘King James only’ advocates might be crying wolf where none exists, rather than occupying themselves with the more important aspects of advancing the gospel.”16
The “over zealous scribe” Wallace alludes to was a little known Irish monk named Froy who evidently developed one (now known as MS no. 61) with the sole purpose of meeting Erasmus’s requirements. The MS was copied from an early document which did not contain the words. The page in this MS containing the disputed words is on a special paper and has a glossy finish unlike any other page in the MS. On the basis of this one 16th century deliberately falsified manuscript, Erasmus kept his promise and inserted the disputed words in his 3rd , 4th, and 5th editions of the Greek NT, although he protested that he did not believe the words were genuine.17 The most popular understanding is that Erasmus felt that the manuscript was developed just so he would be pressed to include it in his next edition, although this is disputed by some.
In a footnote in his The Holy Bible in the Language of Today, William F. Beck said this about I John 5:7,8: “Luther used the text prepared by Erasmus. But even though the inserted words taught the Trinity, Luther ruled them out and never had them in his translation. In 1550 Bugenhagen objected to these words ‘on account of the truth.’ In 1574 Feyerabend, a printer, added them to Luther’s text, and in 1596 they appeared in the Wittenburg copies.” Adding to the Word is a serious matter, just as deleting inspired words would be.
When Erasmus translated his Greek New Testament, he appealed to the authority of the Vatican to omit the spurious words from I John chapter 5, verses 7 and 8. Erasmus was right, yet as late as 1897 Pope Leo XIII upheld the corrupted Latin text of the Vulgate. This insertion was protected by the Vatican until 1927. Only with the publication of modern Roman Catholic translations has this textual error been acknowledged. Thus, a footnote in The Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation, says that these words are “not in any of the early Greek MSS [manuscripts], or any of the early translations, or in the best MSS of the Vulg[ate] itself.”
However, Erasmus’s Greek text flowed into the stream of textual editions from which ultimately became known as the Textus Receptus. The King James translators leaned heavily on these editions, particularly Beza’s 1598 Greek NT (a virtual reprint of Erasmus’s 4th edition), thereby finding their way into the AV and are still still printed in every edition today.18
The earliest English versions of the NT, the translation of Wycliffe in the late 14th century, included the verse because it was made from the Latin Vulgate, although it reads “son” instead of “word.” Tyndale’s translation of 1525 was based on Erasmus’s third Greek edition that included the words. In Tyndale’s later editions he placed the verse in parenthesis or smaller type to show that they were disputed. The Bibles produced by Miles Coverdale contained a similar indication. Later editions of English Bibles, including the KJV, dropped the parenthesis and smaller type and simply included the words without comment19
Scholar and author James R. White says, “If indeed the Comma was a part of the original writing of the apostle John, 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, a viewpoint that utterly denies the very tenacity that we discussed in chapter 3. Even ‘liberal’ scholars will admit the outstanding purity of the NT text and the validity of the belief in the tenacity of that text.”20
Dr. C. I. Scofield enclosed the verse in brackets in his 1917 Scofield Reference Bible with this footnote: “It is generally agreed that v. 7,8a has no real authority, and has been inserted.” We agree with Dr. Scofield and hundreds of other scholars on this point and conclude, therefore, that the disputed words of I John 5:7b, 8a are not a part of the original text, and that later Greek texts and modern versions which omit them are entirely justified in doing so.
Trinitarians are loathe to turn loose of this passage, although most realize it is an interpolation. It stands with Matthew 28:19 as the premier verses in the New Testament that can be called upon to support that theory. But like the Comma, the doctrine is not conveyed in the original Holy Writ. Even the respected New Encyclopedia Britannica observes: “Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament.”
Give it up!
1. Dr. Daniel Wallace @ http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/08/24/wallace-on-the-comma-johanneum-at-1-john-5-7/
2. In part, the text of the 1897 papal decree reads, “Secretariat of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Concerning the authenticity of the text of I John V. 7. (Wednesday, Jan. 12, 1897). “In a General Congregation of the Holy Roman Inquisition...the following doubtful question was presented: “Whether we may safely deny, or even treat as a matter of doubt, the authenticity of that text (I John V. 7)...All things having been most diligently examined and weighed, and the opinion of the Lords Consultors having been taken, the aforesaid Most Eminent Cardinals gave out ‘the answer is in the negative.’ On Friday the 15th of the aforesaid month and year, in the usual audience granted to reverend father the lord Assessor of the Holy Office, after that he had made an exact report of the aforesaid proceedings to our Most Holy Lord Pope Leo XIII, His Holiness approved and confirmed the resolution of these Most Eminent Fathers.” -Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 29, 1896-7, p. 637.
3. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 228.
4. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), p. 1973.
5. Doug Kutilek, A Simple Outline Regarding I John 5:7, online at www.tegart.com/brian/bible/kjvonly/doug/1john5_7.html., 2001, p. 1.
7. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), p. 1973.
8. Adam Clarke's Commentary Vol. VI, p. 931
10. F. F. Bruce, The English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 204
11. A Review of “A History of the Debate over 1 John 5:7-8 by Michael Maynard” by Doug Kutilek (http://www.kjvonly.org/doug/kutilek_debate_over_john.htm)
12. The Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 293-294
13. Robert M. Grant, Gods and the One God (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1986), p. 151.
14. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament—Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 102,103.
15. Now a humanist in the sixteenth century is not necessarily the same as a humanist today. Erasmus was generally tolerant of other viewpoints, and was particularly interested in the humanities. Although he was a friend of Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man, Luther did not care for him. He was evidently a life-long Catholic.
16. It is significant that Erasmus himself was quite progressive in his thinking, and would hardly be in favor of how the KJV Only advocates have embraced him as their champion. For example, every one of his editions of the Greek NT was a diglot—Latin on one side and Greek on the other. The Latin was his own translation, and was meant to improve upon Jerome’s Latin Vulgate—a translation which the Catholic church had declared to be inspired. For this reason, Cambridge University immediately banned Erasmus’ New Testament, and others followed suit. Elsewhere, Erasmus questioned whether the pericope adulterae (the story of the woman caught in adultery [John 7:53-8:11]), the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20), etc., were authentic.
17. Kutilek, A Simple Outline..., p. 2.
18. Some editions, though not all, do contain a footnote explaining that the verse does not appear in the NU (critical text) manuscripts. Recent editions of the Greek NT follow the manuscript evidence and therefore do not insert the words.
19. Kutilek, A Simple Outline...,p. 1.
20. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), p. 62.