What to do with the Johannine Comma?

In the course of preaching through John’s first epistle, I arrived at the well-known addition or deletion (depending on one’s perspective) of the so-called “Johannine Comma.”  While I only presented my conclusion during the sermon, I included an insert in our bulletin to provide some background and support for my conclusion.  Here’s a PDF of what I provided our congregation or you can keep reading . . .

The “Johannine Comma” in 1 John 5:7b-8a

 

ESV

KJV

NKJV

verse 7

For there are three that testify:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.

verse 8

the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

Is the “Johannine Comma” Part of John’s Original Letter?

There is a clause that is included in 1 John 5:7b-8a sourced in two Greek text families, the “Received Text” also known by its Latin name, “Textus Receptus” (the textual basis for the King James Version [KJV] and the New King James Version [NKJV] translation) and the “Majority Text.”  This Trinitarian addition is known as the “Johannine Comma” (the word “comma” is not a reference to the punctuation mark; it comes from a Greek word komma [komma] which means “section” or “clause.”).  It reads: “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth.”  Consequently, this longer reading is included in the KJV and NKJV.  Incidentally, this additional reading is also included in the Spanish Reina-Valera translation, which follows the Textus Receptus for the New Testament.

 

I was a zealous advocate of the KJV and its supporting Greek texts through my college years and did not look favorably upon anyone who sought to modify the text of the KJV.  I actually looked in a Bible I used through college.  I inscribed the word “Heresy!” over a comment in the study Bible that rejected the Johannine Comma as authentic.  My approach to handling these questions has progressed since then.  The general consensus of NT scholars is that this clause was originally a comment in the margin of a Latin text that made its way into a handful of Greek manuscripts, eight in all according the United Bible Society Greek New Testament4.  This means that while it is present in eight manuscripts, it is absent in thousands of others—a majority reading it is not!  Those who advocate the inclusion of this reading today are, like the number of manuscripts that support it, a decided minority.

 

The account of its insertion into the KJV and NKJV begins with Erasmus’s Greek New Testament (first published in 1516).  Erasmus (1466-1536) compiled the Greek Text which would later become known as the Received Text, or Textus Receptus.  He did not include the Johannine Comma in his first two editions.  Erasmus asserted that there was simply no Greek manuscript to support the reading and if only one could be produced, he would include it.  To Erasmus’s amazement, someone conveniently handed him a manuscript which contained the clause, produced in 1520!  Erasmus kept his word and included it in his third edition (published in 1522) but also added a footnote questioning the validity of the text. 

Editorial note for the blog post:  For an interesting alterative viewpoint on Erasmus’s promise, see HJ de Jonge, “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 56 (1980): 381–389.  

 

Since the Johannine Comma seems to have been introduced in Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, it was also included in the later versions of the Latin Vulgate, the chief version of the Catholic Church first produced in 404 AD.  It could also be found in other Catholic translations such as the Catholic Version of the RSV and the Jerusalem Bible up until the 1960’s.  These versions removed the Johannine Comma in the 1960’s stating that the overwhelming consensus of scholarship did not regard it as original. 

 

One final consideration from a historical standpoint.  Church history chronicles many theological controversies.  There were early controversies, around the 4th and 5th centuries AD, which surrounded the Trinity.  Undoubtedly, those who contended for the orthodox position on the Trinity would have cited this passage, but it is not found in the creeds which grew out of these councils (though it should be noted that several Latin Fathers did cite it).  “The passage is quoted by none of the Greek Fathers, who, had they known it, would most certainly have employed it in the Trinitarian controversies (Sabellian and Arian)” (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 648).  This strongly suggests that it was a late addition in the Greek copies, rather than an original reading. 

 

Conclusion

The Johannine Comma is a late addition to the text of 1 John 5:7-8.  The overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts and accordingly English translations do not contain this reading.  The texts and translations that omit the Johannine Comma very likely represent what John originally wrote. 

 

Textual variants like this one are encountered in the process that seeks to determine what the original authors actually wrote.  However, they do not undermine the integrity of the translation we possess as the Word of God.  Instead the opposite is true.  There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts that contain various portions of the New Testament, we hold in our hands the best-attested and well-preserved book in history; no other ancient or modern book even comes close.  We can confidently say that we possess God’s word! 

 

Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Impacted?

So what?  How does this impact the doctrine of the Trinity?  I was researching the doctrinal statement of a church this week which read:  We accept versions such as the King James, and the American Standard as being reliable and trustworthy. We reject the modern versions, paraphrases and interpretations such as Today’s English Bible, Revised Standard Version, Living Bible, Good News for Modern Man, and all comparable writings as being not authoritative, in that they contain doctrinal error.”  Some might suggest that versions, like the ESV, which omit the Johannine Comma, contain doctrinal error by leaving out its reference to the Trinity.  To that I would respond that the doctrine of the Trinity is well established with or without this clause.  Passages such as Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 as well as others provide compelling evidence for the Trinity.  As with so many alternate readings, not one key doctrine of Christian theology is affected, not one, including the Trinity.

 

Sources

·         F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, pp. 129-30.

·         I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, pp. 236-7, n. 19.

·         Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 647-9.

·         ________, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 101-3.

·         Stephen Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 273.

·         John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, pp. 182-3.

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14 thoughts on “What to do with the Johannine Comma?

  1. Well argued, though you should know that there are 400-500 about Greek manuscripts that include 1 John, so its slightly less than thousands that lack the Comma, but even still a very large – and overwhelming – number.

  2. Thanks Mike for raising your clarifying point. It is stated more accurately this way, while still not missing the thrust of the Comma’s overwhelming lack of manuscript evidence. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks Jim. I have some doubts myself about the authenticity of Mark’s long ending. Do you have three or four reasons to list out for its inclusion? I’m curious to hear them.

  4. A more important but related question is whether Jesus could possibly have been a Trinitarian, since, Jesus affirmed the unitarian creed of Israel, agreeing with a Jewish expert (Mark 12:29). Why are Christians not following the the creedo of Christ?

  5. Hi Anthony,

    Concerning your question on whether or not Jesus was a trinitarian in light of His affrimation of the Shema, it should be noted that Jesus inferred His deity (affirming His equality of essense with the Father, i.e. “Lord”) in the verses that immediatelly follow in Mark 12:35-37. This understanding is corroborated in Hebrews 1:13. So the Shema and trinitarian doctrine are not mutually exclusive.

    Admittedly, trinitarian doctrine is difficult to understand, but it is clearly taught (cf. Matthews 28:19–which affirms the reality of the tri-unity in Christ’s mind; and 2 Corinthians 13:14), which is why Christians affirm it, consistent with the teaching of Christ.

    What truth was Jesus setting forth in Matthew 28:19 if not the triune Godhead?

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  6. Are you familiar with Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew? If not, it is a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. In the above posts from last fall I noticed discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity and that it is difficult to understand. Amen.

    Matthew 28:19 in the Hebrew Matthew reads as follows: “Go”. If the Johannine Comma was added by some well intentioned copyist, could another well intentioned copyist have added the rest of Matthew 28:19 that is not in the Hebrew text?

    Personally, I believe that Jesus is the Son of Elohim and that he is divine and was given all authority from his Father in heaven and on earth. Jesus’ Father is YHWH and Jesus today sits on the right hand (figuratively of course) of YHWH. The Holy Spirit is like a “slice” of YHWH, in that YHWH dwells outside of time and space and He has given us His Spirit in time and space, and the Holy Spirit is not a person, as the trinitarian doctrine may teach. YHWH is Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not a separate Spirit that is also a third part of the Godhead.

    I do not believe that II Corinthians 13:14 was a latter addition by a copyist as the other two instances may have been, and does not need to support a doctrine of the Trinity as the others obviously do, but can be supported as I have come to understand YHWH and His Son.

  7. Gary, a Hebrew Matthew autograph is definitely far from being a majority view – almost to the point of be a nonquestion.

    Even if Matthew wasn’t written in Greek then it was more likely written in Aramaic than Hebrew.

    But let’s assume your view for the sake of argument:

    If the Johannine Comma was added by some well intentioned copyist, could another well intentioned copyist have added the rest of Matthew 28:19 that is not in the Hebrew text?

    Yes, that could have happened, but did it? There’s very, very little evidence. The major difference is that the Johannine Comma wasn’t added until after at least the 10th Century AD and there are hundreds of manuscripts that lack it.

    In contrast, there is no manuscript support for your proposed deletion of the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28. And if we assume Hebrew Matthew (though I wouldn’t), we still have no reason to believe that Shem Tov’s version is the original either – something that shemtov.org makes very clear.

    I would suggest that you’re trying to fit the evidence to your theological rather than allowing your theology to flow from the evidence.

  8. Gary,

    Mike answered the Shem Tov issue quite capably. The premise on which your argument was set forth has been proved to be shaky at best, indefensible at worst. I think Mike’s assessment is right. You’ve started with a theological pesupposition and now you are groping for textual support.

  9. https://islamicarchives.wordpress.com/2017/06/25/do-any-of-the-textual-variants-affect-christian-doctrine/
    Taken from Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted”:

    In response to the assertion, made by conservative evangelicals, that not a single important Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variant, I point out:

    a. It simply isn’t true that important doctrines are not involved. As a key example: the only place in the entire New Testament where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly taught is in a passage that made it into the King James translation (1 John 5:7–8) but is not found in the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. I would suggest that the Trinity is a rather important Christian doctrine. A typical response to this rebuttal is that the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in Scripture without appealing to 1 John 5:7–8. My reply is that this is true of every single Christian doctrine. In my experience, theologians do not hold to a doctrine because it is found in just one verse; you can take away just about any verse and still find just about any Christian doctrine somewhere else if you look hard enough.

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