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The Johannine comma

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This is an interesting explanation about 1 John 5:7-8,  The author is Marc A. Schindler.

"Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought,"
an article called "The Johannine Comma: Bad Translation, Bad Theology"
(Dialogue, vol. 29 no 3, Fall 1996: 157-164)

Doesn't I John 5:7-8 clearly refer to the Trinity?

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.

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

The portion of I John 5:7-8 highlighted in bold has long given Biblical scholars pause for thought. This "fragment" has been scrutinzed so thoroughly that it has a special name: the Johannine Comma, a comma in this sense being a portion of a sentence or phrase, with the implication being of something that has been inserted.

The Johannine Comma is a scripture which is used by some Christians, especially those of the evangelical or conservative persuasions, as proof of the doctrine of Trinity. "The Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." What could be more straightforward an indication that the godhead is one, just like the Nicene Creed says? However, translations newer than the Authorised Version (the King James Version, the official Bible of the LDS Church in English) omit the Comma, almost without exception.

For instance, the NAB excludes the Johannine Comma:

I John 5:7-8 (NAB)

So there are three that testify,

the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.

(Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, The New American Bible, [World Bible Publishers, Iowa Falls, 1991]: 1363).

The Greek New Testament, the original New Testament (as compiled by modern scholars from the extant manuscripts) also omits the Comma:

"hoti treis eisin hoi martyrountes, to pneuma kai to hydór kai to haima, kai hoi treis eis to hen eisin."

[literal translation] "Then three (there are) which witness,

"the spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are the of one.")

(Aland, Kurt; et. al.; editors, The Greek New Testament [Stuttgart, Württemberg Bible Society, 1968]: 824)

How did the Johannine Comma make it into the AV in the first place, and why have other, subsequent translations excised it? And, finally, should the fact that our official English Bible, the AV, still contains the Johannine Comma be cause for concern?

First of all, there are stylistic reasons for doubting the authenticity of the Johannine Comma. References to the Holy Spirit and the Word personified are not found anywhere else in the writings of John, neither in the epistles, nor in the Gospel. The closest reference to the Word is in the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-5), where the Word was with "God", and "was God"—there is no conjoining of the Word with the Father specifically phrased that way. In other words, it's clear that the Word was Jesus Christ, or God the Son, but the word used in John 1:1 for God the Father is the non-specific "God", not "the Father." There was no need to be specific since the controversy of the trinity had not yet arisen. The fact that the Johannine Comma does explicitly refer to the Father conjoined with the Word would not be necessary if it had been written in the First Century AD.

Likewise the Comma's doctrine of the Spirit bearing witness both in heaven and on earth sounds suspiciously like a neo-hellenistic concept which seems to represent the Holy Ghost as a member of a ruling troika, much like the leadership of the Roman Empire was a duality during the later days of early Christianity (post 3rd century)—this heaven and earth duality is a concept for which there was no need in the first century, so one has to question its place in a document which purports to be a first century writing. It is, put simply, an anachronism, like finding a Porsche in Camelot.

There are other passage in the New Testament which mention three divinities (e.g. Matthew 28:19), but even that scripture does not claim they are one; only the Comma has the sophistication of 4th-century trinitarianism.

Even conservative Protestant scholars are acquainted with the sordid history of the Comma. The Canadian conservative scholar Norman Geisler, after relating briefly the story of how the Comma made it into the AV in the first place, criticizes the Comma, writing that "…the acceptance of this verse as genuine breaks almost every major canon of textual criticism." (Geisler, Norman L.; Nix, William E. A General Introduction to the Bible, [Chicago, Moody Press, 1968]: 370).

How did the Johannine Comma make it into the King James Version (AV) in the first place? It is often assumed that the AV is a translation from the original Greek and Hebrew texts, but in fact it is actually a version. The AV was first published in 1611to solve a political problem. The Hampton Court Conference, which was convened in 1604 soon after the Protestant James I succeeded Elizabeth I, dealt with political pressure from Puritans for a modern translation that was not a Catholic Bible by commissioning the AV "translation" which was in fact based on previous versions and translations, including the Bishop's Bible, the Great Bible, and the versions of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale. Tyndale's New Testament, the final version of which came out in 1525, was based on Luther's German Bible with some "improvements" from the Greek text. The only direct, pure translations of the English Bible until modern times were translated from the Latin Vulgate—not only Catholic Bibles, but even the first complete English Bible, Wycliffe's Bible of 1382.

Tyndale knew at least some Greek, and he was the first English translator to refer to Greek texts. The apparatus of manuscripts he used was one which had just been published in 1516 by that amazing Renaissance man, Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus had basically five more-or-less complete manuscripts at his disposal to create this first Greek Textus Receptus. Perhaps because of a combination of his haste to publish and the pressure he was subjected to from certain sources, Erasmus fell into a trap concerning the Comma. As Geisler relates,

"There is virtually no textual support for the Authorized Version reading [of the Comma] in any Greek manuscript, although there is ample support in the Vulgate. Therefore, when Erasmus was challenged as to why he did not include the reading in his Greek text edition of 1516 and 1519, he hastily replied that if anyone could produce even one Greek manuscript with the reading, he would include it in his next edition. One sixteenth century Greek minuscule (the 1520 manuscript of the Franciscan friar Froy, or Roy) was found, and Erasmus complied with his promise in his 1522 edition [third edition]. The King James Version followed Erasmus' Greek text, and on the basis of a single testimony from an insignificant and late manuscript all of the weight and authority of some 5,000 Greek manuscripts were disregarded in favor of this text. " (Geisler, Norman L.; Nix, William E. A General Introduction to the Bible, [Chicago, Moody Press, 1968]: 370).

Although Geisler overstates the number of Greek mss. which Erasmus would have had access to, the point is that all the Greek textual evidence—as opposed to Latin textual evidence—points to the Comma being much later than the rest of the Epistle and therefore its inclusion is spurious. However, because he did end up including it in the Textus Receptus, it ended up eventually in the King James Bible we use today.

If the Johannine Comma is spurious in the sense of being anachronistic with respect to the Epistle of John, where did it in fact come from? The key to understanding its origin lies with the history of the Latin Vulgate in mediaeval Spain. Even in the Vulgate (not to mention the Old Latin version upon which Jerome based his Vulgate) the Comma does not appear until the seventh century, and even there it appears only in mss. of Spanish provenance. We know that the primary critic of Erasmus's omission of the Comma in his first two editions was D. Lopez de Zuñiga, the editor of Cardinal Ximénes's Complutensian Polyglot Bible which was roughly contemporary with Erasmus's first edition. An Englishman named E. Lee also criticized Erasmus in 1520 for omitting the Comma, and it was to Lee that Erasmus made his famous response that if but one Greek ms. could be found with the Comma, he would include it in his next edition. The Codex Montefortianus was promptly offered up by one Friar Roy (or Froy), and although Erasmus and many others felt it was a deliberate forgery, Erasmus felt honour-bound to include it. Tyndale was one of those who suspected the provenance of Montefortianus as well, so in his English translation he put the Comma in brackets to indicate his doubt as to its authenticity. However, Erasmus's reputation as a scholar was so great that future scholars, not knowing the circumstances surrounding the inclusion of the Comma, assumed it was genuine, and thus it ended up more or less permanently in the Textus Receptus until modern days when the Nestlé Greek New Testament (and its current incarnation, the Aland-Black Greek New Testament) finally got around to correcting a centuries-old error.

The first known mention of the Comma was from the Latin Church Father Priscillian, who mentions it in his Liber apologeticus 1.4, written in the mid-4th century, but there's no proof he originated the Comma. Its next mention is in tractates defending what came to be the orthodox doctrine of the trinity in the century following Priscillian, but this was during a period when it was by no means clear that the "Catholic" (non-Arian) doctrine would eventually prevail. The Comma is referred to in a confession of faith by North African bishops in 484 AD (recorded in Victor of Vita's Historia persecutionis Africanae Provinciae 2.82) at Carthage. Less than a half-century later, another North African bishop, Fulgentius (bishop of Ruspe, d. 527 AD) refers to it in two tracts: Responsio contra Arianos and De Trinitate. These were written as an apology of what became orthodox Catholic belief, but were attacks on Arianism, a version of Christianity professed by, among others, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe who had crossed the Pyrenees, conquered Spain, and crossed into North Africa.

There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But the three are there, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a triadic ground plan is there, and triadic formulas are there. . . . The Biblical witness to God, as we have seen, did not contain any formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, any explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. (Fortman, pp. 22-23, as cited by Robinson, p. 74) In the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, p. 299, R. L. Richard writes that "the formulation 'one God in three persons' was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. . . . Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective" (as cited by Robinson, p. 121).

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 10:40  

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