What is the Correct Wording In 1 John 5:7-8?


I’ve spent the past seven months writing about New Testament textual criticism, showing how ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts have errors in them. In spite of the errors (most of them spelling mistakes), the Bible still presents a consistent message.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the last name in Matthew 1:7-8. The person referred to was, Asa, a King of Judah. The oldest existing Greek New Testament manuscripts record the name as Asaph, but later manuscripts use Asa. The common explanation is that Asaph is an otherwise unknown Greek spelling of the Hebrew name Asa.1 This difference between manuscripts seems fairly minor, since there’s no question about whom this verse is referring to.

A more difficult textual variation is in 1 John 5:7-8:

King James Version (1611)

7For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. (1 John 7-8 KJV)

English Standard Version (2001)

7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7-8 ESV)

You probably noticed the ESV is shorter than the KJV. The difference in wording is:

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 long wording in these two versions is called the Comma Johanneum (Latin; English: John’s phrase), and it is the only place in the Bible that explicitly refers to the three persons of the Trinity. BibleStudyTools.com can compare 30 English versions of 1 John 5:7, and 9 versions have the longer reading2, although several versions offer footnotes in printed Bibles with the long reading.

There are about 500 Greek New Testament manuscripts with 1 John 5:7-8, but only five of those manuscripts have the long version of the verse in the original text3.

You may have noticed that two of these three were written after 1611, when the King James Version was published, and the oldest one contains both the Latin and Greek manuscript, suspected to have been translated from Latin into Greek. There are an additional 11 Greek manuscripts with the long wording4, but it was added in the margin by someone other than the original scribe.

The passage isn’t in the early Greek editions, nor is it in the early translations of the New Testament, such as Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic or Latin. The earliest known reference to the long wording is by the church father Cyprian (died A.D. 258), who wrote the following in an argument against heresies:

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.”5

The first quote used by Cyprian is from John 10:30 (ESV), and the second is 1 John 5:8 (ESV). Note that Cyprian didn’t include these in the text of the New Testament, but in an argument against heresies. Why is the Comma Johanneum in the Bible if there’s such strong evidence it isn’t original?

The earliest instance of the passage being quoted as a part of the actual text of the Epistle is in a fourth century Latin treatise entitled Liber Apologeticus (chap. 4), attributed either to the Spanish heretic Priscillian (died about 385) or to his follower Bishop Instantius. Apparently the gloss [marginal note] arose when the original passage was understood to symbolize the Trinity (through the mention of three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood), an interpretation that may have been written first as a marginal note that afterwards found its way into the text. In the fifth century the gloss was quoted by Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy as part of the text of the Epistle, and from the sixth century onwards it is found more and more frequently in manuscripts of the Old Latin and of the Vulgate. In these various witnesses the wording of the passage differs in several particulars.6

The wording seems to have stabilized around A.D. 800, and it was included in most later copies of the Latin Vulgate. Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church, so Bibles used by the church after the 9th century included it. For over a thousand years, this text was found in the Latin translations of the Bible, not the Greek versions, and there was much debate over the long wording. It wasn’t until the release of the Clementine edition of the Vulgate in 1592 that it was standardized in most Bibles. In 1597, Pope Leo XIII sanctioned the inclusion of the Comma Johanneum as authentic in 1 John.

The Greek scholar Erasmus was the first to publish the Greek New Testament (alongside the Latin Vulgate) on the newly-invented movable type printing press7, in 15168. The first edition of his Greek New Testament didn’t have Comma Johanneum, and Erasmus received much criticism for removing it, but he stated he would have included it if it was found in even one Greek New Testament. Erasmus didn’t include it in the second edition in 1519, either, then manuscript miniscule 61 was presented to him with the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus did include the Comma Johanneum in the third edition in 1522, and it remained in his fourth (1527) and fifth (1535) editions.

The first English Bible printed on a printing press was the Tyndale New Testament, in 1526. William Tyndale used the 1522 edition of Erasmus’ New Testament9 as a primary source, which included the Comma Johanneum. A chain can be followed from Tyndale’s New Testament to Matthew Bible in 1537, the Great Bible in 1539 and the Bishops’ Bible in 1568. In 1604, King James approved a new Translation of the Bible (the King James Version was first published in 1611), and gave the translators instruction on how to proceed. Instructions 1 and 14 are:

  1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.10
  2. These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishops Bible [1568]: Tyndale’s [1526], Matthew’s [1537], Coverdale’s [1535], Whitchurch’s [1539; a.k.a. Great Bible], Geneva [1560].11

Although the evidence is strongly against there being a reference to the Trinity in the original text of 1 John 5:7-8, the Comma Johanneum has persisted in some English translations. Many of the versions it exists in are descents of the King James Version, and ultimately the Latin Vulgate. Bible translations that are based on modern critical editions of the New Testament usually don’t include the extra phrase.

The theology of the Trinity doesn’t rest on this verse. Removing this text doesn’t change any Christian doctrine.

Resources

  1. How do English Versions of the Bible Identify the Variant Reading in Matthew 1:7-8?
  2. Hebrew Names Version, King James Version, New King James Version, Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, Third Millennium Bible, Tyndale, Webster Bible, Wycliffe, Young’s Literal Translation
  3. Johannine Comma (Wikipedia) Accessed 21-Nov-2020.
  4. Johannine Comma (Wikipedia) Accessed 21-Nov-2020.
  5. Cyprian. Treatise I, Section 6. (CCEL.org) Accessed 21-Nov-2020.
  6. Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, third edition (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies, 1975) Page 716.
  7. What is the Gutenberg Bible?
  8. The Complutensian Polyglot New Testament was completed in 1514, but wasn’t sanctioned by Pope Leo X until 1520, and not released until 1522.
  9. Novum Instrumentum omne
  10. Instructions to the Translators (King James, 1604) (The King’s Bible)
  11. Instructions to the Translators (King James, 1604) (The King’s Bible)

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