The Comma Johanneum

The Comma Johanneum is the technical name for a short clause appearing in some translations’ rendering of 1 John 5:7-8. The text of the comma appears below in bold.

5:7 “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
5:8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (KJV).

Aside from one relatively obscure modern version (Revised Webster Update, 1995) and the NKJV, no modern English Bible includes this passage. KJV-only advocates frequently cite this fact as conclusive proof that modern Bibles are removing the Trinity from the Bible and should be rejected on the grounds of Revelation 22:18-19. A quick check of my Greek NT shows that the passage to be absent in the Greek, but most KJV-only advocates would reject my Greek Bible (UBS4) as unreliable. The whole controversy sounded like a good excuse for me to visit my favorite library in the whole world.

The University of Michigan Library houses nearly 10 million books. The special collections division contains P46 (one of the oldest Greek Bibles in existence), a first edition of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, a 1611 KJV, as well as thousands of other priceless books. After a short registration process, the librarian will hand you a copy of anything you want.

So does the Comma Johanneum belong in the Bible? Since the KJV is translated from Erasmus’ Textus Receptus. Let’s look at Erasmus’ original 1516 Novum Instrumentu[m] Omne (the famous title Textus Receptus, “received text,” was first used in the publisher’s preface to Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir’s 1633 edition). Below is 1 John 5:6-9.

Notice that the Comma Johanneum is missing. Reading help: 1 John 5:6 begins on the first line with “οὗτός.” 1 John 5:7 begins on the fifth line and reads, “ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες” (“for there are three that testify”). If the comma were included, the text would continue: “εν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ πατήρ, ὁ λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἕν εἰσιν καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἕν τῇ γῇ.” It doesn’t.

Can’t make it over to Ann Arbor to check this out? No problem. You can download a free scanned PDF of Erasmus’ second edition (1519) from the Princeton Theol. Seminary Library at the internet archive. It likewise lacks the comma. Below is 1 John 5:6-9.

Reading help: 1 John 5:6 begins with the second word. 1 John 5:7 begins on the fifth line, same reading as before. 1 John 5:8 begins on the seventh line. The comma is absent.

Note that Erasmus doesn’t include verse divisions because they hadn’t been invented yet. Numbered verse divisions were first introduced in 1551 by Robert Estienne (aka Stephanus) in the fourth edition of his revision of Erasmus’ Greek text.

Erasmus’ Greek text supports the reading found nearly every modern English Bible. So where did the KJV translators get their spurious reading? The Catholic church did not like the fact that Erasmus’ version was calling attention to an error in the Latin Vulgate. Jerome believed that Latin copyists had intentionally added the Comma Johanneum to the Vulgate in order to refute Arian heretics and support Trinitarian doctrine. However, the passage more likely entered the Vulgate through a copying error in which a marginal note was mistaken for part of the text. Regardless of how the text found its way into the Vulgate, the Catholic church began pressuring Erasmus to include the reading in his Greek text. Under pressure from Rome, Erasmus included the passage in both Latin and Greek when he released his third edition in 1522. This inclusion remained in subsequent editions, including Theodore Beza’s 1598 edition, which was the primary source used by the KJV translators.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to a third edition of Erasmus’ Greek text. However, the University of Michigan did have a Latin Bible translated by Erasmus and dated 1522, the same year his third edition was released. I initially thought that this small octavo might be a copy of his paraphrased epistles, which was first released in octavo size in 1522 as well. However, the title clearly states, Novum Testamentum Omne, ex tertia recognitione (“The Entire New Testament from the third revision”). Erasmus’ entire NT paraphrase was not published until 1523 and that octavo-sized edition comprised two volumes. Furthermore, Erasmus’ Paraphrases were titled as such and would include “paraphrasim” in the title. Additionally, I did find evidence of an octavo-sized reprint of the Latin text from Erasmus’ third edition in 1522 (minus his annotations). Reprint editions usually do not attract scholarly attention. However, since the decorative border on the title page was done by Holbein, I was able to find one reference to this edition (Jeanne Nuechterlein, Translating Nature into Art [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011], 167). Thus I was able to check Erasmus’ third edition after all.

Here is 1 John 5:6b-9 in Erasmus’ third edition (1522). The copy in the University of Michigan Library does not include Erasmus’ Greek text. However, the Comma Johanneum clearly appears in the Latin.

Some might think it strange to find a copy of Erasmus’ Textus Receptus printed in Latin without any Greek. However, Erasmus’ goal was not to create the first published Greek NT, but rather he sought to create a fresh translation of the New Testament in Latin. The Greek was included for the sole purpose of supporting the accuracy of his Latin translation.

This purpose is stated on the title page to Erasmus’ first edition. My Latin isn’t the best, but it says to the effect, “The New Testament (Instrumentum), carefully revised and corrected by Erasmus of Rotterdam, verified not only by the actual Greek but also by each of the many language books and amended to their old faith, and finally approved by the citation of authors, as to the improvement of the translation, especially by Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact of Ohrid (Vulgarij), Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, Hilary, St. Augustine, together with the Annotations which teach the reader the reason for the changes. Therefore, let the true lover of theology and law become engaged, and then judge. Be neither immediately offended nor offend the faith over what has changed, but weigh whether it be changed for the better.”

Erasmus was writing a new Latin translation to surpass the Vulgate. The Greek text was only added to increase his translation’s credibility. As you can see to the right, Erasmus’ Latin translation was printed in the column opposite of the Greek. Erasmus hoped that readers would be convinced that his translation was superior to the Vulgate after they compared his translation with the Greek text and read his Annotations at the end. Unfortunately, the Catholic church judged Erasmus by his conformity to the Vulgate rather than to the Greek. There is no winning an argument with people who set a translation as the ultimate standard of correctness. Any significant deviation–regardless of warrant–is wrong.

Therefore, the Comma Johanneum was wrongly inserted into the Greek text of Erasmus’ third edition and does not belong in our Bibles today. Unfortunately, the KJV translators used a corrupt text in this instance and added a phrase that ought to have been omitted. Should we turn Revelation 22:18-19 back on KJV-only advocates and condemn the KJV for adding to the Word of God? No, this whole line of reasoning is utter nonsense. Every translation makes mistakes. In the 1611 preface, the KJV translators themselves admitted their human fallibility. The KJV is still a good translation. Just cross out twenty-four words.

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