Comma Johanneum – A Critical Textual Evaluation of 1 John 5:7-8


by Satya Maharjan

1 John 5:5-12

5:7 For three are the ones testifying in the heavens: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit and these three are one.

5:8 And three are the ones testifying in {the} earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and {the} three 2in 3the 4one 1are.

Only the Textus Receptus contains namely the “Trinitarian Statement” [letters in bold in the verses 7 and 8]concerning “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost (5:7),” and “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood” (5:8). This infamous interpolation is known as Comma Johanneum or Johannine Comma. The word Comma derived from Greek work Komma, meaning a single clause or phrase with comma in Ancient Greek rhetoric.[1] It gives sense of series of additional words being inserted within the sentence. The infamous Comma was first introduced in the 16th century by humanist Desiderius Erasmus in his 3rd and later editions of the Greek New Testament Bible. The King James translation embraces the Comma subsequently claiming that they are also inspired Word of God.[2] However, internal and external evidence point to other way.

The external evidence suggests that the Textus Receptus reading of 5:7-8 is a forgery. Erasmus did add “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth” (1 John 5:7-8, King James Version). In his first publication of Greek New Testament in 1516 and second edition in 1519, Comma did not appear, since he did not find them in the sources he had in hand. However, he restored it in the third edition in 1922 after he supposedly promised to add Comma if someone could show him the manuscript that had Comma.[3] Still, he implied his suspicion on the text in his lengthy footnotes in his later editions that the manuscript was produced in order to invalidate his work.

Noted New Testament scholars Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman also write that only eight Greek manuscripts among thousands of manuscripts have Comma:

Among the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament examined since the time of Erasmus, only eight are known to contain this passage. In four of the eight, the Comma appears in the text; in the other four, it is a marginal addition serving as an alternative or variant reading.[4]

Furthermore, Metzger testifies that the Comma appears in the Latin Vulgate no later than 800 A.D. The inclusion of the passage in the Clementine edition of the Latin Vulgate in 1592 and only after a high ecclesiastical Holy Office of Rome made an authoritative pronouncement with approval and confirmation from the Pope Leo XIII in 1897 made its presence continually till this day.[5] Therefore, it is safe to say, in light of the Trinitarian Controversy (Sabellian and Arian) that no church fathers ever quoted in the council and their works, nor any ancient manuscripts of all versions (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Arabian) contained it[6] that the passage is a later added text in the First Epistle of John.

However, apart from the King James Version all other versions of the Bible have either completely omitted the phrase or put it in the bracket and explained about it to the readers in the footnotes.  The KJV retains the Comma, since they believe that the Latin to be inspired equally as Greek from God. Thus, the KJV claims that it is the best or “only holy” Bible and rejects the Evangelical understanding of Comma Johanneum.

Does the omission of the Comma affect the cardinal doctrine of Trinity?

Absolutely not. The excessively zealous Bible believers use the 1 John 5:7-8 explicitly to claim the three Godhead of the Trinity, but the textual evidences says other way. When we leave off the phrases in the bold letters in the verses 7 and 8, yet the doctrine of the Trinity is not affected as there are many Scriptural references for the doctrine of the Trinity in the Synoptic Gospels as well as in the Epistles. The theophanies in Old Testament are also interpreted as the references to the Trinity.

Defense of the Pericope (1 John 5:5-12)

δε as a paragraph marker in 5:5

The beginning verse 5:5 can be treated as new paragraph, since δε [de] is clearly functioning as a paragraph marker which echoes previous verses. The verse is the interrogative summation of previous unit (see verses 1–4). Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece also breaks paragraph after verse 4 and begins a new paragraph.[7] However, they also mark out δε [de] as a variant because of some manuscripts omit it.

γενναω (gennaw), and μαρτυρεω (marturew) as paradigm shift in subject matter:

The great schema in 5:1-4 contains the various forms of γενναω (gennaw), conveying the idea of being born of God. The comprehensive extension of being born of God also covers subject matter of discerning the truth, loving God, and keeping his commandments. Here, we see man’s “doing” part as a recipient to God’s passive action.

However, it changes in 5:5b-12 by affirming incarnational Christology very strongly. Now, the greater scheme of the passage focuses on the authenticity of the μαρτυρεω that one ought to receive. Gary M. Burge writes, “Of the seventeen uses of the word group for “testify/testimony” in John’s letters, ten of them appear in these few verses.”[8] The repeating uses of μαρτυρεω imply the contention of John’s theological concern. We see God’s active action as testifying himself to us. We are the recipient of his action. For these two units (verses 5:1-4, and 5-12) are different but correlated subject matters. Thus, it is distinctly possible to treat 5:5-12 as a single unit in the letter body.

Outlines of the Passage

  1. The testimony of the Water and Blood (5:5 – 6b)

Not only by the water but by the water and the blood

Emphatic sentence structure

  1. The testimony of the Spirit (5:6c –8)

The Spirit is the truth

Credence of the Spirit in the testimony

  1. The testimony of the Father (5:9 – 12)

Father himself testifies concerning his Son

The eternal life comes from the Son

Whoever has the Son has life

The outlines are based on the grammatical issues of the text as well as literary issue. Without applying Greek conditional term to make a conditional point, John makes a clear logical implication in 12a and 12b.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Authorship:

Apostle John, son of Zebedee[9] is believed to be the author of the Epistle that bears his name. Christian tradition attributed this Epistle to the apostle despite the fact that the Epistle does not identify author’s name, except the second and the third epistles merely introduce author as “the elder”.[10] “The elder” could mean any man of high reputation in society. But it is also undeniable that the apostles were also referred to “elders” in the ancient biblical times.[11] Nevertheless, attributing the letters to John is still diffident job, as Eusebius (Church History, 3.39.3) provides a reference to two “John,” one to be the apostle and other possibly an elder who lived later.[12] But the external and internal evidences direct us to the Apostle himself.

Early church fathers had known John as the author of the Epistles. Polycarp, Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian and Irenaeus were the ones who ascribed these letters to John. They quoted John in their works. Editor duo H.D.M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell affirms:

The First Epistle was known to St. Polycarp, the disciple of St. John and is quoted as his by St. Irenaeus, the pupil of the St. Polycarp. Papias, the contemporary of Polycarp, made use of it. It is repeatedly quoted as St. John’s by Clement of Alexandria, and still more frequently by Tertullian, who seems to have been especially fond of the Epistle. So that the century immediately following St. John’s death is well filled with witnesses. Origin and his pupil, Dionysius of Alexandria, St. Cyprian, and in short all the Fathers, Greek and Latin, accept the Epistle as St. John’s.[13]

The external evidence is convincing enough to establish the Apostle John as the author of these letters.

Regarding internal evidence, the Gospel of John and the first Epistle of John have so much in common. They share similar characteristics such as vocabulary, sentence structure, concepts (light and darkness, life and death etc.), and expression.[14] Parallel in writing style, vocabularies, contents etc. and external references as evidences confirm that the Apostle John is the author of the letters.

Origination and Destination of the Epistle, and Reason:

Unlike major Pauline Epistles, First John does not strictly follow any letter structure whatsoever. It avoids “introductory address, greeting, or salutations from the author”.[15] So, it begins with prologue. However, the internal references, such as “my children,” point out to the Apostle John’s closed familiarity with his audience. Spence and Exell also argue that the lovesome address “little children” implies primarily “those whom the apostle shepherded while still on earth”.[16]This remark is clearly convincing, since the Apostle has not penned any inscriptions in the Epistle.

The traditional view recognizes the origination of Johannine work is from Asia Minor. Lack of special superscription of specific person or churches also support the view that the First John might have been circulated in Christian churches in Asia Minor. Moreover, the purpose of writing is evidently reflected in 1 John, as “the heresies addressed in the letters were well established in this area.”[17] Gnostic teaching was ducking the churches from the same area. Gnosticism, Docetism, and Cerinthianism were certainly sprung up in Ephesus and the adjacent connection between the fourth Gospel, John and the Epistles[18] also establish back the traditional view of its origination and destination.

Undoubtedly, the Apostle John’s purpose becomes clearer as the reading of the Scripture progresses. His main purpose was to assure the churches of their faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Elwell corroborates the purpose and reason behind writing 1 John:

The primary purpose was to assure readers of their fellowship in Christ and eternal life and to encourage maturity. The author’s other purpose was polemic: to warn against incipient heretical doctrine, which denied either the real deity or the real humanity of Christ, and heretical ethics – the idea that sin either does not exist or does not affect one’s relationship to God.[19]

In other words, this letter was meant to help the congregation to stay firm in their faith as well as grow in spiritual maturity in the midst of chaos and conflict in the Johannine community caused by dissenters (see 1 John 2:18).

GRAMMATICAL AND LITERARY ISSUES

In 1 John 5:5-12, the Apostle John was addressing the churches in Asia Minor in general. As a leader of the church in Ephesus, he was reasoning why believing in Jesus makes sense, because he is one who was testified by God himself. In the pericope, the word group for “[I] believe/believing” from various tense form of πιστευω (pisteuw) repeatedly occurs four times. The Apostle John chose the same word πιστευων [20] for verses 5 and 10 which he used in the Gospel of John 3:15-16, 36. He was emphasizing genuine and unadulterated belief in Christ from his audience.

It is “to believe” or “put trust with” or “entrust especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ”.[21] In this sense, it implies not simply believing something, but it demands our full conviction and confidence on account of what we believe. That is, in the New Testament, referring to trust in Jesus or God for saving faith.[22] Thus, the application of “believing” in these two verses 5 and 10 is to affirm Jesus as the Son of God, and it has the direct consequence of receiving eternal life.

As mentioned earlier, various tense and mood forms of μαρτυρεω appears in the designated passage ten out of seventeenth times used in the Epistle. It is the 58.82 percentage of total uses in the single passage. According to Mounce, μαρτυρεω means “to bear witness, testify” or “to give evidence”. He also singled out μαρτυρια in 1 John 5:9 as “testimony, declaration in a matter of fact or doctrine”.[23] The uses of comparative degree to show the magnitude of divine testimony to man’s is appealing and persuasive in nature (see verse 5:1, 5, 10-11).

These two repetitive key words in the passage are tied to the rest of the book. Trust in Christ as the Son of God is the prerequisite and indispensable elements in order to secure the testimony of God in human soul. Thus, believing in God and testimony of God has absolute correlation with the Christological test and the saving knowledge of Christ, because God himself testified about the Son (vss. 6-12).

John used metaphors like water, and water and blood to deliver his theological concerns on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The distinctive characteristic of the Apostle’s writing style, that two contrastive ideas run paralleled, is exhibited in the Epistle, as well. Having the Son has life and having not Son has no life[24] idea is one of the distinctive features that John used commonly in his Gospel. The Epistle did not, so to speak, follow letter format, only contrastive parallel concepts or repetition of the words serve as the letter structure device in this passage.

Footnotes:


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 101. Print. For detail discussion on subject, see Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. 101-06.

[2] Donald L. Brake, A Visual History of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 225. Print.

[3] Henk Jan de Jonge, a specialist in Erasmian studies, however, did not find any explicit evidence of specific promise made by Erasmus to Stunica; for details, see his “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum,”” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, Ivi (1980), pp. 381-9.

[4] Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 147. Print.The book contains detail information on the eight manuscripts listed according to Gregory-Aland enumeration. 61: the Codex Montfortianus, an early sixteenth-century manuscript, 88v.r.: a variant reading in a twelfth-century Codex Regius at Naples, 221 v.r.: a variant reading dating from tenth-century manuscript, 429 v.r.: a variant reading from fifteenth-century manuscript, 629 v.r.: the Codex Ottobonianus at the Vatican dating from the fourteenth century and revised later according to the Vulgate, 636 v.r.: a variant reading dating from the fifteenth-century at Naples, 918: a sixteenth-century manuscript at the Escorial, Spain, and 2318: an eighteenth-century manuscript which is heavily influenced by the Clementine Vulgate, at Bucharest, Rumania. For more details, see Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pages 147-48.

[5] Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 102. Print.

[6] Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. 4th revised print (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, D-Stuttgart, 2002), 648, Print.

[7] Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Neutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), see 1 John 5:5.

[8] Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: Letters of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 201. Print. μαρτυρεω (to witness, testify) appears in 5:6,7,9 (4x), 10 (3x), and 11.

[9] Mark 1:19-20. Apostle is referred as the son of Zebedee.

[10] See 2 John 1; 3 John 1. The Greek term πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros) is used in both opening of the Letters.

[11] Burge, The NIV Application Commentary, p.38.

[12] Ibid.

[13] H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), ii. Print.

[14] See NASB Study Bible for detail chart.

[15] Robert Horton Gundry, “First John.” Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 968-84. Print.

[16] Spence and Exell, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), vi. Print.

[17] Burge, The NIV Application Commentary, see 40. This area refers to Asia Minor. Gnosticism was in rise during Apostle’s ministry there. They were the great threat to the surrounding churches at that time.

[18] W. Robertson Nicoll, and Oscar Loos Joseph. Preface. The Expositor’s Bible: a Complete Exposition of the Bible with Index (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1982), 757. Print. Cerinthians believed that the divine Christ came to join the human Jesus in the baptism and the divine Christ left the human Jesus before his death on the cross. They thought that God could not die or be killed so he had to leave Jesus alone to suffer. See NASB Study Bible for Cerinthianism, 1829.

[19] James B. De Young, “1-3 John.” Introduction. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Baker Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 1177-186. Print.

[20] πιστευων (pisteuwn) V-PAP-NSM meaning believing where subject is understood as it is modifying the ó νικων.

[21] Strong, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary, e-Sword, Ver. 9.8.3, Dictionary, 1 John 5:5 and 10. Computer Software. For further information, see, Strong’s Number G4100.

[22] Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Definitions, e-Sword, Ver. 9.8.3, Dictionary, 1 John 5:5, 10. Computer Software. See Thayer’s/Strong’s Number G4102.

[23] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1205-06, Print.

[24] 1 John 5:11-12.

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2 thoughts on “Comma Johanneum – A Critical Textual Evaluation of 1 John 5:7-8”

  1. I don’t think that the Spirit, water and Blood are metaphors for anything. I think that the Son came through the water and the Blood, as John says in 1 John 5:6, and that the Spirit, which is the truth, is the one witness bearing witness regarding the Son, as John says in 1 John 5:6, which correlates with John 15:26, where John quotes Jesus to say that the Spirit of the truth must be sent from the Father in heaven to the people on earth in order to bear witness regarding the Son (one witness). But the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15) requires two or three witnesses (two or three men) to bear witness regarding any matter in order to establish the truth of the matter. Therefore, in 1 John 5:7-9, John adds to the Spirit (the one witness bearing witness regarding the Son in 1 John 5:6) the water and the Blood (through which the Son came in 1 John 5:6) as a second and third witness in compliance with the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), hence the new sequence in 1 John 5:8 (the Spirit and the water and the Blood / the three witnesses bearing witness regarding the Son in compliance with the Law). The masculine gender of the phrases “the ones bearing witness” and “the three ones” in 1 John 5:7-8 is used in reference to three persons, because “the men” in the phrase “the witness of the men” in 1 John 5:9, which are the three men required in the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), to whom John is comparing the Spirit, water and Blood, are three persons. Just as John quotes Jesus to compare the two witnesses of God (the Father and Son) bearing witness regarding the Son to the two “men” required in the “Law” (Deuteronomy 19:15) to bear witness regarding any matter in John 8:17-18, likewise John compares the three witnesses (the Spirit, water and Blood) bearing witness regarding the Son to the three “men” required in the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15) to bear witness regarding any matter in 1 John 5:6-9.

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  2. The underlying issue in this passage is about the later addition of the text in bold in the Latin Vulgate. This text apparently crept into the Latin text of the New Testament manuscript in the early middle age. The point here is that those texts are later added by scribes. Although we omit the letters in bold in the New Testament, as the thousands of early Greek manuscripts do not have them, the cardinal doctrine or the infallible teaching on of Trinity is unharmed and it’s still there.

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