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The Canon – Part 5: The Comma Johanneum

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Comparing the rendering of 1 John 5:7-8 in different Bible translations, one notices a difference:

„For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.“

„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.“

(1 John 5:7,8 New American Standard Bibel, King James Version)

Certain translations contain a portion that clearly supports the doctrine of the Trinity. Others, mostly more modern translations, do not include the text. Why? In short, this is a spurious text (more on this in the forum articles). Probably the best known spurious text.

This addition is even so well known that it has its own name: Johannine Comma, or in Latin Comma Johanneum (In Ancient Greek rhetoric, a comma (κόμμα komma, plural κόμματα kommata) is a short clause, something less than a colon.) (see e.g. Wikipedia Johannine Comma).

The German Wikipedia article summarizes: “This passage is missing in all Greek manuscripts except a few later minuscules. Many church fathers betray no acquaintance with the phrase at all, such as Jerome. Others, such as Augustine, knew it but apparently considered it not part of the biblical text. The Vulgate in Jerome’s version did not contain the Comma Johanneum.”

This passage seems to have originated in a gloss in a Latin manuscript at the end of the 4th century. It was then inserted into the text of the Old Latin Bible in the 5th century, but not in the earliest versions of the Vulgate. However, it is then also found in the versions of the Vulgate from the 8th century onward. (See Houghton, H. A. G. (2016). The Latin New Testament: a guide to its early history, texts, and manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 178-179; Metzger, Bruce M.; Ehrman, Bart D. (2005). The text of the New Testament: its transmission, corruption, and restoration (4 ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 146-148, Wikipedia)

Here is an example from the 9th century:

Codex Sangallensis 63 (9th century), Johannine comma at the end: tre[s] sunt pat[er] & uerbu[m] & sps [=spiritus] scs [=sanctus] & tres unum sunt. Translation: “Three are the Father and the Word and the Holy Spirit and the three are one.” The original codex did not include the Comma Johanneum (in 1 John 5:7), but was added in the margin by a later hand.[12]

Thus, the way into the Catholic Bible is clear. But how did it get into Protestant Bibles? “From the 16th to the late 19th century, the Comma Johanneum was found in most major Bible editions; during the 20th century, it increasingly disappeared. Erasmus of Rotterdam initially did not have the Comma in his 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament. It was not until 1522 that he added it to the third edition, also supported by the early 16th century minuscule 61.” (Wikipedia) Why then was this part removed again? “Another key finding was that minuscule 61 had been forged specifically to deceive Erasmus.” (Wikipedia) So today we even know the history and reasons for this forgery.

Erasmus remarked on his first two editions that he simply could not find this part of the verses in the Greek manuscripts available to him. And that is true. Here is an example:

Excerpt from Codex Sinaiticus with 1 John 5:7-9. The Johannine comma is missing. The red colored text says: “There are three witnesses, the spirit and the water and the blood”.

This got him into a lot of trouble and opposition from the church and theologians. [See Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.] Because of this, he was attacked by theologians of his day for trying to manipulate the sacred text to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity! Finally, under pressure, he accepted that if he was shown a Greek manuscript containing the Comman Johanneium, he would include the text. And this they supplied him with. And he included it in the third edition. Only that this manuscript was a forgery, made especially for that purpose.

With this, we would perhaps already like to consider this topic as settled. But that would be premature, because in connection with the canon of the Christian scriptures we can consider ourselves lucky that this forgery has been eliminated again.

But what about sincere Christians in the more than 1000 years during which this text was in ‘their Bible’? Among them were admirable Christians who took on personal difficulties, even to the point of murder, for the translation of the Bible.

It is a fact, albeit perhaps a painful one, that for centuries God and Jesus as the head of the congregation or church allowed even the most sincere disciple of Jesus in 1 John 5:7-8 to have only a distorted text of the Bible at his disposal.

And let us keep in mind that we are not talking about a trivial matter here, but the central doctrine about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These issues were the subject of long and heated debates in the first centuries of Christ, and whole communities of believers were excommunicated, persecuted and killed. And many Christians even define Christianity by accepting the doctrine of the Trinity.

The claim that the complete text of the Bible was preserved by God and Jesus in such a way that everything was handed down as it was originally, has already proven to be baseless with this one example. If someone claims that the Bible itself makes this statement, he harms the Bible, although it is a human statement. The wish is the father of the thought.

Even if this claim that God and Jesus made sure that the text of the Bible is completely correct for us today were correct, the fact would still remain that they did not consider it necessary for many centuries. Wouldn’t that be unloving towards the Christians at that time? As you can see, such an exaggerated claim does not fall back on the person who utters it, but is laid to the charge of God and Jesus. Even more: It would be rather mean of both to allow that someone like Erasmus of Rotterdam, of all people, who sincerely tried to clean up the traditional text from errors so that it could be translated into the mother tongues of even the common people, was deceived with a forged minuscule, only to undo this deception centuries later after his death.

Through the findings and availability of more and more ancient manuscripts in Greek, Aramaic, Latin and other languages, many more spurious scriptural texts and passages have come to light (see these forum articles). This shows that the situation is not simple. It is not a simple ‘true or false’ decision. Rather, it’s about how much we can trust some texts – or not. All in all, an exciting topic that deserves further parts in this series. On the other hand, such discrepancies are not proven for the majority of texts. But we will come to the differences between the manuscripts soon.

So the fact that God and Jesus did not ensure that the biblical text was preserved without errors or forgeries is something we must take into account in our view of the canon. Not only when it comes to the reliability of a single verse. But also when it comes to our view regarding the canon – the Bible as we have it today. Let us not impose on the Bible exaggerated claims that it itself does not make.

With the right assumptions, on the other hand, we do not have to be afraid of new facts. Facts then do not endanger our faith building, but strengthen the foundation. Already at this one, although extraordinarily important example, we can now prove that also the assertion that every ‘sentence’ was received exactly in such a way is refuted by the facts.

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.”

We’ll look at more examples in the next two episodes. Why do we even bother? If we know the extent of the changes and differences, then we know what is well preserved. We achieve a well-founded and differentiated view about the reliability of the text.

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