Comma Johanneum

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious texts

The Comma Johanneum is a comma, or short clause, present in most translations of the First Epistle of John published from 1522 until the latter part of the nineteenth century, owing to the widespread use of the third edition of the Textus Receptus (TR) as the sole source for translation. In readings containing the clause, such as this one from the King James Bible, 1 John 5:7–8 reads as follows, the Comma itself here rendered with emphasis:

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."

The resulting passage is an explicit reference to the Trinity (the doctrine that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God), and for this reason some Christians are resistant to the elimination of the Comma from modern Biblical translations. Nonetheless, nearly all recent translations have removed this clause, as it does not appear in older copies of the Epistle and it is not present in the passage as quoted by any of the early Church Fathers, who would have had plenty of reason to quote it in their Trinitarian debates (for example, with the Arians), had it existed then. Most Churches now agree that the theology contained in the Comma is true, but that the Comma is not an original part of the Epistle of John.

El Greco's rendition of John the Apostle, traditionally identified as 1 John's author.
El Greco's rendition of John the Apostle, traditionally identified as 1 John's author.


Several early sources which one might expect to include the Comma Johanneum in fact omit it. For example, although Clement of Alexandria's writings around the year 200 place a strong emphasis on the Trinity, his quotation of 1 John 5:8 does not include the Comma.

One account of its origins suggests that the Comma originated in a Latin homily elaborating on this passage in the Vulgate. The third-century Church father St. Cyprian quoted John 10:30 and added, "Et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est—Et hi tres unum sunt" (De Unitate Ecclesiæ, "On the Unity of the Church", vi). Translated, Cyprian's remark reads, "And again it is written of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—and these three are one." If Cyprian had been aware of the Comma, he would likely have quoted it directly, rather than glossing a verse in a different Johannine book with a sentence which resembles the Comma. Tertullian, in his Against Praxeas (circa 210), also supports a Trinitarian view by quoting John 10:30, even though the Comma would have provided stronger support. Likewise, St. Jerome's writings of the fourth century give no evidence that he was aware of the Comma's existence. (The Codex Fuldensis, a copy of the Vulgate made around 546, contains a copy of Jerome's Prologue to the Canonical Gospels which seems to reference the Comma. However, the Codex's version of 1 John omits the Comma, which has led many to believe that the Prologue's reference is spurious.) In the sixth century, St. Fulgentius referred to Cyprian's remark (in "Responsio contra Arianos", "Reply against the Arians"). Many figures in the African Church of the period quoted the Comma, but they did so inconsistently; the most notable and prolific writer of the African Church, St. Augustine, is completely silent on the matter.

The first work to use the Comma Johanneum as an actual part of the Epistle's text appears to be the fourth-century Latin book Liber Apologeticus, probably written by Priscillianof Ávila (died 385), or his close follower Bishop Instantius. (A Spanish theologian who advocated the strictly ascetic lifestyle, Priscillian was the first person in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy.) Raymond E. Brown's Epistle of John specifies the Liber Apologeticus as the Comma's source.

This part of the homily, possibly originating from Cyprian, then became worked into copies of the Vulgate, roughly around the year 800; the passage in the Vulgate was then back-translated into the Greek. Out of the thousands of manuscripts currently extant which contain the New Testament in Greek, the Comma only appears in eight. The oldest known occurrence appears to be a later addition to a 10th century manuscript now in the Bodleian Library, the exact date of the addition not known; in this manuscript, the Comma is a variant reading offered as an alternative to the main text. The other seven sources date to the sixteenth century or later, and four of the seven are hand-written in the manuscript margins. In one manuscript, back-translated into Greek from the Vulgate, the phrase "and these three are one" is not present.

No Syriac manuscripts include the Comma, and its presence in some printed Syriac Bibles is due to back-translation from the Latin Vulgate. Coptic manuscripts and those from Ethiopian churches also do not include it. Of the surviving "Itala" or " Old Latin" translations, only two support the Textus Receptus reading, namely the Codex Monacensis (sixth or seventh century) and the Speculum, an eighth- or ninth-century collection of New Testament quotations.

Early modern translations

The central figure in the sixteenth-century history of the Comma Johanneum is Desiderius Erasmus, a theologian and humanist whose writings prefigured and inspired Martin Luther. The author of many works—including The Praise of Folly, a dry-humored satire of Catholic traditions—Erasmus entered the field of Biblical translations thanks largely to a rivalry between publishers.

In 1502, Cardinal Cisneros sponsored a polyglot edition of the Bible, inviting a large group of religious scholars to create a multi-volume set containing parallel translations in all the Biblical languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The result, now known as the Complutensian Polyglot, took fifteen years of dedicated effort. The New Testament translations were completed and printed in 1514, but their publication was delayed so that they could be released at the same time as the Old Testament.

Meanwhile, word of the Complutensian project reached Johann Froben of Basel, who decided to commission his own translation and beat the Complutensian to market. He contacted Erasmus, who began a systematic examination of New Testament manuscripts and rapidly produced a Greek edition and Latin translation, which Froben published in 1516. Also, in the same year Erasmus published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament—Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum—which included a Latin translation and annotations. The second edition used the more familiar term Testamentum instead of Instrumentum, and eventually became a major source for Luther's German translation.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523
Desiderius Erasmus in 1523

In his haste, Erasmus made a considerable number of translation mistakes. He was unable to find a manuscript containing the entire Greek New Testament, so he compiled several different sources. After comparing what writings he could find, Erasmus wrote corrections between the lines and sent the documents to Froben. Erasmus said the resulting work was "thrown headlong rather than edited" ("prœcipitatum fuit verius quam editum"). He fixed many but not all of the resulting mistakes in the second edition, published in 1519.

The Comma does not appear until the third edition, published in 1522. Its absence in the first two editions provoked considerable animosity, chiefly led by Lopez de Zuniga (also written Stunica) who had been one of the Complutensian editors. Erasmus replied that the Comma did not occur in any of the Greek manuscripts he could find; he eventually compromised with his critics, saying that he would add the Comma to future editions if it appeared in a Greek manuscript.

Such a manuscript was subsequently produced. Today called "Codex 61", it was written after Erasmus's request by a Franciscan friar named Froy who lived in Oxford; others may have been involved in the addition as well. Erasmus added the Comma to his 1522 edition, "but he indicates in a lengthy footnote his suspicions that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him." It was this third edition which became a chief source for the King James Version, thereby fixing the Comma firmly in the English-language scriptures for centuries.

The term Textus Receptus or Received Text generally refers to one of Erasmus's later editions or one of the works derived from them. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, a largely Protestant reference published in 1914, comments:

The textus receptus, slavishly followed, with slight diversities, in hundreds of editions, and substantially represented in all the principal modern Protestant translations prior to the nineteenth century, thus resolves itself essentially into that of the last edition of Erasmus, framed from a few modern and inferior manuscripts and the Complutensian Polyglot, in the infancy of Biblical criticism. In more than twenty places its reading is supported by the authority of no known Greek manuscript.

The English scholar Isaac Newton, best known today for his many contributions to mathematics and physics, also wrote extensively on Biblical matters. In a 1690 treatise entitled An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, Newton observed, "In all the vehement universal and lasting controversy about the Trinity in Jerome's time and both before and long enough after it, this text of the 'three in heaven' was never once thought of. It is now in everybody’s mouth and accounted the main text for the business and would assuredly have been so too with them, had it been in their books." (Like 1 John itself, Newton's Historical Account is an epistolary work: he wrote it as letters to John Locke.) Newton's history of the Comma Johanneum reflects his belief that the Church's history was one of progressive decay from a pure original, in terms not just of doctrine but also of its relation with secular powers. Newton believed that the Comma was introduced, intentionally or by accident, into a Latin text during the fourth or fifth century, a time when he believed the Church to be rife with corruption.

Modern views

Nearly all modern major Christian denominations are Trinitarian, with their beliefs reflected in three ancient creeds: The Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Denominations whose beliefs follow these creeds accept the underlying theology of the Johannine Comma, whether or not they hold it to be a part of the First Epistle of John. Contrastingly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church, disputes the Comma as part of their arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, officially sanctioned LDS translations of the New Testament into French and German omit the Comma entirely. Mormons view the Comma as an example of how spurious additions change the meaning of holy texts, calling the Comma an affirmation of the attitude that the Bible should only be considered valid where it is in accord with "modern revelation".

The Council of Trent established the modern canon for the Roman Catholic Church, deciding which books were truly inspired; however, the Council's decrees do not necessarily cover the Comma Johanneum. During the Council's preliminary discussions, the delegates decided to canonize "the entire books with all their parts, as these have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old Latin Vulgate". Because the earliest known copies of the Vulgate do not include the Comma, a strong argument exists that the Comma is not canonical.

An edition of the King James Version called the Cambridge Paragraph Bible was published in 1873, edited by F.H.A. Scrivener, one of the translators of the English Revised Version and a noted textual scholar. Scrivener set the Comma in italics to reflect its disputed authenticity, though not all later editions retain this formatting.

On 13 January 1897, the Roman Curia's Holy Office decreed that Catholic theologians could not "with safety" deny or call into doubt the Comma's authenticity. Pope Leo XIII approved this decision two days later, though his approval was not in forma specifica; that is, Leo XIII did not invest his full papal authority in the matter, leaving the decree with the ordinary authority possessed by the Holy Office. Three decades later, on 2 June 1927, Pope Pius XI decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute. The updated " Nova Vulgata" edition of the Vulgate, published in 1979 as a result of the Second Vatican Council, does not include the Comma, nor does the English-language New American Bible.

In more recent years, the Comma has become relevant to the King-James-Only Movement, a largely Protestant development most prevalent within the fundamentalist and Independent Baptist branch of the Baptist churches. Proponents view the Comma as an important Trinitarian text and assert that those who doubt its authenticity are threatening the biblical basis for Trinitarian belief.

It is also worth noting that since the early nineteenth century, many scholars who practice higher criticism have come to question the authorship of the Johannine works. Tradition held that all of these books—the Gospel of John; the first, second and third Epistles of John; and the Book of Revelation—were all written by the same man, John the Apostle. However, in 1820 K.G. Bretschneider called into question the apostolic authorship of the Gospel, and even stated that the author could not have come from Palestine, since the author had a shaky grasp of Palestinian geography. Furthermore, he reasoned that since the meaning and nature of Jesus presented in the Gospel of John was very different from that in the Synoptic Gospels, its author could not have been an eyewitness to the events. Bretschneider's work began the modern investigation into the Johannian authorship question, and today, viewpoints on the issue range from affirming the authorship of the Apostle, to affirming the authorship of another author (called "John" for convenience), and even to theories of group authorship. If one accepts the Comma as a later hand's addition, then the "group authorship" theory becomes at least technically correct, with Priscillian or his friend Instantius possibly authors within the group.

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