The Comma Johanneum refers to a short passage found in some manuscripts of the First Epistle of John at 1 John 5:7-8. The passage reads:
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.
The section in bold above, known as the Comma Johanneum, is the controversial part. It explicitly states the doctrine of the Trinity, saying that “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
The Comma Johanneum is called a comma (meaning “clause”) because it represents a short clause. It’s also called the Johanneum because it’s found in the writings of John.
But there is considerable debate over whether this passage is original to John’s writings or whether it was added later by scribes. That is because there is significant evidence that the Comma Johanneum does not appear in the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of 1 John.
Evidence Against the Comma Johanneum
There are several important pieces of evidence that argue against the originality of the Comma Johanneum:
- The passage is absent from all early Greek manuscripts of 1 John. The earliest Greek manuscripts we have contain 1 John 5:7-8 without the Comma Johanneum.
- There are no patristic quotations of the Comma Johanneum until the 4th century AD, suggesting it was absent from manuscripts known to early church fathers.
- Many early church fathers would have loved to use the Comma Johanneum to defend Trinitarianism, but never quoted this passage.
- The councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) never appealed to the Comma Johanneum in their formulations of the Trinity doctrine.
- Ancient Bible translations like the Old Latin, Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, and Ethiopic versions do not contain the Comma Johanneum.
- Critical Greek texts produced by modern textual scholars overwhelmingly reject the Comma Johanneum as inauthentic.
Taken together, this evidence strongly suggests the Comma Johanneum was not part of the original text of 1 John. The passage most likely entered manuscripts of 1 John during the 4th century AD as the Trinity doctrine was being more carefully defined.
Looking more closely at the manuscript evidence provides a clear picture of how and when the Comma Johanneum emerged.
The earliest manuscript of 1 John is Papyrus 9 from the 3rd century, discovered in the early 20th century. It does not contain the Comma Johanneum, nor do any other Greek manuscripts from the first 800 years of church history.
The first appearance of the Comma Johanneum is in a 4th century Latin treatise called the Liber Apologeticus. This suggests it was first added in Latin copies of 1 John before being inserted into the Greek manuscripts later on.
A Greek manuscript called Codex Montfortianus from the early 1500s is one of earliest Greek manuscripts containing the Comma Johanneum. But textual scholar Bruce Metzger demonstrated that the scribe Erasmus inserted the passage into this manuscript after compiling his Greek New Testament. It did not originally contain the Comma Johanneum.
Today, out of over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, only eight from the 12th century or later contain the Comma Johanneum. This shows it was in only a tiny fraction of manuscripts and not part of the original.
Erasmus and 1 John 5:7
The Dutch Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus published several editions of the Greek New Testament in the early 1500s. His Greek manuscripts did not originally contain the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7-8.
Erasmus was criticized by the Catholic Church for omitting this passage, since it could be used to defend the Trinity doctrine. Under pressure, Erasmus said he would include it if a single Greek manuscript could be found containing the Comma Johanneum.
One was hastily forged for this purpose, now called Codex Montfortianus. So starting with his 1522 edition, Erasmus included the Comma Johanneum in his Latin and Greek New Testaments, even though he remained convinced it was not originally part of 1 John.
The Comma Johanneum and the King James Version
The King James Version of 1611 included the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7-8 because Erasmus had included it in his Greek New Testaments. The KJV translators based their Greek NT primarily on Erasmus’ editions.
But the Comma Johanneum did not appear in the first two editions of Erasmus’ Greek NT in 1516 and 1519. It was only added starting in 1522 under pressure. So the Comma Johanneum did not appear in the first edition of the King James Bible in 1611.
It entered KJV editions after 1611 once the translators incorporated Erasmus’ later editions with the passage present. So modern KJV Bibles include the Comma Johanneum, even though it was not found in the original KJV.
Modern Translations and 1 John 5:7-8
Today most modern Bible translations recognize the weak textual basis behind the Comma Johanneum and do not include it in the main text:
- English Standard Version omits the Comma Johanneum with no footnote
- New International Version omits it but has a footnote about textual variants
- New American Standard Bible omits it but notes textual differences in a footnote
- Revised Standard Version omits the passage and has a footnote
- New Revised Standard Version omits it and has an explanatory footnote
On the other hand, a few translations continue including the Comma Johanneum:
- New King James Version includes it but notes textual issues in a footnote
- Modern English Version includes it without any footnote about textual debate
- King James Version includes it without any footnote about textual debate
So most modern translations are in agreement that 1 John 5:7-8 is most accurately rendered without the Comma Johanneum.
What Does 1 John 5:7-8 Say Without the Comma?
When the Comma Johanneum is removed, 1 John 5:7-8 reads:
For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.
Without being interrupted by the Comma, these verses flow naturally in John’s line of thought. The “three that testify” refers to the witnesses on earth mentioned right after in verse 8 – the Spirit, the water, and the blood.
These terms are repeated frequently throughout 1 John and tie back to major themes John has developed:
- The “water” reminds readers of Jesus’ baptism (1 John 5:6)
- The “blood” points to Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross (1 John 1:7)
- The “Spirit” references the Holy Spirit’s witness about Jesus (1 John 5:6)
So in this passage John brings together the joint testimony of the Spirit, the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus’ crucifixion – three pivotal events in Christian theology.
This coheres well with John’s message in the rest of the letter. The Comma Johanneum interrupts this flow of thought and would be very abrupt if original to John’s writings.
What Theology Does the Comma Johanneum Teach?
While not original to 1 John, the Comma Johanneum succinctly summarizes a high view of the Trinity.
It states there are three divine persons – the Father, the Word (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. And it says these three are “one” in unity of being.
This matches later orthodox Trinitarian formulations, that God is one in being but exists eternally as three co-equal and co-eternal persons.
The passage also distinguishes the three members of the Trinity between those bearing “record in heaven” (the Father, Word, and Spirit) and those bearing “witness in earth” (the water, blood, and Spirit).
So the Comma Johanneum explicitly teaches Trinitarian theology in just a few words. There are three co-equal divine persons united as one God.
While these concepts can be supported from other Bible passages, the Comma Johanneum expresses the doctrine concisely and directly.
Why Was the Comma Johanneum Added to 1 John?
Understanding some historical context helps explain why the Comma Johanneum likely arose and grew in usage.
In the late 3rd and 4th centuries, debates flared up about the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Various unorthodox groups arose like modalism, Arianism, and subordinationism.
To combat false teachings, orthodox fathers like Athanasius, Basil, and Augustine formulated the doctrine of the Trinity and defended the full divinity of Christ. The Council of Nicaea also established key elements of Trinitarian dogma in 325 AD.
In this climate, a succinct statement on the Trinity like the Comma Johanneum would have been very useful for orthodox theologians. This likely motivated some scribes to insert it into Latin copies of 1 John to provide biblical support for the Trinity.
Once present in some Latin manuscripts, it entered the Greek textual tradition later on. Then Erasmus helped it gain wider exposure by including it in his published Greek New Testaments.
So while not originally in 1 John, the Comma Johanneum emerged as a way for orthodox scribes to defend the Trinity against heretical groups. It served as a proof-text supporting the co-equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Does the Comma Johanneum Impact Christian Theology?
Recognizing the Comma Johanneum as a later addition to 1 John does not undermine Trinitarian theology or the deity of Christ.
The doctrine of the Trinity rests firmly on other biblical passages and the totality of scriptural teaching. It does not depend solely on 1 John 5:7-8.
Passages like Matthew 28:19, John 1, and Colossians 2 teach the full divinity of the Son and Spirit along with the Father. And John 1:1 explicitly calls Jesus “God” without needing the Comma.
So Christians can have full confidence in orthodox Trinitarian theology while also acknowledging the Comma Johanneum was not original to John’s writings.
Textual issues with this passage do not negate the powerful testimony about Father, Son, and Spirit found throughout the rest of scripture.
Belief in the Trinity is based on the cumulative weight of many Bible texts, not the authenticity of a single disputed verse. This passage merely summarizes in one place the truths taught clearly elsewhere.
The Comma Johanneum and Apologetics
Some Christian apologists argue strongly for retaining the Comma Johanneum as authentic in order to defend the Trinity against skeptics.
They claim removing this passage undermines faith in the Bible and gives ammunition to those who attack the Trinity doctrine.
But most scholars consider this an unwise approach that employs unsound textual argumentation. It is better to acknowledge the evidence about the Comma Johanneum while also teaching the Trinity from other reliable passages.
Using doubtful proofs risks giving critics more reason to question Christian scholarship and apologetics. It can harm the credibility of defenders of the faith.
The truth has nothing to fear from careful textual analysis. Frankly admitting the status of contested passages like the Comma can strengthen the overall biblical case rather than weaken it.
The Johannine Comma and Textual Criticism
The Comma Johanneum provides an excellent case study for the discipline of textual criticism.
Textual criticism looks carefully at ancient manuscript evidence to determine, as objectively as possible, the original wording of biblical texts.
Several key principles of textual criticism come into play when examining the Comma Johanneum:
- Earlier manuscripts are given more weight than later ones
- Variations that can explain origins of other readings are preferred
- The more difficult reading is favored (lectio difficilior potior)
- Shorter readings are preferred over longer/interpolated ones
- Readings broadly attested across textual traditions are favored
Applying these and other text critical criteria gives scholars high confidence that the Comma Johanneum was not original to 1 John. Careful textual analysis helps correct errors made by scribes and recovers the authentic writings.
This example shows how essential the work of textual criticism is for biblically faithful Bible translations. Scripture calls Christians to handle God’s word properly (2 Timothy 2:15). Textual criticism aids this noble aim.
The Comma Johanneum Controversy Today
Most biblical scholars consider the Comma Johanneum interpolated into 1 John based on overwhelming textual evidence.
But a tiny minority of apologists still argue vigorously for its authenticity. Often this is driven by a well-intentioned but misguided defense of orthodox Trinitarian theology.
However, alleging the Comma Johanneum is original opposes the consensus of modern textual scholarship. It depends on special pleading and unsupportable approaches to the evidence.
At best, it sows confusion by presenting as debatable something that is textually demonstrable. At worst, it undermines credibility of Christian scholarship by insisting on claims contrary to evidence.
There are healthy debates within textual criticism where godly scholars discuss reasonable disagreements. But the Comma Johanneum is not regarded as one of these open questions by specialists.
Evangelical Christians need not – indeed, should not – force disputed readings into the biblical text. We can acknowledge passages added later by scribes while still affirming the doctrines taught from other certain Scriptures.
Our faith rests on “the prophetic word made more sure”, not passages most likely inserted centuries after the New Testament was completed (2 Peter 1:19).
Conclusions About the Comma Johanneum
In summary, here are key facts about the Comma Johanneum:
- The Comma is a short clause in 1 John 5:7-8 not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts
- Evidence indicates scribes added it to Latin copies in the 4th century AD
- Erasmus placed it in his published Greek NT starting in 1522 under pressure
- It explicitly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity concisely
- Most scholars consider it inauthentic based on manuscript evidence
- Its presence or absence does not materially impact Trinitarian theology
- Modern Bible translations omit the Comma recognizing it was added later
- Textual analysis shows the passage in 1 John flows better without the Comma
Christians need not feel compelled to defend the Comma Johanneum as original in order to uphold orthodox beliefs about the triune nature of God. We have confidence the essential truths of scripture remain intact even where copyist errors have occurred.
Our doctrines rest secure on the solid foundation of biblical teachings faithfully passed down through the centuries – not on disputed textual variants like the Johannine Comma.