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The Comma Johanneum is a comma (a short clause) contained 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 translations containing the clause, such as the King James Version, 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows (with the Comma in bold print):

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 of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It does not appear in the older Greek manuscripts, nor in the passage as quoted by many of the early Church Fathers. The words apparently crept into the Latin text of the New Testament during the Middle Ages, "[possibly] as one of those medieval glosses but were then written into the text itself by a careless copyist. Erasmus omitted them from his first edition; but when a storm of protest arose because the omission seemed to threaten the doctrine of the Trinity (although that doctrine had in fact been formulated long before the textual variant), he put them back in the third and later editions, whence they also came into the textus receptus, 'the received text'."[1] Modern Bible translations such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV and others tend to either omit the Comma entirely, or relegate it to the footnotes. The official Latin text of the Catholic Church (a revision of the Vulgate) also excludes it.[2]



Excerpt from Codex Sinaiticus including 1 John 5:7–9. It lacks the Comma Johanneum. The purple-coloured text says: "There are three witness bearers, the Spirit and the water and the blood".

Several early sources which one might expect to include the Comma Johanneum in fact omit it. For example, although Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) places a strong emphasis on the Trinity, his quotation of 1 John 5:8 does not include the Comma.[3] Tertullian, in his Against Praxeas (c. 210), supports a Trinitarian view by quoting John 10:30, even though the Comma would have provided stronger support. Likewise, Jerome's writings of the fourth century give no evidence that he was aware of the Comma's existence.[4] (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, but the Codex's version of 1 John omits it, which has led many to believe that the Prologue's reference is spurious.)[5]

The earliest reference to what might be the Comma appears by the 3rd-century Church father Cyprian (died 258), who in Treatise I section 6[6] quoted John 10:30 against heretics who denied the Trinity and added: "Again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 'And these three are one.'"[4][7] Daniel Wallace notes that although Cyprian uses 1 John to argue for the Trinity, he appeals to this as an allusion via the three witnesses—"written of"—rather than by quoting a proof-text-"written that". In noting this, Wallace is following the current standard critical editions of the New Testament (NA27 and UBS4) which consider Cyprian a witness against the Comma. They would not do this were they to think him to have quoted it. So even though some still think that Cyprian referred to the passage, the fact that other theologians such as Athanasius of Alexandria and Sabellius and Origen never quoted or referred to that passage is one reason why even many Trinitarians later on also considered the text spurious, and not to have been part of the original text.

The first work to quote the Comma Johanneum as an actual part of the Epistle's text appears to be the 4th century Latin homily Liber Apologeticus, probably written by Priscillian of Ávila (died 385), or his close follower Bishop Instantius. Wallace notes:

"Apparently the gloss arose when the original passage was understood to symbolize the Trinity (through the mention of three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood), an interpretation that may have been written first as a marginal note that afterwards found its way into the text."[7]

This part of the homily apparently then became worked into copies of the Latin Vulgate roughly around the year 800. It was subsequently back-translated into the Greek, but only eight of the thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts currently extant contain it. 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.[8]

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 (6th or 7th century) and the Speculum, an 8th- or 9th-century collection of New Testament quotations.[4]

In the 6th century, Fulgentius of Ruspe is quoted as a witness in favour of the Comma. Like Cyprian a father of the North African Church, he referred to Cyprian's remark in his "Responsio contra Arianos" ("Reply against the Arians"), as do many other African fathers (the Arian heresy, which denied the Trinity, was particularly strong[citation needed] in North Africa); but the most notable and prolific writer of the African Church, Augustine of Hippo, is completely silent on the matter.

"The silence of the great and voluminous Augustine and the variation in form of the text in the African Church are admitted facts that militate against the canonicity of the three witnesses."[4]

Erasmus and the Textus Receptus

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523.

The central figure in the sixteenth-century history of the Comma Johanneum is the humanist Erasmus. Erasmus had been working for years on two projects: a collation of Greek texts and a fresh Latin New Testament. In 1512, he began his work on a fresh Latin New Testament. He collected all the Vulgate manuscripts he could find to create a critical edition. Then he polished the Latin. He declared, "It is only fair that Paul should address the Romans in somewhat better Latin."[9] In the earlier phases of the project, he never mentioned a Greek text:

"My mind is so excited at the thought of emending Jerome’s text, with notes, that I seem to myself inspired by some god. I have already almost finished emending him by collating a large number of ancient manuscripts, and this I am doing at enormous personal expense."[10]

While his intentions for publishing a fresh Latin translation are clear, it is less clear why he included the Greek text. Though some speculate that he intended on producing a critical Greek text or that he wanted to beat the Complutensian Polyglot into print, there is no evidence to support this. Rather his motivations seems to be simpler: he included the Greek text to prove the superiority of his Latin version. He wrote, "There remains the New Testament translated by me, with the Greek facing, and notes on it by me."[11] He further demonstrated the reason for the inclusion of the Greek text when defending his work:

"But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep."[12]

Erasmus's new work was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and thence became the first published Greek New Testament, the Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. The second edition used the more familiar term Testamentum instead of Instrumentum, and eventually became a major source for Luther's German translation.

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").[13] He fixed many but not all of the resulting mistakes in the second edition, published in 1519.[8] The Comma does not appear until the third edition, published in 1522.[14]

Greek New Testament published at 1524,
missing the Comma Johanneum

Its absence from the first two editions has traditionally been explained as the result of the animosity this provoked among churchmen and scholars, led by Lopez de Zúñiga, one of the Complutensian editors. Erasmus is said to have replied to these critics that the Comma did not occur in any of the Greek manuscripts he could find, but that he would add it to future editions if it appeared in a single Greek manuscript.[8] Such a manuscript was subsequently concocted by a Franciscan, and Erasmus, true to his word, added the Comma to his 1522 edition, but with a lengthy footnote setting out his suspicion that the manuscript had been prepared expressly to confute him. This third edition became a chief source for the King James Version, thereby fixing the Comma firmly in the English-language scriptures for centuries.[8]

The story of Erasmus' promise has been accepted as fact by scholars, repeated by even so eminent an authority as Bruce M. Metzger.[15] Nevertheless, it can be traced back no further than the first decades of the 19th century, and a 1980 paper by Professor H.J. De Jonge concludes that no such promise was ever made by Erasmus, and that he never suspected the fraudulent Codex Britannicus (MM 61, the text prepared by the Franciscan) of having been written with the express purpose of forcing him to include the Comma. Rather, Erasmus included the Comma because he wished to avoid any suspicion of personal unorthodoxy which might undermine the acceptance of his translation:

"For the sake of his ideal Erasmus chose to avoid any occasion for slander rather than persisting in philological accuracy and thus condemning himself to impotence. That was the reason why Erasmus included the Comma Johanneum even though he remained convinced that it did not belong to the original text of l John."[16]

The term Textus Receptus commonly refers to one of Erasmus's later editions or one of the works derived from them. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, a 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.[13]

Isaac Newton (1643–1727), 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, he summed up the history of the comma and his own belief that it 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 ripe with corruption:[17]

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.[18]

Modern views

Comma in Codex Ottobonianus (629 Gregory-Aland)

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. (Very few branches of modern Christianity are non-Trinitarian, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), for example, rejects the Comma as an example of how spurious additions change the meaning of holy texts).[19] Mainstream Christianity therefore accepts the underlying theology of the Johannine Comma, whether or not they hold it to be a part of the First Epistle of John.

The history of the comma in the centuries following the Textus Receptus has been one of initial acceptance followed by near-total rejection. This history is summed up in the Introduction to the 1808 New Testament in an improved version, upon the basis of Archbishop Newcome's new translation, which did not contain the Comma Johanneum, where the editors explained their reasons for rejecting the Textus Receptus as follows: "1. This text concerning the heavenly witnesses is not contained in any Greek manuscript which was written earlier than the fifteenth century. 2. Nor in any Latin manuscript earlier than the ninth century. 3. It is not found in any of the ancient versions. 4. It is not cited by any of the Greek ecclesiastical writers, though to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they have cited the words both before and after this text 5. It is not cited by any of the early Latin fathers, even when the subjects upon which they treat would naturally have led them to appeal to its authority. 6. It is first cited by Vigilius Tapsensis, a Latin writer of no credit, in the latter end of the fifth century, and by him it is suspected to have been forged. 7. It has been omitted as spurious in many editions of the New Testament since the Reformation:—in the two first of Erasmus, in those of Aldus, Colinaus, Zwinglius, and lately of Griesbach. 8. It was omitted by Luther in his German version. In the old English Bibles of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth, it was printed in small types, or included in brackets: but between the years 1566 and 1580 it began to be printed as it now stands; by whose authority, is not known."[20] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible, an edition of the King James Version published in 1873, and edited by noted textual scholar F.H.A. Scrivener, one of the translators of the English Revised Version, set the Comma in italics to reflect its disputed authenticity, though not all later editions retain this formatting. Modern Bible translations such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV and others tend to either omit the Comma entirely, or relegate it to the footnotes.[21]

The Roman Catholic Church was slower to reject the comma. The Council of Trent in 1546 defined the Biblical canon as "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," meaning that the comma was included. Yet although the revised Vulgate contained the Comma, the earliest known copies did not, leaving the status of the Comma Johanneum unclear.[4] On 13 January 1897, during a period of reaction in the Church, the 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[4]—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, the more liberal Pope Pius XI decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute. The updated Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate), published in 1979 following Second Vatican Council, does not include the Comma,[22] 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.[23]

Manuscript evidence

Griesbach's critical edition of the New Testament explaining at the footnote the reasons for the textual rejection of the Comma Johanneum.

Both Novum Testamentum Graece (NA27) and the United Bible Societies (UBS4) provide three variants. The numbers here follow UBS4, which rates its preference for the first variant as { A }, meaning "virtually certain" to reflect the original text. The second variant is a longer Greek version found in only four manuscripts, the margins of three others and in some minority variant readings of lectionaries. All of the hundreds of other Greek manuscripts that contain 1 John support the first variant. The third variant is found only in Latin, in one class of Vulgate manuscripts and three patristic works. The other two Vulgate traditions omit the Comma, as do more than a dozen major Church Fathers who quote the verses. The Latin variant is considered a trinitarian gloss,[24] explaining or paralleled by the second Greek variant.

  1. No Comma. μαρτυροῦντες, τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα. [... witnessing, the spirit and the water and the blood.] Select evidence: Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, and other codices; Uncial 048, 049, 056, 0142; the text of Minuscules 33, 81, 88, 104, and other minuscules; the Byzantine majority text; the majority of Lectionaries, in particular the menologion of Lectionary 598; the Old Latin (codices Vercellensis IV and Schlettstadtensis VII/VIII), Vulgate (John Wordsworth and Henry Julian White edition and the Stuttgart), Syriac, Coptic (both Sahidic and Bohairic), and other translations; Irenaeus (died 202), Clement of Alexandria (died 215), Tertullian (died 220), Hippolytus of Rome (died 235), Origen (died 254), Cyprian (died 258), and other quotations in the Church Fathers.
  2. The Comma in Greek. All non-lectionary evidence cited: Minuscules 61 (Codex Montfortianus, c. 1520), 629 (Codex Ottobonianus, 14/15th cent.), 918 (16th cent.), 2318 (18th cent.).
  3. The Comma at the margins of Greek at the margins of minuscules 88 (Codex Regis, 11th cent. with margins added at the 16th cent.), 221 (10th cent. with margins added at the 15/16th cent.), 429 (14th cent. with margins added at the 16th cent.), 636 (16th cent.); some minority variant readings in lectionaries.
  4. The Comma in Latin. testimonium dicunt [or dant] in terra, spiritus [or: spiritus et] aqua et sanguis, et hi tres unum sunt in Christo Iesu. 8 et tres sunt, qui testimonium dicunt in caelo, pater verbum et spiritus. [... giving evidence on earth, spirit, water and blood, and these three are one in Christ Jesus. 8 And the three, which give evidence in heaven, are father word and spirit.] All evidence from Fathers cited: Clemantine edition of Vulgate translation; Pseudo Augustine's Speculum Peccatoris (V), also (with some variation) Priscillian (died 385) Liber Apologeticus and Fulgentius of Ruspe (died 527) Responsio contra Arianos.

The gradual appearance of the comma in the manuscript evidence is represented in the following tables:

Latin manuscripts
Date Name Place Other information
7th cent. Palimpsest Leon Cathedral Spanish
7th cent. Fragment of Freisling   Spanish
9th cent. Codex Cavensis   Spanish
927 A.D. Codex Complutensis I   Spanish
10th cent. Codex Toletanus   Spanish
8th-9th cent. Codex Theodulphianus Paris (BnF) Franco-Spanish
8th-9th cent. Some manuscripts
of the Sangallense library
Greek manuscripts
Date Manuscript No. Name Place Other information
14th-15th cent. 629 Codex Ottobonianus Vatican Original.
Latin text along the Greek text,
revised to conform to the Latin.
The Comma was translated and copied back into the Greek from the Latin.
c. 1520 61 Codex Montfortianus Dublin Original.
Reads "Holy Spirit" instead of simply "Spirit".
Articles are missing before the "three witnesses" (spirit, water, blood).
16th cent. 918   Escorial
16th cent. 110 Codex Ravianus
(also called Berolinensis)
Naples Original.
18th cent. 2318   Bucharest Original.
Thought to be influenced
by the Clementine Vulgate.
10th cent. 221   Oxford Marginal gloss: 15th ή 16th cent.
11th cent. 88 Codex Regis Naples Marginal gloss: 16th cent.
14th cent. 429 Codex Wolfenbüttel Wolfenbüttel
Marginal gloss: 16th cent.
16th cent. 636   Naples Marginal gloss: 16th cent.
11th cent. 635   Naples Marginal gloss: 17th cent.

Grammar argument

In the 19th century Frederick Nolan [25][26] and Robert Dabney [27] separately published a grammatical justification for the Comma. They noted that the words “Spirit”, “water” and “Blood" in 1 John 5:8, found outside the Comma, though grammatically neuter, are immediately preceded by the masculine phrase “the ones bearing witness," and they suggested that this was the result of grammatical gender agreement with the masculine nouns "Father" and "Word" within the Comma. The argument has gained little support among scholars, who do not see it as outweighing the textual analysis described above. The argument of Nolan and Dabney that grammatical gender agreement with the multiple neuter nouns "Spirit" and "water" and "Blood" should occur if John did not write the Comma and that grammatical gender agreement with the multiple masculine nouns "Father" and "Word" in the Comma does occur, thus proving that John wrote the Comma, is not well-based in terms of Greek grammar, as grammatical gender agreement with multiple nouns never occurs in the New Testament. Two other grammar-based explanations have been advanced. Howard Marshall suggests that although Spirit, water and Blood are all neuter in Greek, John regarded the "Spirit" as a Person and used the masculine gender to acknowledge this, leading to the personification also of "water" and "Blood."[28] This explanation, however, makes little sense, given that the phrase "the thing bearing witness," used in reference to the "Spirit" in the immediately preceding verse, has been allowed to remain neuter. Alternatively, Daniel B. Wallace suggests that the masculine phrase "the ones bearing witness" may be taking its gender from the “men” in the phrase “the witness of the men” in verse 5:9, with whom John is equating “the Spirit and the water and the Blood”.[29]

See also


  1. ^ (Jaroslav Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, Penguin Books Ltd, 2005, p. 156)
  2. ^ Nova Vulgata
  3. ^ "Fragments of Clemens Alexandrius", translated by Rev. William Wilson, section 3.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Catholic Encyclopedia, "Epistles of St John"
  5. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1993.
  6. ^ Clontz, T.E. and J., "The Comprehensive New Testament", Cornerstone Publications (2008), p. 709, ISBN 978-0-977873-71-5
  7. ^ a b Daniel B. Wallace, "The Comma Johanneum and Cyprian".
  8. ^ a b c d Theodore H. Mann, "Textual problems in the KJV New Testament", in: Journal of Biblical Studies 1 (January–March 2001).
  9. ^ "Epistle 695" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 5: Letters 594 to 841, 1517-1518 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 172.
  10. ^ "Epistle 273" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 2: Letters 142 to 297, 1501-1514 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated Wallace K. Ferguson; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 253.
  11. ^ "Epistle 305" in Collected Works of Erasmus. Vol. 3: Letters 298 to 445, 1514-1516 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 32.
  12. ^ "Epistle 337" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 3, 134.
  13. ^ a b "History of the Printed Text", in: New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. II: Basilica – Chambers, p. 106 ff.
  14. ^ Robert Waltz, Textus Receptus.
  15. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2d ed., (Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 101.
  16. ^ HJ de Jonge, 'Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum', Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 56 (1980): 381–389.
  17. ^ Newton Project, Newton's Views on the Corruptions of Scripture and the Church.
  18. ^ A. Zahoor, Sir Isaac Newton on the Bible.
  19. ^ Marc A. Schindler, "The Johannine Comma: Bad Translation, Bad Theology", in: Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, 3 (Fall 1996).
  20. ^ New Testament in an improved version, upon the basis of Archbishop Newcome's new translation, 1808, London, p. 563.
  21. ^ NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV translations
  22. ^ Nova Vulgata, "Epistula I Ioannis".
  23. ^ Thomas M. Strouse, "Fundamentalism and the Authorized Version".
  24. ^ John Painter, Daniel J. Harrington. 1, 2, and 3 John
  25. ^ Frederick Nolan, An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate or Received Text of the New Testament, chapter 4, pages 254-261
  26. ^ Frederick Nolan, An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate or Received Text of the New Testament, chapter 6, pages 564-565
  27. ^ Robert L. Dabney, Discussions by Robert L. Dabney, Volume I, Theological and Evangelical, The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek, pages 377-378
  28. ^ I. Howard Marshall, "The Epistles of John", p.237, fn.20
  29. ^ Daniel B. Wallace, "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics", (p.332, fn.44)

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