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Sean FinneganThe Story Behind The Comma Johanneum (1 John 5.7)


How the Most Trinitarian Verse in the Bible Proves that the

Bible Does Not Support the Trinity

by Sean Finnegan

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The most Trinitarian verse in the Bible is found in 1 John 5.7 where the text reads “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”[1]   Recently in conversation with an acquaintance, I was challenged to accept the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of this text.  However, this scripture is fraught with difficulties and its history is long and dubious, involving both Greek and Latin manuscripts.  Before turning to examine the Latin and Greek histories, I will begin by comparing two of the best known and most influential translations in English and German to more recent ones so as to demonstrate the exact difference between them.  The words in italics are known as the Comma Johanneum (henceforth Comma).

King James Version (1611)

English Standard Version (2008)

7 For there are three that beare record in heauen, the Father, the Word, and the holy Ghost: and these three are one.  8 And there are three that beare witnesse in earth, the Spirit, and the Water, and the Blood, and these three agree in one.

7 For there are three that testify:

8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

 

Luther’s Translation (1545)

German Schlachter Version (1951)

7 Denn drei sind, die da zeugen im Himmel: der Vater, das Wort und der Heilige Geist; und diese drei sind eins. 8 Und drei sind, die da zeugen auf Erden: der Geist und das Wasser und das Blut; und die drei sind beisammen.

8 Denn drei sind es, die bezeugen:

der Geist und das Wasser und das Blut, und die drei sind einig.

 

It is hard to estimate how much these two versions, the King James Version (KJV) and Luther’s Bible, have influenced untold multitudes of Christians for centuries.  How many countless teachers have pointed to this text to explain the doctrine of the Trinity over the years?  How often was it used to silence those who doubted the beloved dogma when they encountered the plethora of monotheistic statements in Scripture?  Although these words have cast a great shadow, virtually all modern versions have either deleted them altogether or else relegated them to the footnotes.  This is particularly remarkable because almost all translations are completed by scholars who affirm the Trinity.  For example, Trinitarian apologist and debater, James White, writes, “Anyone who defends the insertion of the Comma is, to me, outside the realm of meaningful scholarship…”[2]   One might ask, “How did we get from the two most influential versions in German and English to where we are today?”  To put the question this way is to subtly miss the facts of the matter.  The question does not concern how and why it was deleted, but rather how and why it was inserted in the first place, and this will be my angle of pursuit in what follows.  In order to tackle this question I now turn to examine some of its Latin history.

Latin History
Latin was the legal language of the Roman Empire and eventually became the ecclesiastical language of the Roman Catholic Church.  Since most inhabitants of the Roman empire spoke Greek in the first century, and Christianity was an intensely evangelistic movement from the start, the New Testament (NT) was penned in common Greek.  Over time, however, the empire came to be increasingly divided between east and west.  Once Constantinople was no longer able to retain political control over the west, Latin came to gain more and more popularity there, while Greek continued to flourish in the east.  Eventually the catholic (i.e. universal) church became the Roman Catholic Church (in the west) and the Orthodox Church (in the east) until at last Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.  So, although early Christian literature is almost entirely in Greek, Latin came to dominate ecclesiastical matters in Europe.  As we will see, this shift from Greek to Latin played a crucial role in the story of the Comma Johanneum.  Below I have listed three Latin versions from youngest to oldest:

Nova Vulgata (1986)

Quia tres sunt, qui testificantur: Spiritus et aqua et sanguis; et hi tres in unum sunt.

For there are three who testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are in agreement.

Clementine Vulgate (1589)

Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in caelo: Pater, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres unum sunt. Et tres sunt, qui testimonium dant in terra: spiritus, et aqua, et sanguis: et hi tres unum sunt.

Indeed there are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one.  And there are three who give testimony on earth: the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one.

Stuttgart Vulgate (1983, critical reconstruction from earliest and best manuscripts)

quia tres sunt qui testimonium dant Spiritus et aqua et sanguis et tres unum sunt

For there are three who give testimony: the Spirit and the water and the blood and the three are one.

 

The Nova Vulgata is a recent version of the Vulgate that is printed and endorsed by See of Rome for use in the Roman rite.  This twentieth century text does not include the Comma.  However, as we move back to a massively-influential earlier version, the Clementine Vulgate, we observe that the Comma was included.  However, if we move still earlier to Jerome’s Vulgate[3] (as near as modern critical scholars can get to the 405 edition) the Comma is once again nowhere to be found.  This is certainly a strange pattern, but one that makes sense on inspection.  The earliest and best manuscripts of the Latin Bible did not contain the Comma.  At some point in time the added words crept into a manuscript, which was then used to make new copies.  Eventually this variant gained more and more popularity until it became the majority reading.  By 1589 the Comma was officially recognized as Scripture by Rome’s choice to include it in the Clementine Vulgate.  Centuries later, as the field of textual criticism developed along with archeology and paleography, it became clear that the Comma was not in the original Vulgate so it was taken out.  Even though Jerome (347-420) did not include the Comma in his work, it is likely that there was at least one manuscript already floating around by the end of the fourth century since a bishop named Priscillian quoted it.

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[1]James White, Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog, http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=1275 (accessed on 25 May 2011).

[2]New King James Version (NKJV), translated in 1982 by Thomas Nelson.


[3]Damasus I, bishop of Rome, commissioned Jerome to revise the old Latin translations in the late fourth century.




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