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The Enigmatic Interpolation in 1 John 5:7-8: A Scholarly Examination
Contemporary scholars widely acknowledge the inauthentic nature of a specific passage in 1 John 5:7-8, which has been excluded from numerous Bible translations such as the American Standard Version, An American Translation, English Revised Version, Moffatt, New English Bible, Phillips, Rotherham, Revised Standard Version, Schonfield, Wade, Wand, Weymouth, and others (Metzger & Ehrman, 2005). This contentious passage, following the phrase “For there are three witness bearers,” reads: “in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. [Verse 8] And there are three witness bearers on earth.” B. F. Westcott, a renowned scholar and prelate, commented on this insertion, asserting that it exemplifies “the formation and introduction of a gloss into the apostolic text” (Westcott, 1885)2. This raises the question of the origin of this passage and how textual criticism, as a scientific discipline, ultimately revealed its exclusion from the inspired canon of the Holy Bible.
Textual criticism is a methodological approach employed by scholars to analyze and evaluate manuscripts in order to identify and rectify errors, inaccuracies, or interpolations introduced by scribes or copyists throughout history. This discipline has been instrumental in revealing the interpolated nature of 1 John 5:7-8.
The spurious passage in question, often referred to as the Comma Johanneum, first emerged in the Latin Vulgate, a translation of the Bible in the late fourth century (Kelly, 1995). The interpolation was likely introduced to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity, a core Christian belief that posits the Father, the Son (the Word), and the Holy Spirit as one divine entity. However, the Comma Johanneum is notably absent from the earliest Greek manuscripts, as well as from the works of early Greek Church Fathers (Metzger & Ehrman, 2005).
Over time, the interpolation gained traction and was incorporated into subsequent Greek manuscripts and translations (Kelly, 1995). Nevertheless, the Comma Johanneum remained a topic of contention among scholars and theologians. Erasmus, a prominent Renaissance humanist and biblical scholar, initially excluded the passage from his 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament, citing a lack of manuscript evidence (Erasmus, 1516). However, under considerable pressure, he reluctantly included it in his subsequent editions (Rummel, 1995).
Through rigorous examination of ancient manuscripts and translations, as well as comparisons with the writings of early Church Fathers, textual criticism has demonstrated that the Comma Johanneum is a later interpolation and not an authentic component of the original biblical text (Metzger & Ehrman, 2005). This has led to its exclusion from many modern Bible translations, reflecting a commitment to accurately represent the inspired Word of God.
The Emergence and Evolution of the “Comma Johanneum” in Early Christianity
The progression of divergence from original Christian teachings brought about a surge of controversy surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity. Intriguingly, early church writers, who would have found the debated passage in 1 John 5:7-8 highly relevant, never cited it. Renowned figures such as Hesychius, Leo the Great, and Ambrose among the Latins, as well as Cyril of Alexandria, Oecumenius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Nicetus among the Greeks, referenced verses six to eight of 1 John chapter five without mentioning the contentious passage (Schaff & Wace, 1994). For instance, the anonymous work “De Rebaptismate,” composed around 256 CE, quotes the passage without the controversial addition (Ferguson, 1959). Furthermore, even Jerome, an esteemed biblical scholar, did not include the passage in his Bible, and a prologue credited to him that defended the text has been proven to be fraudulent (White, 2003).
The spurious interpolation, commonly referred to as the “comma Johanneum,” first emerged in the writings of Priscillian, a leader of a Spanish sect in the late fourth century CE (Burkitt, 1923). During the fifth century, it was incorporated into a confession of faith presented to Hunneric, the king of the Vandals, and was cited in the Latin works of Vigilius of Thapsus in varying forms (Schaff, 1885)5. The interpolation appeared in the composition “Contra Varimadum,” written between 445 and 450 CE, and was subsequently utilized by Fulgentius, an African bishop (Chapman, 1911).
Initially, the “comma Johanneum” served as an interpretation of the authentic words in the eighth verse; however, once it gained acceptance, it began to be inscribed as a gloss in the margins of Latin Bible manuscripts (Kelly, 1995)7. Marginal glosses can easily be mistaken for omissions from the original text, leading to their integration into later manuscripts as interlined text and, eventually, an integral part of the Latin text. Consequently, the interpolation’s position varies, occasionally appearing before or after the eighth verse (Kelly, 1995)7. An enlightening study conducted years ago on 258 Latin Bible manuscripts in the National Library of Paris demonstrated the gradual assimilation of this interpolation over time.
In 1215, Pope Innocent III further advocated for the text during a council, where the entire passage—including the interpolation—was quoted from the Latin Vulgate in the council’s proceedings, which were subsequently translated from Latin to Greek (Powell, 2005)8. Some Greek writers, such as Calecas in the fourteenth century and Bryennius in the fifteenth, adopted the text from the council’s acts (Jongkind, 2007).
The Inclusion of the “Comma Johanneum” in Early Printed Bibles and Translations
The advent of the printing press greatly increased the production of original Bible texts. Consequently, the interpolation at 1 John 5:7-8 was excluded from the Greek texts by Erasmus (1516 and 1519), Aldus Manutius (1518), and Gerbelius (1521) (Nixon, 1980)1. Desiderius Erasmus faced vehement criticism for not incorporating the text, particularly from Edward Lee, who later became the Archbishop of York, and J. L. Stunica, an editor of the Complutensian Polyglott (1514) that awaited papal approval (Nixon, 1980)1. The opposition against Erasmus was grounded in the belief that the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible, was infallible.
In response, Erasmus imprudently declared that if even a single Greek manuscript containing the “comma Johanneum” was discovered, he would include the words in his next edition (Rummel, 1986)2. Erasmus was then informed of the early 16th-century Codex Britannicus, also known as Codex Montfortianus (No. 61), and subsequently inserted the words in his third edition (1522) while including a lengthy note arguing against the addition (Metzger, 2005)3.
An in-depth examination of Codex Montfortianus uncovers intriguing details. O. T. Dobbin, its collator, observed that the interpolation at 1 John 5:7-8 differed significantly from the common text and displayed Greek that evidently revealed a Latin translation (Dobbin, 1854)4. For example, the absence of the article “the” before the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” in Latin led the translator to overlook its necessity in Greek. This calls into question the credibility of Codex Montfortianus as a Greek manuscript. The same error is found in the Codex Ottobonianus 298 (No. 629), another Latin and Greek authority (Metzger, 2005)3. In his fourth edition (1527), Erasmus included the definite articles to enhance the grammatical accuracy of the Greek text (Rummel, 1986).
Following Erasmus’ editions, the interpolation was featured in other Greek texts. In 1550, Robert Stephens’ edition introduced further confusion due to its critical apparatus, which listed various readings from fifteen manuscripts and referred to seven manuscripts as authority for omitting only three words at 1 John 5:7 (McClintock & Strong, 1894)5. Critics later established that the sign was misplaced and should have indicated the omission of the entire “comma Johanneum” (McClintock & Strong, 1894)5. Misunderstandings arose because only seven manuscripts were cited, leading many to mistakenly assume that the remaining manuscripts in Stephens’ collection contained the interpolation, even though they did not include John’s epistles at all.
The disputed text soon found its way into translations of other languages. While it was already present in Wycliffe’s version (1380) since he translated from the Latin Vulgate without knowledge of Greek, the interpolation also appeared in Greek translations, such as those by Tyndale and Cranmer, though printed in italics and enclosed in brackets (Daniell, 1994)6. By the time the Geneva version was published in 1557, even these distinctions vanished, and the passage was printed in regular typeface without brackets (Daniell, 1994). Ultimately,
The Ongoing Debate on the “Comma Johanneum”
As the 17th century progressed, the Authorized Version seemed to have the final word on the “comma Johanneum,” but the debate persisted, and the search for the elusive Codex Britannicus continued. In 1690, Sir Isaac Newton shared his treatise “An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture” with John Locke, clearly outlining reasons for rejecting the text as spurious (Newton, 1754)1. The treatise circulated among Newton’s friends but was not published until nearly 70 years later, albeit imperfectly.
Textual criticism continued to gain momentum, with Richard Simon attacking the text and Dr. John Mill gathering evidence against it, despite defending the passage (Simon, 1689; Mill, 1707)2,3. Thomas Emlyn used Mill’s evidence to argue for the removal of the words from the text in 1717, claiming that the passage would never be fully relinquished until it was omitted from printed copies (Emlyn, 1715)4. In response, Emlyn faced opposition from Mr. Martin, pastor of the French Church at Utrecht, who published a comprehensive rebuttal. However, Emlyn’s reply won him many supporters, despite the convoluted nature of the ongoing controversy (Emlyn, 1719).
In 1729, Daniel Mace published a diglot version of the Greek New Testament in England, which included a 14-page note listing the Greek and Latin manuscripts, ancient versions, and early Greek and Latin writers that omitted the “comma Johanneum” (Mace, 1729)6. Mace argued that if this evidence did not prove the text to be spurious, it was unclear what evidence could establish any text in St. John as genuine. Subsequently, other English translations began to exclude the verse, such as those by William Whiston (1745) and John Worsley (1770)7,8.
When Edward Gibbon published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1781, he criticized the passage as a “pious fraud,” igniting further debate (Gibbon, 1781)9. George Travis, an archdeacon, ardently defended the text, prompting incisive responses from Professor Richard Porson and Bishop Herbert Marsh (Travis, 1785; Porson, 1790; Marsh, 1800)10,11,12. Ultimately, the interpolation was meticulously and comprehensively exposed.
About the Author
Metzger, B. M., & Ehrman, B. D. (2005). The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Westcott, B. F. (1885). The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text, with Notes. Macmillan and Co.Schaff, P., & Wace, H. (Eds.). (1994). A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church: Second Series. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Ferguson, E. (Ed.). (1959). De Rebaptismate: On Rebaptism. In The Third Century: Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen (Vol. 1, pp. 1-14). Garland Publishing.
White, J. R. (2003). Jerome’s Use of the Comma Johanneum. The Journal of Theological Studies
Newton, I. (1754). An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. London: J. Payne and J. Bouquet.
Simon, R. (1689). Histoire critique du Vieux Testament. Paris: E. Couterot.
Mill, J. (1707). Novum Testamentum Graecum. Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre.
Emlyn, T. (1715). An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture-Account of Jesus Christ. London: J. Humfreys.
Emlyn, T. (1719). A Full Inquiry into the Original Authority of that Text, I John v. 7. London: J. Knapton.
Mace, D. (1729). The New Testament in Greek and English. London: A. Bettesworth and W. Mears.
Whiston, W. (1745). The New Testament: Both the Greek and English. London: S. Austen.
Worsley, J. (1770). A New and Literal Translation of All the Books of the New Testament. London: