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On the Comma Johanneum

Daniel J. Castellano (2002)

The authenticity of the Johannine Comma has been hotly disputed, on account of it being the most explicit Scriptural witness to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Advocates of the Comma generally feel that its excision from Scripture would somehow undermine doctrine or the reliability of Scripture, and it must be admitted that many opponents of the Comma have fueled such misgivings by using it as an evidence that the Scriptures were deliberately corrupted for theological purposes. I intend to show that the theological weight of the Comma is greatly overrated, and that the dispute is therefore purely an academic one. Nonetheless, I will review the basic arguments and evidences surrounding the Comma, and attempt to account for its retention and omission by various denominations.

In most modern critical texts, which omit the Comma even as an alternate reading, 1 John 5:6-8 reads:

6This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the spirit is truth. 7So there are three that testify, 8the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are one.

Texts with the Comma would render verses 7 and 8: “There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one, and three that testify on earth, the spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.” This extended version was universally present in Tridentine Bibles, and remained in the Latin Vulgate until the Second Vatican Council.

On purely intrinsic grounds, the Johannine Comma seems a bit out of place. The sixth verse identifies water and blood, followed by the Spirit, as witnesses, so it makes more sense to immediately mention the Spirit, the water and the blood as witnesses, rather than mention the Trinity. Also, verse 6 clearly refers to the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of truth, in keeping with the usage of 1 John 4. It would be strange, therefore, for this Spirit to be considered an earthly witness as in the Comma’s version of verse 8, especially when He is also invoked as a heavenly witness. The short version has no mention of “earth,” since this distinction between earth and heaven is made necessary by the insertion of the Comma, whereas the excision of the Comma would not require the omission of the word “earth,” except to avoid the seeming contradiction of sense with verse 6. We further note that the Comma’s usage of “Holy Spirit” rather than simply “Spirit” is at odds with the rest of the Epistle. These observations do not positively exclude the Comma’s authenticity, but they definitely weaken the case that the Comma ought to be retained on account of its necessity to the text. One of the weightier aspects of this claim is the consideration that the Greek treiV, “three,” is in the masculine, when it ought to be conjugated in the neuter if it refers to three neuter objects: spirit, blood, and water. However, this irregular usage exists even in the Comma’s version, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, so it is not a strong consideration. If we are going to quibble about Greek, we may note that in both versions the eighth verse uses the proposition eiV, which indicates that the three (earthly) witnesses are “into” or “towards” one, whereas the three heavenly witnesses are simply equated: they are one. Once again, this makes the Comma look like an awkward interpolation.

Considering the Comma as an interpolated gloss, the interpolator no doubt affirmed an explicit Trinitarian doctrine, as evidenced by his omission of the proposition eiV. Yet if we were to regard it as part of the original text, we would surely be taking it out of context by using it as a proof of the Trinity, for the three heavenly witnesses are one primarily in the sense that the three earthly witnesses are one: they all testify to the same thing, that Jesus is the Son of the God, which is the main thrust of the passage. No one would use this passage to prove that the spirit, water, and blood are of one substance, so it would be dubious to hold the same of the heavenly witnesses. Since the Comma is not an effective proof of the consubstantial nature of the Trinity except to those who already believe the doctrine, no question of doctrine depends on the reading of this passage.

Even though the Comma may not be authentic, this does not mean that it is not true. In fact, we may glean the substance of the Comma from elsewhere in the Epistle. The substance of the Comma, that the three heavenly witnesses do in fact testify that Jesus is the Son of God, is easily verified by the surrounding text. Verse 9 says, “Now the testimony of God (qeoV) is this: that He has testified on behalf of His Son.” qeoV obviously refers, here as elsewhere in the New Testament, to God the Father. It is self-evident that the Word, who is the Son, testifies on His own behalf, and we had just been told by Verse 6 that the Spirit of truth testifies as well. In fact, 1 John 4:2 tells us that we can know the Spirit of God by whether it acknowledges Jesus. Thus the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit do testify on behalf of Jesus, and the Comma’s mention of these three heavenly witnesses is therefore redundant.

We have seen how the Comma’s theological significance has been overrated, and this may help to explain why it has been little used in Trinitarian arguments even by those who were aware of its existence, which may partially account for the silence of earlier Church Fathers on this issue. Apart from the issue of whether the Comma’s presence affects theology, we may approach the Comma’s authenticity as a simple question of fact, simply by examining whether it was known to various Church Fathers. St. Cyprian is a possible witness to the Comma, but his testimony may itself be a gloss on Scripture rather than a direct quotation. Aside from those who refer to Cyprian, the Eastern Fathers are silent about the Comma, and in the West it is nowhere to be mentioned in any of the voluminous treatises of St. Augustine, even though the Comma was seemingly invoked shortly after his time in a council at Carthage. A preface to St. Jerome’s translation of the Epistles explicitly approves of the Comma. Unfortunately, this preface was probably not written by St. Jerome, but decades later; nevertheless, it serves as an important witness to the Comma. Even if we accept these early Western witnesses, it is unclear how to account for the complete silence of the Eastern Church on this matter.

We may now turn to the manuscript evidence, which is the major basis for excluding the Comma from the canon of Scripture. For, whatever may be said about the speculative nature of internal source criticism, external criticism is easily the most empirical aspect of historical study. The results in this case are unequivocal: there are no early Greek manuscript witnesses to the Comma. There are only eight pre-modern manuscripts that do record the Comma, but these all date to the late Byzantine period or later, and show dependence on Latin manuscripts in other respects. The weight of this silence is mitigated by the fact that the Epistles of John are present in relatively few early manuscripts. A stronger case for authenticity might be made in the West, where there are some Latin manuscripts dating back as early as the eighth century which record the Comma, and these contain many Old Latin readings. Most of these manuscripts, however, contain the Comma as a marginal note. Even if it could be proved that many of the Old Latin manuscripts contained the Comma, this would be little proof of its authenticity in the face of its absence from the Greek. As St. Jerome tells us, the Old Latin manuscripts were filled with corruptions, glosses, interpolations, and other contradictions, so much so that there was not anything resembling a universally accepted text. For this reason, he made his Vulgate translation by correcting the Old Latin against the Greek, retaining the Old Latin only when the true reading could not be unambiguously ascertained.

This raises the question of whether the Comma appeared in St. Jerome’s Vulgate. If we could answer in the affirmative, it would greatly improve the possibility of the Comma’s authenticity, for we know that Jerome was an eminently competent scholar who had available to him Greek manuscripts which were undoubtedly older and textually superior to any which are now extant. Lamentably, reconstructing St. Jerome’s text is a difficult matter, since, in the early Middle Ages, those who were scandalized by St. Jerome’s “new” Vulgate restored traditional Old Latin readings to some of the Vulgate manuscripts, and the Comma Johanneum may be an example of this. The Comma appears to have been prevalent first in North Africa, and from there to have entered the rest of the Church. If we could prove that the Comma was in the original Vulgate, this could be a case where St. Jerome simply retained the Old Latin reading out of caution, though it is doubtful he would have done so had there been no Greek witnesses. The Catholic Church preserved the Comma in the Clementine Vulgate, since by then it had spread to the vast majority of manuscripts, though this was not the case in the Middle Ages. The last serious attempt to restore the original text of St. Jerome was that ordered by Pope St. Pius X, and this version retains the Comma. Of course, the Comma may have been retained simply in keeping with papal admonitions that the Comma ought not to be discarded without serious cause. The current Nova Vulgata lacks the Comma, but it is an intermediate critical text, not an attempt to restore the original Vulgate.

There are at least three groups who have a vested interest in preserving the Comma: traditionalist Catholics, King James Version-only enthusiasts, and partisans of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. These latter share with the Catholics a necessary conviction that the true Scripture must have been continually preserved by the Church, whereas the KJV-only Christians have a view of the sufficiency of the Authorized Version which borders on the legends held of the Septuagint, that the translation was itself inspired and infallible. In this too there is some intersection with Catholic popular belief, though St. Jerome himself would have been the first to deny that his translation (or anything other than the original text) of Scripture was inspired, and many of his resentful contemporaries would have been happy to agree with him. So while there are three groups, there are really two issues: the inspired character of particular translations, and the divine guarantee that the Scriptures will be preserved.

Strictly speaking, the doctrine that translations of Scripture are divinely inspired is indefensible except by recourse to popular beliefs which have never been considered de fide by the entire Church. In fact, it would positively contradict the Catholic belief, which is de fide, that all public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle. Nonetheless, for most of her history, much of the Church has studied the Sacred Scriptures exclusively in translation, and translation is always to some extent an interpretive act, but then, so is reading. The authenticity of an edition of Scripture is relevant to its usefulness for expounding doctrine. The Council of Trent decreed that the Vulgate is not doctrinally lacking, so it is to be normative for theology and liturgy. This is not the same as saying that the Vulgate preserves the original text, only that no doctrine is obscured or distorted on account of any imperfections the text may have. Trent defined the Vulgate as all the parts of those books the Council enumerates, which were then used in practically all Catholic Churches, and was the text of St. Jerome. The issue is not one of absolute textual integrity, but of doctrinal soundness, and no Christian disputes the doctrinal soundness of the Johannine Comma. Nonetheless, the Tridentine exhortation to preserve all of the parts of Scripture has been taken very seriously by Catholics, and the omission of even a verse would seem to contradict Trent’s infallible definition of the canon. This need not be the case, so long as the Catholic does not deny that the excised verse teaches sound doctrine. If it were proved that the Comma existed both in the original Vulgate and in that universally used in the sixteenth century, a Catholic would be bound to admit that the verse was authentic, and not reject it on any pretext. This doctrinal stance is derived not from a belief that the translation of Jerome is divinely inspired, but from a broader view that the universal Church (acting through the ecumenical Council of Trent in this case) could not teach error.

Since sacred Scripture is an essential part of the deposit of faith, it is necessary, in keeping with Christ’s promises to His Church, that nothing be falsely presented to the universal Church as being part of Holy Scripture. Protestants as well as Catholics share this concern, and while they dispute whether the original text was best preserved by the Latin or Greek traditions, it is equally scandalous to both that an uncanonical gloss should be universally held as Scripture for an extended period of time. In a sense, the issue is moot, since the Comma does not teach error, nor has the Church, even in the post-Tridentine period, ever demanded that the Comma be accepted as canonical, but only gave strong admonitions against discarding it. It is not enough for something to be widely believed in the Church for it to be de fide; it must be widely held as an article of faith for it to be de fide, which is a substantially stronger condition. Aside from the blanket assertion of Trent, which has never received a rigorist interpretation from subsequent pontiffs, there is no indication that the Comma’s canonicity was ever de fide. This hesitance derives in part from doubts as to whether it was in the original Vulgate, and also from a natural Catholic reluctance to dispose of any tradition without grave cause. Since the scandal of removing the Comma would outweigh the purely academic error of retaining it, this would be sufficient reason to retain the Comma.

Describing the Vulgate as authentic, in Catholic usage, does not imply that the Vulgate reproduces the original text exactly; in fact, that is linguistically impossible. We can speak only of its theological authenticity, that is, its usefulness for making definitions. Heretics and self-styled reformers have often rejected texts in order to reject the doctrine it supports. If the Comma is in the original Vulgate, Trent’s decree would apply and we would be required to admit its validity for use in theological arguments. This does not mean the Comma was in the original inspired text, but a statement does not to be inspired in order to be true. The decrees of the Church are not necessarily inspired, but are free from error. While we cannot always be certain that the Scripture we read is part of the original text, the authority of the Church guarantees that it teaches true faith and morals. The intractable uncertainty regarding the text may be disheartening, but this uncertainty exists only for a small fraction of the text, and is immaterial to the faith. We can, without danger to faith or morals, accept the entire authentic version as inspired Scripture, victims of at most minor intellectual errors unrelated to religion.

More disturbing is the possibility that the Scriptures may be corrupted by men. Here we find that the textual authenticity of the Comma would actually be more injurious to the authority of the received texts than the contrary hypothesis. Advocates of the Comma are pressed to explain its omission from the Greek codices, and have to invoke some explanation such as a reaction against Sabellianism. These explanations are implausible, since they cannot account for the total eradication of the Comma throughout the East. Further, it would undermine the credibility of the received texts if monks felt justified in deliberately censoring Scripture to suit a theological agenda. The appearance of the Comma, on the other hand, has a much more innocent explanation, which is corroborated by the manuscript evidence. A marginal gloss eventually became incorporated into the actual text by copyists, causing it to be mistaken for part of Scripture by later copyists. Such errors are not unusual, but are easily detectable to scholars today, as they would have been to St. Jerome. The remarkable coherence among the various New Testament codices over a thousand years gives us great confidence that there are relatively few Greek interpolations of the first few centuries that we could have missed, and it is likely that these were corrected by St. Jerome, who had access to the best Greek manuscripts of his day, while we are forced to rely on those which happened to survive. While no final answer can be given on the Comma Johanneum, the internal and external critical evidence overwhelmingly point against it. Nonetheless, this is not as critical an issue as believers and unbelievers alike have tried to make it, in order to suit their own prejudices regarding Scriptural transmission.

© 2002, 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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