Johannine Comma

1 John 5:7

In the middle of the fifteenth century, seeking to protect the lands they were discovering in their relentless progress south, the Portuguese court petitioned the Vatican for a declaration that they alone were charged with the role of converting and subjugating their discoveries. While the effect of such a declaration would be political, assuring Portuguese primacy in Africa and the Indies, its wording placed it squarely within the spiritual dominion exercised by Rome, and accordingly, despite the protests of the Spanish king, the Vatican issued a series of papal bulls: Dum Diversis 1452; Romanus Pontifex 1455; and finally, the notorious Inter Caetera 1456. Taken together these gave the Portuguese a license over all lands south of the Canary Islands from Cape Bojador to the Indies.

Then in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed west in search of a passage to China. Columbus, Genoese by birth, had lived most of his life in Portugal. Columbus' brother was a mapmaker in Lisbon, his business buoyed by the voyages of Portuguese captains, while his wife was the daughter of a Portuguese captain. But Columbus, his vision of a westward route to Cathay spurned by King João of Portugal as too expensive, turned to the Spanish for support, and it was under their flag that he sailed west.

When Columbus returned, only seven months later, bringing with him stories of a fertile and friendly land to the west, Portugal suddenly found herself with a rival. Unable to match Spain's military might she instead turned to the Inter Caetera, but Spain responded by declaring that since the lands Columbus had discovered lay to the north of the Canaries the Pope's ruling did not apply. Like Portugal forty years earlier, Spain now turned to the Pope for support, arguing that she should be granted exclusive rights to bring spiritual salvation to the inhabitants of these new lands to the west.

The Pope of the time was Alexander VI, a Borgia and a friend of the Spanish court. Not surprisingly the Spanish request was granted, and at Columbus' suggestion a line was drawn approximately one hundred leagues from the westward tip of the Azores, dividing the Atlantic in half. Whether or not Portugal already knew of Brazil (and it is likely that the outward journeys of her captains had already led her to the shores of South America several years before Columbus' journey), she undoubtedly had considerable fishing interests to the northwest of the Azores, and as a result the Portuguese court protested against the terms of the papal decision. And so, in 1494, after much posturing by both sides, a new treaty, the Treaty of Tordesillas, was brokered between Spain and Portugal, which agreed:

witness in earth

... a boundary or straight line be determined and drawn north and south on the Atlantic sea, from the Arctic Pole to the Antarctic Pole. This boundary or line shall be drawn straight, as aforesaid, at a distance of three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, being calculated by degrees or by any other manner as may be considered the best and readiest, provided the distance shall be no greater than aforesaid.

--James Bradley, Wrack631

1 John 5:7-8 Some sermon material when taken from the NIV, not the Authorized Version, could be compared to teaching political history without considering the spiritual authority of the Pope. That is, by (1 John 5:7-8) "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," there is a counsel of heavenly witnesses as well as witnesses on earth. The NIV mutilates verses 7-8 by excluding the heavenly witnesses of verse 7, i.e., "For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement." My NIV at home includes a footnote:

    7,8 Late manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8And there are three that testify on earth: ...
The NIV copy of the person nearest me in the pews didn't even include the footnote. The NIV started putting material back in footnotes when people complained they had left too much out, calling it therefore "the NON-Inspired Version," NIV. With or without footnote, having to sort out a skipped verse tripped up my ability to follow the preacher's line of development and I had to get him to clarify it later.

Here is the argument for including the omitted verse, from Ed Hills, King James Bible Defended, Chapter 8:

3. The Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7)

In the Textus Receptus 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

  1. For there are three that bear witness IN HEAVEN, THE FATHER, THE WORD, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT: AND THESE THREE ARE ONE.
  2. AND THERE ARE THREE THAT BEAR WITNESS IN EARTH, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The words printed in capital letters constitute the so-called Johannine comma, the best known of the Latin Vulgate readings of the Textus Receptus, a reading which, on believing principles, must be regarded as possibly genuine. This comma has been the occasion of much controversy and is still an object of interest to textual critics. One of the more recent discussions of it is found in Windisch's Katholischen Briefe (revised by Preisker, 1951); (26) a more accessible treatment of it in English is that provided by A. D. Brooke (1912) in the International Critical Commentary. (27) Metzger (1964) also deals with this passage in his handbook, but briefly. (28)

(a) How the Johannine Comma Entered the Textus Receptus

As has been observed above, the Textus Receptus has both its human aspect and its divine aspect, like the Protestant Reformation itself or any other work of God's providence. And when we consider the manner in which the Johannine comma entered the Textus Receptus, we see this human element at work. Erasmus omitted the Johannine comma from the first edition (1516) of his printed Greek New Testament on the ground that it occurred only in the Latin version and not in any Greek manuscript. To quiet the outcry that arose, he agreed to restore it if but one Greek manuscript could be found which contained it. When one such manuscript was discovered soon afterwards, bound by his promise, he included the disputed reading in his third edition (1522), and thus it gained a permanent place in the Textus Receptus. The manuscript which forced Erasmus to reverse his stand seems to have been 61, a 15th or 16th-century manuscript now kept at Trinity College, Dublin. Many critics believe that this manuscript was written at Oxford about 1520 for the special purpose of refuting Erasmus, and this is what Erasmus himself suggested in his notes.

The Johannine comma is also found in Codex Ravianus, in the margin of 88, and in 629. The evidence of these three manuscripts, however, is not regarded as very weighty, since the first two are thought to have taken this disputed reading from early printed Greek texts and the latter (like 61) from the Vulgate.

But whatever may have been the immediate cause, still, in the last analysis, it was not trickery which was responsible for the inclusion of the Johannine comma in the Textus Receptus but the usage of the Latin-speaking Church. It was this usage which made men feel that this reading ought to be included in the Greek text and eager to keep it there after its inclusion had been accomplished. Back of this usage, we may well believe, was the guiding providence of God, and therefore the Johannine comma ought to be retained as at least possibly genuine.

(b) The Early Existence of the Johannine Comma

Evidence for the early existence of the Johannine comma is found in the Latin versions and in the writings of the Latin Church Fathers. For example, it seems to have been quoted at Carthage by Cyprian (c. 250) who writes as follows: "And again concerning the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit it is written: and the Three are One." (29) It is true that Facundus, a 6th-century African bishop, interpreted Cyprian as referring to the following verse, (30) but, as Scrivener (1833) remarks, it is "surely safer and more candid" to admit that Cyprian read the Johannine comma in his New Testament manuscript "than to resort to the explanation of Facundus." (31)

The first undisputed citations of the Johannine comma occur in the writing of two 4th-century Spanish bishops, Priscillian, (32) who in 385 was beheaded by the Emperor Maximus on the charge of sorcery and heresy, and Idacius Clarus, (33) Priscillian's principal adversary and accuser. In the 5th century the Johannine comma was quoted by several orthodox African writers to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against the gainsaying of the Vandals, who ruled North Africa from 489 to 534 and were fanatically attached to the Arian heresy. (34) And about the same time it was cited by Cassiodorus (480-570), in Italy. (35) The comma is also found in r an Old Latin manuscript of the 5th or 6th century, and in the Speculum, a treatise which contains an Old Latin text. It was not included in Jerome's original edition of the Latin Vulgate but around the year 800 it was taken into the text of the Vulgate from the Old Latin manuscripts. It was found in the great mass of the later Vulgate manuscripts and in the Clementine edition of the Vulgate, the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.

(c) Is the Johannine Comma an Interpolation?

Thus on the basis of the external evidence it is at least possible that the Johannine comma is a reading that somehow dropped out of the Greek New Testament text but was preserved in the Latin text through the usage of the Latin-speaking Church, and this possibility grows more and more toward probability as we consider the internal evidence.

In the first place, how did the Johannine comma originate if it be not genuine, and how did it come to be interpolated into the Latin New Testament text? To this question modern scholars have a ready answer. It arose, they say, as a trinitarian interpretation of I John 5:8, which originally read as follows: For there are three that bear witness, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Augustine was one of those who interpreted 1 John 5:8 as referring to the Trinity. "If we wish to inquire about these things, what they signify, not absurdly does the Trinity suggest Itself, who is the one, only, true, and highest God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concerning whom it could most truly be said, Three are Witnesses, and the Three are One. By the word spirit we consider God the Father to be signified, concerning the worship of whom the Lord spoke, when He said, God is a spirit. By the word blood the Son is signified, because the Word was made flesh. And by the word water we understand the Holy Spirit. For when Jesus spoke concerning the water which He was about to give the thirsty, the evangelist says, This He spake concerning the Spirit whom those that believed in Him would receive. " (36)

Thus, according to the critical theory, there grew up in the Latin speaking regions of ancient Christendom a trinitarian interpretation of the spirit, the water, and the blood mentioned in 1 John 5:8, the spirit signifying the Father, the blood the Son, and the water the Holy Spirit. And out of this trinitarian interpretation of 1 John 5:8 developed the Johannine comma, which contrasts the witness of the Holy Trinity in heaven with the witness of the spirit, the water, and the blood on earth.

But just at this point the critical theory encounters a serious difficulty. If the comma originated in a trinitarian interpretation of 1 John 5:8, why does it not contain the usual trinitarian formula, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Why does it exhibit the singular combination, never met with elsewhere, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit? According to some critics, this unusual phraseology was due to the efforts of the interpolator who first inserted the Johannine comma into the New Testament text. In a mistaken attempt to imitate the style of the Apostle John, he changed the term Son to the term Word. But this is to attribute to the interpolator a craftiness which thwarted his own purpose in making this interpolation, which was surely to uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, including the eternal generation of the Son. With this as his main concern it is very unlikely that he would abandon the time-honored formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and devise an altogether new one, Father, Word, and Holy Spirit.

In the second place, the omission of the Johannine comma seems to leave the passage incomplete. For it is a common scriptural usage to present solemn truths or warnings in groups of three or four, for example, the repeated Three things, yea four of Proverbs 30, and the constantly recurring refrain, for three transgressions and for four, of the prophet Amos. In Genesis 40 the butler saw three branches and the baker saw three baskets. And in Matt. 12:40 Jesus says, As Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. It is in accord with biblical usage, therefore, to expect that in 1 John 5:7-8 the formula, there are three that bear witness, will be repeated at least twice. When the Johannine comma is included, the formula is repeated twice. When the comma is omitted, the formula is repeated only once, which seems strange.

In the third place, the omission of the Johannine comma involves a grammatical difficulty. The words spirit, water, and blood are neuter in gender, but in 1 John 5:8 they are treated as masculine. If the Johannine comma is rejected, it is hard to explain this irregularity. It is usually said that in 1 John 5:8 the spirit, the water, and the blood are personalized and that this is the reason for the adoption of the masculine gender. But it is hard to see how such personalization would involve the change from the neuter to the masculine. For in verse 6 the word Spirit plainly refers to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Surely in this verse the word Spirit is "personalized," and yet the neuter gender is used. Therefore since personalization did not bring about a change of gender in verse 6, it cannot fairly be pleaded as the reason for such a change in verse 8. If, however, the Johannine comma is retained, a reason for placing the neuter nouns spirit, water, and blood in the masculine gender becomes readily apparent. It was due to the influence of the nouns Father and Word, which are masculine. Thus the hypothesis that the Johannine comma is an interpolation is full of difficulties.

(d) Reasons for the Possible Omission of the Johannine Comma

For the absence of the Johannine comma from all New Testament documents save those of the Latin-speaking West the following explanations are possible.

In the first place, it must be remembered that the comma could easily have been omitted accidentally through a common type of error which is called homoioteleuton (similar ending). A scribe copying 1 John 5:7-8 under distracting conditions might have begun to write down these words of verse 7, there are three that bear witness, but have been forced to look up before his pen had completed this task. When he resumed his work, his eye fell by mistake on the identical expression in verse 8. This error would cause him to omit all of the Johannine comma except the words in earth, and these might easily have been dropped later in the copying of this faulty copy. Such an accidental omission might even have occurred several times, and in this way there might have grown up a considerable number of Greek manuscripts which did not contain this reading.

In the second place, it must be remembered that during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (between 220 and 270, according to Harnack); (37) the heresy which orthodox Christians were called upon to combat was not Arianism (since this error had not yet arisen) but Sabellianism (so named after Sabellius, one of its principal promoters), according to which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were one in the sense that they were identical. Those that advocated this heretical view were called Patripassians (Father-sufferers), because they believed that God the Father, being identical with Christ, suffered and died upon the cross, and Monarchians, because they claimed to uphold the Monarchy (sole-government) of God.

It is possible, therefore, that the Sabellian heresy brought the Johannine comma into disfavor with orthodox Christians. The statement, these three are one, no doubt seemed to them to teach the Sabellian view that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were identical. And if during the course of the controversy manuscripts were discovered which had lost this reading in the accidental manner described above, it is easy to see how the orthodox party would consider these mutilated manuscripts to represent the true text and regard the Johannine comma as a heretical addition. In the Greek-speaking East especially the comma would be unanimously rejected, for here the struggle against Sabellianism was particularly severe.

Thus it was not impossible that during the 3rd century amid the stress and strain of the Sabellian controversy, the Johannine comma lost its place in the Greek text, but was preserved in the Latin texts of Africa and Spain, where the influence of Sabellianism was probably not so great. In other words, it is not impossible that the Johannine comma was one of those few true readings of the Latin Vulgate not occurring in the Traditional Greek Text but incorporated into the Textus Receptus under the guiding providence of God. In these rare instances God called upon the usage of the Latin-speaking Church to correct the usage of the Greek speaking Church. (38)

Besides these technical considerations, there is also the matter of internal consistency. The Trinity of verse seven is compared to earthly dimensions in verse eight as an aid to our understanding. Without 1 John 5:7, "the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost," verse 8 stands by itself illustrating nothing. However, "the spirit, the water, and the blood" agreeing in one show the action of the Trinity itself. That is, a Triune God works for our salvation, the Father having developed the plan--which the Son could not pray away--, the Son having died on the cross for us, and the Comforter strenghtening us to live the Christian life. Without the action of all three, our salvation would not occur.

Well, looking at it from an earthly perspective, we see three elements in the escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh's Egypt. First there was the blood on the door mantel so the destroying angel would pass over them. Next, Pharaoh, as you recall, was not about to let them just waltz on out of there even after he'd permitted them under duress. No, he came after them. The Israelites' escape was accomplished by two more actions: (Exodus 14:19-30) "And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left. Thus the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore."

  1. The spirit, an angel, protected the children of Israel by planting itself in a cloud between the retreating Israelites and the pursuing Egyptians.
  2. The waters divided to let the Israelites cross the sea on dry ground. God overthrew the Egyptian army when they tried to pass through, slaying them all in a rout.

Unless all three mechanisms happened here on earth, the Isralites just wouldn't have made it. This helps us Christians today understand the necessary mechanisms of our salvation: First we have to acknowledge the blood sacrifice of Jesus the spotless lamb of God for our sins. We gird ourselves to forsake our old sinful life as the Israelites were girded for immediate departure at their first Passover.

Then there is the work of regeneration of the Spirit which leads us as did the cloud lead the Israelites. It stood between the Israelites and Pharaoh's army until the former could reach the sea, as does the Spirit protect us from our old man until we reach the waters of baptism.

When we come out of the waters of baptism risen a new creature in Christ, we've made an actual break with that past life, as did the Israelites from Egypt.


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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403


Copyright © 2005, Earl S. Gosnell III

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Scripture quotations marked NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION or NIV are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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