Sunday Morning Greek Blog

December 14, 2011

The Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7–8) and the Reliability of Modern Greek Texts

Filed under: 1 John,Authorship,Biblical Studies,Greek,New Testament,Textual Criticism — Scott Stocking @ 7:29 pm

Note: Some of the information herein is taken from Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (2nd ed., New York: Oxford, 1968) pp. 95–106, 209–10.


One of the most fascinating things to me about the history of the transmission of the New Testament is the diligent scientific method developed by scholars to judge not only the quality of a particular manuscript (MS, plural MSS), but also to trace the historical influences on and predecessors to a MS. With over 5000 MSS of the Greek NT (in whole or in part), it was inevitable that scholars would develop a system for classifying and dating them. The process is called textual criticism, but don’t be turned off by the word criticism. Don’t think of this as negative assessment (e.g. “Her criticism was insulting”), but as scholarly judgment (e.g., “Her initial critique provided valuable insight”).

The modern Greek texts like the United Bible Society’s 4th edition and the Nestle-Aland 27th edition are sometimes called critical texts, because they weigh the value and quality of all MSS and make a judgment when MSS conflict about what the original text was. When MSS have different text in the same chapter and verse, these differences are called variants, or variant readings, (sometimes abbreviated v.l. for Latin varia lectio), or spurious. The science is not exact (there are four levels of certainty with which they weigh variants), but we can be fairly certain that modern critical texts are extremely accurate descendants of the autographs, the versions originally penned by the biblical authors.

The Johannine Comma

One familiar passage that exemplifies the importance of textual criticism is 1 John 5:7–8, known also as the Johannine Comma or Comma Johanneum. If you grew up reading the King James Version (or its various successors), you may know the passage as:

7 For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one (1769 Authorized Version, italics mine).

Stephens 1551 version of the Greek text, the primary text of the 1611 King James and a predecessor to the Elzevir (official) textus
receptus of 1633 (more about that later), has the following Greek text (italics mine):

7 οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες [εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν

8 και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη]
το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

But most modern English translation reject the outright statement of the trinity here, because there are no early Greek MSS (sometimes called witnesses) that have the phrase represented in brackets and italics. In fact, the earliest witness to the spurious passage is not even a biblical text. It is found in a fourth-century treatise, and it is believed to have been a commentary on the shorter passage, by way of analogy, that somehow made its way into the text. The earliest biblical text inclusion of the passage is an eighth-century copy of the Latin Vulgate, that is, it’s not even Greek.

When Erasmus was preparing his Greek text in the early sixteenth century, which would eventually lay the foundation for the Stephens text, he was not going to include the variant reading in 1 John 5:7–8 (and didn’t in his first two editions), because he could find no Greek texts that had the reading. However, according to the history Metzger relates, Erasmus promised to include the passage if a Greek text could be found that had the variant reading. Sure enough, one was “produced” for him, but Erasmus suspected it was a forged copy. (In fact, no Greek text prior to the fourteenth century has the variant.) True to his word, he included the variant passage, but with numerous footnotes and disclaimers questioning the authenticity of the passage. Nonetheless, it survived into the Stephens text and the textus receptus, and it was included in most Greek texts up to the late 19th century until modern-day critical texts began to gain prominence. Even though the stewards of the King James tradition know the passage is not original, they still to this day include the words in the main text in the New King James Version.

How Do Scholars Decide which Variant Reading Is the Best?

I may have mentioned the premises for textual criticism before in my blog, but they bear repeating, especially for my new blog readers. Scholars look at two types of evidence when examining the quality and accuracy of a MS—external and internal.

External Evidence

One piece of external evidence includes the date of the MS and the style of writing it uses. MSS that use lower case letters (minuscules) are thought to be more reliable than those that use all capital letters (uncials), even if the latter is older. MSS are also classified by geographical distribution. Without going into too much detail, there are three main “families” of MSS based on this distribution: Byzantine, Western, and Alexandrian. The Alexandrian family of MSS is generally considered to be the most reliable, and includes the fourth-century Aleph (א) text discovered at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai and the fourth-century Vaticanus (B) text.

One final piece of external evidence is that the relationships of the MSS to one another can often be traced as well. Some scholars count the number of variant readings and simply select the reading with the most “votes” among the witnesses. This results in what some call the “Majority Text.” The problem with this is that later MSS tend to be more common, and they are copies of copies. Consider the following analogy. Which would you consider more accurate: a handwritten reproduction of the Declaration of Independence by someone for whom English is a first language, or twenty copies made by those for whom English is not their first language who only hear the Declaration of Independence and write down what they hear? That is essentially the difference between how ancient scrolls were copied. Some were reproduced by careful editors, while others were mass produced by those who only knew the correspondence of sounds to letters. In the latter case, often only one copy of the text was available to read, so there was not much double-checking of the scribes’ work.

With respect to the Johannine Comma, the external evidence is pretty clear that the passage was never part of the original text penned by the apostle. But internal evidence is also weighed in deciding on the authenticity of a variant, so I turn now to that.

Internal Evidence

The evaluation of internal evidence takes two forms, that which relates to the words on the page (transcriptional) and that which relates to the broader contexts in which the text is found (intrinsic). The latter concern, context, is something that every Bible college student learns early on. Those of us who teach hermeneutics often joke with our students that if we call on them in their lifestyle-induced, classroom slumber to answer a question, they have a 50 percent chance of being right if they answer “Context!” In addition to the immediate context of the passage and the larger context of the book or the author’s collection of writings, historical considerations such as the Aramaic background of Jesus’ teaching and the influence of the Christian community on the transmission of the text play a role in the decision to accept or reject a variant.

Transcriptional considerations can be just as tricky, especially when some seem on the surface to contradict each other. Scribes had a tendency to simplify difficult passages by adding or changing words, so on the one hand, the most difficult reading of a passage is preferred as the original, while on the other hand, the shorter passage is preferred on the assumption that the longer passage contains more explanation. Especially relevant to the Gospels is another tendency of the scribe to consciously or unconsciously bring parallel passages into harmony. The scribe may be familiar with Luke’s version of a parable, so when he comes to that parable in Matthew, he assumes it needs to be corrected, so he “fixes” the text. But this involves much speculation, so the passage that has a greater verbal difference with parallels is preferred. Occasionally, a scribe may have inadvertently skipped a line based on seeing similar words or endings in successive lines of a Greek text. If you’re a wordsmith, this phenomenon is called homoioteleuton (also homeoteleuton, lit. “similar ending”) or parablepsis (lit. “see alongside”). Homoioarchton happens when text is skipped because of words with similar beginnings. We’ve all done those things when reading, so it shouldn’t surprise us that it happened with ancient texts.

Again, returning to the Johannine Comma, we see that the shorter passage is indeed preferred, and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the longer variant was indeed an attempt by a scribe to explain or allegorize a passage that was, perhaps, a little more difficult to comprehend. One final note: if you look at a copy of a United Bible Society Greek NT, you will see that the critical apparatus (essentially the catalog of where all the variants are found) weighs the certainty with which the Greek NT committee felt they had restored the original text. The shorter reading of 1 John 5:7–8 gets an A, because the committee was certain the original text had been restored. By contrast, the choice between “weigh anchor” (περιελόντες) and “circle around” (περιελθόντες) in Acts 28:13, a difference of one letter, gets the worst grade, D.


And so concludes my brief foray into the world of textual criticism. I hope you found it fascinating to discover that scholars have taken great care throughout history to maintain the integrity of God’s word, especially the New Testament. Talking about how the Jews preserved the Hebrew text is another blog post of its own.

I started in Revelation this week, so I’m in the home stretch of finishing up my read-through of the Greek NT. I’m toying with reading through the Hebrew Bible, but I may have to give myself three years to do that, and I’m not sure that would be the most profitable for me. I have been boning up on my Hebrew vocabulary, so it’s still a possibility, but I might return to my first-year Hebrew textbook and read through Esther to refresh and sharpen my Hebrew before tackling the whole OT. My other idea is to read through the Greek NT again, focusing a little more on vocabulary development personally and writing on topics I didn’t cover this year.

As always, if you have a topic you’d like to see me cover, don’t hesitate to ask. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you. Peace on earth and good will to all humanity.

Scott Stocking


  1. Even if John had written the passage as it appears in the “Textus Receptus”, there is still no statement there of the trinity at all. The Greek form of the word for “one” is usually transliterated as “hen”, which is neuter. In the Koine Greek, the form used for “one God” is masculine, not neuter, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 8:6. Nor would the expression designate the three as one substance or being, since that would have called for the feminine form of “one”, as in the trinitarian claim: treis hypostaseis en mia ousia (three persons in one being).

    Comment by ResLight — December 16, 2011 @ 11:22 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment.
      The “trinitarian” statement to which I refer has nothing to do with the number. I am referring specifically to the statement of “Father, Word, and Spirit.” In the text of verse 8 (the undisputed part), the three that bear witness are all neuter gender nouns (Spirit, water, blood), so the statement “the three are one” would require a neuter predicate adjective. I do find it interesting that “the three” is actually masculine plural, but this wouldn’t be unusual in a Greek text. As for the disputed portion, I would not expect the “one” to be feminine at all, especially if the trinitarian statement you cite was something stated 250-300 years after 1 John was penned. (There is no explicit trinitarian statement in the undisputed portions of the NT.) What the disputed statement reveals to me is that some ignorant commentator merely mimicked the language of the undisputed text when he penned in his gloss. It was merely an attempt to create parallel phrasing, which makes the disputed passage all the more suspect. In addition, if the three nouns referred to did not have the same gender (which they don’t in the disputed passage), it would not have been unusual for the author to have used a neuter pronoun or number form for the antecedents.

      Comment by Scott Stocking — December 16, 2011 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

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