1 John 5:7: The Johannine "Comma"

Comments © 1997, 2008 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

1Jn. 5:7 (KJV) 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.

The underlined words are the famous "Johannine comma." It is sometimes erroneously asserted that this text originated close to the time of Erasmus. However, the UBS Greek NT (4th ed.) notes that the "comma" is attested by the Latin church fathers Cyprian (d. 258), Pseudo-Cyprian (4th century), Priscillian (d. 385), the Speculum (5th century), Varimadum (UBS date "445/480"), Pseudo-Vigilius (4th or 5th century), and Fulgentius (d. 533), as well as a few manuscripts.

Cyprian's reference (in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, Treatise 1, paragraph 6) deserves quotation in full. I have highlighted the citation of this verse:

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathereth not with me scattereth." He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, "I and the Father are one;" and again it is written of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, "And these three are one." And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God's law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.

(We should also notice that some scholars, such as Daniel B. Wallace in an article at bible.org, deny that Cyprian is actually quoting the Comma. To support this, Wallace must assume that for Cyprian, "the three witnesses [in KJV's v. 8] refer to the Trinity." How "the Spirit, and the water, and the blood" can be matched convincingly with Cyprian's "the Father...the Son, and...the Holy Spirit" does not immediately appear; Wallace is reduced to asserting that "Apparently, he was prompted to read such into the text here because of the heresies he was fighting (a common indulgence of the early patristic writers)." However, while Wallace makes allowances for this "common indulgence" of the church fathers, he afterwards asserts that "One would expect [Cyprian] to quote the exact wording of the text, if its meaning were plain"--not allowing the similarly common indulgences of paraphrase and loose citation to Cyprian where they are inconvenient to his argument! [Emphasis and brackets in the foregoing Wallace quotes mine.])

In discussing the "Comma" on pp. 60-2 of his book The King James Only Controversy, James White does not mention any of the patristic testimonies; instead, he makes the following amazing statements:

. . . If indeed the Comma was a part of the original writing of the apostle John, we are forced to conclude that entire passages, rich in theological meaning, can disappear from the Greek manuscript tradition without leaving a single trace. In reality, the KJV Only advocate is arguing for a radical viewpoint on the New Testament text, a viewpoint that utterly denies the very tenacity that we discussed in chapter 3. Even "liberal" scholars will admit the outstanding purity of the NT text and the validity of the belief in the tenacity of that text . . . . (p. 62; emphasis White's.)

Well, for 1 John 5:7 we have already seen the "trace" appearing as early as the 3rd century in the church fathers. But White presumably knows this, which is why (without disclosing the whole truth of the matter) he restricts the witness for this passage to "the Greek manuscript tradition." But this glosses over the fact that we have a reading at 1 Jn. 5:7 attested to by Cyprian in the third century (bear in mind, in comparison, that the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, so esteemed by modern scholars as "ancient authorities," date from the fourth century), seemingly dropping out of the manuscript tradition for 1,000 years and only resurfacing in Erasmus' time!

It is only too clear that the mythical "tenacity" of White (for which see his book, p. 48; basically it is an alleged preservation of Greek textual readings--apparently without the Holy Spirit's intervention, since He is not mentioned) must give way to the facts here. Since we know that there are variant NT readings that have not come down to us in any Greek MSS, and others that are only in very late ones (cf. Wilbur Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, rev. ed. , pp. 214-5, footnote 5 to ch. 4; the application of Pickering's comments to this context is solely mine), it seems odd that White would claim that New Testament readings do not "disappear." That some of these variants are the result of deliberate alterations is evident from certain citations of the church fathers (especially Tertullian, who went so far as to say that the Marcionites "are daily retouching their work, as daily they are convicted by us" [Against Marcion, Book IV, ch. 5]). Given that the "Comma," whether or not it is authentic, is the clearest notice in the New Testament of the Oneness of the Three Persons of the Trinity, it would not be hard to envision a scenario in which this passage was authentic but was removed by those who disbelieved in the Trinity.

White considers this a "radical viewpoint" on this verse, but it was clearly embraced by the translators of the Geneva Bible and KJV. For, although Tyndale had placed the debated passage in italics and parentheses, both Geneva and the KJV offer not a shred of doubt in their presentations of this passage (either in the main text or the margin) that it was in the original manuscript of the apostle John. In doing so, one surmises that they felt that, in the words of Thomas Scott, it was--

. . . somewhat more likely that the Arians or Anti-Trinitarians [in the early church] should silently omit in their copies a testimony which was so decisive against them, or that it should be left out by the mistake of some ancient transcriber, than that the Trinitarians should directly forge and insert it. The Trinitarian, in fact, would be deprived only of one argument out of very many, with which he might attempt the conviction of his opponent, if this text were wholly regarded as spurious; for his doctrine is supported by other Scriptures: but if this testimony were admitted as the unerring word of GOD; all the ingenuity and diligence of opponents, would scarcely suffice to explain it away, or to avoid the inference, which must naturally be drawn from it.

In other words, the Geneva and KJV men presumably felt that such an omission was made to grind a "doctrinal axe" in the early days of the church, and that the original text read with the passage included. In fact, John Wesley accused the Roman Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") of "erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands" in order to promote Arianism (Sermon 55, "On the Trinity")! Whatever we may think of Wesley's identification of the culprit, a clear motive for the "erasing this text" appears from Scott's remarks above.

And what of the sense of the passage? The Geneva Bible (1599 ed.) offers the following:

Hee prooueth the excellencie of Christ, in whom onely all things are giuen vs[,] by sixe witnesses, three heauenly, and three earthly, which wholly and fully agree together. The heauenly witnesses are: the Father who sent the Sonne, the worde it selfe which became flesh, and the holy Ghost. The earthly witnesses are, water, (that is our sanctification) blood, (that is our iustification) the Spirit, (that is, acknowled[ging] of God the Father in Christ by faith through the testimonie of the holy Ghost.)

In other words, we are justified by Christ's blood, we are sanctified by obeying His command to be baptized, and we receive the indwelling of the Spirit, and these "earthly witnesses" prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Furthermore, we have the heavenly Witnesses, who all testified of Him during His time on earth: the Father (Matt. 3:17, 17:5, Jn. 12:28), the Spirit (Matt. 3:16), and most of all the Son in dying and rising again. It would be more than strange, in my opinion, to think of John writing the present passage without the so-called "Comma," given the fact that Father (Jn. 5:31-32, 37), Son (Jn. 5:36), and Spirit (Jn. 15:26) all have an ongoing role in bearing witness of the Christ.

(It is worth adding by the way that the 1873 Cambridge Paragraph Bible, which is found in the New Testament Octapla, and which is the base text of the Zondervan KJV Study Bible and many of their other recent KJVs, throws the words in question into italics. This is reflected in the detail below from the original edition of CPB, 1873; by the New Testament Octapla's reproduction of Scrivener's CPB text, and by Scrivener’s book The Authorized Edition of the English Bible (1611), Its Subsequent Reprints and Modern Representatives [Cambridge, 1884, p. 69] verifies that this was a deliberate change that Scrivener—rather high-handedly, in my opinion—made on his own authority. The Zondervan reprints, however, silently reverse Scrivener's decision and put the words back into regular type! And, worse yet, the prefaces to these reprints give no indication regarding this change, although other changes regarding spelling are acknowledged!)


Those who wish to find it a "radical viewpoint" to accept a text whose external evidence is so ancient, and whose internal evidence is so compelling, may do as they please. For my own part, I find the text to be worthy of all acceptation.

Return Home