I had not intended to spend so much time on this, but those who have been following the topics on this blog for the past few months realize how very relevant to my current work the issue of textual criticism, and in particular, the Comma Johanneum, really is. That is, given that I have been dealing with Islamic attacks upon the Scriptures (Ahmed Deedat, Shabir Ally) and those of unbelievers (Bart Ehrman), the reason for my concern over seeing fellow believers defending the simply indefensible should be plain. If I am to be consistent, and I point out the errors of Muslim apologists, for example, should I then close my eyes when my fellow believers make inconsistent statements about the text of Scripture? I can’t, if I am to be honest.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, here is what I wrote about the Comma Johanneum in The King James Only Controversy:
Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum
The single most famous incident that is related to Erasmus’ work on the New Testament revolves around the words of 1 John 5:7 as found in the KJV: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Most KJV Only preachers and believers make the acceptance of this passage the test of “orthodoxy.” If your Bible does not have this passage, you are in deep trouble.
The story of how this passage ended up in the King James Version is very instructive. When the first edition of Erasmus’ work came out in 1516 this phrase, dubbed today the “Johannine comma,” or in Latin, the Comma Johanneum, was not in the text for a very simple reason: it was not found in any Greek manuscript of 1 John that Erasmus had examined. Instead, the phrase was found only in the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus rightly did not include it in the first or second editions. The note in the Annotations simply said, “In the Greek codex I find only this about the threefold testimony: ‘because there are three witnesses, spirit, water, and blood.’” His reliance upon the Greek manuscripts rather than the Latin Vulgate caused quite a stir. Both Edward Lee and Diego López Zúñiga attacked Erasmus for not including this passage and hence encouraging “Arianism,”(1) the very same charge made by KJV Only advocates today. Erasmus protested that he was simply following the Greek texts. In responding to Lee, Erasmus challenged him to “produce a Greek manuscript that has what is missing in my edition.”(2) Likewise Erasmus rebutted Zúñiga by pointing out that while he (Zúñiga) was constantly referring Erasmus to one particular Greek manuscript, in this case he had not brought this text forward, correctly assuming that even Zúñiga’s manuscript agreed with Erasmus’ reading. He also said, “Finally, the whole passage is so obscure that it cannot be very valuable in refuting the [Arian] heresies.” (3)
Since Erasmus had promised, in his response to Lee, to include the passage should a Greek manuscript be found that contained it, he was constrained to insert the phrase in the third edition when presented with an Irish manuscript that contained the disputed phrase, Codex Montfortianus, now at Trinity College, Dublin.(4) The manuscript is highly suspect, in that it most probably was created in the house of the Grey Friars, whose provincial, Henry Standish, was an old enemy of Erasmus,(5) and whose intention was simply to refute Erasmus. The text note in the Annotations grew tremendously, for Erasmus inserted many of the arguments and citations he had used in replying to Lee and Zúñiga. He remarked, “I have restored the text . . . so as not to give anyone an occasion for slander.”(6) He concluded the note with the statement, “But to return to the business of the reading: from our remarks it is clear that the Greek and Latin manuscripts vary, and in my opinion there is no danger in accepting either reading.”(7)
The Comma Johanneum is extremely important. Here we have a phrase that everyone will admit is manifestly orthodox. What it says is obviously true. Yet, we are in no way dependent upon the phrase for our knowledge of the Trinity or the unity of the three Persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity does not stand or fall upon the inclusion of the Comma. Beyond this, however, we have a phrase that is simply not a part of the ancient Greek manuscripts of John’s first epistle. The few manuscripts that contain the phrase are very recent, and half of these have the reading written in the margin. The phrase appears only in certain of the Latin versions. There are, quite literally, hundreds of readings in the New Testament manuscript tradition that have better arguments in their favor that are rejected by both Erasmus and the KJV translators. And yet this passage is ferociously defended by KJV Only advocates to this day.(8) We can see that Erasmus could have just as easily maintained his position against the Comma, resulting in a KJV without this inserted phrase. But aside from these considerations, we need to note what is really being said by the defenders of the AV. 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. Here we find otherwise very conservative people, the defenders of the KJV, joining arms with the most destructive liberal critics in presenting a theory regarding the NT text that, in reality, destroys the very basis upon which we can have confidence that we still have the original words of Paul or John. Surely this is not their intention, but in their rush to defend what is obviously a later addition to the text that entered into the KJV by unusual circumstances, they have had to adopt a position that does this very thing.
(1) Arianism takes its name from Arius, a fourth-century presbyter in Alexandria who taught that Jesus was a created being. Erasmus was attacked on almost all fronts due to notes such as this in his work. Indeed, he had to write apologies defending his belief in the proper words of “consecration” to be used at Mass, wherein he demonstrated his Roman Catholic system of belief in saying, “One can only accept the decrees of the church, for it will be difficult to prove by human reasoning which words the priest ought to use in consecration . . .” (Rummel, p. 158) and another defending his belief in Transubstantiation as well (Detectio praestigiarum) in which he refuted allegations of Protestant thought by stating that in his notes, “There was not even a syllable to indicate that the Eucharist was not the true body of the Lord” (LB X 1564C, Rummel, p. 159).
(2) 277B, Rummel, p. 133.
(3) Rummel, p. 133. Controversy exists over the specifics of Erasmus’ challenge and the insertion of the Comma. Metzger cites H.J. de Jonge’s work in the 3rd edition of his The Text of the New Testament (p. 291), as saying that there is “no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion,” yet Rummel cites the same passage from de Jonge but maintains that Erasmus did issue the challenge and inserted the Comma as a result.
(4) Rummel, p. 40. Metzger notes that this manuscript opens of its own accord to the passage in 1 John, so often has it been consulted at that place. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed., (Oxford: 1968), p. 101.
(5) See Rummel, note 30, p. 194, and Metzger, p. 101.
(6) LB VI 1080D, Rummel, pp. 133-134.
(7) Ibid., p. 134.
(8) Most of those who defend the passage do so by merely repeating the maxim that the KJV is the Word of God, and hence the passage should be there (i.e., they use completely circular reasoning). Others, like Edward F. Hills, refer to the Comma and say it is a reading “which, on believing principles, must be regarded as possibly genuine” (Hills, The King James Version Defended, p. 209). Hills is rather reserved in his defense of the passage, though he does conclude,
In other words, it is not impossible that the Johannine comma was one of those few 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 (p. 213).
Hills is one of the few who seem to have thought through the matter to its conclusion, though he is not quick to bring out the fact that this means the Greek manuscript tradition can be so corrupted as to lose, without a trace, an entire reading. One of the more interesting attempts at defending the inclusion of the Comma is provided by Kevin James, The Corruption of the Word: The Failure of Modern New Testament Scholarship (1990), pp. 230-238. James uses many of the standard arguments, responding to (though not directly noting this) the presentation of Bruce Metzger in his work, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies: 1975), pp. 715-717. He includes the “grammatical” argument that posits a problem in the masculine form of “three” and the genders of Spirit, blood and water. This is not a very major problem, as “three” almost always appears in the NT as a masculine when used as a substantive, the one exception being 1 Corinthians 13:13 where it appears as a neuter, though here referring to a list of feminines. This is more stylistic than anything else. James blasts modern scholars, identifying their reasoning as “incomprehensible” (p. 231), asserting that modern texts adopt readings with just as slim external support as that found at 1 John 5:7-8. He cites two passages, James 4:14 and 2 Corinthians 5:3, as evidence of this. Yet, neither passage is even remotely similar to the Comma. The variant he cites at James 4:14 involves at least six different (though very similar) readings, which, of course, results in the support for each reading being rather small. The UBS 4th gives a “C” rating to the chosen text, indicating the committee’s recognition of the difficulty of the passage. The other passage, 2 Corinthians 5:3, is also extremely dissimilar to the Comma, as it involves only the difference between the words ekdusamenoi and endusamenoi. What is more, since James obviously had Metzger’s textual commentary at hand, he should have noted Metzger’s own words, appended to the entry on the passage, “In view of its superior external support the reading endusamenoi should be adopted, the reading ekdusamenoi being an early alteration to avoid apparent tautology” (p. 580).