The Story of an Interpolation—1 John 5:7, 8
MODERN scholars do not hesitate to omit from their Bible translations the spurious passage found at First John 5:7, 8. After the words “For there are three witness bearers” this added passage reads, “in heaven, the Father, the Word and the holy spirit; and these three are one. [Verse 8] And there are three witness bearers on earth.” (Omitted by the American Standard Version, An American Translation, English Revised Version, Moffatt, New English Bible, Phillips, Rotherham, Revised Standard Version, Schonfield, Wade, Wand, Weymouth, etc.) Commenting on these words, the famous scholar and prelate B. F. Westcott said, “The words which are interpolated in the common Greek text in this passage offer an instructive illustration of the formation and introduction of a gloss into the apostolic text.”1 So what is the story behind this passage, and how did the science of textual criticism finally show it to be no part of God’s inspired Word, the Holy Bible?
WHEN THE PASSAGE FIRST APPEARS
With the falling away from true Christianity came the rise of much controversy regarding the doctrine of the trinity, yet, though these words would have been most pertinent, early church writers never once used them. Verses six to eight of First John chapter five are quoted by Hesychius, Leo called the Great, and Ambrose among the Latins; and Cyril of Alexandria, Oecumenius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Nicetus among the Greeks, to name just a few, but the words in question never appear in the quotations. As an example, the anonymous work entitled “Of Rebaptising,” written about A.D. 256, states, “For John teaching us says in his epistle (1 John 5:6, 7, 8) ‘This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.’”2 Even Jerome did not have it in his Bible. A prologue attributed to him that defended the text has been proved to be a false one.
The “comma Johanneum,” as this spurious addition is usually called, first appears in the works of Priscillian, leader of a sect in Spain near the end of the fourth century A.D.3 During the fifth century it was included in a confession of faith presented to Hunneric, king of the Vandals, and it is quoted in the Latin works of Vigilius of Thapsus, in varying forms. It is found in the work entitled “Contra Varimadum” composed between 445 and 450 (A.D.), and Fulgentius, an African bishop, used it a little later.
Until then the “comma” had appeared as an interpretation of the genuine words recorded in the eighth verse, but once it had become established in this way, it next began to be written in as a gloss in the margin of Latin Bible manuscripts. But a marginal gloss can easily be construed as an omission from the genuine text, and so in later manuscripts it is interlined, then finally it became an integral part of the Latin text, though its position in consequence varies, and it is sometimes before the eighth verse and sometimes after it. (Compare John Wesley’s New Testament where the seventh verse follows the eighth.) An interesting survey made some years ago of 258 Latin Bible manuscripts in the National Library of Paris showed the progressive absorption of this interpolation through the centuries.
The text was further promoted at a council held in 1215 by Pope Innocent III when a work of the Abbot Joachim on the trinity was condemned. The entire passage with the interpolation was quoted from the Latin Vulgate in the acts of the council, which were translated from Latin into Greek. From here some Greek writers took up the text, notably Calecas in the fourteenth century and Bryennius in the fifteenth.
ERASMUS AND STEPHENS
The invention of printing gave rise to much increased production of the original Bible text. The interpolation at 1 John 5:7, 8 was omitted in the Greek texts of Erasmus (1516 and 1519), Aldus Manutius (1518) and Gerbelius (1521). Desiderius Erasmus was violently attacked for not including the text, both by Edward Lee, later Archbishop of York, and J. L. Stunica, one of the editors of the Complutensian Polyglott, which had been printed in 1514 but still remained locked in the warehouse awaiting the pope’s approval. The opposition to Erasmus was based upon the view, expressed in a letter to him by Martin Dorp, that the Latin Vulgate was the official Bible and could not be in error.
Confident that no Greek manuscript contained the “comma Johanneum,” Erasmus in reply rashly stated that if so much as one Greek manuscript could be found to contain the words he would insert them in his next edition. He was told of the early sixteenth century Codex Britannicus, better known as Codex Montfortianus (No. 61). Keeping his promise, Erasmus inserted the words in his third edition of 1522, though he appended a long note reasoning against the addition.
A closer examination of the Codex Montfortianus reveals some interesting facts. Its collator, O. T. Dobbin, wrote that the interpolation at 1 John 5:7, 8 “not only differs from the usual text, but is written in such Greek as manifestly betrays a translation from the Latin.”4 For instance, because the Latin does not have the article “the” before each of the expressions “Father,” “Son” and “holy spirit” it did not occur to the translator that the Greek would require them. So of how much worth was this codex as a Greek manuscript? The same fault is found in the other authority sometimes referred to, the Codex Ottobonianus 298 (No. 629) in Latin and Greek. In his fourth edition, of 1527, Erasmus inserted the definite articles to make the Greek text more accurate grammatically.
From now on the interpolation appeared in other Greek texts whose authors followed the editions of Erasmus. Then in 1550 further confusion occurred through the edition of Robert Stephens published that year. It contained a critical apparatus giving various readings from fifteen manuscripts and at 1 John 5:7 a semicircle points the reader to the margin, where seven manuscripts are cited as authority for the omission of three words only. Critics have demonstrated that this semicircle was misplaced, as were many other signs throughout this edition, and that it should have included for omission the entire “comma Johanneum.” But worse still, because only seven manuscripts were cited, it was assumed by many ignorant people that all the rest of Stephens’ manuscripts did include the interpolation, for they did not realize that the remaining manuscripts did not contain the epistles of John anyway. So out of a possible 100 percent (seven manuscripts) not one included the disputed words.
It was now only a short step to introduce the text into other language translations. It had already appeared in the version of Wycliffe (1380), for he translated from the Latin, having no knowledge of Greek. But now it appeared in translations made from the Greek, such as those of Tyndale and Cranmer, though it was printed in italics and set in brackets. But by the time of the Geneva version of 1557 even this distinction disappeared and the passage is set in ordinary type without brackets. So the interpolation slipped unobtrusively into the 1611 authorized King James Version.
THE BATTLE RENEWED
Had the final word been said on the “comma Johanneum”? Perhaps it seemed that way as the seventeenth century progressed, dominated by the Authorized Version. But the murmurings never ceased and the search for the mysterious Codex Britannicus continued, for it disappeared after Erasmus was told about it. Toward the end of the century, no less a personage than Sir Isaac Newton turned the attention of his scientifically trained mind to this text. In 1690 he sent John Locke the treatise “An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture.” The tract set out clearly the reasons for rejecting the text as spurious and several copies circulated among friends of Newton, but it was never published until nearly seventy years later and then only imperfectly.
Meanwhile the growth of textual criticism took on new impetus. The text was attacked by Richard Simon, and Dr. John Mill gathered the evidence against the passage, though he remained its defender. But Thomas Emlyn took up Mill’s evidence and urged both houses of Convocation assembled in 1717 to cut the words right out, for he said, “ ’tis never given up fairly, till it be left out of our printed copies.”5 In short order Emlyn was attacked by Mr. Martin, pastor of the French Church at Utrecht, whose voluminous and subtle answer seemed to clear the field. Emlyn’s reply caused Martin to launch a second tirade against him. But Emlyn won many supporters, though the devious windings of the controversy often made it extremely difficult to find out what it was really all about.
In 1729 there appeared here in England a diglot version of the Christian Greek Scriptures by Daniel Mace. In a fourteen-page note he listed the Greek and Latin manuscripts, ancient versions, early Greek and Latin writers that omitted the text and threw it out with this conclusion, “In a word, if this evidence is not sufficient to prove, that the controverted text in St. John is spurious; by what evidence can it be prov’d, that any text in St. John is genuine?”6 Thereafter, other English translations began to omit the verse, such as the one by William Whiston (1745), well known for his translation of Josephus, and that by John Worsley in 1770.
If Edward Gibbon thought the wheel had turned full circle when he published The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1781 he was mistaken. With his usual sarcasm he denounced the passage as a “pious fraud.”7 Up rose another champion, George Travis, an archdeacon, who rushed into action to defend the text. His extreme statements elicited crushing replies from Professor Richard Porson (running to over 400 pages) and Herbert Marsh, a bishop. At last the interpolation was exposed in a minute and most exact manner.
THE LAST STRONGHOLD GIVES WAY
After Porson and Marsh there was little to add. Most scholars of the nineteenth century considered the matter settled, but one stronghold remained, the Roman Catholic Church.
As late as 1897 a papal decree was issued forbidding the faithful to doubt the “comma Johanneum.” In part it said:
“Secretariat of the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Concerning the authenticity of the text of 1 John V. 7. (Wednesday, Jan. 12, 1897).
“In a General Congregation of the Holy Roman Inquisition . . . the following doubtful question was presented:
“‘Whether we may safely deny, or even treat as a matter of doubt, the authenticity of that text (1 John V. 7). . . ’
“All things having been most diligently examined and weighed, and the opinion of the Lords Consultors having been taken, the aforesaid Most Eminent Cardinals gave out ‘the answer is in the negative.’ On Friday the 15th of the aforesaid month and year, in the usual audience granted to reverend father the lord Assessor of the Holy Office, after that he had made an exact report of the aforesaid proceedings to our Most Holy Lord Pope Leo XIII, His Holiness approved and confirmed the resolution of these Most Eminent Fathers . . . ”—Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 29. 1896-7. p. 637.
But Pope Leo soon realized that he had been imposed upon, and in 1902 he established a commission to study Scripture more closely, directing it to begin with 1 John 5:7, 8. Because the report was unfavorable to the earlier decree it had to be put aside, but the pope continued to be worried by the situation right up to his death. Some Roman Catholic scholars began to ignore the decree. Dr. Vogels omitted the text from his Greek Testament published in 1920. Others were at first more cautious.
In the Roman Catholic Westminster Version of the New Testament published in 1931 the footnote to 1 John 5:7, 8 after calling attention to its omission in the original text continues, “Until further action be taken by the Holy See it is not open to Catholic editors to eliminate the words from a version made for the use of the faithful.”8 But in the same version republished as one volume in 1947 the interpolation is omitted, editor Cuthbert Lattey citing the Greek text published by Jesuit scholar A. Merk, which also omits it.
So the prospect envisaged by Professor J. Scott Porter in 1848 has come true. “It is to be hoped,” he wrote, after summing up the evidence on 1 John 5:7, 8, “the time will soon come when those who have the charge of preparing editions of the Bible for general circulation, will be ashamed of sending forth a known interpolation as a portion of the sacred text.”9 In recent times the discovery of such Bible manuscripts as the Codex Sinaiticus has confirmed that this particular verse was no part of God’s inspired Word.
In brief summary the words of that well-known textual critic F. H. A. Scrivener can be quoted: “We need not hesitate to declare our conviction that the disputed words were not written by St. John: that they were originally brought into Latin copies in Africa from the margin, where they had been placed as a pious and orthodox gloss on ver. 8: that from the Latin they crept into two or three late Greek codices, and thence into the printed Greek text, a place to which they had no rightful claim.”10
Our faith in God’s Word is greatly strengthened when we review the story of this text and reflect on the abundance of evidence from all sources that testifies to the accuracy of the Bible we hold in our hand.
1 The Epistles of John by B. F. Westcott, 4th edition, 1902, page 202.
2 The Works of N. Lardner, volume 3, page 68.
3 Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, volume 18, 1889, by G. Schepss, page 6.
4 The Codex Montfortianus, A Collation, by O. T. Dobbin, 1854, page 9.
5 A Full Inquiry into the Original Authority of the Text, 1 John 5:7 . . . (second edition) by T. Emlyn, 1717, page 72.
6 The New Testament in Greek and English, 1729, volume 2, page 934.
7 The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by E. Gibbon, chapter 37, Chandos edition, volume 2, page 526.
8 The Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures, volume 4, page 146.
9 Principles of Textual Criticism by J. Scott Porter, 1848, page 510.
10 A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament by F. H. A. Scrivener, 4th edition, 1894, volume 2, page 407.
Century the interpolation
9th 7 out of 10, or 70%
10th 3 out of 4, or 75%
11th 3 out of 5, or 60%
12th 2 out of 15, or 13%
13th 5 out of 118, or 4%
14th-16th 1 out of 106, or 1%