What about 1 John 5 v7?

Is the “trinity” in the bible? I say “No”, but many Christians say “Yes, it is”. One of the main verses that they refer to is 1 John 5:7. Does this verse speak of the trinity? Have you ever looked up this verse in your bible? This is a very intriguing verse because it is missing from some bibles and present in others. Did you know that? Do you know why that is? Some say that Satan is trying to corrupt the scriptures by removing this verse from modern bibles. Others say that the verse is a forgery that was added to the scriptures. So, which is it? And furthermore, what does the verse actually say? Does it really define or support the trinity? We’re going to look at all of these questions. Let’s dive in.

So, about the trinity…

You can’t find the word “trinity” in the bible, anywhere, but many believe that the ‘doctrine of the trinity’ is stated clearly. Of course, they don’t ever ask themselves, “how do I know what the doctrine of the trinity is if ‘trinity’ is not found in the bible?” The reason for this is because they have been taught this doctrine in church without ever understanding its origins or what is actually says. And what about you, the reader? Do you know what the trinity is and can you define it?

Before we continue this post, let’s do an exercise. Take a pen or pencil, and write down your definition of the trinity. Don’t look it up on the Internet or in a book just yet. Just right down exactly what you think it is in your head. Then go to your favorite bible app or site, and search for that definition in your favorite bible translation. If you find it, please contact me and let me know your definition, your search tool, the translation you searched and the verse you found. I would really appreciate that. However, if you did not find it, then ask yourself, “where did I get that definition from?” Was it from your pastor? Your priest? Your denomination’s creed? Your church’s statement of faith? A dictionary or encyclopedia?

How do we know that 1 John 5:7 could refer to the trinity? First, we have to have a clear definition of the trinity to reference, and since I could not find this clear definition in the bible, as no bible I searched in has the word “trinity” in it (and I am not talking about headings or notes in study bibles added by the editors), then I have to seek out another source. I will take my definition from wikipedia, as it can be easily referenced and agreed upon by almost everyone:

Trinity (as defined on Wikipedia)
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (Latin: Trinitas, lit. ’triad’, from Latin: trinus ‘threefold’) defines God as being one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons sharing one homoousion (essence). In this context, the three persons define who God is, while the one essence defines what God is.

From this definition, we can summarize that the “trinity” defines God as one god existing in three persons who all share one essence. Is this definition similar or different from what you wrote down? I will be using this definition for evaluating whether 1 John 5:7 substantiates it.

Is 1 John 5:7 in your bible?

So, what does 1 John 5:7 say? If you open your King James Version bible to 1 John 5:7-8, you will find the following verses:

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.

However, interestingly enough, if you open your New International Version bible, you will find the following verses:

7 For there are three that testify:

8 the[a] Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

Oh my… two popular widely-accepted bibles, two different wording for the same verses! What is happening here? Growing up in church, the first response I would have heard, and did hear, is that the new bibles are corrupt and are attempting to remove the trinity from the inspired words of the holy bible. However, if we take a step back from that narrative, and examine the evidence clearly and soundly, we would realize that this narrative is far from the truth. The reason these two bibles have different wording is because they use two different sources for their translation. The KJV bible uses the Textus Receptus, while the NIV uses the critical text, Nestle-Aland Greek text. As such this difference is not limited to the KJV vs the NIV. Also, this is not something that the translators have deceitfully changed in the text to fool you. In the NIV, there is a foot note that explains the following:

1 John 5:8 Late manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8 And there are three that testify on earth: the (not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century)

The footnote explains to us that the missing text in the NIV, which is in the KJV, is not found in any Greek manuscript of the New Testament before the 14th century. It is only found in late manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate. If you check other bibles, such as the New English Translation Bible (NET), they provide an even more extensive explanation, which we will explore in the next section.

As previously stated, it is not just the KJV and the NIV that have this distinction. Out of the 61 English bible translations available to me on Biblegateway, 17 have the longer version (including the KJV), 41 of them have the shorter version (including the NIV) and 3 have a paraphrase, which although verbose does not include the text of the longer version.

Was 1 John 5:7 added or removed?

When we examine the two verses 1 John 5:7-8, we find that it is actually a part of both verses that is missing or added. It is not really the entirety of verse 7, nor none of verse 8. The text that we are querying is referred to as the Comma Johanneum in Latin (“Comma” simply means “phrase, or short clause” and “Johanneum” means “pertaining to John”), and the Johannine Comma in English. This Comma Johanneum clause has the text, “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth”, and thus introduces what is referred to as the three heavenly witnesses. What is interesting about the Comma Johanneum is that although it is present in the Textus Receptus Greek text that we have today, it was not present in the first two editions of the Textus Receptus produced by Erasmus in 1516 and 1519 respectively, but only first appeared in the third edition published in 1522, as well as all subsequent editions.

According to the footnote in the NET Bible, the Comma Johanneum found its way in Erasmus’ third edition due to pressure from the Catholic Church. Apparently, Erasmas did not have the Comma Johanneum in the first two editions because he could not find a Greek text that had it present. However, the absence of it in the first two editions created a great controversy for Erasmus by church clergymen and scholars, because it was present for centuries in copies of the Latin Vulgate of the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus is said to have replied to his critics that he would include the Comma Johanneum if he found a Greek text that included it. Not long after Erasmus made this declaration, he was provided with a Greek copy of the New Testament that included the Comma Johanneum. This Greek Text is now known as manuscript 61 or Codex Montfortianus.

If you read the wikipedia entry on the Comma Johanneum, you will find that it provides a summarized story that Codex Montfortianus was “subsequently produced, some say concocted, by a Franciscan, and Erasmus, true to his word, added the comma to his 1522 edition, but with a lengthy footnote setting out his suspicion that the manuscript had been prepared expressly to confute him.” In addition, the wikipedia entry titled “Inclusion by Erasmus” ends by saying, “The authenticity of the story of Erasmus is questioned by many scholars. Bruce Metzger removed this story from his book’s (The Text of the New Testament) third edition although it was included in the first and second editions in the same book.”

I don’t have access to the third edition of the late Dr. Bruce Metzger’s and Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book, The Text of the New Testament – Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, but I do have something better, I have a digital copy of the Fourth Edition, and I was able to contact Dr. Ehrman directly and gain access to his active blog, where he addresses this same issue regarding Dr. Metzger supposedly ‘retracting’ or ‘removing’ the story from his book. Before I even thought of writing this post, I had a long online forum debate last year with someone who insisted that Dr. Metzger retracted the story. One of the points I made at that time was that the story was still present in the 4th edition, so it could not be said to be retracted or removed. Regardless, there are scholars who refute the story that Metzger recounts, based on the work of Henk J. de Jonge, an Erasmian scholar, who denies the interpretation of Erasmus’ words to mean that he challenged Lee to produce a manuscript that includes the Comma Johanneum.

Metzger versus de Jonge

In Metzger and Ehrman’s Book “The Text of the New Testament” 4th Ed. Page 146-147, we have this quote:

“In an unguarded moment, Erasmus may have promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, 21 in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. 22 At length, such a copy was found — or was made to order! As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. 23 Erasmus inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but in a lengthy foot- note that was included in his volume of annotations, he intimated his suspicion that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him. 24

However, there is a foot note which says:

“22. It should, however, be noted that Henk Jan de Jonge, a specialist in Erasmian studies, could find no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion concerning a specific promise made by Erasmus; see his “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, Ivi (1980), pp. 381-9.”

I came across a blog post about this by Dr. Peter Gurry, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Co-director of the Text & Canon Institute, Phoenix Seminary, which claims that Metzger’s and Ehrman’s statement about Erasmus was false (or debunked, essentially) by Henk Jan de Jonge. In the blog post, a letter sent by Henk Jan de Jonge to Michael Maynard referencing the work of Erika Rummel who quotes Erasmus, but he claims she cuts the quote short, then he provides a full quote:

“Is it negligence and impiety, if I did not consult manuscripts which were simple not within my reach? I have at least assemble whatever I could assemble. Let Lee produce a Greek MS, which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach. Only then can he reproach me with negligence in sacred matters.”

Jonge then goes on to say “From this passage you can see that Erasmus does not challenge Lee to produce a manuscript, etc”. Personally, I found Jonge’s statement to be blatantly missing the obvious regarding what Erasmus said. He seems to be conflating Erasmus’ motivation for confronting Lee with the obvious challenge made in the confrontation. It is very obvious to me that when Erasmus said, “Let Lee produce a Greek MS, which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach”, he is making a direct challenge to Lee to produce a Greek MS (that is, provide an existing MS) with the Comma Johanneum. It is clear that Erasmus’ motivation is to clear himself of any charge or negligence and impiety. However, that does not take away from the fact that he made a challenge. So, I don’t agree with Jonge at all.

Despite my personal understanding of what is said, it seems that others (trinitarians) are claiming that Ehrman and Metzger have been debunked, and that the claim that they made that Erasmus got the Comma Johanneum from a made up MS is fake and debunked. Some are calling it a myth now. So, I took the initiative and emailed Dr. Bart Ehrman directly and asked him about it. He responded to me, and invited me to subscribe to his blog where he had answered this issue earlier last year. From Dr. Ehrman’s response, I don’t think anyone can say that Dr. Metzger “retracted” his statement about Erasmus. Dr. Ehrman states clearly that Dr. Metzger was not convinced by De Jonge’s point. He knows this from private conversations he had with him, and based on that he says, “Metzger MAY have meant, in this later note, that Erasmus did not PROMISE to include the Comma but only that he SUGGESTED HE MIGHT. That would not be a promise, and so taht [sic] would be the correction to be made”. Dr. Ehrman clearly states that Dr. Metzger did not agree with de Jonge’s assessment and that the “correction to be made” is not relating to retracting the story, but rather just a point of not using the word, “promise”.

Regardless of what Erasmus might or might not have promised, he was still given a Greek text, only after he could not find any Greek text with the Comma Johanneum present. So, why was this the case? Why couldn’t he find any text prior to being given one by Roman Catholic sources?

Evidence of addition, not removal

Both the footnote of the NET Bible and the scholarship details explained by Dr. Metzger in A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament (TCGNT) make the stance that the Comma Johanneum has no right to be in the New Testament. The truth is that out of the more than 5000 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, there are only a total of eight (8) manuscripts that contain the Comma Johanneum and four (4) out of those eight have it as a variant reading in the margin of the text. The earliest of these 8 manuscripts is from the 14th century, 6 of them are from the 16th century, and one has the Comma Johanneum added as a variant reading to a 10th century manuscript.

Apart from being absent from over 99% of all Greek manauscripts, it is also absent from all ancient versions, including Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic and Slavonic, with the exception of the Latin. Even in the Latin text, it is not present in the Old Latin in its early form, or in the Vulgate issued by Jerome (Codex Fuldensis, AD 541, and Codex Amiatinus, AD 716) or as revised by Alcuin (Codex Vallicellianus, 9th century). It was only found in Old Latin and Vulgate copies from the 6th century, and was quoted by “Latin Fathers” in North Africa and Italy in the 5th century. However, it was never quoted by any “Greek Fathers”. Metzger even stated that if the Greek Fathers had known about the Comma Johanneum they would have certainly referenced it in the controversies against the Arians and Sabellians. According to Metzger, the first appearance of the comma in Greek is in a Greek version of the Latin Acts of the Lateran Council in 1215.

So, if the Comma Johanneum did not appear in the Old Latin and Vulgate versions issued by Jerome, then how did it get into copies of the Latin Vulgate used by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries? Apparently, the oldest known citation of the Comma is in a 4th century Latin treatise, or homily, entitled Liber Apologeticus (Chapter 4), attributed to either the Spanish Bishop Priscillian (who was accused of sorcery and executed by Emperor Maximus in AD 385) or his follower, Bishop Instantius, in which it is quoted as part of the actual text of the Epistle. Metzger and Ehrman state the following:

The Comma probably originated as a piece of allegorical exegesis of the three witnesses and may have been written as a marginal gloss in a Latin manuscript of 1 John, whence it was taken into the text of the Old Latin Bible during the fifth century. The passage does not appear in manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate before about A.D. 800.

It is also important to note that although modern Roman Catholic scholars recognize that the Comma does not belong in the Greek New Testament, because of its inclusion in the Clementine edition of the Latin Vulgate in 1592, the Holy Office of Rome with the approval and confirmation of Pope Leo XIII made an authoritative announcement in 1897 that it is not safe to deny that the verse is an authentic part of St. John’s Epistle. To me, this creates a conflict of truth and conscience versus authority and consensus.

Dr. Metzger also mentions that the transciptional probability of the clause being removed is extremely low, virtually improbable. He believed that if the clause was originally present in a Greek manuscript there would be no good reason to account for its omission whether accidental or intentional considering the hundreds of copies of Greek manuscripts and translations of ancient versions. He also adds that from an “intrinsic probability the passage makes an awkward break in sense”, and I have to agree with him on this point. As I will discuss in the next section, the clause does not really fit in with the context of the passage of 1 John 5.

Is 1 John 5:7 about the trinity?

In the footnote of the NET Bible, the scholars make a very interesting statement, despite the facts they have laid out regarding the Comma’s authenticity. The statement is the following:

This is all the more significant since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it [Comma Johanneum] so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity.

It is really interesting to note that the scholars and translators of the NET Bible assert that the Comma Johanneum “succinctly affirms the doctrine of the trinity”. I actually don’t agree with them. As I referenced earlier, the doctrine of the trinity “defines God as being one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons sharing one homoousion (essence)”. If we take that definition and compare it to the Comma Johanneum, we will find that it just does not match any of it’s main assertions:

  1. The Comma does not have any statement about “God”. The greek word “theos” is not mentioned in the Comma at all. So, it is not a definition of God, nor is it defining attributes of God.
  2. There is no mention of “Jesus Christ” or the “Son” in the Comma. The use of logos, the word, is often claimed to be synonymous with Jesus by trinitarians, but this is disputed by non-trinitarians as logos is used over 1200 times in the entire OT and NT, and never to a person.
  3. There is no reference to “persons” or “essence” in the Comma.
  4. There is no reference to ‘coequality’, ‘coeternality’ or ‘consubstantiality’ or ‘divinity’ in the Comma.
  5. There is no mention of “trinity”

In addition to the five points of mismatch listed, there are two main issues that glaringly prevents the Comma from being an affirmation of the trinity:

  1. The first issue is that when taken in context with the rest of the verses, you actually get the sense (even without the textual evidence that bible scholars provide us) that this verse is out of place. The context starts with talking about the love of God and leading to the fact that we need to believe that Jesus is “the Christ” (verse 1), the “Son of God” (verse 5), and that Jesus is verified to us as such by “water and blood” (verse 6) and the “Spirit bears witness” (verse 6). Then we have verse 7 and 8 regarding the three witnesses to who Jesus is. They are bearing witness to the fact that Jesus is the Christ (or Messiah), the Son of God. These three witnesses are showing who Jesus is to the world. Where does heaven come into play here? It just seems out of place. Even if we include the Comma, if we say that the logos (word) is synonymous with ‘the Son’, then are we saying that Jesus is in heaven bearing witness to himself on earth? Is that what trinitarians assert? It just does not fit.
  2. The second issue is how the translators of the KJV use different English words to translate the same Greek words that are in verses 7 and 8. It is the same Greek word for “beareth record” in verse 7 and “beareth witness” in verse 8. It is also the same Greek word for “are” in the expression “three are one” in verse 7 and for “agree” in the expression “three agree in one” in verse 8. Why do you think that is? Why would they translate it differently, same word, same context. They were experts and they knew what they were doing. This is proven from a footnote in the 1599 Geneva Bible (precedes the KJV) that the expression “are one” in “these three are one” actually means “agree in one”, just like it is translated in verse 8. At the very least, this shows that they knew that verse 7 is NOT making an ontological statement, but rather a statement of agreement about who Jesus is (the Christ, the Son of God), just like in verse 8. Yet, they chose to translate it differently so that it can be easily referenced to support their trinity doctrine, if one is not paying attention to the details.

I just want to make one more comment about translating the Greek expression en eisin in verse 7 as “are one” and verse 8 as “agree in one”. The literal translation is indeed “are one”, but what does that mean? Is it an ontological assertion or a declaration of agreement. If we take it as an ontological assertion, that is that the three entities are of the same essense or substance, are we saying that the the water, the blood and the spirit are also the same essence or substance? Of course not! It is simply, from the context, a statement of agreement that the water, blood and spirit testify to who Jesus is. So, even if the Comma Johanneum is included, there is still no textual or contextual basis for asserting that it is making an ontological statement about God. To me, this is the only honest way to look at the passage.

Conclusions

I have tried my best to evaluate this well-beloved and accepted clause in 1 John 5:7-8. Based on what I could research and find and have expressed in this post, it is clear to me that not only is the Comma Johanneum inauthentic, due to being added to the text, but even if it were genuine, it still does not describe or affirm the doctrine of the trinity. I cannot honestly make a declaration that the Comma Johanneum affirms the trinity. My conscience does not allow me to. If you still think so, then that is between you and God. I would love to know what truly convinces other persons, and I hope it is more than just a belief, or an assumption, or familiarity. Unfortunately, some people think that if you don’t see the trinity in this verse, you aren’t being honest before God. I would ask anyone who thinks that to consider what I have written and tell me if you really think I am not being honest. The trinity is just simply not in the bible. May God bless you.

References:

  1. The Text of the New Testament – Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Fourth Edition. Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman. Page 146-147.
  2. A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Bruce M. Metzger. Pages 647-649.
  3. Putting to Rest an Old Canard about Erasmus. Peter Gurry. [July 31, 2019]. Site: https://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2019/07/putting-to-rest-old-canard-about-erasmus.html
  4. How the Trinity Got Into the New Testament: Part 2 (BDEhrman Comment 114428). The Bart Ehrman Blog. Bart D. Ehrman. [January 9, 2021]. Site: https://ehrmanblog.org/how-the-trinity-got-into-the-new-testament-part-2/#comment-114428
  5. 1 John 5:7 – New English Translation Footnote. Biblegateway – Site: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20john%205%3A7&version=NET
  6. Trinity – Wikipedia – Site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity
  7. 1 John 5:7 (KJV and NIV with footnote) – Biblegateway.com – Site: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20John%205%3A7-8&version=KJV,NIV
  8. 1 John 5:7 All translations – Biblegateway.com – Site: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/1%20John%205:7
  9. Johnnine Comma – Wikipedia – Site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannine_Comma
  10. 1 John 5:7 (1599 Geneva Bible) – Biblegateway.com – Site: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20John%205:6-8&version=GNV#en-GNV-30620

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