COMMENTS: As one footnote says, I wrote this paper for a Greek class on the Johannine writings that I took at BYU in April 2003. It’s one of my favorite papers ever, and the class for which I wrote it was probably my favorite class from my time at BYU.
The re-coding is done and all of the endnote links should work now, please report any errors to me if they don’t. Eventually I would like to post an Adobe Acrobat Reader version of this article.
The Johannine Comma and Its Place in LDS Thought
Bridget Jack Jeffries1
Isaac Newton, who was interested in the Bible2 and wrote more theological works than he did scientific,3 once stated famously, “Let them make good sense of it who are able; for my part I can make none.”4 In context, “it” refers to a passage in the First Epistle of John that has become known as the Johannine Comma. The King James Version of this passage reads:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.5
The italicized section makes up the questionable Johannine Comma, which most modern editions of the text have either relegated to a footnote or omitted entirely.6
The Comma contains obvious and controversial Trinitarian implications and opinions on it have varied fiercely. Some have hailed the text as “the Bible’s central Trinitarian passage,”7 while others assert that the Comma is “a small affirmation of Joseph Smith and LDS non-biblical scriptures.”8 This paper will treat several disputed aspects of the Johannine Comma: its legitimacy, its potential origins, and its conceivable consequences for LDS scripture and theology.
Legitimacy: The Textual-Critical Evidence and the Early Christian Writers
Are the author of the First Epistle and the author of the Comma one and the same? If not, then does the Comma, at the very least, reflect an ancient Trinitarian tradition? On the basis of both external and internal evidence, New Testament textual criticism has answered each of these questions with a resounding “no.” As The New Catholic Encyclopedia put it, “No scholar any longer accepts [the Comma’s] authenticity.”9
The external evidence alone is stacked overwhelmingly against the Comma. Of the approximately five thousand Greek biblical MSS, the Comma appears in only eight, none of which date earlier than AD 1400,10 and of these eight MSS, only four present the Comma in the actual text while the other four contain the Comma written in a margin.11 I. Howard Marshall sums up the situation when he notes that the only Greek MSS in which the Comma occurs are “a few late and worthless ones.”12 The Greek evidence, or lack thereof, is of no help to advocates of the legitimacy of the Comma.
The evidence from the Latin tradition is less imprecating, but not by much. Brown writes:
As for the Comma itself, in the [Latin] MSS. known to us it does not appear in the [Old Latin] until after A. D. 600, nor in the [Vulgate] until after 750, although obviously these MSS. reflect an already existing tradition. Even then its appearance is geographically limited, for until near the end of the first millennium the Comma appears only in the Latin NT MSS. of Spanish origin or influence.13
Not only is the Comma’s appearance in the Latin MSS late, but the wording of the passage tends to differ among these witnesses,14 effectively contributing to the spurious nature of the Comma. Brown’s verdict on the matter reads: “It is quite clear from a survey of this evidence that the Comma in a form probably translated from the Latin was added very late to a few Greek MSS. by scribes influenced by its presence in Latin MSS.”15 Furthermore, beyond the Greek and Latin evidence, it has been thoroughly noted by scholars that all other pre-fourteenth century MSS of the New Testament also lack the Comma: the Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Slavonic.16 This would constitute “an incredible situation if it were once part of the original Greek text of I John.”17
Perhaps even more prodigious than the manuscript evidence against the Comma is the fact that it is never cited by any of the Greek Church writers of the first millennium—“not even by those who would have joyfully seized upon this clear biblical testimony to the Trinity in their attacks on heretics.”18 Brown further argues that this silence “cannot be dismissed as accidental; for the genuine Greek text of I John 5:7 is quoted (e.g., three times by Cyril of Alexandria) without the Comma.”19 The Comma is conspicuously absent from the citations of major Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome.20 Advocates of the King James Version and the Textus Receptus (TR)—the traditional defenders of the Johannine Comma—have yet to come up with a plausible explanation as to why such an allegedly attractive Trinitarian passage would have been edited out of the Greek text and subsequently ignored by the vast majority of early Christian writers only to find its way back into the Bible over a millennium and a half later.21
The verdict of the internal evidence on the Comma is also unfavorable. The passage, if genuine, would create “an awkward break in the sense”22 of the Epistle, and Brown lists among his reasons for taking the Comma to be an interpolation that the terms “Holy Spirit” and “the Word” as Christ are not found elsewhere in 1 John. Furthermore, the Comma strangely “has the Spirit as both an earthly and a heavenly witness, and the latter idea is foreign to the Johannine picture where the Spirit/Paraclete bears witness on earth and within the Christian.”23 In other words, the Comma itself does not behave as if it belongs to the rest of the epistle.
The earliest undisputed use of the Comma as a direct quotation of John’s First Epistle dates back to the modalistic Spanish heretic Priscillian in his Liber Apologeticus 1.4 (c. AD 385).24 However, Michael Maynard, “a TR advocate who has written a fairly thick volume defending the Comma,” tries to pass off a number of pre-Priscillian quotes as citations of 1 John 5:7-8, including two passages from Cyprian (c. AD 250).25 The passages read:
The Lord says “I and the Father are one” and likewise it is written of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “And these three are one.”26
If anyone could be baptized by a heretic, and could obtain remission of sins, -if he has obtained remission of sins, and is sanctified, and becomes the temple of God? I ask, of what God? If, of the Creator, he cannot be his temple, who had note believed in him; if of Christ, neither can he who denies Him to be God, be His temple, if of the Holy Spirit, since the three are one, how can the Holy Spirit be reconciled to him, who is an enemy either of the Father or of the Son?27
Maynard tries to boost his argument that Cyprian’s writings are direct allusions to the original 1 John 5:7-8 by quoting F. G. Kenyon, who stated that Cyprian is one “who quotes copiously and textually.”28 However, contra Maynard, Wallace points out:
The quotation from Kenyon is true, but quite beside the point, for Cyprian’s quoted material from 1 John 5 is only the clause, “and these three are one”—the wording of which occurs in the Greek text, regardless of how one views the Comma.
Thus, that Cyprian interpreted 1 John 5:7-8 to refer to the Trinity is likely; but that he saw the Trinitarian formula in the text is rather unlikely.29
The same principle can be applied to all pre-Priscillian writings which Comma advocates claim as citations of a Greek version of 1 John 5:7-8 now lost to civilization: the author may have interpreted 1 John 5:7-8 to refer to the Trinity, but that does not mean the Comma as it is known today was actually present in the text.30 Hence the evidence remains decisively against the legitimacy of the Johannine Comma.
Historicity: The Erasmus Legend
As Schindler has demonstrated, the Comma failed to make an appearance in most non-English versions of the Bible,31 yet it was somehow popularized throughout the English speaking world by its inclusion in the KJV.32 This phenomenon can be attributed to the now-famous legend of Erasmus.
Desiderus Erasmus made history in 1516 and again in 1519 when he omitted the Comma from his first and second editions of the Greek New Testament33 and was accordingly charged with Arianism by advocates of the Comma.34 Erasmus maintained that he had diligently searched and had not found the Comma in a single Greek MSS; had he found it anywhere, he would have “most certainly reproduced it in both the Greek text and Latin translation.”35 It was up to his critics to “come up with evidence before [they] accused anyone of negligence or dissimulation.”36
Osburn sums up how the Comma came to be included in Erasmus’s third edition and went on from there to be included in the TR and the KJV:
Ms. 61, containing the Comma and apparently produced at the time for that very purpose, was brought to Erasmus’ attention and, fearing a negative response to his edition, he included the Comma in his 3d edition of 1522, but not without suspicion that 61 had been revised according to the Latin. The reading was accepted into Stephanus’ 3d edition of 1550 and the Elezevir text of 1633, later known as the Textus Receptus. It then achieved wider currency in the Clementine Vulgate in 1592, which became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and in the Rheims edition. Not originally in Luther’s Bible, later editors added it to his text beginning in 1582. Although earlier bracketed by Tyndale as questionable, the reading was adopted in the KJV. Thus the Comma gained widespread acceptance in the 16th and 17th centuries.37
In this way the Comma was interpolated into the Bible, and there it will remain for as long as the KJV continues to circulate.
Possible Origins: Modalism or Trinitarianism?
That is how the Comma made its way into the KJV and the English-speaking world, but the question still remains: how did it ever make its way into the Latin MSS—which was a major influence on the KJV—in the first place? Many have credited the creation of the Comma to either the modalistic heretic Priscillian or his disciple Instantius.38 Priscillian wrote (c. 380):
As John says “and there are three which give testimony on earth, the water, the flesh, the blood, and these three are in one, and there are three which give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one in Christ Jesus.”39
Priscillian certainly makes “the earliest uncontested use of the Comma,”40 but this does not prove that he originated the Comma as opposed to simply making use of an already-existing Comma.
A better explanation for the origin of the Comma is that it is a genuine41 Trinitarian reflection on the legitimate, Comma-less text of 1 John 5:7-8. Brown notes that there was a “general patristic tendency to invoke any scriptural group of three as symbolic of or applicable to the Trinity.”42 Early Christian writers understood “the Spirit” as a reference to the Father (John 4:24), “the blood” as a reference to the Son (John 19:34-35), and “the water” as a reference to the Spirit (John 7:38-39),43 and these writers began to taken note of this interpretation in the margins of their texts. Hence what “was likely a marginal gloss was incorporated into certain Latin texts and eventually translated back into Greek in some late Greek manuscripts.”44
Textual Criticism and LDS Scripture
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no official or even semi-official position on the authenticity of the Johannine Comma. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith was aware of the textual-critical issues surrounding the passage, and he left 1 John 5:7-8 unaltered from the KJV in his “Inspired Version” of the Bible (JST). While “many Latter-day Saints regard this as the most correct version of the Bible now available,”45 the official LDS Bible Dictionary notes that Joseph Smith was still making changes to the JST at the time of his death in 1844 and that “it is possible that some additional modifications would have been made had he lived to publish the entire work.”46 Thus Joseph Smith’s silence on the matter cannot be interpreted as an official sanction of the passage since he may have had changes to the passage forthcoming.
Latter-day Saints as individuals have taken various positions on the Comma. Schindler has no problem dismissing the Comma as a deliberate and uninspired interpolation on the part of Trinitarians,47 while Hopkins writes that the Comma “is in the JST. Hence, Mormons would conclude that the addition was also inspired.”48 Hopkins later goes on to note that the teaching of the Comma in respect to the Godhead is consistent with the teachings of other Latter-day scriptures such as 1 Nephi 31:21, Alma 11:44, and D&C 20:27-28,49 and likewise, Monson accepts the authority of 1 John 5:7-8 and interprets the passage in the light of the LDS doctrine of the Godhead.50
In his later work, How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God, Hopkins curiously dismisses evangelical attempts to use 1 John 5:7 as proof for the Trinity by referring to textual criticism’s negative verdict on the text,51 ignoring the glaring inconsistency of a Latter-day Saint accepting the interpolation as inspired and then denying the same privilege to all other types of Christians. However, there is another inconsistency that arises when Latter-day Saint apologists try to dispense with the Comma on the basis of textual-critical evidence. A passage that has fallen under almost as much fire from the textual-critical camp is the ending of the Gospel of Mark. According to The Anchor Bible Dictionary:
The last verses in the text of Mark (16:9-20) are included in some translations, but they do not appear in the earliest manuscripts. These verses are clearly an amalgam of traditions from the other three gospels which was appended to the gospel of Mark to provide it, like the others, with resurrection appearances. In the opinion of most modern scholars, the gospel originally ended with 16:8.52
Likewise, Metzger notes that the traditional twelve-verse ending lacks early church witnesses, has considerable internal evidence against it (such as non-Markan vocabulary), and is only one of several different endings in circulation among the MSS. It, like the Johannine Comma, was popularized through the TR and remains common in modern translations to this day.53
Why, then, do Latter-day Saint apologists not simply dismiss the ending of the Gospel of Mark on textual-critical grounds as some have done with the Johannine Comma? Namely, because the passage is quoted directly and also alluded to in several works of scripture unique to Mormonism, sealing the LDS position on the interpolation as inspired, if not legitimately Markan. For example, Mormon 9:22b-24 reads:
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; And he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned; And these signs shall follow them that believe—in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if the drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover…54
That the passage is a direct quotation of the ending of the Gospel of Mark is obvious from the numerous Book of Mormon footnotes cross-referencing the passage in Mormon to the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Accordingly, the LDS Church accepts the authenticity of this spurious Markan ending.
Forced to defend as authentic a biblical passage that textual criticism has condemned, Hopkins offers a brief apologetic for the passage as an original part of Mark’s gospel.55 However, the issue still remains that it is inconsistent for Latter-day Saint apologists of any caliber to cite the opinions of textual critics against the authenticity of the Johannine Comma and then disregard what those very same critics have to say about the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Textual criticism is just as destructive to their case as it is helpful.
The Theological Consequences of the Comma
Assessing the LDS position as “quasi-Arianist anti-Trinitarian,” Schindler interprets the Comma as an endorsement of Trinitarian doctrine and argues against its authenticity and scriptural authority throughout his article—and further argues that it poses a serious problem for traditional Protestant groups.56 Yet in truth, apologists like Schindler need not be so concerned with discrediting the Comma, for the Comma is nowhere near as helpful to the Trinity debate as KJV/TR advocates pretend it to be, nor is the passage a threat to Mormon theology. The Comma is vague enough in its wording that it can be re-interpreted to accommodate modalistic, henotheistic/polytheistic, or Trinitarian theologies with hardly any effort at all. As was already discussed above, the fourth-century heretic Priscillian had no trouble using the Comma to support modalism,57 and it has already been established that the Comma probably came about as a genuine Trinitarian reflection on the original 1 John 5:7-8 that was glossed into the actual text over time.58 Overstating the Comma’s usefulness, Trinitarians remain to this day the most common advocates of its authenticity.
The answer for Latter-day Saints can be so much simpler than a lengthy appeal to the conclusions of textual criticism. Often Trinitarians will cite Jesus’s statement in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one,” as proof of the Trinity, and to this Mormons usually respond that Jesus and the Father are not one in essence and being but one in purpose and unity—a perfectly fair interpretation of the text.59 The same hermeneutical key could easily be applied to 1 John 5:7-8, hence it really does not matter whether one accepts the authenticity of the Comma or not since the passage can be interpreted to fit almost any theological system.
The textual critical evidence—both external and internal—is painfully against the Johannine Comma as part of the original text, and the evidence provided by early Christian writers concurs with this. The Comma probably started out as a sincere Trinitarian reflection on the actual text of 1 John 5:7-8 that was eventually glossed into the Latin MSS, where it found its way into the King James Version via an unwilling Erasmus and the Textus Receptus; there it became popular among English-speaking Christians throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Finally, the wording of the Comma is so generic that it can be used to support almost anyone’s system of theology—it can neither help Trinitarian theology nor harm LDS theology. To put it in a nutshell, the Johannine Comma is truly much ado about nothing.
Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. New York: Doubleday, 1982.
Draina, C. and F.J. Moloney. “Johannine Comma.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2003. 891-892.
Hopkins, Richard R. Biblical Mormonism: Responding to Evangelical Criticism of LDS Theology. Bountiful: Horizon, 1994.
—. How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God. Bountiful: Horizon, 1994.
Levine, Joseph M. “Erasmus and the Problem of the Johannine Comma.” Journal of the History of Ideas 58 O (1997): 573-596.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Matthews, Robert J. “Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST).” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Ed. Daniel H. Ludlow. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Maynard, Michael. A History of the Debate Over 1 John 5:7-8. Tempe: Comma Publications, 1995.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Monson, Dwight E. Shared Beliefs, Honest Differences: A Biblical Basis for Comparing the Doctrines of Mormons and Other Christians. Bountiful: Horizon, 1998.
Osburn, Carroll D. “Johannine Comma.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 882-883.
Schindler, Marc A. “The Johannine Comma: Bad Translation, Bad Theology.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29.3 (Fall 1996): 157-163.
Wallace, Daniel B. “The Comma Johanneum and Cyprian.” Biblical Studies Foundation. 15 March 2003. <http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/Cyprian.htm>.
—. “The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8.” Biblical Studies Foundation. 15 March 2003.http://www.netbible.org/ocs/soapbox/1john5-7.htm.
1 The original version of this paper was completed and turned in on 17 April, 2003 for Dr. Eric Huntsman’s Greek 411R (Johannine Writings) class at Brigham Young University, Provo. Some changes have been made to the paper since then. A shortened version of the paper was presented at the 2004 BYU Humanities Symposium in March.
2 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 775.
3 Marc A. Schindler, “The Johannine Comma: Bad Translation, Bad Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 3 (1996): 157.
4 Quoted in Brown, Epistles, 775. It should be noted that Brown provides no documentation for this quotation.
5 1 John 5:7-8 (KJV), emphasis mine.
6 The translations that footnote the Comma include NIV, NRSV, and NASB, while the translations that omit it altogether include RSV, ASV, New Living Translation, and Good News Translation. The KJV, the Douay-Rheims Bible, and the Third Millennium Bible include the passage in the main text. The NKJV includes it in the main text but marks the passage as dubious in a footnote.
7 Jack A. Moorman, Foreword, A History of the Debate Over 1 John 5:7-8 by Michael Maynard (Tempe: Comma Publications, 1995), 7.
8 Schindler, “Johannine Comma,” 164.
9 C. Draina and F. J. Moloney, “Johannine Comma,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America, 2003), 892. See also Brown, Epistles, 780: “…since the nineteenth century no recognized authority upon the Greek text of the NT has accepted the authenticity of the Comma.”
10 Brown, Epistles, 776.
11 Ibid., 776-777.
12 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 236.
13 Brown, Epistles, 779.
14 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), 717.
15 Brown, Epistles, 777.
16 Ibid., 777; Metzger, Commentary, 717; Carroll D. Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 882.
17 Brown, Epistles, 777.
18 Marshall, Epistles, 236; however, this paper will later argue that the Comma isn’t such a “clear biblical testimony” to the Trinity after all.
19 Brown, Epistles, 777.
20 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 883.
21 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7-8,” Biblical Studies Foundation, <http://www.netbible.org/docs/soapbox/1john5-7.htm>, 15 March, 2003; Metzger, Commentary, 717.
22 Metzger, Commentary, 718.
23 Brown, Epistles, 775-776.
24 Ibid., 781; Marshall, Epistles, 236.
25 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Comma Johanneum and Cyprian,” Biblical Studies Foundation, <http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/Cyprian.htm>, 15 March 2003; italics his.
26 Cyprian, De catholicae ecclesiae, as cited in Maynard, History, 37.
27 Cyprian, Epistle to Jubaianus, as cited in Maynard, History, 38.
28 F. G. Kenyon, Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: MacMillan, 1912), 212; as quoted in Maynard, History, 38.
29 Wallace, “Cyprian,” 15 March, 2003; italics his.
30 See also Brown, Epistles, 784.
31 Schindler, “Johannine Comma,” 158.
32 Wallace, “Textual Problem,” 15 March, 2003.
33 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 883.
34 Joseph M. Levine, “Erasmus and the Problem of the Johannine Comma,” Journal of the History of Ideas no. 58 (October 1997): 589.
35 Ibid., 588.
37 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 883.
38 Brown, Epistles, 781.
39 Priscillian, Liber Apologeticus, as cited in Maynard, History, 39.
40 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 882, emphasis mine.
41 As opposed to a deliberate interpolation on the part of Trinitarians intent on removing “plain and precious things” from the Bible, contra Schindler, “Johannine Comma,” 164.
42 Brown, Epistles, 784.
43 Ibid., 785.
44 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 883.
45 Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST),” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: MacMillan, 1992), 767.
46 “Joseph Smith Translation,” Bible Dictionary, 717.
47 See Schindler, “Johannine Comma,” 164.
48 Richard R. Hopkins, Biblical Mormonism (Bountiful: Horizon, 1994), 23.
49 Ibid., 70.
50 Dwight E. Monson, Shared Beliefs, Honest Differences (Bountiful: Horizon, 1998), 31-33.
51 Richard R. Hopkins, How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God (Bountiful: Horizon, 1998), 244.
52 Paul J. Achtemeier, “Mark, Gospel of,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 546.
53 See Metzger, Commentary, 122-128.
54 The ending of the Gospel of Mark is also quoted or alluded to in D&C 24:13; 35:9; 63:9; 68:8; 84:64-73; 124:128.
55 Hopkins, Biblical Mormonism, 23.
56 Schindler, “Johannine Comma,” 164.
57 Priscillian, Liber Apologeticus 1.4.
58 Osburn, “Johannine Comma,” 883.
59 Hopkins, Biblical Mormonism, 86; Monson, Shared Beliefs, 27-29.