Skip to content

Whatever Happened to 1 John 5:7


Whatever Happened to 1 John 5:7?

1 John 5:7-8 AV 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.

1 John 5:7-8 ESV For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

TR: 7οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν 8και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

Tishendorf: 7οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες, 8το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα, και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν.

To state the obvious, there is a difference in the translation of first John chapter five, verse seven and eight largely between those English versions based on the Textus Receptus and those translations which are based on the earlier Greek texts. The Received Text versions, including the Authorised Version and the New King James Version, have a reference to ‘three that bear witness in Heaven’; a distinctly Trinitarian reference which is noticeably absent from the non-RT translations. Theologians have referred to this inclusion as ‘the Johannine Comma’. (The word ‘Comma’ is used in the sense of a short sequence of words set within a larger sentence. ) Which version of the text is correct?

The ‘King James Only’ theologians will certainly defend the inclusion of the RT’s wording, for their theology of biblical inspiration often goes beyond the usual ‘we believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures as originally given’ to add ‘and preserved in the Authorised version’. (Many evangelical thinkers will have great sympathy with this lobby. Many believe the King James Bible to be the text upon which great revivals of Christianity have been based. Its language is woven into the fabric of the English language itself, the beauty of its prose is unsurpassed, its accuracy and faithfulness to the RT texts is without question, it’s influence on society and its endurance make it a formidable translation. It is the benchmark by which other translations are measured, and the very fact that modern translations like the NIV and the ESV feel obliged to add the Comma in the footnotes must in part be because they know that their work will be assessed beside the KJV and thus they need to explain when their translation varies from it significantly. Yet, we must not forget that the intention of the Reformers, and those who pursued the ideal of an English translation, had in mind that the Scriptures would be available in the language of the common man, the vernacular)
For examples of this we need only search the internet for ‘King James Only’…

What we hold in our hands today in the form of the King James Bible is the PRESERVED inspired originals, which means the King James Bible has to be inspired. God’s Word has been preserved. If the King James Bible is not inspired, then God did not preserve His Word, because His Word is inspired. Preservation MUST include inspiration if it is genuine preservation.

Edward Hills (Hills, 1986, p.2.) also believed that this preservation occurred in both the TR and the King James Version, and gives the argument a more reasoned structure:

If the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament Scriptures is a true doctrine, the doctrine of the providential preservation of the Scriptures must also be a true doctrine. It must be that down through the centuries God has exercised a special, providential control over the copying of the Scriptures and the preservation and use of the copies, so that trustworthy representatives of the original text have been available to God’s people in every age. God must have done this, for if He gave the Scriptures to His Church by inspiration as the perfect and final revelation of His will, then it is obvious that He would not allow this revelation to disappear or undergo any alteration of its fundamental character.

Although this doctrine of the providential preservation of the Old and New Testament Scriptures has sometimes been misused, nevertheless, it also has always been held, either implicitly or explicitly, by all branches of the Christian Church as a necessary consequence of the divine inspiration of these Scriptures…

It is not just the King James Only theologians who support the inclusion of the ‘Comma’, for from the time of Erasmus (16th century) proponents of the inclusion have pointed to the verse’s distinctive defence of trinitarian doctrine, and accused those who would render the text as the more modern translations do as giving succour and support to those of a Unitarian (or even Arian) viewpoint. On the other hand, no-one in the camp of evangelical and conservative scholarship would argue that the verse is theologically incorrect, or deny that it is a useful tool in the defence of trinitarianism, (It has certainly been noted that this verse, with its clear apologetic for trinitarianism was never used in any arguments in the arguments against Arius in the fourth century. Surely, some argue, this verse would have been used in argument and debate at Nicea, and the fact that it was not, would perhaps indicate that it was not known to the participants. ) but would point out that if the addition is not in the original texts, it should not be in our modern translations, despite its theological and apologetic usefulness. Yet the story of the inclusion of the RT words in the Authorised Version is worth exploring and recounting on its own merits, for it is an interesting and compelling account woven throughout with the influences of personality and intrigue.

Before we consider the history of the dispute, we should ask a more fundamental question. If we even consider and analyse these issues, are we not, in the very act of doing so, encouraging unnecessary scrutiny and debate on the veracity of the Scriptures, which can then be used by liberals and sceptics to further undermine the concepts of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture? Is any form of textual analysis ever legitimate? Many evangelical and reformed scholars will draw a distinction between ‘textual criticism’ and ‘higher criticism’. (The term ‘criticism’ in itself is unfortunate, with negative connotations, implying an approach that is predisposed to undermine the inerrancy of the biblical text rather than to understand and correctly translate the documents, so that what we have in our vernacular versions is as close as possible to the Word of God as originally given – textual analysis would perhaps be more appropriate.)

Textual Criticism and Higher Criticism.

Textual Criticism is the study of the copies of any written document where the original document (the autograph) is no longer available to study, so that the exact wording of the original can be determined. Christians speak of the inerrancy and infallibility of the word of God, but when they do so, they are not ascribing those attribute to the copies, but to the autographs, the original documents. Textual criticism looks at the entire body of available manuscripts and employs scientific methods to work backwards to get to the wording of the original autographs. So precise is that science, with regard to dating and textual analysis, that we can know with ninety nine percent certainty what those original autographs said. Dr W Hall Harris of Dallas Theological Seminary claims

‘With regard to the availability of manuscript evidence of the New Testament, we have an embarrassment of riches to hand.’ (Dr Harris, see The Centre for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.)

Higher criticism, (often confused with textual criticism by some Christians) is a different process. The higher critic goes much further than lower (textual) criticism, progressing beyond the dating and comparison of manuscripts to a literary deconstruction of the texts, looking at style and language and the structure of a text, shifts in arguments, debating whether a book has a single author or more, and reaching an often subjective conclusion on presumed redactions within the text, and editing to it. For example, in the Old Testament one of the better known theories based on Higher Criticism is Welhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Julius Wellhausen (May 17, 1844 – January 7, 1918), was a German biblical scholar and orientalist, posited a theory that the Pentateuch was written by four supposed sources, the Jahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly Author, and all synthesised into a single work in the time of Ezra. The same tactics have been applied to the New Testament, involving deconstruction of the text of most of the New Testament, including, of course, the writings of John have been heavily scrutinised.

These distinctions are entirely subjective. For example, Wm Barclay, in his introduction to 2nd and 3rd John, (Barclay, 2002, pp 143-154) proposes that the term ‘John the Elder’ probably refers to another man called John, who lived at Ephesus around the turn of the 1st century, and bases that supposition entirely on a single written document that states that such a person was a known leader in church circles, without any further evidence connecting this man with the letters.

Erasmus and Stephanus.

Having established that there is a legitimate and valid basis for textual examination of the almost six thousand currently extant texts, papyri and fragments, to get as close to the original autographs as possible, and distinguished that work from the work of the Higher Critics, we can now examine an incident that allegedly happened during the translation work of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the compiler of the Greek text of the New Testament upon which the Textus Receptus was based.

Erasmus was born in Holland around 1466, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician’s daughter. He was educated in monastery schools and ordained to the Catholic priesthood at the age of 25, although whether he practiced as a priest for any length of time is doubtful, and in later life priests and bishops became the object of his satirical writings. It was the time of the Renaissance, and love of all things classical was sweeping across the continent, including a revival of the Greek language. Erasmus had decided to update the Latin version of the Bible, used by the church, – to correct mistakes made by ‘ignorant scribes’ in the Latin text. Alongside this he also compiled a single Greek text of the New Testament, possibly to show that the Greek text on which his new Latin version was based, was as close to the autographs as possible. The Greek text was then also published for scholarly use. Erasmus had seven Greek sources available to him, seven ancient manuscripts of which two were the primary texts.

When the first edition of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was printed, it shocked and outraged the theological world of his day. Most of the theologians of the day were using the Latin Vulgate which contained the Johannine Comma, but Erasmus had omitted it, on the grounds that it was not part of any extant Greek text. (Erasmus considered the inclusion in the Latin to be the work of Priscillian, a Spanish heretic, executed for heresy in 385AD, who had been teaching about ‘three heavenly witnesses’) So loud was the criticism of this omission that Erasmus made a (rash) promise, that if anyone could produce a Greek manuscript with the Comma included, he too would include it in the next edition of the Greek New Testament. Needless to say, someone, possibly a Franciscan opponent of Erasmus, produced such a manuscript. It had been hand-written as late as 1520 (after Erasmus had printed his first edition) and Erasmus conjectured that it had only been written to embarrass him. White (White, 2009, p101) notes:
…Erasmus did include the Comma in his 1522 (3rd) edition. Why? Possibly there was an inherent promise to do so in his response to Lee that should a single manuscript be found containing the phrase, he would include it. Or perhaps he did this simply to face one less obstacle in gaining acceptance for his Latin translation.
In any case, an Irish manuscript, Codex Montfortianus, that contained the disputed phrase, now at Trinity College Dublin, was found. This manuscript is highly suspect, most probably having been created in the house of the Grey Friars, whose provincial, Henry Standish, was an old enemy of Erasmus, and whose intention was simply to refute him.
Still, Erasmus had given his word, and in his third edition of the Greek New Testament, printed in 1522, the Johannine Comma was included.

Erasmus’s printed Greek text was a turning point in theological thought. In fact, although Erasmus wrote satire which lampooned the Roman Church with its ceremonies and vestments, it’s hypocrisies and immorality, and although he never exercised his priestly ordination in later life, he never became a Protestant, and disagreed greatly with Luther on theology, notably on the idea of the ‘free will of man’. Yet his work on the Greek text of the New Testament marked him out as one of the great reforming influences of his day, so great was its influence. It put the New Testament in its original language into the hands of scholars and theologians, who up until that point had been confined to a few manuscripts in monasteries, and of course the prevailing Latin translation. It became the basis of other translations. From Erasmus’s Greek text, Luther produced a German Bible, putting the Scriptures into the hands of every man in Germany who could read, and Tyndale achieved the same in England, with his English version. It was one of the texts which formed the basis of a revised Greek text produced by Stephanus (Robert Estienne) in 1550, which, like most Greek texts printed shortly after Erasmus’s edition, also included the Comma, and which he named, the Textus Receptus (the Received Text). It is on the Received Text that the translators of the Authorised Version, gathered under the patronage of King James I of England in 1611, based their popular English translation. The Comma was again included.

In his book, ‘The King James Version Defended’, Hills (1993 p. 208-209) concurs with this version of events:

As has been observed above, the Textus Receptus has both its human aspect and its divine aspect, like the Protestant Reformation itself or any other work of God’s providence. And when we consider the manner in which the Johannine Comma entered the Textus Receptus, we see this human element at work. Erasmus omitted the Johannine Comma from the first edition (1516) of his printed Greek New Testament on the ground that it occurred only in the Latin version and not in any Greek manuscript. To quiet the outcry that arose, he agreed to restore it if but one Greek manuscript could be found which contained it. When one such manuscript was discovered soon afterwards, bound by his promise, he included the disputed reading in his third edition (1522), and thus it gained a permanent place in the Textus Receptus. The manuscript which forced Erasmus to reverse his stand seems to have been 61, a 15th or 16th-century manuscript now kept at Trinity College, Dublin. Many critics believe that this manuscript was written at Oxford about 1520 for the special purpose of refuting Erasmus, and this is what Erasmus himself suggested in his notes.

FF Bruce (Bruce, FF, 1970, pp129-30) notes that the manuscript which so embarrassed Erasmus is now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin and that there are only three other Greek Manuscripts which include the Comma, one from the fifteenth century, one from the sixteenth century, and one from the the twelfth century to which the Comma had been added in the seventeenth century.

Theological Opinions on the Johannine Comma.
Right across the theological spectrum, there is no dispute over the theology of the Comma. It is distinctively Trinitarian and certainly contributes to the overall understanding of the text, it fits well into the context, and takes away nothing from the point John is making. The question simply is that if John didn’t write it, should it be retained, despite its theological and textual fidelity?

William Barclay, Barclay, (2002, pp. 124-125) who is a theological liberal, (whose work, nevertheless, is worthwhile if used with care, for it has a good grasp of textual sourcing and background), insists that the Comma is a footnote, or an explanation, inserted into a copied manuscript by a scribe which later was added to the Vulgate. He concludes firmly that John did not write it, and while it is not in any way incorrect or wrong, it is an addition to the original text.

James Montgomery Boice, (1938-2000) was a conservative, reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian author and pastor, who was also a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He held several doctorates in theology and was a prolific writer. His views are stark. The Comma should be removed from the King James Version. He goes even further than Barclay (Boice, 2006, pp131-132). He attributes the idea of ‘the three heavenly witnesses’ to a philosophy being taught by a Spanish heretic called Priscillian, who was executed in 385AD.

FF Bruce, (1910-1990) was an evangelical scholar and author with a considerable influence on modern evangelical theology, author of the book New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1943), which, according to the Christian Post, was one of the fifty most influential evangelical books. On the subject of the Comma, he argues that theologically, there is no problem with it, except that it wasn’t written by John.

Joel Beeke, (2006, pp 192-193) is a contemporary reformed scholar and author, an expert on Puritan history and doctrine, pastor and lecturer. He is fervently in favour of the King James Version. On the Comma, he demonstrates in his book that it is perfectly in accord with other scripture teachings on the Trinity, and the historic confession and creeds of the Christian Church, but he admits that it is not in any reliable Greek manuscript. For defence of its inclusion in the KJV he defers to Edward Hills.

Edward Hills, (1993 p. 209) who is one of the most effective defenders of the KJV can only conclude that the Comma should be retained on the basis that is ‘possibly genuine’. His method of argument is to disregard the evidence of the Greek manuscripts, and trace the Comma’s preservation as being a providential act, through the Latin Vulgate alone.

whatever may have been the immediate cause, still, in the last analysis, it was not trickery which was responsible for the inclusion of the Johannine Comma in the Textus Receptus but the usage of the Latin-speaking Church. It was this usage which made men feel that this reading ought to be included in the Greek text and eager to keep it there after its inclusion had been accomplished. Back of this usage, we may well believe, was the guiding providence of God, and therefore the Johannine Comma ought to be retained as at least possibly genuine.

So, (using the Johannine Comma as an example of how scholars are continually working to bring us back to the autographs), when you read your ESV Bible and discover that part of the text of 1 John 5:7 included in the KJV is missing, does that make your ESV or your KJV less reliable? Does it cast some doubt on the inerrancy of Scripture, or the doctrine of plenary inspiration? Not at all! In fact the opposite is the case. The inspiration of the Scriptures is invested in the AUTOGRAPHS – the original writings as penned by John and the other biblical authors. What we read in our leather bound books are TRANSLATIONS of manuscripts copied from the autographs. The closer we can get to the autographs the better. We have access to early manuscripts, copied only a few decades after the autographs, to which the KJV translators, in 1611 did not have access. There is remarkable unanimity among some six thousand available manuscripts and fragments, and we can be sure that in the leather bound volumes, what we have is an accurate translation of the word of God, as delivered to the original authors. FF Bruce (2013, p. 20), quoting Sir Frederick Kenyon, writes:
The interval between the data of original composition and the earliest extant evidence has become so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation of any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as written has now been removed. Both authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as firmly established.


Barclay, W. 2002, The Letters of John and Jude, St Andrew Press, Edinburgh.
Beeke, J. 2006, The Epistles of John, Evangelical Press, Darlington.
Boice, J.M. 2006, The Epistles of John, Baker Books, Grand Rapids.
Bruce, FF 1970, The Epistles of John, Revell, Old Tappan, NJ.
Bruce, FF 2013, The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable? Bottom of Hill, No physical address
Hills, E.F. 1993, The King James Version Defended, Christian Research Press, Des Moines.
White, J.R. 2009, The King James Only Controversy, Bethany House, Bloomington
Jackman, D. 1992, The Message of John’s Letters, IVP, Nottingham.
Phillips, J. 2003, Exploring the Epistles of John, Kregal, Grand Rapids

Websites and Internet Resources:
Manuscripts, The Centre for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, accessed on 4th March 2014
Stewart, D.J King James Only – Preservation of the Word Accessed 3/01/2014

From → 1st John, Editorial

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: