The Johannine Comma Problem

Photo by  Mick Haupt  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

The debate over a section of scripture in 1 John 5 known as the Johannine Comma is one of those issues that can make your head hurt. The Johannine Comma (also known as the Comma Johanneum or the Heavenly Witnesses) is a portion of 1 John 5:6-8.

Honestly, this issue is a challenge to me. What’s often discouraging about it is that so many who are purported to be Biblical Scholars take a view on it that I find hard to accept. The questions I often ask myself are then “Should I accept their scholarship on the issue?”, and “Can scholars be wrong?”. The answer to the first being, “I’m not required to” and the answer to the second being, “They absolutely can be!”

As I often try to do with things, I hope to simplify (perhaps oversimplify) the issue for my own understanding and pare it down to the “nuts and bolts” of the argument. As always, remember, I’m no expert. I’m just a pastor trying to understand things, so I welcome your constructive feedback.

The basic argument goes like this: “Portions of 1 John 5:6-8 don’t belong in the modern English translations because parts of that section don’t exist in the earliest manuscripts.”

I use the King James version of the Bible, but I’m not a Ruckmanite. In fact, most of the people I know that hold to the KJV are not Ruckmanites. If you don’t know what a Ruckmanite is, you’re not missing anything. Unless of course you get entertainment at the expense of the feeble-minded, which I don’t typically recommend. The KJV contains the Comma while modern English translations often do not. So the issue is, what are we KJV people supposed to do about this?

Logically, in other issues we tend to align with the side that has the most compelling evidence. So who has the most compelling evidence regarding the Comma? Is it us KJV people, or is it everyone else? That’s one way to ask the question. The other way to see it is that even if one side has more compelling evidence, is that certainty of correctness? Sometimes, the answer to that is “No.” From an Epistemological standpoint, quantity of evidence in historical matters does not always justify dogma on the matter since we were not around then, and there may have been evidences then that do not exist now.

If I’m honest, the evidence against the inclusion of the Comma is very compelling. However, the arguments do not make for a “slam dunk”, “open-and-shut” case against the Comma because there are elements that suggest complete exclusion of the Comma is not entirely warranted.

To be clear, most Greek manuscripts do not have the Comma. Only eleven "late" Greek manuscripts contain it. Six of those eleven have it in the margin, added even later. The point here being that early allegedly means better. But is that always true in the absence of additional considerations? Not necessarily.

What I learned is that the earliest Greek manuscript of 1 John 5 is called Vaticanus, c. 300 - 325 AD. We know that the Apostle John wrote in the latter half of the first century. That means there is over a two-hundred year gap between the giving of 1 John 5 and its earliest surviving copy. If we presume that during that time the text was copied numerous times (it likely was), and that the Comma was original, is more than two-hundred years enough time for the Comma to be removed or corrupted for one reason or another? The answer to that is yes!

The next question to answer after that is, if the Comma could have been original, and then tampered with within the first two-hundred years after writing, where is the evidence that it was even there to begin with?

There are more than five thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. The manuscripts which include 1 John 5 are limited to about four-hundred-eighty manuscripts. The majority of these do not have the Comma. Also, of those 480 manuscripts of 1 John 5, only 12 of these manuscripts are from before the 10th century. So, you can see why most of the Greek manuscripts that include the Comma would be considered "late" and “few” by modern standards. This is difficult.

However, we cannot exclude the possibility that evidence for a thing can be lost over time. It is possible for the Comma to have been original, included in early manuscripts, then in later ones, and then the earlier ones become lost leaving us only with later ones that include it. That could make it appear as if the Comma just showed up later and was never there before. It could simply be that it was always there while today the earlier manuscripts containing it are just not found.

There is precedence for this.  What we have existing now by way of manuscripts is not representative of what was available in history. Scholars of the Reformation era seemed to have more Greek manuscripts containing the Comma.  John Gill (1697 – 1771) says on 1 John 5:7, the Comma is "in the Complutensian edition, the compilers of which made use of various copies; and out of sixteen ancient copies of Robert Stephens', nine of them had it" (Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible).

John Calvin, said on 1 John 5:7:

"The whole of this verse has been by some omitted. Jerome thinks that this has happened through design rather than through mistake, and that indeed only on the part of the Latins. But as even the Greek copies do not agree, I dare not assert any thing on the subject." (Calvin's Commentaries). 

There were apparently enough manuscripts containing the Comma then that is was not as black and white against the Comma as modern scholars tend to see it. These manuscripts containing the Comma have seemingly been lost since the Reformation era. There were sufficient religious and political turmoils of that era to give rise to manuscripts being lost. We ought not think of the evidence today as the only evidence that have ever existed in history. Likely, sixteenth century scholars had more.

Additionally, we need to think about “Umlauts”. I didn’t know what those were either. These are simply double dots in the margins of manuscripts next to some verses that indicate that the scribe was aware of another variant of the text there. In the fourth century Codex Vaticanus, there are apparently Umlauts present at the place of 1 John 5:7 indicating that the scribe, as early as the fourth century, was aware that another variant existed there. In all likelihood, that’s our Comma.

Also of note is that even in the earliest manuscripts, there are enough variants of 1 John 5:6, 1 John 2:23b, 1 John 4:3 and 1 John 5:13 to suggest that the doctrine of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union were under theological attack by some looking to avoid the doctrine altogether and see to it’s exclusion and obfuscation. 1 John was under attack… early on. If you’ve ever studied through or preached through John’s Epistles, you know why too. Those writing are extremely black and white regarding who is and who is not genuinely born-again and much of it centers around who you think Jesus is. No wonder the text was under attack! Many early false teachers would have seen Johns epistles as a blatant affront to their doctrinal sensibilities. It appears John was rebutting Gnostics throughout the Epistle, a group that would have certainly given rise to pseudo-intellectual scholars with biases against the Deity of Christ. In other words, early heretics had motive to exclude Trinitarian verses and statements on the Deity of Jesus.

Socrates of Constantinople, a 5th century Church historian, said the following in his criticism of a man named Nestorius:

“Now in any event, he did not perceive that in the Catholic epistle of John it was written in the ancient copies, 'Every spirit that severs Jesus is not from God.' [1 John 4:3] For the removal of this [passage] out the ancient copies are understandably by those who wished to sever the divinity from the human economy.  And thus by the very language of the ancient interpreters, some have corrupted this epistle, aiming at severing the humanity from the divinity.  But the humanity is united to the divinity, and are not two, but one.”

To go back to an earlier point, Socrates of Constantinople here uses a different reading of 1 John 4:3 that does not exist in any presently available Greek manuscripts. I had mentioned the possibility that the majority of “earlier and better” manuscripts today might not include portions commonly available long ago. This seems to prove the point.

One pastor friend of mine said, “ God promised to preserve his words for all generations, but God never promised to preserve the most ancient copies of his words”. I think that’s a great way to say it.

All this is to say that simply because scholars in the twenty-first century do not have the earlier manuscripts with the Comma is not enough reason to dogmatically conclude that it should be omitted since there is evidence that early manuscripts with the Comma likely existed. Simply because we don’t have those today does not mean some scribe invented it and stuck it in later. That would be a very narrow-minded view.

Additionally, many of the early Greek and Latin church fathers (as they are commonly called) knew of the Comma and quoted it, but this is a blog post not a thesis and I need to stop somewhere.

I do realize that much of the argument for the Comma are almost arguments from near silence. That’s what makes the subject so difficult. Though by no means the only passage that deals with the it, the Comma speaks of the Triunity of our God and the Deity of Christ. Those are important subjects! And some possible evidence for the Comma does exist. I just wish it’s inclusion was more definitive and conclusive. For now, I still choose to accept the Comma based on the possibilities I’ve discussed here. And I look forward to Heaven when I can find out who’s right.

2 Corinthians 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.

UPDATE 8/8/19: As a commenter mentioned below, the doctrine of the Trinity does not fall apart without the Comma. I agree. So, I have appended additional scriptural references below in support of the doctrine of the Trinity.

If you’ve found this helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks!

A few resources:

Other scriptures affirming the Trinity or aspects of it:

  • “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Genesis 1:27a)

  • “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

  • "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

  • "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

  • "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John 1:18)

  • "I and my Father are one." (John 10:30)

  • "Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:58)

  • "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." (John 14:26)

  • "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:" (John 15:26)

  • "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;" (John 14:16)

  • "And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God." (John 20:28)

  • "(For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)" (1 John 1:2)

  • "Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: (but) he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also." (1 John 2:23)

  • "Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:13-15)

  • "Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son." (2 John 1:9)

  • “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

  • "John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." (Revelation 1:4-6)

Links: (view images/scans of actual fragments by selecting the text > select “B - 03” > “Go”. Then under “manuscript descriptions” look for fragments with “img” next to their designation.)


List of principal witnesses, see page 26

Phillip B. Payne on Umlauts (Pg 112, footnote 34)

Commentaries discussing the Comma for reference:

Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible - comments on 1 John 5:7

Calvin's Commentaries - comments on 1 John 5:7