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The Comma Johanneum Juan Hernández Jr. Introduction The Comma Johanneum—in particular its origin, transmission, and intransigence as an artifact of ongoing theological debate—is a testament to the enduring effects of textual variation. No textual variant illustrates as readily the centrality of the Holy Writ for communities of faith as perennial questions over the Comma’s authenticity. Despite the near unanimity of modern critical scholarship regarding its spurious origins, discussions over the Comma have failed to abate and every generation appears to produce a trove of advocates and defenders. The centrality of the Trinity, as a cardinal Christian doctrine, guarantees continued deliberation; variants of lesser theological note—often with greater text-critical pedigrees—are dropped from consideration without hesitation. Trinitarian concerns have kept the Comma from the reliquary. The manuscript data—stripped of efforts to offer a biblical justification for the Trinity—present a straightforward record of textual corruption and possible intrigue. The balance of probabilities inveighs against the authenticity of the Comma Johanneum. The Greek and non-Greek textual evidence point in the same direction. Only gaps in our knowledge allow for a proliferation of alternative, less probable explanations for the Comma’s origins. And yet—as with every ancient relic—the value of the Comma lies in its status as an artifact of early Christian belief and piety. Authenticity is beside the point. The Comma Johanneum The Comma Johanneum—represented by the italicized portion of 1 John 5:7-8 (“Because there are three who testify in heaven: Father, Word, and Holy Spirit; and these three are one; and there are three who testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are in agreement.”)—is the product of early Trinitarian reflection. A number of the Comma’s terms and phrases are alien to the context of 1 John. The designations “Holy Spirit” and “Word” (as a person), for example, do not occur elsewhere in 1 John. The Holy Spirit as a witness in both heaven and on earth is at odds with the earthly role of the Johannine Paraclete. And the undisputed Greek text of 1 John notes that the three are “in agreement” (εις το εν εισιν); it does not state, as the Latin would later render, that they “are one” (unum sunt)—a phrase replicated in the Comma and reflective of the theological sophistication of another era. The ambiguity of the earliest Greek text, coupled with its awkward phrasing (εις το εν εισιν), appears to have triggered scribal improvements that set the stage for the Comma Johanneum. The textual evidence is unequivocal. The Non-Latin Textual Tradition Before 1500 CE The Greek manuscript tradition appears unaware of the existence of the Comma Johanneum for the first 1,300 years of the NT’s transmission history. Of the approximately 5,800 extant Greek NT manuscripts and lectionaries, only 9 preserve the Comma. Of the 9 manuscripts that contain the Comma, only 4 include it in the actual text of 1 John (i.e., 61, 629, 918, and 2318). With the exception of 629 (14th cent.), each of these is dated after 1400 CE. The remaining 5 manuscripts preserve the Comma in the margins, signaling its status as a secondary variation (88vl, 177vl, 221vl, 429 vl, and 636vl). The witnesses are variously dated, with the earliest emanating from the 10th and 11th centuries (177vl and 221vl); the Comma is a later insertion in all 5.
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The virtual silence of the Greek manuscript tradition is matched by the absence of the Comma in Greek ecclesiastical writings of the first millennium. The shorter text of 1 John 5:7-8, however, is cited with regularity. Tellingly, no appeals are made to the Comma Johanneum during early Trinitarian debates—a conspicuous omission given the Comma’s obvious theological utility. The first appearance of the Comma in Greek appears to be a translation of the Latin Acts of the IV Lateran Council in 1215. The Comma would later be translated into the Greek from the Vulgate by Manuel Kalekas (d. 1410). The Comma Johanneum is thus unattested in the uncontaminated Greek tradition prior to 1300 CE. With the exception of the Latin evidence, the versions parallel the Greek manuscript tradition in their disavowal of the Comma. The Comma Johanneum is absent from all copies of the Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic versions of the NT transcribed before 1500 CE. Further, none of the representative ecclesiastical writers from these traditions appear aware of the Comma’s existence prior to the thirteenth century. The most ancient copies of the Peshitta and Heraklean Syriac versions to surface—once the Catholic Epistles were accepted by Syriac churches—fail to preserve the Comma. Later copies of the Syriac would include it under the influence of the Vulgate. The Old Latin and the Vulgate The Latin textual tradition deviates from Greek (and other non-Greek) evidence in its attestation of the Comma Johanneum. The Comma surfaces early by comparison and grows ubiquitous within the Latin textual streams; the distance between the Latin and Greek traditions becomes considerable. The earliest Latin witnesses nonetheless fail to support the Comma in a manner commensurate with its subsequent dissemination. Old Latin manuscripts appear unaware of the Comma’s existence prior to 600 CE, and the Vulgate does not preserve it before 750 CE. The edition of the Vulgate issued by Jerome and preserved in codex Fuldensis (copied 541-46 CE), for example, as well as the edition found in codex Amiatinus (copied before 716 CE), lack the Comma. Further eroding claims of authenticity are the apparent origins of the Comma only in Latin manuscripts of Spanish provenance (or influence), including the Palimpsest of León Cathedral; the fragment of Freising; and the codices Cavensis, Complutensis, Toletanus, and Theodulphianus; as well as some Sangallense manuscripts. The Comma’s relatively late and limited circulation in Latin, together with its failure to secure Greek and non-Latin versional support, undercut claims of an early Greek source for the Comma Johanneum. The tradition bears the hallmarks of a textual corruption. The Origins of the Comma Johanneum The earliest clear and undisputed attestation of the Comma lies outside the various textual streams and predates its appearance in the Old Latin. The fourth-century Liber apologeticus by Priscillian (d. 385) offers the first certain mention of the Comma; he may even have been its creator. Priscillian would have understood the Comma Johanneum in a Modalist manner. The Comma was nevertheless widely used in orthodox Trinitarian tractates throughout North Africa and Spain during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Comma soon surfaced in commentaries and even gained a prominent endorsement—falsely attributed to Jerome—in the Prologue to the Catholic Epistles (in codex Fuldensis), a credit that bolstered the Comma’s legitimacy.
The existence of the Comma prior to Priscillian remains uncertain. Trinitarian terminology akin to that of the Comma surfaces in the writings of Tertullian (Adversus Praxean 25.1) and Cyprian (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate 6). Even so it is unclear whether their remarks represent the kind of Trinitarian reflection that could have generated the Comma or are evidence of the Comma’s circulation before the fourth century. The latter nonetheless appears doubtful; the attested Trinitarian language of Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century cannot be tied to the wording of the Comma. The Old Latin of 1 John 5:8 already renders the undisputed Greek phrase εις το εν εισιν as unum sunt (“they are one”) well before the introduction of the Comma Johanneum. An early patristic allusion to the “three as one” is thus no clear evidence of the Comma Johanneum. The testimony of a select number of (later) works reflects an analogous tendency: the text of 1 John 5:7-8 is cited without the Comma, even in the midst of Trinitarian reflection (e.g., Pseudo-Cyprian, De rebaptismate 15 and 19 and Facundus of Hermiane, Pro Defensione Trium Capitulorum ad Iustinianum 1.3.9-14). Augustine would himself cite the shorter text of 1 John 5:7-8 and note that the wording recalls the Trinity (Contra Maximinum 2.22.3). The shorter text, in other words, already appears to prompt Trinitarian thinking independent of the Comma. The predilection for Trinitarian reflection alongside the text of 1 John 5:7-8, combined with the Comma’s failure to surface in the writings of a number of prominent Latin theologians—some of whom either wrote on the Trinity or cited 1 John 5:7-8 (such as Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose)—makes it likely that an early Trinitarian gloss has infiltrated the manuscript tradition. The Comma Johanneum in Erasmus, Stephanus, and the Textus Receptus The Comma’s dubious textual pedigree failed to prevent its insertion into sixteenth century editions of the Greek NT. The period’s commitment to a “return to the sources” (ad fontes) offered no safeguards in this regard. The omission of the Comma Johanneum from Erasmus’s Greek NT (1516, 1519), on the grounds that it was absent from the Greek manuscript tradition, drew invectives rather than praise; the Latin ecclesiastical tradition clearly trumped Greek sources in this environment. Greek support was nevertheless sought for the Comma Johanneum and—within a year or two of Erasmus’s defense of the exclusion—a Greek manuscript conspicuously surfaced with the coveted Comma: Codex Montifortianus (61). The Greek Comma of Codex Montifortianus, however, appears to have been translated from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate, its Comma a textual corruption within the Greek manuscript tradition. And yet, Erasmus included the Comma in subsequent editions of his Greek NT (1522, 1527, and 1535), despite reluctance over its authenticity. The move legitimized the contention that the Comma Johanneum was genuine, reinforced, paradoxically, by Erasmus’s own reputation for scholarship. The Comma was then introduced into the third edition of Stephanus’ Greek NT (1550) and eventually made its way into the Textus Receptus (Elzevir 1633)—a text which would serve as the standard Greek NT for centuries. The Rise of Critical Editions and the Comma Johanneum The Comma Johanneum was thereby accorded a prominence unwarranted by the Greek textual tradition, its status underwritten by a handful of late, medieval manuscripts, and its legitimacy—with a few notable exceptions—unquestioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The eighteenth-century, however, witnessed a wave of manuscript discoveries and harvesting of textual variants. New editions of the Greek 3
NT were published with variants printed in the margins. Still the Textus Receptus retained its spot as the principal text of every printed edition of the period, the Comma secure in its “rightful” spot. At most, the Comma Johanneum would appear within brackets, signaling its scant manuscript support, and then only rarely. The publication of Karl Lachman’s landmark edition of the Greek NT (1881), however, brought an end to the dominance of the Textus Receptus. For the first time in history an edition of the Greek NT appeared, reconstructed solely on the basis of the most ancient manuscripts, its text a reproduction of one that presumably existed in the fourth-century. The publication occasioned the eclipse of the Textus Receptus, and with that the sanctioned placement of the Comma Johanneum. Every critical edition of the Greek NT from the nineteenth century onward would exclude the Comma Johanneum from the text of 1 John 5:7-8. Manuscript support now outweighed tradition. There were exceptions, of course—a small number of editions continued (and continue) to be based upon the Textus Receptus. The ground, however, had shifted. Conclusion Questions over the authenticity of the Comma—from an historical perspective—ought to have been settled long ago; the data are clear. The issue, however, is not solely one of textual evidence but of textual readership. Readers are the final arbiters of the value of a text; as such, textual boundaries are often redrawn (or guarded) on the basis of a reader’s convictions or perspectives. The intransigence of the Comma Johanneum as an item of continued theological debate underscores the vitality of a particular readership. Trinitarian concerns inflame the issue; a cardinal Christian doctrine is at stake. The overwhelming textual evidence, of course, renders this a minority position. Even advocates of the Trinity are dubious of the Comma’s authenticity. And yet, the textual tradition of the Greek NT itself— including what is printed as the Ausgangstext—is interwoven with readings which may or may not have been penned by their original authors. The current reconstructed texts are thus a concession imposed by the limits of our knowledge. As such, the difference between the Comma Johanneum and those otherwise (unknown) spurious readings within our reconstructed texts appears to be one of degree rather than kind. The Comma Johanneum may not be the only relic within the textual tradition. Bibliography Ayuso, Marazuela, T. “Nuevo studio sobre el ‘Comma Ionneum.’” Biblica 28 (1947) 83-112, 216-35; 29 (1948): 52-76; Baumstark, A. “Ein syrisches Citat des ‘Comma Johanneum.’” Oriens Christianus 2 (1902): 438-41; Bludau, A. “Das Comma Johanneum (I Joh. 5, 7) in den orientalischen Übersetzungen und Bibeldruchen.” Oriens Christianus 3 (1903): 126-47; idem. “Das Comma Johanneum (I Io 5, 7) im 16. Jahrhundert.” BZ 1 (1903) 280-302, 378-407; idem. “Das Comma Johanneum (1 Io 5, 7) in den Schriften der Antitrinitarier und Socinianer des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts.” BZ 2 (1904): 275-300; idem. Richard Simon und das Comma Johanneum.” Der Katholik 84 (1904) 29-42, 114-22; idem. “Das Comma Johanneum bei den Griechen.” BZ 13 (1915) 26-50, 130-62, 222-43; idem. “Das Comma Ioanneum (I Joh 5,7) in den Glaubensbekenntnis von Karthago vom Jahre 484.” TG (1919): 9-15; idem. “Der hl. Augustinus und I Joh 5, 7-8.” TG 11 (1919): 379-86; idem. “Das ‘Comma Johanneum’ bei Tertullian und Cyprian.” TQ 101 (1920): 1-28; idem. “Der Prolog des Pseudo-Hieronymus zu den katholischen Briefen.” BZ 15 (1918-1921): 15-34, 125-38; idem. “The Comma Johanneum in the Writings of English Critics of 4
the Eighteenth Century.” ITQ 17 (1922) 66-67; Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. AB 30. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995; de Álamo, M. “El ‘Comma Joaneo.’” EstBib 2 (1943) 75-105; de Jonge, H. “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum.” ETL 56 (1980): 381-89; Fickermann, N. “St. Augustinus gegen das ‘Comma Johanneum’?” BZ 22 (1934) 350-58; Fischer, B. “Der Bibeltext in den pseudo-autustinischen ‘Solutiones diversarium quaestionum ab haereticis obiectarum.” Biblica 23 (1942): 139-64, 241-67; Jenkins, C. “A Newly Discovered Reference to the ‘Heavenly Witnesses (I John v., 7,8) in a Manuscript of Bede.” JTS 43 (1942) 42-45; Lemmonyer, A. “Comma Johannique.” DBSup 2 (1934): 67-73; Maynard, Michael. A History of the Debate over 1 John 5:7-8. Tempe, AZ: Comma Publications, 1995; Metzger, B. M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994; Metzger, B. M. and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford, 2005; Rivière, J. “Sur ‘l’authenticité’ du verset es trois témoins.” Revue Apologétique 46 (1928): 303-9; Thiele, W. “Beobachtungen zum Comma Johanneum (I Joh 5,7f). ZNW 50 (1959): 61-73; Wachtel, Klaus. Der Byzantinische Text der katholischen Briefe: Eine Untersuchung zur Entstehung der Koine des Neuen Testaments. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995; Wallace, Daniel B. “The Comma Johanneum in an Overlooked Manuscript” The Center for the Study of NT Manuscripts, 2 July 2010, http://www.csntm.org.