Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Stump the Priest: The Johannine Comma

1 John 5: 7-9 in the Codex Montfortianus

Question: "According to the Orthodox Church, Is 1 John 5:7 original or a later insertion? I've been studying the subject, but I would greatly appreciate your input."

In most contemporary translations of the Bible, you encounter portions of Scripture that are put in brackets or reduced to a footnote, and it is claimed that "the earliest and most reliable manuscripts" do not include the texts in questions. However, when you look further into these cases, you will generally find that the vast majority of Greek  manuscripts include the text. For example, in the case of the ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-20), there are only two 4th century Greek manuscripts that omit these verses, and one other manuscript that is much later in origin, while there are sources that pre-date the 4th century (such as the Diatessaron) that include these verses, not to mention ancient translations that predate that period. And when you add that to the fact that every other Greek Manuscript does include these verses, it makes the move to omit these verses highly questionable, despite all protests to the contrary.

In the case of 1 John 5:7-8, however, the evidence in favor of the longer reading is very weak, although there is some support for it, particularly in the Latin tradition.

The longer reading of 1 John 5:7-8 is as follows, in the King James text:

"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."

And so without the longer portion, the text would read:

"For there are three that bear record, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one."

When it comes to Greek Manuscripts, there are only eight that provide support for the longer reading, and they are all relatively late:

61: codex Montfortianus, dating from the early sixteenth century.

88: a variant reading in a sixteenth century hand, added to the fourteenth-century codex Regius of Naples.

221: a variant reading added to a tenth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

429: a variant reading added to a sixteenth-century manuscript at Wolfenbüttel.

629: a fourteenth or fifteenth century manuscript in the Vatican.

636: a variant reading added to a sixteenth-century manuscript at Naples.

918: a sixteenth-century manuscript at the Escorial, Spain.

2318: an eighteenth-century manuscript, influenced by the Clementine Vulgate, at Bucharest, Romania.

A case can be made that the text is quoted in part by St. Cyprian of Carthage, however, this is disputable.

The longer reading is found in most Latin texts, and the Old Latin text was probably translated in Apostolic times, and so this is not an insignificant fact.

When printing was invented, Erasmus was the first to publish the Greek New Testament, and in his earlier editions, he did not include the longer reading. This is why Luther's translation never included this reading, and so this has never been much of an issue in the German speaking world. However, because the text had such strong support in the Latin, and this was the text of Scripture best known to western scholars of Erasmus' time, there was pressure for him to include it, and he eventually did include it in later editions, after a Greek manuscript was found that included the longer reader. This is why the longer reading is included in the King James Version.

If you look at a Greek Bible, published by the Orthodox Church in Greece, you will see that the longer reading is included, but is reduced to a smaller font, to indicate that it is questionable. I believe this is the only example of this that text.

Η Αγία Γραφή: Η Παλαιά Διαθήκη και Η Καινή Διαθήκη (The Holy Bible: The Old Testament and the New Testament), published by the Zoe Brotherhood of Theologians, Athens, Greece, 2004, p. 1051. 

On the other hand, the Slavonic Bible, the Slavonic Apostol (the Liturgical Epistle Book), and the Russian Synodal translation of the Bible all include the longer reading without any notes questioning its authenticity. This may be due to the influence of Erasmus' New Testament, or due to the influence of the Latin text. Latin was a key part of the the study of early Slavic seminaries. 

The Slavonic Apostol showing the section from 1 John 5 which includes the longer reading.

Obviously there is nothing to object to in terms of the content of the longer reading of 1 John 5:7-8, but given that the support for it is relatively weak, especially in the Greek textual tradition, it is not a text that one should cite authoritatively, given that doing so is more likely to side-track any discussion, rather than settle anything. On the whole, it seems unlikely to have been the original reading. It may have originated as an explanatory margin note that somehow found its way into the body of the text over time. As such, the text is not wrong, just not likely original. The fact there is a textual issue like this should not bother us. There is no single perfect text of Scripture, and yet, the Church has within its tradition the fullness of Scripture as God inspired it, and we can be sure that the Church has properly preserved and understood this text.