The Johannine Comma – The story of how a bible verse was written — 1 John 5:7-8

The Johannine Comma in the Codex Sinaiticus

A version of the greek text (The Codex Sinaiticus - part of the Alexandrine text tradition) without the comma in place. The highlighted area shows 1 John 5:7-8. The small text above the following line shows a correction to a scribal error. The full photographic facsimile of this text is available online.

One of the hard things about studying the bible is working out what version of the bible to study. There are thousands of copies, all written by hand, and all different. Reconstructing what might have been the original text is the job of ‘textual criticism’, and it isn’t an easy job.

One example (which is much easier to figure out than many) is the so-called Johannine Comma. In the first epistle of John, chapter 5, there is a suspect phrase spanning the end of verse 7 and the start of verse 8. Those two verses say:

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

This section seems to read pretty well, and the two parallel sections fit together. In wider context, however, the passage does jar a little. And it becomes really suspicious when you realise that it seems to be slam-dunk evidence of the doctrine of the trinity, but that doctrine wasn’t formulated for more than a century after 1 John was composed. The trail is even more intriguing when you look at the earliest manuscripts we have, and the textual traditions from those early manuscripts.

[An aside – a textual tradition is what we call the set of copies that are made in one community or region from an initial set of texts. So we have an ‘Alexandrine’ textual tradition which is the set of texts copied in Alexandria, derived ultimately from some original set of texts (original for Alexandria, not necessarily first copies of the original works). Because of the copying within a textual tradition, you get consistent errors showing up through the family of copies, and conversely by looking at what is consistent and what is different within a tradition, you can reconstruct what the original texts in that tradition might have looked like.]

We find that the section about the trinity (the section in italics, above) doesn’t exist in early manuscripts. In fact it only appears in one textual tradition. That textual tradition is a tradition built on an early Latin translation of the Greek text.

What we think happened is this:

  1. The original text looks like it has a trinity in it (spirit, water and blood). But after the doctrine of the trinity was decided upon, some scholar felt that this alternative trinity needed explanation. So they wrote a marginal note in their copy of the latin version of the text, showing the parallel between John’s trinity and the trinity of God: one heavenly, one earthly.
  2. Some later point this text was copied. A scribe seeing this marginal note mistook it for an omitted part of the text (it wasn’t uncommon to add accidentally omitted parts of the text as marginal notes, much as we’d insert a bit more content into a handwritten text by writing it in the margin and adding a line, arrow or caret). He merged it into the text as best he could.
  3. At a later date again, a translation into Greek was made of this Latin text, and so the appropriate section was then turned into greek along with its surrounds.
  4. The textual tradition that grew out of these texts is the one that ultimately was used in the writing of the King James Version of the bible. So it ended up in the KJV.

Most recent bibles will omit the Johannine comma, with the text placed in a footnote. The evidence is so clear  that you might think it would be worth removing entirely. It is testimony to the great weight of the KJV of the text in English that most bible editors won’t do this. They think (rightly, I say) that people will compare their translation against the KJV and wonder why they are missing chunks out. So the footnote has to be there to explain.

This chunk of text is just representative of thousands upon thousands of variations in the early text. Almost every verse in the New Testament has several alternate renderings. Some are obviously incorrect (such as spelling mistakes), others dramatically change theological implications, and others (like this one) invent evidence for things that the New Testament writers knew nothing about.

It is that texture: interdependent, complex and contingent, that makes it such a fascinating text, I think.


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25 responses to “The Johannine Comma – The story of how a bible verse was written — 1 John 5:7-8

  1. atimetorend

    And the denial of that texture in the name of literalism and inerrancy makes study of the bible so boring, I think. I suppose though that literalist inerrantists could find richness in deriving and harmonizing their doctrines from their inerrant text rather than in enjoying the richness you write on. They are trying to look for the same things, just without going one level deeper.

  2. ian

    Oh I couldn’t agree more. I’m continually disappointed with the way certain branches of Christianity devalue and denature the bible while claiming to love it and revere it.

    So much so that just about the only question most people (skeptics included) ever ask is about seeming contradictions and how to resolve them.

    Homer doesn’t have to put up with that kind of crap! 🙂

  3. Pingback: The story of how a bible verse is read | Irreducible Complexity

  4. Ian,
    If you get a chance, give us a short annotated list of your favorite translations with pros and cons. “Bibles for Skeptics”, if you will.
    You could start developing a resource Index page to stuff to help us novices learn more about this amazing text. We Atheists need to stop attacking the Bible as if they were fundamentalists and unaware of the subtle issues like this. Great post.

  5. Pingback: English Bibles | Irreducible Complexity

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  7. Jim

    Why John Did Not Write The Johannine Comma

    (Greek NT – Byz./Maj.) 1 John 2:16 Because EVERY THING [NEUTER] in the world, the LUST [FEMININE] of the flesh and the LUST [FEMININE] of the eyes and the PRIDE [FEMININE] of the life, not it is out of the Father …

    (Greek NT – Byz./Maj.) 1 John 3:8 … FOR [EIV] THIS He came, the Son of the God, SO THAT HE WOULD UNDO THE WORKS OF THE DEVIL.

    (Greek NT – Byz./Maj.) 1 John 3:11 Because this it is THE [ARTICLE] MESSAGE which you heard from beginning, THAT WE WOULD LOVE ONE ANOTHER

    (Greek NT – Byz./Maj.) 1 John 5:8 Because three they are, THE ONES BEARING WITNESS [MASCULINE], the SPIRIT [NEUTER] and the WATER [NEUTER] and the BLOOD [NEUTER], and the three ones FOR [EIV] THE [ARTICLE] ONE THING they are. 9 If THE WITNESS OF THE MEN we accept, the witness of the God greater it is …

    Just as the neuter subject of the verb in 2:16 is renamed by three feminine nouns in 2:16, likewise the masculine subject of the verb in 5:8 is renamed by three neuter nouns in 5:8. There is no requirement in either verse for gender agreement between the subject of the verb and the three nouns, contrary to the claim that the absence of gender agreement in 5:8 is abnormal and that the masculine gender in 5:8 is a reference to the Johannine Comma in the preceding verse.

    Just as the “eiV” (for) preposition phrase in 3:8 refers to what is subsequently stated in 3:8, likewise the “eiV” (for) preposition phrase in 5:8 refers to what is subsequently stated in 5:9. There is no requirement in either passage for a reference to what is previously stated.

    Just as the article is used in 3:11 in reference to what is subsequently stated in 3:11, likewise the article is used in 5:8 in reference to what is subsequently stated in 5:9. There is no requirement in either passage for a reference to what is previously stated, contrary to the claim that the use of the article in 5:8 (to en / the one thing) requires a reference backward to the Johannine Comma (en / one thing).

    Just as, in John’s Gospel, the word “Word” is used in reference to the Son of God before He became a man in 1:1-14 and the word “Son” is used in reference to the Son of God thereafter, likewise, in John’s first epistle, the word “Word” is used in reference to the Son of God before He became a man in 1:1-2 and the word “Son” is used in reference to the Son of God thereafter. Therefore, if John had written of heavenly witnesses bearing witness in heaven to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, then he would have said “Son,” not “Word.”

    Also, John would not have identified the “Spirit” as one of the heavenly witnesses bearing witness in heaven to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, because John quotes Jesus in John 15:26 to have stated that it is not until the Comforter comes to earth, whom the Son will send from the Father, namely, the Spirit of the truth, which will proceed from the Father, that the Comforter / the Spirit will bear witness regarding the Son. So the Spirit does not bear witness in heaven to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, but on earth, which is why John would not have stated in his first epistle that the Spirit is bearing witness in heaven to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God.

    So there is no warrant for the Johannine Comma either grammatically or logically.

    In his composition titled “Contra Maximinum” in 427/428 AD, Augustine quotes 1 John 5:8 from a Latin text that does not contain the Johannine Comma. That verse in that Latin text does not contain the phrase “on earth,” which means that the Johannine Comma has not yet been added to the Latin text. Augustine explains the Trinity interpretation of that verse, according to which “Spirit” in 1 John 5:8 is interpreted to mean “God” in John 4:24, and “water” in 1 John 5:8 is interpreted to mean “Spirit” in John 7:38-39, and “Blood” in 1 John 5:8 is interpreted to mean “Word” in John 1:14, hence the Trinity interpretation “God and Spirit and Word” from the phrase “Spirit and water and Blood” in 1 John 5:8, hence the phrase “Father, Word and Spirit” in the Johannine Comma.

    It is not until after Augustine explains and endorses the Trinity interpretation of 1 John 5:8 that the Trinity interpretation of that verse begins to appear in subsequent Latin copies of John’s first epistle, first in the margin next to verse 5:8, then in the text AFTER verse 5:8, which is consistent with an interpretation of a verse being ADDED to the verse, and then in the text BEFORE verse 5:8. That explains how the phrase “Father, Word and Spirit” in the Johannine Comma came into existence. It did not come from John, but from a Trinity interpretation of 1 John 5:8.

    Further, the Johannine Comma was the result of a mistranslation of 1 John 5:8. John’s statement “the three ones for the one thing they are” in 1 John 5:8 in the Greek text was incorrectly translated “three ones one thing they are” in the Latin text, and Trinitarians inferred the Trinity from that mistranslation in the Latin text. Therefore, not only did John not write the Johannine Comma, but also he did not even write the statement from which the Trinity interpretation (the Johannine Comma) was inferred.

    Everything that is stated in 1 John 5:8 is explained by what is stated in verse 5:9.

    In 1 John 5:9, John comparatively (this is like that) equates “the witness of the God,” which is “greater,” to “the witness of the men,” which is traditionally “accepted.” That traditionally accepted witness of the men refers to the Mosaic prescription for two or three witnesses (men) to establish the truth in any matter (Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15), which is cited in Matthew 18:16, John 18:17-18, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, Hebrews 10:28-29 and 1 John 5:8-9.

    The three witnesses that comprise “the witness of the God” in 1 John 5:9 are identified in verse 5:8 as “the Spirit and the water and the Blood,” and the three witnesses (the men) that comprise “the witness of the men” in 1 John 5:9 are identified as “the ones bearing witness / the three ones” in verse 5:8. The masculine gender is used in verse 5:8 in reference to “the men” in “the witness of the men” in verse 5:9.

  8. Ian


    Thanks for your long comment and the obvious effort that went into it. I appreciate your passion in demonstrating some of the issues behind the scholarly opinion that this section is a later addition.

    However, I was puzzled by the scope and tone of the comment. You launch in without explanation or introducing yourself, into 1000 words of highly specific and linguistic analysis, arguing, as it might seem, against some position that I don’t hold, and hasn’t been expressed here. Your analysis aside, I’m wondering what your motivation is. You come across as a bit obsessed.

    Maybe its just me. It would be good to get to know you, get to know your perspective at a more general level, before descending quite so far into such a long-form specific comment.

    Or alternatively write something like this as a post on your own blog and leave a “Hi – I’ve written a more complete analysis of why the Johannine Comma is considered to be a later edition on my blog here… Let me know what you think.”

    Just a general blogosphere hint.

  9. Jim

    Hi Ian,

    It was intended as additional information in support of what you’ve already said.


  10. Ian

    Jim, Okay, thanks. I do appreciate the time it took.

  11. I did my master’s thesis on the Pericope adulterae, the last 12 verses of Mark, and the Johannine Comma based on my studies in Koine Greek and Ecclesiastical Latin. The only doctrine you preached with which I can concur is that the Spirit proceeded from the Father: too many “scholars” have adopted the RCC ‘filioque’ heresy. I too would be interested if you have a full paper explicating your ideas on the Johannine Comma.

  12. Ian

    Scott, Thanks for taking time to comment. I’m afraid I don’t really understand whether you have anything specific you’re trying to say. I don’t believe I’ve ‘preached’ on the filoque, let alone the Johannine comma. What, specifically do you disagree with? That it is not in early manuscripts (if you disagree, feel free to list the manuscripts that contain it)? That it is footnoted in modern bibles as a later addition? That it appears overwhelmingly in the Latin textual tradition? What, specifically is your beef?

    As for a paper – any recent commentary on the Johannine corpus will give details, a search on google books will give you many more resources. These are definitely not “my” ideas, they are the overwhelming scholarly consensus. You will struggle to find any professional biblical scholar outside ideological fundamentalism who thinks the authenticity of the Johannine comma has any credibility: google is your friend, this debate is long since settled.

    From your comment, you mention an interesting set of three things: the comma, the pericope adulterae, and the filoque. Ever open to wild guessing about my commentators, I suspect, if you went to a college where you could do a masters in Koine and conclude that the comma and the Pericope Adulterae were genuine, then you went to a school that was content to allow students to be ignorant of the vast majority of biblical scholarship. That you also single out the ‘RCC’ heresy of the filoque, means you are most likely anti-catholic too. So I suspect you went to an unaccredited (or unaccredited at the time) conservative christian school. A [edit: XXXXXXX] university, or the like. If so, I’d urge you to take a class in a real university and find out about what and why the vast majority of serious scholarship on the bible has passed you by.

    And if you feel the need to claim you are right and the vast majority of scholars are wrong: picking that fight with me is a waste of time – write a paper, get it published in a reputable NT journal. Provide the evidence for an earlier comma. Change the historiography of early church theology. There are bigger stages than a random blog to make your genius known.

    [edit: googling your name, I immediately found that you had, indeed, attended the institution I guessed above. Since it isn’t very nice to have personal details shared by others, even if they are easily available online, I removed the name of the unaccredited institution from the above comment].

  13. I did not attend BJU as a student but I did teach there and, as a professor, did study Greek (undergraduate and graduate) as several of my free courses that professors are allowed to take. The Greek department at the time (1970s) accepted Wescott & Hort revised as the correct Greek text but kept the AV as the approved translation. I disagreed because of Scrivener and Burgon. I once read my then office mate–a Bible Professor–the story of how someone anonymous had gotten all of the true texts of scripture and destroyed them except for Vaticanus and Sinaiticus and then distributed his false Byzantine texts all over the Western world. He asked who wrote such garbage and I showed him W&H’s introduction (long since revised). WE has no further discussions on the subject. I have met many scholars who accept neither the W&H revisions not the KJVO concept. My STD was from St Johns; my PhD from Southeastern; I was working on a PhD from Saint Columba School of Theology when it closed. P.S. The Celtic Catholic Church and all Orthodox churches must be anti-Catholic because they all reject the Latinate heresy of double descent–even one Pope did. My quarrel with the JWB Society is that the membership creed has the same heresy–but JWB was an Anglican Dean. P.S. While I use Google and Wikipedia, I accept neither as the final word. Hol Polloi is very often wrong. At my age I am writing papers only on medieval anthroponomastics (one was presented at MLA and three at separate ICOS [Pisa, Toronto, and Barcelona]) and taking courses from UCF only for fun. I now lecture only on medieval subjects and only for fun.

  14. Ian

    Cool, thanks for the comeback! I always appreciate that.

    I’ll let what you said stand for itself, but a couple of minor responses.

    “Orthodox churches must be anti-Catholic ”

    I gave the wrong impression there, sorry. I was trying to have a bit of fun with your comment at the end. I’m aware of those who reject the filoque, but I was really jumping to conclusions. In my experience, the only protestants who I’ve met who have really cared about it, and wanted to make sure everyone knew it, were anti-catholic.

    “Scrivener… Burgon…”

    We’ve found the majority of our extant early manuscripts since the 1890s! And a lot more good quality textual criticism has been done on all the texts we have. We can identify more textual traditions, finer grained regional and chronological variation, and so on. That you draw a sketch of a conflict between Westcott and Hort on one hand and Scrivener and Burgon on the other I found a little amusing. Like consulting Garfield and Cleveland on the finer points of civil rights law.

    “medieval anthroponomastics”

    Neat. Your interest in heraldry, onomastics and the like popped up strongly on google too.

  15. Mark Giambrone

    You do know that all your expert studies will be totally useless if you even make it to heaven .When Jesus returns none of your published papers will help you If you are not prepared to go with him when he returns to take the faithful . Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah 9:23, 24.
    I just came by because I wanted to learn more about the deception of the Trinity Doctrine . I don’t need all the educational back round to discern the Truth from the false truths because God has lead Me in this way. when I read these articles I can see that if God wanted to teach that the HS is a person I am sure he would give it ample time devoted to such an important subject in both the Old and New testaments which he does not . also it seems God Has not provided a throne for this person the Holy ghost with which to sit upon in the new heaven . than there just how many spirits in one person if we were to count all of them that must be believed in for admission into the kingdom ? the God the father his spirit 1, Jesus and his Spirit 2 , the holy spirit and his spirit 4 and than the persons own spirit 5 . let me see In all the Bible the main subject is all about Father and Son and us children mankind . They have their spirit and we have ours .they each want to give us their spirit and we want them to give it to us. its seems that the person of the holy ghost personage is left out of the doctrine of musical chairs . when we read 1John chapter 2 I just didn’t get the message that this 3rd person was the main subject at all . but I can see that verse 22 pretty much destroys the doctrine of the trinity in that one sentence .
    20 But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.

    21 I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth.

    22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.

    23 Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.

    24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.

    “He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the see my Friends the Trinity Doctrine denies that there are 2 by suggesting there are 3 .
    God and Jesus exchange their spirit one to the other many times in the scriptures . They are Holy and their spirit is Holy .and they are 1 Father and Son . what is truly a master deception by Satan is that he implanted this holy trinity into the Church of both the protestant and the Roman catholic church the papacy and than used it to deceive the world with Satan’s holy trinity . there is no trinity in Gods Kingdom the counter reformation has used this doctrine to sew the churches into unification of the wine of Babylon . I recommend DR. Walter Veith .

  16. Ian

    Well, I agree, it certainly looks like you came to the wrong place. Good luck in trying to convince the rest of the world that you’re right! Here’s a free hint, you might want to read what you’re raging against before vomiting up your condemnation. Especially things like this post, that actually support your claims.

  17. I couldn’t help but notice how, in those Bible translations where the Johannine Comma has been omitted, 1st John 5:8 has been split in half;
    and the 1st half is labeled as 1st John 5:7. Therefore it takes both 1st John 5:7 and 1st John 5:8 (combined) to form a complete sentence. Nowhere else in all the Bible can I find a verse that is not a complete sentence, by itself. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? It does me!

  18. Ian

    Michael, thanks for the comment, and welcome.

    The weird versification are because the chapter and verse numbers were added nearly 1500 years after the New Testament was written, based on the texts that were around at the time. Initially a couple of different numbering schemes were used. So the verses just reflect the fact that, when the verses were added in the 1500s, the Johannine comma was present. So you can’t use the verses to tell you anything about what the original texts said, because we have more than a thousand years worth of texts from before verses were added.

    You get the same thing all over the place where scholars have found that a verse is a later addition and removed it. There’s no Matthew 23:14, it goes from 13 to 15, for example. There are many many more.

    Also, there are loads of sentences in the bible that run across verse boundaries, where if you split it, it give half a sentence. English prefers shorter sentences, but if you look in the Greek there are even more, sometimes one sentence will span many verses. Col 1 springs to mind.

  19. Errol

    The Truth is behind in the,
    1 TImothy 3:16, Isaiah 9:6 and 1John 5:20, Micah 5:2 and many more evidences that testify that verse(1John 5:7

  20. Ian

    I’ll let anyone interested actually look up your bible verses and see how well they ‘testify’ to the Johannine comma. 1 mentions Jesus being the son of God … and that’s it. Pretty conclusive stuff!

  21. Michael W. Gephart

    The Johannine Comma (“and these three are one”) is likely the most heavily
    debated issue in all the Bible. Non-Trinitarians (such as JWs) love to point out the fact that those words appeared in only four Greek Scriptures prior to
    the 16th century. (A different situation in Latin Scriptures!) Therefore, they
    assume that it wasn’t written by the hand of John, but was added in years
    ;later by a zealous Trinitarian. As a result, the Johannine Comma has been
    omitted from most modern Bible translations. As an English Teacher, what
    concerns me most is the fact that, in Bible translations where the JC has
    been omitted, it takes TWO verses (both 1st John 5: 7 AND 8) to form a
    complete sentence. Nowhere else in the Bible can I find another example
    of that. And that tends to make me rather skeptical!

  22. Ian

    Michael, you wrote almost the same comment in April, and I responded in detail.

    As a ‘bible teacher’ it might be worth learning a bit about how the bible came to be in the form we have it now. Particularly if you’re going to argue from the verse numbers.

  23. Arminius1560

    Michael W. Gephart Comment on July 24 2013. The Comma Johnanneum Came from Cyprian in 196 A.D See Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5 page 423 point 6. The point is if its not in the Greek text it does not belong in the New Testament, otherwise we will have to rewrite the qualification for canonization of the New Testament.

  24. Michael W. Gephart

    The Comma Johnanneum is likely the most heavily debated verse in all
    the Bible (thanks to JWs who do disbelieve believe in the trinity). The Bible has been re-translated so many times, it is difficult to know which
    translation to trust! I have MANY translations; but I tend to lean towards the King James (which is nearly the only one that has not yet omitted it.)
    The trinity has never been an issue with me, but TRUTH always will be!

  25. Arminius1560

    Michael, I appreciate your concern. The JWs are a heretic group, but they are not members of any modern translation committee to the best of my knowledge. The point is if the comma Johanneum was in the original Greek text Why didn`t Athanasius use it against Arius who was on trail for not believing in the trinity? The early church never used the text for support of the trinity. I am shire if they would have had it they would have used it. Let me give you every assurance I believe in the trinity. I debate Pentecostal oneness people all the time. The point is if its not in the Greek text it does not belong in the Bible. It doesn`t matter how correct it is. What matters is if it is the inspired word of God. This is not the only verse in the Bible that supports Trinity. If you are gone to add this to the Bible What will be added next? Myself I am satisfied with the qualifications for canonization of scripture.

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