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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.