Erasmian Myths: The Comma Wager

Erasmian Myths

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Erasmus Greek New Testament and his Latin translation.  And next week at Houston Baptist University there will be a conference on Erasmus and his work.  In light of this, I present the following 4 post series on the biggest myths about Erasmus.  If you listened to evangelical promoters of textual criticism, then you’ve probably heard a few, if not all of these myths.

  1. Erasmus only added the Comma Johanneum due to a rash wager
  2. Erasmus would’ve loved to have access to Vaticanus, but he couldn’t because he was in Basle
  3. Erasmus rushed his Greek New Testament to print
  4. Erasmus emended (back translated) the last 6 verses (or is it 5?) of Revelation and these verses where never edited by any other editor of the Textus Receptus

Myth 1:  The Comma Wager

We begin our look into this myth by looking at the man who slew it in 1980, the Erasmian scholar Dr. H.J. De Jonge.  From his website:

Henk Jan de Jonge (°1943) is emeritus Professor of New Testament exegesis and Early Christian Literature at the University of Leiden. He held the chair from 1991 to 2006. Previously, he was assistant professor of New Testament studies at Amsterdam University (1970-1984) and Leiden (1985-1990) and held an endowed chair for the history of Biblical studies in early modern times at Leiden (1987-1991).

After his graduation in Classics at Leiden (1969), his earliest research focused on the textual transmission of the early Christian, Greek pseudepigraphon the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. He succeeded in establishing the genealogy of all Greek manuscripts and ancient versions of this work. This paved the way for its new critical edition in 1978 (ed. M. de Jonge). His articles on the subject were collected in a volume of Studies on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, published in 1975 (ed. M. de Jonge).

De Jonge’s doctoral research and several of his later publications centered on the New Testament edition of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1516), and especially on the controversy this edition provoked with a Spanish critic, Diego López de Zuñiga. His Ph.D. dissertation (1983) included a critical edition of Erasmus’ first Apologia against Zuñiga (1521). De Jonge keeps stressing the point that, for Erasmus and his contemporaries, the main component of his New Testament edition was not the first printed edition of the Greek text which it contained, but Erasmus’ new Latin translation.

In the context of lively, sometimes heated theological debates in ecclesiastical circles in the Netherlands, De Jonge contributed several publications on such thorny issues as the resurrection of Jesus, the atonement brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the tradition-historical origins of the belief in Jesus’ Second Coming.

The Jonge’s more recent research (2001-) centers on various aspects of the history of early Christian ritual: the rise of the Sunday as the Christian feast-day, the socio-historical backgrounds of the early Christian gathering, and especially the origins and early development of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.

De Jonge has been a member of the editorial board of the quarterly Novum Testamentum and of the monograph series “Supplements to Novum Testamentum” for almost thirty years (1978-2007). During more than ten years he was editorial secretary and managing editor of both the journal and the monograph series (1978-1988). He was chair of the editorial boards of the series “Studia in Veteris Testamenti Pseudepigrapha” and “Pseudepigrapa Veteris Testamenti Graece”, both published by Brill (1996-2015). He is also a member of the editorial board of the critical edition of the Opera Omnia of Erasmus (1977-), published under the auspices of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences; member of the Editorial Board of the Collected Works of Erasmus in English, published by Toronto University Press (1984-); and supervisory editor of The Correspondence of Joseph Scaliger (2008-2012; eds P. Botley & D. van Miert).

De Jonge has served the Faculty of Theology of Leiden University as Dean during five years (1994-1996; 2002-2005). In 2001, he was one of the two presidents who chaired the fiftieth Colloquium Biblicum Lovaniense. From 2012 to 2013 he was President of the international Society for New Testament Studies, during its annual meetings at Leuven and Perth. In his presidential address, delivered at Leuven, he argued that the book of Acts agrees with the gospel of Luke in dating Jesus’ Ascension at the end of the Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection, not on the 40th day after Easter.

De Jonge’s latest publication is his critical edition of five apologetic writings of Erasmus against the attacks of his Spanish opponents Zuñiga and Carranza; this volume was published in February 2015. In November 2015 he delivered the second Frans Neirynck Lecture at the KU Leuven, entitled “The Origin of the Sunday Eucharist”.

To put it simply, he is an Erasmian scholar. So when de Jonge states in his work, Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum, that there was no wager over the Comma, we can be sure there wasn’t.  However, even though de Jonge disproved this myth in 1980, it has still reported as a fact by many.  Dr. Bruce Metzger repeated this story as true up to the 2nd edition of his, The Text of the New Testament.  Below is the quote from the 4th edition followed by the footnote showing that Dr. Metzger at least acknowledged that Dr. de Jonge could not find reference to the Comma wager among the writings of Erasmus and his contemporaries.

“Erasmus replied that he had not found any Greek manuscript that contained these words, though he had in the meanwhile examined several others besides those on which he relied when first preparing his text. In an unguarded moment, Erasmus may have promised that he would insert the Comma Johanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage.  At length, such a copy was found—or was made to order!” (The Text of the New Testament 4th edition. Drs. Metzger & Ehrman. p. 146)

However, in footnote 22 on the same page Bruce Metzger writes:

It should, however, be noted that Henk Jan de Jonge, a specialist in Erasmian studies, could find no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion concerning a specific promise made by Erasmus; see his “Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, lvi (1980), pp. 381-9.

Perhaps the greatest popularizer among Evangelicals of this myth is Mr. James White.  In his article from March 11, 2006, And Some More on the Comma, he quotes from his book, The King James Only Controversy:

The single most famous incident that is related to Erasmus’ work on the New Testament revolves around the words of 1 John 5:7 as found in the KJV: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Most KJV Only preachers and believers make the acceptance of this passage the test of “orthodoxy.” If your Bible does not have this passage, you are in deep trouble.
The story of how this passage ended up in the King James Version is very instructive. When the first edition of Erasmus’ work came out in 1516 this phrase, dubbed today the “Johannine comma,” or in Latin, the Comma Johanneum, was not in the text for a very simple reason: it was not found in any Greek manuscript of 1 John that Erasmus had examined. Instead, the phrase was found only in the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus rightly did not include it in the first or second editions. The note in the Annotations simply said, “In the Greek codex I find only this about the threefold testimony: ‘because there are three witnesses, spirit, water, and blood.’” His reliance upon the Greek manuscripts rather than the Latin Vulgate caused quite a stir. Both Edward Lee and Diego López Zúñiga attacked Erasmus for not including this passage and hence encouraging “Arianism,”(1) the very same charge made by KJV Only advocates today. Erasmus protested that he was simply following the Greek texts. In responding to Lee, Erasmus challenged him to “produce a Greek manuscript that has what is missing in my edition.”(2) Likewise Erasmus rebutted Zúñiga by pointing out that while he (Zúñiga) was constantly referring Erasmus to one particular Greek manuscript, in this case he had not brought this text forward, correctly assuming that even Zúñiga’s manuscript agreed with Erasmus’ reading. He also said, “Finally, the whole passage is so obscure that it cannot be very valuable in refuting the

[Arian] heresies.” (3)

Since Erasmus had promised, in his response to Lee, to include the passage should a Greek manuscript be found that contained it, he was constrained to insert the phrase in the third edition when presented with an Irish manuscript that contained the disputed phrase, Codex Montfortianus, now at Trinity College, Dublin.(4)

(3) Rummel, p. 133. Controversy exists over the specifics of Erasmus’ challenge and the insertion of the Comma. Metzger cites H.J. de Jonge’s work in the 3rd edition of his The Text of the New Testament (p. 291), as saying that there is “no explicit evidence that supports this frequently made assertion,” yet Rummel cites the same passage from de Jonge but maintains that Erasmus did issue the challenge and inserted the Comma as a result.

(4) Rummel, p. 40. Metzger notes that this manuscript opens of its own accord to the passage in 1 John, so often has it been consulted at that place. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed., (Oxford: 1968), p. 101.

The bolded text in footnote 3 shows that Mr. White relied upon the secondary source of Erika Rummel and her interpretation of de Jonge, instead of relying upon what H. J. de Jonge himself had said.  Such a practice is always problematic.

In a letter of June 13, 1995, to Michael Maynard, author of A History of the Debate over 1 John 5:7,8, de Jonge wrote:

“I have checked again Erasmus’ words quoted by Erika Rummel and her comments on them in her book Erasmus’ Annotations. This is what Erasmus writes [on] in his Liber tertius quo respondet … Ed. Lei: Erasmus first records that Lee had reproached him with neglect of the MSS. of 1 John because Erasmus (according to Lee) had consulted only one MS. Erasmus replies that he had certainly not used only one ms., but many copies, first in England, then in Brabant, and finally at Basle. He cannot accept, therefore, Lee’s reproach of negligence and impiety. ‘Is it negligence and impiety, if I did not consult manuscripts which were simply not within my reach? I have at least assembled whatever I could assemble. Let Lee produce a Greek MS. which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach. Only then can he reproach me with negligence in sacred matters.’

“From this passage you can see that Erasmus does not challenge Lee to produce a manuscript etc. What Erasmus argues is that Lee may only reproach Erasmus with negligence of MSS if he demonstrates that Erasmus could have consulted any MS. in which the Comma Johanneum figured. Erasmus does not at all ask for a MS. containing the Comma Johanneum. He denies Lee the right to call him negligent and impious if the latter does not prove that Erasmus neglected a manuscript to which he had access.

“In short, Rummel’s interpretation is simply wrong. The passage she quotes has nothing to do with a challenge. Also, she cuts the quotation short, so that the real sense of the passage becomes unrecognizable. She is absolutely not justified in speaking of a challenge in this case or in the case of any other passage on the subject” (emphasis in original) (de Jonge, cited from A History of the Debate over 1 John 5:7,8, Michael Maynard, p. 383).

Again we have the testimony of the Erasmian scholar de Jonge stating that the wager did not happen.  And that the source for Mr. White’s understanding of Dr. de Jonge, Erika Rummel, is simply wrong.

At the recent Erasmus Conference held at Houston Baptist University, February 25th to the 27th, Dr. Dan Wallace, also pointed out that the “rash wager” of Erasmus was unsubstantiated by the evidence.  Regrettably, Dr. Wallace repeated the story about the made to order text presented by Froy or Roy.  Dr. de Jonge also deals with this part of the myth and debunks it with the simple passage,

He [Erasmus] was still unaware of it in May 1520 when he wrote his apologia Liber tertius against Edward Lee.  Thus, he must have received evidence of the passage between May 1520 and June 1521. It is not known who brought it to his attention. (emphasis added)

In conclusion, whenever you hear someone repeating the story that Erasmus only included the Comma Johanneum as part of a “rash wager” and was presented with a “made to order text” by a Froy or Roy, keep in mind that it has no foundation in the writings of Erasmus himself, nor his opponents such as Edward Lee, nor in men who criticized the inclusion of 1 John 5:7 such as the Roman Catholic Priest Richard Simon or the writings of John Mills who also specifically dealt with the Comma Johanneum.

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About the Author:

I hold to the historic Confessional view of Scripture as found in Chapter 1 of the WCF/2LBCF. I reject Restorationist Textual Criticism and affirm Preservationist Textual Criticism

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