The History of the Comma Johanneum
Normally a series covering the history of 1 John 5:7 might begin with an introduction to the 2nd century quotations and allusions to the Comma Johanneum (CJ), but this series will begin with the individual who originated the habit of calling into question whether or nor the verse is genuine: Erasmus of Rotterdam. So let’s look at the history of questioning the CJ which really began with Erasmus leaving it out of his first two printed editions.
Erasmus published his first edition in 1516 at Basel. Three years later, 1519, he published his second edition in the same place. Both these editions were missing the CJ which caused a bit of a scandal at the time. Now the story is claimed that he had not found it in 5 Greek mss and that later a British priest provided him with a Greek mss containing the verse. Upon seeing this he added it to his text. Now of course a bunch of myths have risen up about this which you can read about: Erasmian Myths: The Comma Wager and NT Manuscripts Made to Order (Erasmus and I Jn5.7).
Other Printed Editions that Contain the Verse
The Complutensian Polyglott printed under the patronage of Cardinal Ximenes in 1514 also contained the CJ. And with his political power, Cardinal Ximenes provided the men who worked on this Polyglott with Greek mss and other aids which he was able to procure for the work.
Robert Stephanus, in 1546, printed his Greek New Testament. In preparing this work he sought out Greek mss that were unknown or unavailable to the men who worked on the Polyglott. In his preface to this work, he states that he “collated his Greek text with fifteen very ancient, written copies.” Neither the 1546 nor his 1549 had room for marginal notes, but both included the CJ. In his 1550 Edition he included marginalia along with notating which Greek mss he used and the various readings that were missing by an obelus and a semi-parenthesis or crochet. Beginning at the word before which the obelus was placed to the station where the semi-parenthesis was found, this method was used to signify that the words or word so marked were missing from the Greek mss that were mentioned. Now he did this in multiple locations throughout this edition. However, in 1 John 5:7, he only notes that three words were missing from some(7) of the Greek MSS, “εν το ουρανω” meaning “in Heaven”.
Theodore Beza, in 1551 printed an edition of the Greek New Testament with Annotations at Geneva. He was urged to this work by Robert Stephanus who permitted Beza the use of his Greek mss. Beza makes the following comments upon this verse in his Annotations:
This verse does not occur in the Syriac version, &c. but is found in the English MS, in the Complutensian edition, and in some ancient MSS of Stephens, In the English MS, the words Father, Word, and Spirit, are written without their articles; but they are read with their articles in our MSS. (Beza called Stephanus’ Greek MSS nostri codices or “our MSS” throughout.) The English MS has, simply, the word Spirit, without adding to it the epithet Holy; in ours they are joined, and we read Holy Spirit. As to the words, “In Heaven”, they are wanting in seven ancient MSS.” And he concludes with, “I am entirely satisfied that we ought to retain this verse.”
In the above remarks I have laid out the broad outlines of the exclusion and inclusion of the Comma Johanneum. Now if it is true that Erasmus had 5 Greek mss that did not contain verse 7, then we have every right to ask why he added it to his 3rd edition of 1522 on the basis of ONE Greek mss from England? Either he couldn’t produce the 5 mss that he claimed were missing this verse, or he had other resources that together with this one English MS provided enough weight for him to add it back. Either way, he has not commented upon this. But when we take into consideration that Erasmus secretly inclined to Arianism, and was in fact brought before the Inquisition to answer for it, and that Servetus sought an audience with Erasmus because of their similar views about the Trinity, it becomes rather obvious why Erasmus left it out of his 1st and 2nd edition.
When it comes to Stephanus’ 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament it is claimed that he made a typographical error and instead meant to say that the entire verse was wanting instead of the words translated as “in Heaven”. But does this claim have any merit? The picture below is the Errata attached to his 1550 GNT followed by the text of 1 John 5:7-9 found on page 167.
Page 167 in the 1550 GNT of Stephanus, beginning on the first line with “οτι”
What does the above demonstrate? For a man who was so concerned over a missing comma and another comma misplaced, it is hard to believe that he also failed to note an error in the placement of the obelus and semi-parenthesis concerning the verse 1 John 5:7. But if this argument isn’t strong enough, then let us add to Stephanus’ own testimony that of John Crispin a fellow citizen of Stephanus in Geneva. In 1553 he published at Geneva an edition of the Greek New Testament containing both the obelus and the crochet in the same position as Stephanus.
Now what of Theodore Beza’s Annotations, a publication being waited for by all of Europe? He states that he compared the Syriac version with his own authorities, and was so careful in his comparison that he made note of even when a letter was missing. As I mentioned above, this careful study led him to state, “I am entirely satisfied that we ought to retain this verse.”
And what of the editors of the Complutensian? In their preface they mentioned they were provided with Greek MSS from the Vatican. Stunica himself makes mention of a valuable codex he had attained from the isle of Rhodes (later called Codex Rhodiensis). If this verse was so wanting from the Greek MSS they utilized, then why didn’t they state this and on the basis of the “evidence” leave it out? Any claims that they included it, regardless of the content of the MSS they had, must be conclusive and from their own writings to escape arbitrariness.
In the next post, we will look more closely at Erasmus’ inclination towards Arianism.